The First Day of Chinese School

It’s the first day of Chinese school and we’re fine…really, we’re fine….

Those of you who either know me IRL or have been following this blog for awhile may remember that last year, I started a journey towards actively reclaiming my cultural and linguistic identity, part of which included reconnecting with people who were close to my mother, who I lost when I was 16, and part of which included starting a second bachelor’s degree in Chinese studies and taking my very first Chinese class (ever) last semester. I’ve also been doing research on Asian American teachers and their experiences, which has helped me to feel less alone as I think about my own journey as a second-generation Taiwanese American daughter, secondary teacher, mom and heritage language learner.

Today, my son started his ninth year of learning Mandarin, in one form or another. He began in a 90/10 Mandarin immersion program in Kindergarten, then a year of 5 day a week, after school  heritage classes when we moved for my university position, then 3 years of 50/50 immersion, and for the last 4 years, back to weekend heritage school.  He is awesome, which you also know if you’ve been following my Mandarin learning journey, since he’s been my main tutor and language support (I repay him by helping him with more complex English grammar rules for his essays).  He was nervous today, but also, fine.  It’s all part of the routine he’s used to during the school year.

Arguably, I am always more nervous before the start of a new Chinese school year than he is. The last four years, I have dreaded the first day of Chinese school.  He attends a weekend heritage school which is sponsored by a Taiwanese Buddhist humanitarian organization.  The volunteer staff and teachers are super nice.  The parents are kind and explain things in English to me when I don’t understand a thing.  My son consistently does well in class, and has the same classmates each year so they’re (sort of) a community of (reluctant) learners.

However, I always feel a mix of shame, guilt, sadness, and confusion.  I always worry that the parents are secretly judging me behind their kind smiles.  I always worry that because I don’t know what is being said at orientation that my son is going to miss out on important information that he needs to be successful.  I always worry that this year will be the year that his lack of a Mandarin-fluent parent will mean that he will fail his class and hate his language and culture.

I know, I know…projecting much?

My son, on the way to school, tells me not to worry about it.  He says I’m fine.  He says that I know plenty of Mandarin and that he’ll be fine. He’s a little nervous because he’s always a little nervous on the first day of class, but he’s sure it will be fine.

He finds his class, talks with his friends, and we proceed to class and parent orientation.

I understand about 50% of the presentation, which is actually WAY more than I’ve ever understood and I recognize a bunch of characters that remind me that I really should review my Chinese 101 flashcard before I start class next week.  Another parent saves me (because my Chinese still isn’t that great) from being room parent. I use my Mandarin to ask about my son’s canceled elective class (and fill out the withdraw request in English).

After the meeting, I drive across town to the Korean grocery story to buy food for lunch and dinner, and various Asian snacks (because I buy food when I feel stressed, guilty and want to show my son love), then go back to pick him up.  We both like his teacher a lot.  We got about the same amount from the orientation and generally agree on the information that we heard.  He’s excited because he can read the information in Korean on the snacks (he just started Korean classes a few weeks ago at his “regular”). He tells me about the first “quiz” that the teacher gave.  He got a 90%.  It’s above the mean so he’s satisfied.

So, we made it.  I mean, he was fine the whole time, but I made it. We’re going to learn a lot of Chinese this year, both of us, I think.  And maybe we’ll start to doubt ourselves a little less and trust ourselves a little more in the process.  I hope so.

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