Two Roads Diverged

When my son first began studying Mandarin in kindergarten, it was really because I was behind the ball on kindergarten registration and didn’t get him into our public bilingual Spanish school. I wanted for him, as multiracial, multiethnic person, to have connections with his heritage cultures in some way, and I wanted to him to have a connection to his Asian American identity that I had struggled with for so long.

Over the last 9 years, he has continued to learn Mandarin, in dual immersion, Mandarin immersion, and heritage school settings.

In the last few weeks, my husband and I talked with our son about continuing one more year of Mandarin next year. This year, for the second year in a row, has been an increasing struggle for him to stay motivated and next year, we know high school will be more intense for him.

He said he’d prefer not to continue in Chinese school next year.

I believe in listening to my children when I can. He’s old enough to make that choice in his life, and while he would do what I asked him to, I also respect him enough to let him make this choice.

I didn’t realize how deeply it would affect me, nor why it did.  At first, I was both resistant and hurt. It was only one more year.  He could do this.

I didn’t ever go to heritage school and my Mandarin is the worst of anyone in my generation of my family.  Being the youngest by several years in my family, I wasn’t around Mandarin (or occasional Hokkien) as much as my older brother and cousin. I’ve carried it as a badge of shame around my family for a long time.

I grew up in a very white suburb of Southern California (at the time) and the nearest Mandarin heritage language programs were a freeway drive, a fee, and a philosophical gap away — distances that were hard to bridge.

My mother, a single mother who would have braved the freeway and paid the money if she thought that Mandarin heritage school was the right thing for me, never pushed me to go to Chinese school, likely because she was told as a new immigrant that the greatest way to assure her children’s success was to make sure that they spoke accent-free English.

I know she wanted me to learn Mandarin, but she thought that by being around Mandarin speakers (like my grandmother, aunt & her), that I would pick it up, which I did until my grandmother passed away when I was 7.

Then, the Mandarin was more occasional and less important in my life, and I had no desire to learn it, wanting to assimilate into a culture where being cool meant having a crimp in my super-straight hair, sounding a certain way, and having an attitude to accompany it. (Somehow that was never quite enough to fit in anyways.  No matter how good my English was.)

Once, when I was in middle school, my mother asked my estranged father to send Chinese primer books from Taiwan so she could teach me Mandarin, and the zhuyin phonetic system, but that was quickly abandoned after a couple of lessons, which honestly, I have never understood more than in this current COVID-19 “homeschooling period” where I do not have the patience to deal with my own (deeply-loved) children and their general apathy towards learning something I find to be incredibly valuable to their lives.

My mother died suddenly in a car accident when I was 16, my junior year of high school.  At the time, and for a long time afterwards, while I knew this loss marked a huge rupture in my life, that trauma was a deeply personal loss.  I ran away from that loss in many ways, both productive and destructive, for over 20 years.  Some days, I am still running from it.

About 5 years ago, leading up to the birth of my daughter who will be 5 in a week, and moreso in the past 2 years, as I’ve reached the age my mom was when she gave birth to me, I have begun running towards my mom again.

I have begun searching for my history, our history.

I have begun reclaiming my identities as a second generation Taiwanese American woman, as someone deeply rooted in Asian American communities, as someone who can do something about reclaiming my own heritage languages and histories.

I have begun healing traumas, mine for my children, and my mother’s for all of us.

Through my PhD, I was able to achieve the doctorate my mother had to give up.

Through my relationship, I’ve been able to find healing and know what it means to have a partner who is also an incredibly present and loving father to his children.

Through studying Mandarin, I’ve begun to feel more comfortable with a voice that I didn’t have. I have had to show a lot of grace to myself to learn things that are seemingly simple, but that are completely new to me.

Through watching Taiwanese American (and Asian American) films, reading books by Taiwanese American authors, connecting with other Taiwanese Americans who I can see myself in, I’ve been able to find belonging that at a level I didn’t realize was possible.

By connecting with people who knew my mom, by starting a journey to find out more about her, I am beginning to build a history that I worried was lost. I am not so worried about this now because I know that our histories are more waiting to be found than in danger of being lost.

All of this has been profound.

But, it has been my path.

My son may not need to study Mandarin, in this moment, on his path. Or he may not need to study it in this way.

He has a path.

My own language study is profound for me because it is my choice. It is an act of healing and an act of love.

Letting my son choose his path in his own multilingualism and the embrace of his own hybrid identities is also an act borne from the same healing and love.

Two paths diverge…and adventures await on them both.

One thought on “Two Roads Diverged

  1. What a profound reflection. I too have found that raising my kids has been a progression of “releases”: releasing them to play where they want at the park, to choose the friends they want, to study what they like, to get their licenses and drive where they want, to fly away for study abroad, to leave the home to live with their chosen partners…at first letting go was so hard, but I had to learn that they each have a unique path. My job, as it turns out, is not to choose it for them, but to cheer them on as they run their individual races. It’s hard not to try to run their races for them or with them, but I am learning. And it is comforting to know that God knows their courses and will be there for them at every turn. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *