Further notes on multilingual children, traditions, and the joys of getting the joke

By Frances Kai-Hwa Wang, Asian American Village Contributing Editor


Special from Hilo – The high-pitched little-girl-giggles sail up to me from the downstairs, where the kids have all disappeared with my dad for the afternoon. Snippets of conversation fly up to me—a joke here, an explanation there, a few random phrases that make me worry about what they are doing down there, and a few rough pauses while my youngest daughter tries to get her mouth around all the Chinese vocabulary she needs. My dad tells a joke that you have to understand Chinese to get, and the kids all get it and laugh uproariously.

I am delighted to notice that left to their own devices, the kids are choosing to speak Chinese (Mandarin) with my dad. It is not easy for them; their English is much quicker and, like all kids, they lapse into English too easily. Unlike some families where the grandparents do not know any English, my parents understand and speak English perfectly fine. Still, their Chinese is stronger. Therefore, my parents come across differently in English, and the kids would miss the nuances of their personalities and the full flavor of their stories if they only communicated in English.

Even Little Brother (one and a half years old) is entertaining the troops as he begins to learn to speak with chou chou (stinky), bi zi(nose), xiang jiao (banana), xie xie (thank you…which he says whenever he gives you something), nah sheh me (what dat?), and the one that thrills most of all, Gong GongGong GongGong Gong! (Grandpa! Grandpa! Grandpa!).

I am often both criticized and praised by my family and friends for putting too much pressure on the kids to learn Chinese. They go to Chinese School, they have a Chinese tutor, they go to Chinese Summer School and Chinese Summer Camp, they take Chinese dance lessons and Chinese art lessons, and more. They always have lots and lots of Chinese homework. I am constantly explaining to my kids that although it takes a lot of effort now, in the end, being fully bilingual in Chinese and English will open all sorts of doors for them—twice as many people they can meet, twice as many books they can read, twice as many jobs they can have. However, it is difficult to explain the world economy and job security to a five year old.

These sweet and tender moments are much more moving, convincing me that I am indeed on the right track. So today I point out to the kids that with both Chinese and English, they can tell twice as many jokes.

When my oldest daughter, Margot, age 10, went to France and Italy with my mom this summer, she discovered first hand how useful her Chinese was. Her three years of after-school Spanish and French classes were no help whatsoever. However, even when they were down to their last few Euros, they could always find a hot bowl of noodle soup, a plate of dumplings, and friendly directions in the many Chinatowns and Chinese restaurants they found. Sure, a lot of people in Europe know English, but with Chinese, there is no translation involved (plus the food is better).

My husband’s friend James, who is American-Born Chinese (ABC) but does not speak Chinese, was thrilled when we introduced him to the one good Chinese restaurant in town. He had a fabulous meal when his mom came to visit (and ordered in Chinese). However,  when he went by himself and ordered in English, the quality of the food continued to decline. Now he says that because he can’t speak Chinese, the food is no different than any other bad Chinese restaurant. He might as well be white as he gets served the same food the white people get. He is so sad because he knows how good it could be, and he can see it on the other tables, but it is just out of his reach. (We of course tease him endlessly for this.)

My earliest memory is one of my mom calling me in Chinese. I cannot see her face, but her voice comes out of a dense fog, quiet, with a hint of longing. She calls out to me by my Chinese name, “Kai-Hwa.” Her voice is young and gentle, and I picture her as she was in her twenties—long black hair, horn-rimmed glasses, vintage 1960’s Jackie O-style fashions. That is the memory I call up whenever I need to feel her close, wrapped all around me like fog. Even though I use both my English and Chinese names, my Chinese name feels more like family and home.

Last week at the Puna Fresh Foods grocery store, the kids blurted out something and ran ahead to go look at the gumball machines at the front of the store.

The mostly-Hawaiian-looking lady at the grocery store checkout smiled wistfully as she scanned our groceries and said, “That’s sweet, it’s been a long time since I heard that.”

My dad and I looked at each other and then stared back at her, completely blank. We had no idea what she was talking about. None.

Then she explained, “I used to have a Gong Gong and Po Po. I haven’t heard anyone use those words in a long time.”

We had not even “registered” that the kids had been speaking Chinese or that they had called my dad Gong Gong just then because it all came out so naturally that it was not a big deal. Yet the look on the supermarket lady’s face clearly showed that “Grandpa” just is not the same as Gong Gong, and “Grandma” is not the same as Po Po. Translations only go so far.

My mom has recently started trying to get the kids to stop calling her Po Po and start calling her Lao Lao because our family is northern Chinese, and northerners call their maternal grandmothers Lao Lao. However, Lao Lao just does not sound right to me because my own maternal grandmother was southern Chinese—even if my grandfather was northern—hence we all called her Po Po. My mom also called her own grandmother Po Po. It is really tough for me to get my head around such a dramatic change, so I drag my feet and refuse to discuss the issue.

It is the feel of the word in the heart that gives it its real meaning, beyond dictionary definitions and regional politics. This is the gift I had really wanted to give my children:enough proficiency to be able to feel the words…as well as to get the jokes.


Other Readings of Interest by Frances Kai-Hwa Wang


Frances Kai-Hwa Wang is a second-generation Chinese American from California who now divides her time between Michigan and the Big Island of Hawaii. She is currently an acting editor for IMDiversity.com’sAsian-American Village, where she writes most frequently on culture, family, arts, and lifestyles topics. Her articles have appeared in Pacific Citizen, Asian Reader, Nikkei West, Sampan, Mavin, Eurasian Nation, and various Families with Children from China publications. She has also worked in anthropology and international development in Nepal, and in nonprofits and small business start-ups in the US. She is also the Outreach Coordinator of the Ann Arbor Chinese Center of Michigan and a much sought public speaker. She has four children. She can be reached atfkwang@aol.com.

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