This morning, my mother texted me and my brother.
“Today is Mid-Autumn Festival,” she wrote in simplified Chinese. “Don’t forget to text dad, and grandpa Happy Mid Autumn Festival. This is all basic etiquette I should teach you.”
I was a little annoyed because she never calls and when she texts, it’s always a reminder to call Grandpa or thank some person, which I usually do on my own anyway. But I know I’ll probably be the same kind of mom. So I texted back, “Thanks Mom.”
A few minutes later I called my dad.
“Today is Mid-Autumn Festival!” he said brightly. “Your Mid-Autumn was last night. Did you see the moon? Was it big and round?”
“I’m sure it was,” I said. “But I don’t remember seeing it. I think it was cloudy here.”
“Ah that’s too bad,” my dad said. “It’s a clear day here and we will surely see the moon later.”
“How are you celebrating?” I asked. “Is everyone coming over?”
“Your Yi Ma and Yi Fu, Grandpa, and your Xiao Jiu and Xiao Jiu Ma,” my dad said, banging some pots and pans. “Your Da Jiu and Da Jiu Ma are celebrating with your cousins at their house. But here, we’ll be eating crab legs, pork bone soup, and pizza.”
“Sounds nice,” I said, because it did. “But pizza?”
“Sure, it’s Italian mooncake! You’ve never heard? They’re much bigger than Chinese Mooncakes.”
My dad laughed at his own ingenuity.
“How are your Chinese lessons going?” he asked. But perhaps this was a way to get my mom to join the conversation so he could continue crashing and clanging around the kitchen to get dinner going.
“They’re going ok,” I said, realizing I hadn’t wished my Chinese teacher happy Mid Autumn Festival. “My reading is improving but when we do the conversation exercises I still sound stupid. I can’t remember to use any of the new phrases even though I can understand them when they’re said to me. I can even read them now.”
“That’s ok,” my mom came closer to the speakerphone. “It just takes time.”
“Yeah.” I thought back to what my teacher S said just yesterday afternoon as our lesson ended.
“I don’t teach children,” she’d said. “It’s a losing battle until they know why they want to learn it themselves.”
This was more or less true for me. I’d grown up thinking I was unfairly being forced to go to Chinese school even though there were more days than not that I enjoyed the early Saturday mornings and all the socializing that came with it. I had never looked forward to it the way I look forward to my lessons now. An hour long each, they whizzed by in what felt like minutes.
In countries like Australia and the U.S., these kids of Chinese and Taiwanese immigrants grow up and some, like me and of their own accord, eventually find their way back to the Chinese classroom, mostly because they think it’ll help their careers. I had come to S wanting to learn Business Chinese but after just three lessons realized I should start with “accurate everyday Chinese”.
“As an adult, no one forces you to come and you know what your objectives are, so you bring more focus to it.” S said.
“I want to improve my Chinese so I can better teach my kids,” I said. “And eventually get around to that “business Chinese.”
“Exactly,” she said. “But do me a favor. Don’t just teach them conversationally. That’s great and all, but make sure they know how to read too.”
I gulped. Teaching my kids to read Chinese was ideal, but my own reading ability was only barely inching forward despite a decade and then some of formal Chinese lessons and a lifetime of exposure.
“I’m not talking about reading these long difficult newspaper articles, but just to have an arsenal of characters so that if or when they decide to take their Chinese to the next level, they’re not starting from scratch.”
“What do you mean?”
She sighed. Apparently 85% of her students were ABCs (Australian Born Chinese) who could speak and comprehend enough Chinese to get by a meal or two in a Chinese restaurant or bumble through a simple conversation with a grandparent, but to apply this level of Chinese to their careers was more or less useless.
These students often came to her wanting to learn some catchall “Business Chinese.”
“They think they have a foundation because they can carry an easy conversation,” she said, “But they don’t. Because they do not know how to read but the most elementary characters. How can I teach you “Business Chinese” if you don’t even know how to read the basic characters for “buy” and “sell” or “before” and “after”?
“You’re already way ahead of most of them because you recognize many characters,” she said. “But you’re right. To get to the level all you guys want for furthering your careers? Yes, there is a lot of work to be done.”
I was even more grateful then – I’ve been grateful for a long while now – that my mom fought back and tiger mom-ed the shit out of me and my brother. Still, all that work and your daughter can barely read the Chinese newspaper. I recognize enough characters but not why they’re used this way here, or that way there. I’m learning now that there’s a whole other “literary” Chinese that’s still far far beyond my grasp.
“Don’t worry,” my mom said again. “You’ll have it in no time.”
We talked about some of the recent idioms I’ve learned while my dad occasionally hollered his two cents from the background.
“I know that one!”
“Do you know this one? (Insert Chinese Idiom here).” And went on to parse the characters while my mom and I try to hear each other.
“Does your teacher know your dad is also Shanghainese?”
“Your dad is also very loud,” my mom said, which made me wonder what his parents did to raise such a shouty, confident bro-type who unabashedly brings every conversation, whether he’s part of it, back around to himself.
One idiom, 竭盡全力 jie2 jin4 quan2 li4, means to strain every nerve or to try one’s best. I asked my mother if I could apply it to learning Chinese, though as yet, I’ve not strained any nerves or, if I’m being honest, tried my very best.
“Hm, not really,” she said. “I think it’s a little extreme to apply to learning Chinese.”
Then she surprised me with this suggestion: “Why don’t we set up a time for you to read some Chinese to me everyday? You can send me a Chinese article and we can read it together over FaceTime.”
My mom has been increasingly hard to reach. Via phone, text, and sometimes, even in person while I’m standing right in front of her, I can feel her attention floating away if it was ever present at all. But when we talk about my learning Chinese, she’s there in full, minus the tiger mom parts I feared when I was younger. I often worry she’s spending too much time on her iPad and it’s been years since I’ve seen her read a book, but when we talk about Chinese, she is the book. She knows the stories behind the characters and the idioms and, by the time my brother and I had escaped the drudgery of our at home Chinese exercises, thanks to high school extracurriculars and whatnot, she’d perfected her strategies to teach what she knew to students older and wiser than us and who actually wanted to learn.
Now a decade and a half later since I last set foot in a Chinese classroom, I’m at it again and lucky my mom still hasn’t given up on my learning Chinese. And this is the one true benefit, even more important than “business Chinese”. I want my kids to learn so they can speak with my parents, their grandparents, to get my dad’s bad jokes and my mom’s sharp sarcasm. For them to know why I am the way I am. Whether Chinese is important to them I’ll let them figure out, but for me, those are the main reasons I’m willing to put in the time.
“That would be really great,” I said. We set a regular time for Monday through Friday with the understanding that sometimes life gets in the way but the intent to keep at it at least until the baby comes.
My dad made some noise, asked for his phone back.
“I have to go and buy the pizza,” he said to my mom. And I smiled, wishing that in a few hours I could join them, a bunch of Chinese-Americans tucking into an Italian Mooncake.