Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Language and Culture

Mei Ling's challenges with language learning (see here, here, and here) brought to mind this post from last year, as Zoe tried to "be Chinese" while we were in China:
"I wish I was Chinese." This has been Zoe's frequent lament lately. The first time she said it, I replied, " Well, since you were born in China and since your birthparents are Chinese, you are Chinese -- and American, too." But when she said again today, "I wish I was Chinese," this time I was smart enough to ask, "Well, what makes someone Chinese?"

Zoe's answer, "You have to speak Chinese."

"So would I be Chinese," I queried, " if I could speak Chinese?"

Zoe said, "Yes, you would."

So there you have it -- we can ALL be Chinese!

But on a serious note, Zoe's a pretty smart cookie to have figured this out. Maybe ethnicity and birthplace are not not enough to make one Chinese. Here, without language and culture, she is American. And in America, because of her appearance, she is seen as Chinese and perpetually foreign . . . .

Our children adopted from China are really betwixt and between, aren't they? Not fully Chinese to some, not fully American to others. That's really why we're here, to give Zoe and Maya a chance to feel Chinese. I suppose I'll know that the effort has paid off when THEY feel fully Chinese and fully American, no matter how others might choose to label them.

Even at age 6, Zoe understood the centrality of language to culture and identity. And the loss of language is another adoption loss.


Anonymous said...

Hi again,

Yes, I know what Zoe is getting at, even at her young age.

I've had people tell me "You are Chinese, it's in your blood" and it's so easy for me to convince myself of that when I can speak a little bit in front of them or when I try to record voice clips.

But then when I hear immigrants at my campus, I am reminded by just how much I really *don't* know and therefore that makes me feel "not Chinese" because I lack the linguistics to carry a normal conversation.

So in short - I'm glad you recognize that language is a prominent loss, and although it can be "amended" in some ways, it will probably never be the way it would have been if she had stayed in China.

At least you're reading a lot around the blogosphere to understand; that can be a hard thing for APs to do, yet you do it so respectfully and willingly. Kudos to you.

malinda said...

Thanks for posting, ML! Yes, sometimes it's hard as an AP to hear/read what adoptees and birth parents have to say about adoption -- we APs want it to be a 100% happy-happy-joy-joy thing.

And thanks for your characerization of my attempts to understand to be respectful. I try so hard to be respectful, I'm glad it shows!

Wendy said...

We are so determined for M to learn Mandarin for the very reason you have found in your research. We too have seen so many adult TRA's talking about language being the point of difference--if only they knew it, if only they were taught or exposed, if only they could have communicated beyond the interpreter. M doesn't like it now that we have to have a third party on the phone to talk with her foster mother--she is annoyed that she has to wait and cannot just understand. M wants her language back and we will do what needs to be done to get it back for her.

Joanne said...

Well this post came at a good time for me...Mia and I are starting a Chinese culture and language class with our local FCC on Saturday! I was a bit concerned because she is not speaking as well (English) as I think she should - I was wondering if I should wait until she is speaking better before I add Mandarin (again) to her language... DO you think I'm jumping the gun...

Wendy said...

I don't think so Joanne. I know with M she would not allow Chinese for several months after we came home (we tried to keep it going for her) and then when she was ready she had lost all but a couple of words. Kids can learn and compartmentalize language so I would go for it.