Adopting the Dim Sum Strategy

Published in the Globe and Mail, Aug 11, 2006. pg. A.18

Wherever I go, I hear parents diligently addressing their tots in German, French or any other language with a kind of ferocious intensity, fluidly switching back into English when conversing with others. They’ve clearly read those studies about children and second languages: Children lose their ability to learn a language fully and perfectly by age 4; more languages equates with higher intelligence. These parents, who perhaps have never spoken anything other than English with spouses and friends, have suddenly become their own walking, talking language-immersion programs for their infants and toddlers.

I don’t speak Chinese, but I look the part. I’m also one-sixteenth Vietnamese. I don’t speak Vietnamese either, not even one-sixteenth of a word.

“You are teaching him Mandarin or Cantonese?” they’ll say after they submit their child to a barrage of words in (pick a language), conveying the equivalent of what I imagine is “Stop picking your nose” or “We have to leave for your Suzuki violin lessons in five minutes.”

“Actually neither,” I’ll respond.

Usually I then receive a look of muted horror and a smug mini-lecture on the benefits of speaking a second language to young children. Either I’m merely benighted, or I’m a neglectful parent, the kind who lets her child watch television and eat Halloween candy.

“I don’t speak Chinese myself,” I’ll add.

The standard reaction is stunned silence. The conversation ends. Then I’ll experience flashbacks of elderly Chinese ladies accosting me in grocery stores, futilely hoping for assistance. Or the smirks of waiters in Chinese restaurants hearing me order in English.

But some parents will persist. “What about your husband?”

“He’s Caucasian and doesn’t have another language,” I’ll respond. I don’t add that I am a single parent. The phrase always raises eyebrows. The word “single” might as well be “derelict.”

I never have time to explain that I was born in Scotland; that my Cantonese- and Mandarin-speaking mother had decided that she and my father would only speak English to their children. She wanted us to blend in with everyone else, to ensure we’d never be hobbled by a Chinese accent — or the sexist values imbedded in the culture — the way she’d been. I could understand some simple phrases from having overheard my parents talk to each other or on the phone, but I was never able to speak the language. My father’s influence had led to us kids going to Cantonese school three days a week after regular school — but little had stuck.

As an adult, I’d heard about the language research, of course. But by the time I was pregnant, it was too late. Notwithstanding Berlitz, I just hadn’t found out how to become fluent and accentless in another language within nine months. I’d taken comfort in the fact I’d attended French-immersion programs in Quebec as a student. But after my son was born, I heard that it was worse to try to speak to a child in a language you didn’t know well, because he or she would pick up the wrong pronunciation and grammar. However, I did count to 10 in French, Mandarin and Cantonese with as much gusto as I could muster during diaper changes the first year.

When my son was a toddler, rivers of phonemes would flow from his mouth from every language imaginable. As he stood there, monologue-ing to anyone who would listen, I sensed his innate capacity for a multitude of languages going down the drain.

Of course, some Westernized Chinese-Canadians can rely on their parents to provide secondary linguistic support.

“Who’s he? Is that your son?” my mother would ask in Cantonese when we’d arrange a visit with her. Her mind was so muddled from Alzheimer’s disease at that point that it was probably best my son didn’t understand her.

I’d considered taking Mandarin classes myself. But the insertion of a language (I’d not spoken and rarely heard growing up) into our lives seemed contrived, artificial, and destined to fail. My son’s mother’s tongue, just like his mother’s mother tongue, is and will be English. The time to learn to speak Chinese fluently has passed. I’d passed it up by not studying it in university — believing it unnecessary in a world where there was no risk of the language dying out with more than one billion people speaking it. How would I now transmit a culture to my child that I had only a tenuous connection to in the first place?

Dim sum. I take my son as often as I can to dim sum and for Chinese food, and make rice and a stir-fry at least once a week, despite having been raised by my own mother on fast-food burgers and frozen perogies. So now my son knows about cha sui bow and har gow . He will be able to order a barbecued pork bun or shrimp dumpling anywhere in the world. Some cultural advance. He’d still probably pass them over for some French fries.

I have bought as many books and videos with Chinese cultural content as I can for him. Taken him to the Chinese New Year lion dances and the occasional banquet. Enrolled him in Chinese school once a week, which is definitely not frequent enough. But what sense of Chinese culture will he get from watching a parade, eating Peking duck or watching a Disney film with a heroine who could pass for any brunette with a tan?

One way would be total immersion — to emigrate to China or Taiwan. Or to find and marry a guy from that part of the world, possibly with values that are at odds with my dyed-in-the-wool (if not the skin) values. And why would I do that? The underlying premise seems to be that my son and I are deficient because we are “disconnected from our culture.” To refuse to feel deficient is to be seen as deluded. I have yet to decide which is preferable.