I always try to imagine parallels and differences between Chinese immigrants raising their kids in North America and us raising a family China. Our first child
is due in the middle of Julywas born seven weeks early, and if all goes well we’ll move back to China in September (our families would never have forgiven us if we’d had our child on another continent!), so when I spend time with Chinese friends on this side of the Pacific it often makes me imagine what it will be like for our daughter (and her future siblings) in China. Even though Chinese immigrants and 老外 expats both live in a country and culture not their own, I wonder if their experiences are more different than they are similar.
For example, I recently stayed three nights with a Chinese family in Baton Rouge, Louisiana for the second time. The parents came to the U.S. as adults when their now teenage son was two. They have two other especially cute kids: a six-year-old son and a four-year-old daughter.
Within the local Chinese circles that this family runs in, the general level of English is better than most other Chinese I know — actually, some of them have better English than a lot of Americans (especially in Louisiana)! However their strengths are reading and writing (lots of advanced degree holders from LSU), and when talking they’re still more comfortable in Chinese, which was great for me.
Although all three of their kids understand Chinese, the youngest two will only respond in English. I don’t know if they can’t or just won’t speak Chinese. When the four-year-old speaks, you can hear a southern U.S. drawl in her vowels, especially when she’s disappointed: “Aw may-an!”
It’s such a common situation for Chinese immigrant families. It seemed the parents of the Chinese kids at the local Saturday Mandarin school in south Baton Rouge were all struggling to not let their kids lose their family’s language.
This probably won’t be our problem in China. While Chinese immigrant families to North America often struggle unsuccessfully to raise kids who retain their family’s culture and language of origin, North American 外国人 in China (few if any truly immigrate to China) have the opposite problem: getting so thoroughly sucked into the foreigner subculture in their jobs and social lives that they abdicate the opportunity to pick up serious levels of Chinese. Their kids grow up in the international school system or home school, if they even stay in China long enough to grow up. I’ve only heard of a North American kid losing their English once, and that was in a book where the kid’s parents had moved to China in the 50’s to join the Revolution.
In Tianjin there were tons of foreigner kids (most?) who couldn’t speak Chinese; they spend their whole China experience inside the foreign bubble. Chinese immigrant kids, by contrast, typically go through the American school system. The only foreign kids I met in Tianjin that could speak Chinese (and they spoke fantastic Chinese) were the exceptions; their parents had gone out of their way to put them through Chinese kindergartens and some primary school, rather than start them in international schools or home schooling like most foreigner families.
Still, it’s a scary thing to imagine — your kids not being fluent in your own language, not being able to communicate smoothly with you or your parents or your siblings or your nephew and nieces! That must be just a brutal experience for immigrant families in Vancouver and the grandparents who can’t talk with with their grandkids.