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I am English, not Chinese!

A "banana" - yellow outside, white inside

Is my kid going to be a "banana"?

At around age 7, the Big One declared: "I am English, not Chinese!".

Prior to this outburst, there was no indication whatsoever of any anti-Chinese sentiments. Not that it was any consolation. I was devastated. Were my efforts to ensure Chinese was enjoyed both as a language and a culture all coming to naught? Is my kid going to be a “banana”? Feeling like an abject failure, I was devastated enough to consider outsourcing. It happened that my ex-colleague’s daughter was in a similar situation. After attending enrichment classes, she started enjoying Chinese. Thinking that I should seek help, I signed the Big One up for the same enrichment.

As the months passed, although there were fun activities, the enrichment was getting to be more like tuition. Perhaps it was because there was no further identity declaration. Perhaps it was because the Big One was enjoying Chinese dance and interesting Chinese reads. Perhaps it was because the Big One was doing okay in the subject. Whatever the reason, ultimately, I knew tuition would not solve the “banana” problem. So, when the Big One proposed quitting tuition during Primary 3, I did not hesitate despite contrary advice about impending streaming exams.

Fun Chinese leisure activities

In the meantime, after getting over the initial disappointment, I continued with my fun-with-Chinese mission. I knew there must be no rejection of Chinese. Once the rejection mindset took root, it would be game over. My game plan? Associate Chinese with fun.

Fun such as the yearly Christmas concert for the extended family. It’s essentially a kid-produced performance. Parental support provided only when necessary. Getting the invitations out was part of the activities. Grandparents got theirs in Chinese whereas other relatives received English ones. Concert program was done in both languages. As far as possible, performance content was in Chinese. Cousins came over for sleepovers to make the props and rehearse. From preparations to performance, there were plenty of interesting encounters with Chinese.

Reading was fun for the bookworm too. Fun because reading was (and still is) for pleasure. No worries about dictionary lookups or book reviews. No stopping to figure out unknown or unfamiliar words. 看多了自然懂。After enough encounters with the “stranger”, contextual clues could enable inference of the meaning. That’s the power of reading for pleasure - also known as extensive reading. To find out more about extensive reading, do read Lah Lah Banana’s excellent write-up “Extensive Reading: The secret to learning Chinese”.

Extensive reading made the Big One a bookworm. Books are enjoyable companions. Whether self-read or read-to. A story about the Grand Canyon in the comic book《神秘的自然》(Mysterious Nature) was an oft requested read-to favourite. It left such a deep impression that the Big One could barely contained her excitement when she visited the Grand Canyon more than a decade later.

It was relatively easy to find interesting reads for the younger bookworm. From mid-Primary onwards, it became tougher to find Chinese books (compared to English ones), let alone those which were up her alley. Popular bookstores tend to stock Chinese books for younger kids. There were also limited (or no?) online bookstores back then. I remember bringing the kids to the Chinese bookstores around Bras Basah to scour for books. 《淘气包马小跳》and《七天》were some of the prized finds. With such books, the bookworm would be totally engrossed.

Fortunately, during the “Chinese book scarcity” years, fun was aplenty in other activities.

Fun Chinese leisure activities - dance

Chinese dance was one such activity. Taken up since Primary 1, Chinese dance introduced the Big One to not only the dance movements, but also the culture in olden times. In addition, she got to experience the hard work & camaraderie behind the practices & preparations, and the exhilaration of dancing for a live performance. All these involved new lingo, e.g., 劈腿 (doing the splits), 下腰 (back bend), 头饰 (hair accessories) & 谢幕 (taking curtain call). Incidental vocabulary learning that’s stress free and fun. No memorising needed.

Chinese drama serials provided another peek into the ancient Chinese world. When the Big One was around 10+ years of age, the whole family was very into watching historical dramas such as《大秦帝国》 (The Qin Empire) and 《三国》 (The 3 Kingdoms). The latter had special attraction for her because she had read the English version of the novel 《三国演义》which the show was based on. The original novel was written in 文言文 (classical Chinese) which the Big One didn’t understand. Those translated into Mandarin (as we know it), and available locally back then were typically abridged versions. I left her alone to enjoy the complete story in English with her set of 4 books. Anyway, she and daddy relished trading anecdotes based on the books. She was especially amused with how the characters spoke in the translated English. With the show, the conversations and history came alive. Many famous sayings and idioms such as 刘备借荆州,有借无还、三顾茅庐、 草船借箭、 望梅止渴 also came to life. Once again, incidental learning at play.

(You may want to check out my earlier post My family’s Chinese journey for more stories about the fun we had.)

Fun for Chinese as a school subject

Fun for Chinese as a school subject

Enough said about fun for Chinese in the rest & recreation context. What about fun for Chinese as a school subject?

Humour came in useful. I would try to leverage humour when reviewing her work.

A classic (which we still laughed about) was me saying in a sing-song way accompanied by hand movements when the Big One wrote 我把你拿起来 (translate literally to “I take you up”). Another favourite was movie time during which I would act out a hilarious or impossible situation described in her compositions. Example of an impossible situation: the schoolboy protagonist who was upstairs but appeared downstairs in a nano second to tackle the burglar. ROFL (rolling on the floor laughing) guaranteed for the audience.

Written comments also came in handy. The kids would look for them when teachers returned their work after marking. So, whenever I could, I wrote encouraging or humorous words or praises when I reviewed answers or compositions done at home.

Injecting fun into the academic side of things also included taking away what’s not fun.

  • Rote learning ain’t fun. So, I gladly left memorising of 好词好句 etc in the care of the teachers.

  • Drilling ain’t fun. So, no endless practices. When the required practices were done, it’s done. Once, when both siblings finished their exam revision ahead of schedule, we went for movies on the eve of the exam.

  • Stress ain’t fun. So, no 临时抱佛脚. Regular revisions in small doses were the order of the day.

  • Negative comments ain’t fun. So, no echo chamber at home for remarks like “Chinese is boring”, “Chinese is so difficult to learn”, “Wah! The spelling list has so many difficult words!”.

Is my kid “yellow inside” now?

I am yellow inside & outside! No longer a banana - yellow inside, white inside!

Was the risk of the Big One becoming a “banana” real? I reckon so.

Her perception of being English was likely due to speaking mostly in English. It could easily have morphed into viewing Chinese as just a school subject. A subject that had the majority vote for being boring, difficult and uncool. It would have been so easy to go down the slippery slope of seeing Chinese as having only utilitarian value (e.g., scoring in Higher Chinese to get extra credits for secondary school admission), and ditching it the moment the education system allowed. Life would continue – conducted in English. Adieu, Chinese. Total rejection.

Fortunately, fun anchored her. Going beyond 听写 & 习字, she experienced the interesting aspects of her heritage. Chinese became a gateway to a world where she gets to eat 冰糖葫芦, sing JJ Lin’s《她说》at the karaoke, convert her friends to be 《琅琊榜》 fans, do a solo 东北秧歌dance, laugh over 微信 emoji stickers, walk along 万里长城, ….. What’s not to like?

The Big One is all grown up now. And, definitely “yellow inside”. No residual “whiteness”. Fun took care of it.



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