Bilingual and Proud

During the Super Bowl, Coca-Cola aired an ad which showed heartwarming images of American families set to the soundtrack of “America the Beautiful,” sung in various languages. When an outspoken and angry group of people took to social media to express their outrage that average Americans could be shown speaking other languages, my friend Stephanie at InCulture Parent responded with the voices of bilingual children, proclaiming their pride in their linguistic abilities and their country. The result is a very powerful video, and I am so thrilled that my son got to be in it to represent Mandarin speakers:

Read Stephanie’s full explanation of her reasons for making the video. And if you don’t read InCulture Parent, a resource for “parents raising little global citizens,” you should. Please spread this video on your social networks, to show the world that most Americans are proud of our multilingual heritage.

In case you missed it, the original Coke ad is here:

 

Celebrating Lunar New Year

Happy New Year! Today is the first day of the Year of the Wood Horse. The Chinese New Year holiday lasts two weeks, from the new moon to the full moon, and each day has special significance. On the first day, people traditionally visit the elder members of their family and watch a lion dance performance. You can read about the meaning of each day of the holiday via Wikipedia. For a glimpse of how the New Year is celebrated in a rural Chinese village, ChinaFile has posted a beautiful slideshow showing the preparations and festivities. This video tells the story of the traditions of the New Year, and the monster Nian, who can only be chased away by loud noises and the color red:

If you are looking for ways to celebrate at home, InCulture Parent has posted a really useful round-up of craft projects, recipes and books. In our house, two books that are especially popular this year are The Year of the Horse: Tales from the Chinese Zodiac and The Runaway Wok: A Chinese New Year Tale

And if you live in the Bay Area, both 510families and Red Tricycle have posted lists of local events celebrating the New Year. Our favorite annual event is the Oakland Museum celebration, which is a pan-Asian festival full of amazing performances and activities. The mocha pounding demonstration is always a highlight.

新年快乐!

 

Happy Year of the Horse!

Tonight marks the end of the Year of the Snake and the entrance of the Year of the Horse. The World of Chinese has a nice post explaining how to behave to increase your chances of a lucky horse year.

On the Chinese Internet, well-wishers share greetings and cards to celebrate the Lunar New Year. The Year of the Horse allows for especially creative greetings, as the word “horse” is used in various Chinese idioms. A common New Year greeting this year is “马到成功!” which is an idiom wishing someone success (it translates loosely as “Ride your horse to success” and comes from a story dating back to the Qin Dynasty).

The phrase, “马上” literally means, “on a horse” but is used in everyday language to mean “immediately” (because, of course, once upon a time in China, the fastest way to get somewhere was by horse). So this year, “马上” means both “in the Year of the Horse” and “immediately.” Greeting cards are using this to wish people good things, immediately, in the horse year.

This image and others like it are circulating in online forums in China to send wishes for things which are notoriously difficult in China; the image above sends wishes for the recipient to “have a new car, have a vacation, have money, and find a partner” on the back of the Horse.

Happy Year of the Horse! May you each ride your own horse to success, whatever that means to you.

 

Monkey takes New York

My family and I just returned from a trip to New York, where we had the pleasure of seeing Monkey: Journey to the West at Lincoln Center. Produced by Blur’s Damon Albarn, Jamie Hewlett and Chen Shizheng, who directed The Bonesetter’s Daughter by San Francisco Opera, the show is a lively and extravagant interpretation of the legend of the Monkey King. Full of acrobatics, martial arts, animated sequences, and a soundtrack that combines Chinese pop with ethereal Philip Glass-style sounds and Buddhist chanting, the show had moments of true beauty and of real hilarity, though it may be hard to follow for those not already familiar with the story. My five and eight-year-old loved it – especially the eight-year-old who knows the story of Sun Wukong inside and out. The production is composed of a series of acts which depict some of the well-known chapters from the legend and introduces many of the key characters, including a fabulous Sun Wukong, Zhu Bajie (Pigsy) and the monk Tripitaka who is leading them to India to find Buddhist scriptures. The Monkey character is slightly darker and more ill-behaved than the cuter, more mischievous depictions in many of the Chinese productions we have seen, but I thought he made the story more compelling. It is all in Chinese with English subtitles. Hewlett, who with Albarn created the virtual band Gorillaz, has produced a couple of short films based on the show:


The full website for the show is here and you can read reviews in the New York Times, Variety and The Guardian.

My children have watched, and loved, the animated version of the Journey to the West produced by CCTV, but inspired by the New York show, I am now going to make it a family project to watch the full TV serial which has been popular in China. Here’s episode 1:

 

The Art of Jimmy Liao

A couple of years ago, my children received a book in the mail from their grandmother, Sound of Colors by Jimmy Liao. I had never heard of the author but was intrigued as soon as I opened it. His illustrations are stunning, rich, and imaginative and my kids immediately wanted to read the book.
Read the rest of this entry »

 

Welcoming the Dragon

[Cartoon by Chen Chunming via China Media Project]

We are already on Day 5 of the Year of the Dragon, but it is not too late to celebrate. Lunar New Year is a two-week celebration, from the first new moon of the lunar calendar to the first full moon. If you are lucky enough to live in the Bay Area, there are lots of fun events coming up in the next few weeks.
Read the rest of this entry »

 

Dragon Songs

I am not a big fan of Chinese children’s music. Yet over the past seven years I have spent innumerable hours listening to it, in all it’s synthesized, saccharine sweetness, and have learned to tune it out to such a degree that after I drop my children off at school, I occasionally leave the CD playing because I no longer hear it. Nevertheless, early on, I bought and downloaded as many Chinese songs as I could, as I was (and still am) convinced that music is one of the surest and fastest ways for children to learn language. Now that my two children are comfortably fluent in Mandarin, I have tried to wean them off the CDs, which has worked without effort for my seven-year-old but not so well for my three-year-old.

So I was pleasantly surprised when I heard the new Little Dragon Tales, Chinese Songs for Children CD, performed by Shanghai Restoration Project featuring Yip’s Canada Children’s Choir. Read the rest of this entry »

 

Why Doesn’t China Let Baba Go Home?

I wrote an essay for InCulture Parent about our efforts to keep our children’s Chinese identity alive when their father cannot travel home. Please read it here. And for those who haven’t read it before, InCulture Parent is a fabulous resource for anyone raising a multicultural family (or anyone interested in the world outside the U.S.).

 

“Ai-ya!”: 24-Carat Chinese Gold

A friend forwarded this to me in an email and I have to share it because I think it is genius. “Ai-ya” truly is one of the best phrases ever invented:

I had a craving for a sweet taste of childhood the other day; so I went shopping for a can of grass jelly. I was putting said treat into my cart and looking for my Ranch 99 VIP card when a woman with three kids in tow ran into my cart.

At that moment, both of us said, “Ai-ya.” The children giggled, she apologized, and I quickly replied, “M’sai. No apology needed.” Although it was a minor exchange, I later realized that Ai-ya is more than just two characters; it is part of the spirit of being Chinese … in a moment of surprise I could’ve said just about anything – my reaction was to say Ai-ya. I was surprised that I would instinctively use my mother’s tongue because I’ve always known that I don’t speak Cantonese well. No matter how far removed I’ve become as an American, there is something at my core that is Chinese.

I decided to conduct informal research about Ai-ya. First, I went to a national bookstore chain to review its Chinese language materials. I thumbed through all the Chinese language materials, but couldn’t find any vocabulary drill including Ai-ya. Seeing that the publishers of tourist books were not going to be helpful, I decided to observe its use in the community. I clipped my cell phone to my belt, grabbed a couple of bakery pink boxes and sat around San Francisco ‘s Portsmouth Square drinking 7-Up and eating dim sum . Lo and behold, I heard Ai-ya used in a variety of ways.

Based on my personal experience and this observation, I’ve developed a personal understanding of Ai-ya. Aiya is 24-carat Chinese gold. Ai-ya is more than just two characters; it is part of the spirit of being Chinese and may even go back to antiquity. It is used wherever the Chinese have been in the diaspora of the last sesquicentennial.

How you say Ai-ya can say volumes about your state of mind. For example, when the problem is minor, I can say “Ai-ya” in a short/curt manner. However, when I am extremely stressed, I can draw it out to nearly five seconds.

As you read the following ways Ai-ya can be used, the mental image to solicit is to picture any of the mothers from Amy Tan’s “The Joy Luck Club”. For those who have met anyone in my family, you can picture one of my relatives instead:

Surprise: “Ai-ya! A surprise party for me?”

Joy: “Ai-ya! You got 5 out of 6 in Lotto!”

Distaste: “You expect me to drink that herbal medicine concoction of yours? Ai-ya!”

Doubt: “Do I have to wear that lemon yellow/lime green sweater my mother made? I wonder if she would notice if I accidentally’ donated it to
Goodwill? Ai-ya.”

Awe: “Your son got accepted into Harvard Law School !?! Ai-ya!”

Irritation: “Clean your room. Ai-ya! Why you live like a pig?”

Large astonishment: “Ai-ya! She switch majors from Business to Art History!”

Disapproval: “Report Card-5 A, 1 B? Always a B in Math. Ai-ya.” (Actual quote from my mother when I was a sophomore in high school.)

Shock: “What? Ketchup on Yang Chow Fried Rice … Ai-ya!”

Outrage: “Never clean your rice cooker with that steel scouring pad! Ai-ya!”

Verge of internal combustion: “I can’t deal with the family asking when and if I’m getting married! Ai-yaaa!”

Ai-ya is an all-purpose phrase that comes from deep in the soul. Ai-ya is both simple and complex: on one hand it is a couple of Chinese characters, on the other hand it can be a whole speech describing the state you are in. Ai-ya says, “I’m afraid”, “I’m in pain”, “I don’t believe it.” It is an exclamation of exuberance, a shout of hurt, a cry of fear, and the reflex of being startled, and the embrace of joy.

It is unfortunate that English has no equivalent to Ai-ya. It saddens me that American English doesn’t afford me a fun phrase to emote. “Shucks”, “Darn,” “Shit,” and the plethora of other swear words cannot convey what Ai-ya can. So, I’m going to propose that we start an initiative for American English should grab on Ai-ya or the Yiddish “Oy” for our use.

So the next time you go to a teahouse for dim sum or decide to go shopping at an Asian market, listen to the lively banter as friends and families meet. It’s a wonderfully vibrant, alive community out there. Who knows, you just might get caught up the lyrical rhythm of the people.

(This essay has been passed around through email; the original author is unknown.)

Someone on YouTube even took it upon themselves to create a video explaining the term (it’s in Cantonese, but Ai-ya is equally powerful in Mandarin and, I believe, a number of other Chinese dialects.)

 

Just in time for summer vacation: iPhone apps to learn Chinese

Two years ago when I got my iPhone, I searched for decent educational apps that could support my kids’ Chinese learning. They were few and far between, and mostly developed by Westerners for non-Chinese speakers to teach basic vocabulary. In recent months, I have followed tips I read on Twitter (thanks @lantaumama!) or on blogs and, ever since the iPhone was introduced in China, it seems the market has expanded and improved. These are a few of our favorites so far (this post will be a work in progress so please send in any tips of programs I may have missed!):


- Rye Studio: A series of animated stories, with the option to switch between English, Japanese and Mandarin. By far, the best, most engaging and professional Chinese app I have seen. They are cheap, several are free, and my kids love them. Mulan and the Monkey King are favorites and can be downloaded here.

- Apple Tree Books: Illustrated books including classics like the Hare and the Tortoise, the Boy Who Cried Wolf, etc. They have an option to read it yourself or have it read to you, which is nice for beginning readers. Not quite as sophisticated as Rye Studio but good nonetheless.

- FeedMe Chinese: A favorite with my three-year-old, the program asks simple questions about colors, shapes, numbers, etc and the child must drag the correct answer into the mouth of a silly purple monster. If the answer is correct, the monster gives a happy whoop. If it’s wrong, he spits it out and looks dejected and sad. Very cute.

- Just as I was finishing this post, I received an email about a new Chinese reading app, Catch Me if You Can, which is a fun character recognition game, where students have to “catch” the correct characters to recreate a sentence. My six-year-old tried it and was hooked right away. The only downside (for us) is that the versions using simplified characters are very limited. (I emailed the developer and she said they are planning more versions with simplified characters soon.)

- 5Qchannel: A great storytelling website has just started creating iPhone apps. I haven’t tried them yet but the content on their site is quite good.

- Doodle Chinese teaches basic vocabulary in three categories: Animals, Numbers and Greetings then offers quizzes with cute drawings to test your knowledge and expands to more complicated conversations. Good for a new learner.

- ABC Chinese: A simple flashcard application to teach basic vocabulary。

For my six-year-old, the best writing practice is simply the Chinese character touchpad input screen on the iPhone 4, where he can draw a character with his finger and it magically converts it into type.

Some others I have seen but not yet tried:

- Chinese children’s songs. Frankly, I don’t dare download it since I know my daughter will want to listen to nothing else. But it looks good for those whose kids are learning the standard Chinese children’s songs. And it’s free.

I don’t have an iPad so haven’t included any apps that just work on tablets. Beatrix Potter storybooks, in English and Chinese, with the original illustrations, look great but are only for iPads.

For those without smart phones, Childroad is a nice Chinese story and reading website.

What did I miss?