Harvard Educational Review
  1. Fall 2011 Issue »

    Youth Voices: Foreigner

    CARRIE HUANG, 11th Grade, Alameda Science and Technology Institute, Alameda, California
    HER Fall 2011 SmMy childhood self always held my mother’s hand as we passed by the grocery stores, stopping every five seconds to say hello and hold a conversation with each person she knew on the street. Having grown up in Oakland’s Chinatown, I know all that goes on in this small place. Across from Sweetheart Cafe is the Milton Shoong Cultural Center and Chinese School; right next to it is the bakery where my father loves to buy huge pink boxes of pineapple bread; and right around the corner is the popular Cam Huong, famous for their warm, crisp Vietnamese sandwiches. In this small neighborhood, immigrants who cannot break the barriers of their native tongue come to make friends who can provide safe comfort, something difficult to do outside of Chinatown. This place consists of warm, nourishing relationships, with the whole chain of stores connected peacefully. But it is not only the atmosphere that brings everyone so close. There is one thing that binds them together so perfectly: language.

    Having lived in such a wonderful place all my life, I am proud to say that I love my language. I am grateful that I can speak such a language, that I can use this skill to converse with my elders or peers, and that I am able to connect with others so lovingly, like my mother did on the streets of Chinatown. I’ve realized that Cantonese is so sacred, and can never be mastered by any foreigner, because it is one of a kind. The language represents those who speak it—the eight complicated tones, the sharp, complex sounds. Over the years, my appreciation for Cantonese has greatly increased, as has my motivation to preserve it.

    Cantonese people have abundant pride. They reside mainly in southern China and Hong Kong. In 2010, when the government proposed that prime-time television broadcasts in Guangzhou—one of the biggest Cantonese-speaking cities—be shown in Mandarin, the people erupted in anger. Since students in Guangzhou are required to learn Mandarin in schools, many of them are accustomed to speaking Mandarin more often than Cantonese. Hong Kong, too, now emphasizes Mandarin teaching among its citizens in preparation for more international business due to China’s rapid economic growth. Guangzhou’s older people were angry, not because their favorite Cantonese television shows were canceled, or because they were upset about speaking Mandarin, but because they were worried their native language would be phased out among the youth in mainland China.

    When I was listening to this news on Chinese radio with my mother during dinner, a lot of old men and women called in to voice their opinions. However, there was one man whose anger struck me—he was upset that his son could not hold a conversation with him in Cantonese. He made a point that here in America kids lose their native tongue so easily. Whether kids are born here or in China, their language is affected once they come to America. When they grow up, most will be Americanized, and they will not pass on their language to their children. On hearing this, my mother pointed her chopsticks at my older sister, who cannot say a sentence in Chinese without including several English words in it, and said, “Did you hear that? Sounds like you!” In response, my older sister scoffed and laughed.

    My aunt and her husband, who are both natives of China but were educated in America, have two young kids around the ages of four and six. It surprised me, when I visited them, that neither of the children can speak a lick of Cantonese! I asked if they ever spoke Cantonese at home, and my aunt and uncle quickly said that they speak Cantonese to the kids but the kids talk back in English. They are like foreigners in their own home.

    That’s when I genuinely realized that I cannot be like them. Although I may be an exception—I went to Chinese school for ten years—many American-born Chinese kids do not know how to read and write their own language, or know their own culture. It upsets me how, today, many Asian children who are born in America do not appreciate their language. When my friends are chatting on the phone with their mothers or fathers, I hear how their thick Cantonese words come out in terrible grammar, with at least three words of English in every sentence. I wish they would continue to speak their language and eventually learn to appreciate it as much as I do.

    People underappreciate not only Cantonese but also other foreign languages that are spoken in America. I understand that speaking in American English is very important; no one wants to walk around talking with an accent. However, I believe the language we speak is an important part of what makes us who we are. It represents our appreciation for our and others’ cultures and how much we know about ourselves, which will be passed on to the future. I love my language so much.

    Before my grandfather returned to China, he asked me to come over to teach him how to type Chinese characters on the computer. My grandparents were overjoyed to see me before leaving on their long trip. In the midst of casual conversations about our lives, my grandfather suddenly stopped and said with a smile that his stern face barely showed, “I am very happy I have such a loving granddaughter to come and be able to talk to me like this.” I realized then that if I were like my two younger cousins who cannot speak a lick of Cantonese, or like my friends who cannot communicate well enough in their native language, I would have never been able to hear these words from him.

    At that moment, I remembered my mother talking to her friends in Chinatown and how happy that made her. I smiled, knowing that I am happy too because of this amazing language I speak that has brought me closer to everything I have wanted. I hope other American-born Chinese kids can stick to their native tongue and learn to appreciate it lovingly, like the rest of the residents that find comfort in their own language and culture in Chinatown.

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    Fall 2011 Issue


    Immigration, Youth, and Education
    Editors’ Introduction
    Soojin S. Oh and North Cooc
    The Power of Context
    State-Level Policies and Politics and the Educational Performance of the Children of Immigrants in the United States
    Alexandra Filindra, David Blanding, and Cynthia Garcia Coll
    Growing Up in the Shadows
    The Developmental Implications of Unauthorized Status
    Carola Suárez-Orozco, Hirokazu Yoshikawa, Robert T. Teranishi, and Marcelo M. Suárez-Orozco
    “Because We Feel the Pressure and We Also Feel the Support”
    Examining the Educational Success of Undocumented Immigrant Latina/o Students
    Things I’ll Never Say
    Stories of Growing Up Undocumented in the United States
    Undocumented to Hyperdocumented
    A Jornada of Protection, Papers, and PhD Status
    Whose Deficit Is This Anyhow?
    Exploring Counter-Stories of Somali Bantu Refugees’ Experiences in “Doing School”
    Toward a Pedagogy of Acompañamiento
    Mexican Migrant Youth Writing from the Underside of Modernity
    Elementary Forms of Cosmopolitanism
    Blood, Birth, and Bodies in Immigrant New York City
    Maria Kromidas

    Book Notes

    Immigrants Raising Citizens
    Hirokazu Yoshikawa

    Balancing Acts
    Natasha K. Warikoo

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