Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Hello, I am ESL

So I technically passed the assessment for ESL (English second language) in elementary school even though English was indeed my second language. I can still vividly remember going to Montessori when I was five for my first day at American school. Like a distant dream, I can see a cloud of white with two distinct figures as the camera focuses in... me pointing to my fuzzy Sanrio stickers on my 80's neon pink Jem lunchbox (I don't remember, so I made it up cuz Jem was so cool) while some round eyed little Caucasian girl with yellow hair pointed back at it. When she opened her mouth to speak, out came jibberish to which I nodded and thought in Mandarin, huh?

I would walk back home with my yeye who came to pick me up everyday after school, telling him about my day in my native tongue, Mandarin. I didn't realize I was different. I didn't realize I didn't speak the language. I was oblivious. Saturday morning cartoons (I wasn't allowed to watch TV from Monday - Friday after school) were recorded and re-watched over and over and somewhere along the way, I must have started speaking English. Broken English, tainted with bad grammar, incorrect tenses and made up words. It didn't matter. I was speaking Engrish.

When I started elementary school at Camino Grove in the middle of first grade, the other Asian Chinese kids I met would inform me of my horrible English, make fun of my use of "funner" (it's not a word Daisy!) and bully me into showing them my report card full of checkmarks for needs improvement as it related to sentence structure, grammar, use of words, use of the English language, etc. What little self-esteem I had plummeted and I wished so badly that I got it, but man was English hard. Just so hard.

The leader of the Asian pack , Jade Chien, had thick pink rimmed glasses and a matching string to keep 'em close by and an obnoxious know-it-all voice that made me shiver with extreme fear. She was just awful. After getting my green grapes (the ones my mum packed for me in ziploc bag) and other snacks (I somehow only remember the green grapes, my mum took 'em off of the stems) taken from a daily game of "Do what I say Slave!" from Jade and her entourage (yes, even at the age of eight, it is possible), I hungered for something to munch on, ravenous for anything before dinner when my parents picked me up at 6 everyday (I was enrolled in this after school Chinese school program from 3 - 6 PM). My mum soon noticed and wondered why the snacks she prepared for me were not sufficient. I quickly fibbed and told her I was sharing with my friends (cuz sharing is caring, right?). She gently told me that was fine but since these snacks were a token of her love for me, I should be careful not to share it all and eat some myself. I attempted this logic with Jade but got lost in her rebuttal and ended up without grapes and my other snacks once more.

To make a long story short (and because the long version is in the form of my creative college thesis entitled Growing Up ABC), I got bullied some more to the point where my mum eventually quit her job and opted for something part time so she could pick me up from school at 3 PM and take me home, where I got all the snacks I wanted, a lot more free time for extracurricular activities like piano, dance, various crafty art classes, and trips to the library for a lot of books to read. As for Chinese school, I was part of the lucky crew of Asian kiddos who went on Saturday morning from 9 - 12 (yes, I sacrificed my Saturday morning cartoons, Saved by the Bell and California Dreams).

Since we lived three blocks from a tiny library about 1000 sq feet since I was six, trips to the library were once every 2-3 days and I poured myself into the reality found in these books, finding myself reading books until 2 or 3 AM for most of my elementary school existence. A good book (by my standards) had to be finished ASAP! I could not wait to come home from school the next day to finish it!

And then, in the fourth grade, I miraculously got it. English that is (I mean, to the extent that I got it today...which is not to say fully, but a huge improvement compared to my ESL days). And I attribute "getting it" to all the books I read.

I have been thinking about all of this because 1) I recently went to the library for the first time since college (which doesn't really count since you go there to study and look for studious cute guys), 2) I want to teach my son Chinese - be it Mandarin or Cantonese and 3) I need to start making some parental changes to my routine with Jordan to incorporate both 1 and 2.

Okay, so I know the cards are against me in terms of raising Jordan with trilingual capabilities considering I don't speak a lick of Cantonese, Andy speaks some Mandarin and both of us are fairly proficient in English (again, read above, maybe not so much on my part). But as I was walking around the library this last weekend, looking for some books, I got to thinking....

This is an environment I feel very comfortable in. Even with a different library, in a different town, with different catalogue and check-out tools (technology these days is insane!), it's the same quiet and safe comfort of the library that I felt so many years ago. And even when I was a smidgen away from being "ESL," the books I read, or poured over (be it not exactly literary masterpieces, more like lots of Sweet Valley High, Babysitter's Club, R.L.Stine, V.C. Andrews, Mary Higgins Clark, Judy Blume and Roald Dahl) helped me. Who would have thought, right?

So I really should try to take Jordan to the library more, give him a sanctuary like I had growing up and also, these recipe books and craft books are something worth checking out! This then got me thinking about opportunities with learning a language. Yes, being trilingual or even bilingual are very difficult tasks to accomplish, but if I don't even try... I won't have done my parents any justice.

I know I may face defeat, that my son may refuse to speak Mandarin or Cantonese in fear of being "weird" and not American (much of us Asian kids went through this identity crisis growing up), or that he may not have enough examples or native speakers around to learn from, but if I don't even try.... I have given up without a fight. And if I am ESL and can learn to love reading and feel completely comfortable immersed in an American library full of English books.... well the sky's the limit right?

Hello, I'm ESL... hopefully it will come in handy when I try to help my son be CSL.

1 comment:

bruinjack said...

You are so smart! Now is totally the time to learn both languages. I was reading that their language skills in both languages may slack for a while, but they will catch up in both in a couple of years. And this sets them up to be better learners. And you'd be amazed at how quickly the young ones can pick up a second language. My son hasn't seen my mom in months but still uses some Mandarin. And I think it really creates for them a love for words. I wish I had been less worried about being made fun of by other kids when I had the opportunity to learn. You should check out "Superbaby: 12 Ways to Give Your Child a Head Start" by Jennifer Berman. You can check it out from the library!