How will Chinese as the “it” language of the day affect Asians in the US?

I include the trailer for Speaking in Tongues because although the bilingual education debate in the United States is usually focused around Spanish speakers, the filmmakers chose to emphasize Mandarin and Cantonese and play into viewers’ perceptions of Chinese as an increasingly valuable language.

One great thing ethnography is that you never really know what you’re going to find once you get into the field. I’ve started doing fieldwork for my project on weekend Chinese schools in Los Angeles (there’s a less jargon-y description of the project on this blog and a more academic one on my professional page) and I’ve discovered that what I had assumed to be an “ethnic” space is now increasingly becoming diverse and multi-ethnic. At one school I’m visiting, there are parent-administrators who don’t speak Chinese at all!

I was surprised to see the number of white, black, Latino, and non-Chinese Asian students in these schools, but perhaps I should have expected it. After all, Chinese is the new “it” language in the United States. The demand for Chinese language courses might not be framed as a need to learn the language of the “enemy,” like Arabic post-9/11 or Russian during the Cold War, but there is a definite sense that learning Chinese and understanding China is an economic and political imperative.

At least in some more privileged circles, Chinese is no longer the stigmatized ching-chong language of the past. Even if most Americans continue to think the language exotic and opaque, there’s a growing recognition that this is not just the gibberish they speak in the kitchen at Golden Dragon Palace–it’s a real language attached to a real culture of global importance, and Americans have to learn it to keep up.

How is this recognition of Chinese as an important global language changing the status of Asians and Asian Americans in this country? (I don’t specify Chinese and Chinese Americans because even with the increasing recognition of Chinese and China as a separate entity, I think Asians are still going to be painted with the same broad brush.) Perhaps this will lead to greater inter-cultural understanding and more curiosity about the cultures that Asian immigrants bring to this country. Perhaps it will lead to greater empathy for the struggles that non-English-speaking immigrants face in navigating an English-only world. Perhaps it will lead to less bullying of Asian American children who don’t speak English well and slow down Asian American communities’ rapid heritage language loss.

Or, perhaps this will exacerbate the perpetual foreigner problem that Asian Americans continue to face (most recently highlighted by talk of Jeremy Lin becoming a diplomatic asset). Perhaps this recognition of Chinese as an important language is so highly stratified by socioeconomic class that children of working-class Asian immigrants are not going to experience the benefits of any increase in understanding on the part of the middle and upper classes. Perhaps this is merely a coastal phenomenon, or even just a California or Los Angeles phenomenon, and extrapolating to the more culturally homogeneous parts of the country is dangerous and problematic.

Chinese might not be the best or most useful language for American children to learn. New York Times columnist Nick Kristof argues that “primero hay que aprender español, 然後再學中文”. In any case, I’m glad to see a growing recognition in the US of the need to learn languages other than English.

To all the Chinese learners out there, I say: good luck and 加油! Remember that Chinese is not necessarily a “foreign” language–it is spoken by millions of people in the US, and millions more in other Western countries.


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