Sunday, May 31, 2009

Raising bilingual children

I came here to the States when I was 2 months shy of 5 years old. My mom had the foresight to teach me to read and write Korean before we immigrated. I began kindergarten three months after setting foot here, knowing not a lick of English. I dropped Korean and adopted English as my language of choice within a few years though; you know what is your primary language when you do your times tables in that language and when you actually think your thoughts in that language -- mine's English.

Thankfully (although I resented it at the time) my grandmother came to live with us when I was 12, and since I commuted from home to college and continued living at home until the day I got married, I had a good 12 years of Korean immersion during which I also had the good fortune of studying one semester of basic Korean at Berkeley.

My parents and my in-laws can speak English well, although not fluently, so it's not absolutely crucial for my kids to learn to speak Korean in order to communicate effectively with their grandparents. However, I just personally feel that, like it or not, if you've got an Asian face, the world will pretty much expect you to speak some Asian language, most likely the one from whom your forefathers came. And at least one study has shown that growing up bilingually gives an IQ boost. And finally, I've got a dear friend (1/2 Japanese, 1/2 white) who can speak fluent Japanese thanks to her mother, although she grew up in California, went to American public schools, and had a father who doesn't speak a word of Japanese. I figure if she can do it, then my kids can too. So that's why I decided my children will speak Korean as well as English. And for free too -- no special classes to send them to, just do it at home.

As I said earlier, I think in English. Unguarded, the first words that pop out of my mouth are invariably English. When I speak Korean, I must first think the thought out in English, and then translate into Korean. It's a laborious process (at least in my mind) and I wish I didn't have to do that. But it's something that I set my mind to do from the very beginning. And we all know that with raising kids, consistency is key, no matter what the issue.

So from Day One, I spoke only Korean with my kids. I did this from Day One because I know it's almost impossible to speak one language with them for three or four years and then suddenly decide that we're going to speak a new language every day all day long. And the many words I didn't know in Korean? I just threw in the English words, but kept the sentence structure Korean. ("Umma-ga reach mot-hae" for "Mommy can't reach," "Oori freeway taja" for "Let's ride the freeway," etc.) So their vocabulary isn't so good, but their basic sentences are pretty good, as are their accents. I've even gotten comments from fluent native-speaking Koreans that my kids speak Korean better than their mommy does, and they're always surprised when they find out that mommy's the one that's been teaching them everything they know about the Korean language.

My husband, unfortunately, doesn't support me in this endeavor as much as I'd like him to. He doesn't oppose me speaking Korean with them, but he would rather converse in English with them; he says he feels closer to them when he speaks his primary language, English. Ironically, he lived in Korea from 5th grade all the way up until college, so his Korean is so much better than mine, but I dare say that he feels like his relationship with his parents (which is very good) could've been even closer if they shared the same primary language. So although his Korean is better than mine, unfortunately my kids are stuck with learning Korean from me.

(My husband and I speak English with each other (he and I agree that it feels absolutely silly to speak Korean to each other), and so our kids are exposed to English every single day. And despite my reluctance to communicate with them in any language other than Korean, their English skills have not suffered a single bit. My firstborn can read chapter books in English at the second grade level and she hasn't begun kindergarten yet. And she has absolutely no accent in either language. (Yes, I'm just a teensy weensy bit proud of her.) Jury's still out on my secondborn -- she's only three, so her Korean is still much stronger than her English, but she's moving along a similar trajectory as her sister.)

I know that this chapter will probably close soon though. My Korean skills are probably no better than a kindergartener's, and there will soon come a day when the level of sophistication in my conversation with my kids will need to be much higher than my Korean language skills can handle. I'm a little sad at the prospect, because that probably means that there's a good chance that by the time they're in middle school they will only know how to say their name in Korean. But we'll have to cross that bridge when we get there. Until then, I speak to them in Korean and insist that they speak to me back in Korean.

One big fear that I have about raising my kids bilingually is that I'm putting an artificial burden on my relationship with my children. You know how they say that it's very important to keep the lines of communication open, especially when they're going through those difficult years? Am I setting myself up for alienation between me and my kids? And the other big fear that I have is have I set up my kids for alienation from their peers at school? Right now they're in preschool, but there and elsewhere in public I insist on speaking in Korean with them, even in front of others. In a couple of years they probably will be embarrassed by me, and their classmates might also make fun of them for speaking a "ching-chong oriental" language. Am I doing the right thing?

*sigh* How can doing the right thing (according to the studies I'm boosting my kids' IQ for free!) be fraught with so many potential drawbacks? It makes me question whether I'm doing the right thing or not, but I'm given encouragement every time I hear somebody say that they wish their parents had taught them the language of their forefathers.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Ten years and one week

I've now been married for ten years and one week. Boy, what a ride! Two days after our wedding we went on our weeklong honeymoon to Hawaii. As soon as we got back, we went on our weeklong drive across the country to live in Michigan. Lived there for 3.5 years while Sam finished up his PhD, and then lived in Illinois for 3.5 years where we became parents to two beautiful baby girls (two years apart), and then came back to California three years and a few weeks ago.

That first year was horrible -- I won't sugarcoat it. We were both young and immature, and still had a lot of growing up to do. Here I was, never having ever left the comfort of home for more than three weeks at a time, suddenly moving across the country where I knew not a single soul except for this poor husband of mine, who I expected to not only sweep me off my feet every day, but also entertain me, sing and dance for me, and put the toilet seat back down. Every day. And what in the world is all this football and basketball he's watching? Never when we were dating did he ever mention being a sports fan. Needless to say, neither of us really enjoyed that first year. But never -- not once -- did I ever regret having married him.

But you know what, after that first year, it got so much better. I learned to give him space and not harp on him, and he learned to not ask for so much space, and even began to harp on me. *laugh* And although he doesn't sweep me off my feet every single day, this man of mine (who grew up with no sisters) does consistently put the toilet seat back down. And you know what else? He planned a little weekend getaway for our anniversary.

We drove 50 miles east to my parents' house to drop off the kids. And then we drove 100 miles WEST (50 miles back, past the house, and then kept going another 50 miles) to spend the night in the city. We had sushi for dinner (some of the best we've had in a long time), shared two desserts that we didn't have to share with two dessert-hungry kids, and then went to sleep whenever we felt like it. The next morning we woke up whenever we felt like it, then had dim sum for brunch, walked around Chinatown and Union Square for a while, and then had frozen yogurt before going back to pick up the kids. After the kids finished napping, we took my parents out to a Thai restaurant for dinner. (My dad loves peanuts and had never tried Thai food!) We had a good dinner, then went back to their place to watch some basketball (okay, my husband watched), and then trekked 50 miles back to our house.

It was a good 10 years, and it was a good weekend to celebrate our 10 years. And would I do it over again? In a heartbeat. Even that first year. Because I know it's not the end of the story -- it's just the beginning.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

A funny story about a boy at preschool

I work at a local preschool, and today I was weeding in the sandbox as the kids were playing, and had gathered a small pile of weeds on the concrete next to the sandbox. A little boy came to me, selected a little weed from the pile, and carefully planted it back into the sand, making a little hole in the sand for the root and then gathering the sand up around the weed so that it'll stand upright.

Just thought I'd share it with you.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Cherry picking

Last night I was a little disappointed because a few friends were planning on going strawberry and cherry picking today, and because I teach piano on Saturday mornings from 10-11, I couldn't go.

This morning I was a little disappointed because I remembered that I had to stay home and teach while my friends are picking fruit with their children. Oh well, I decided to just chill until my students came over, teach, and then just hang out at home for the rest of the day. I offered for my husband to take the kids and go -- that way they'll get to see fruit in their native state, enjoy a little bit of daddy-bonding time, and I'll get to teach in peace. He declined, preferring instead to just go to the gym.

Well, 10:15am and they're still not here. My husband is almost out the door with the girls to go to the gym, but before they leave, I gave my students a call, and it turns out that the mom forgot to tell me that they can't make it today. I'm a little disappointed now because my friends are out picking fruit with their children and I'm sitting at home NOT teaching piano. I'm *almost* mad at the mom for forgetting to tell me, but I remember that just a few weeks ago I had forgotten completely about teaching piano altogether and had flaked on them, leaving them to sit on my porch for an hour while I was at the gym with my husband and kids. I would like to say that it was the first week of this schedule, so I hadn't gotten into the habit of having something on Saturday mornings, but still. I flaked on them and felt horrible. So I guess I shouldn't feel so mad that they didn't tell me until the last minute, although I could have made plans to go fruit picking had I known earlier.

Oh well, let's go anyway!!

So in record time we got the kids dressed (it's forecast for mid-high 90s today), found a couple of beach buckets (for the kids to hold their own cherries), packed a million gallons of water, slapped on some sunblock, and out we went. It's too late for strawberries (they said they'd get to the cherry orchard around 10:30-11am) so we went straight to the cherry orchard. We didn't see any of our friends there except for one other family that missed the strawberry picking too. I guess I could've been a little disappointed that we didn't get to see them, but oh well. Who says that fruit must be picked in the company of friends? Yeah, it would've been nice to see them, but we had our buckets, we had our water, we had our beautiful girls, and we had our camera. And we had sushi for lunch, after feasting on cherries all morning long.

Windmills on the drive along Vasco Road

The lovely Elizabeth

The cute Abigail


And I shouldn't leave out...
The bicep!

And you know what? I wasn't disappointed at all.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

How do you tell a sweet little girl that you're not from Japan?

Today a six-year-old girl, I'll call her "Jane," looked me straight in the eye, and said "Konichiwa." She was, I'm sure, showing me in her own little way that she knows a little something about a culture outside of her family's experience. I'm sure any Japanese person would have been delighted that a blonde-haired girl said hello in Japanese. However, we're not Japanese -- we're Korean. In the mind of many Koreans, to be confused with a Japanese is akin to a Jew being confused with a German. Sure, we look similar. Sure, to the untrained eye (and even to many "trained" eyes) all Asians look alike. Just like blondes all look alike. (Trust me -- I'm really bad at telling people apart! Ask my husband -- I can never get any actors' names right.) And I'm not saying that I've got any particular quarrel with the Japanese -- not at all. This is just for context. Anyhoo...

I've met her parents, and they're not bigots by any means. To her parents' credit, she does know how to greet Japanese people in their language -- shows she's broadening her horizons, learning about cultures other than the one in her home. But how do you tell a sweet little girl that you're not from Japan, that you're from Korea, and the two are not the same?

Jane: Konichiwa.
me: Oh, you said "hello" in Japanese! That's great! But you know what, we're not from Japan, we're from Korea.
Jane: Konichiwa.


I was thinking about this little conversation on the way home, trying to figure out how to explain this to a little girl, or actually anybody, that it's not cool to expect Asians to speak any other Asian language than their own. It's a totally innocent mistake, but still, one that gets on my nerves. I've had to explain this to classmates ever since I was in second grade, I think. And I'm sure some of them still don't get it. And you know what, it won't stop with my generation. I'm pretty sure that my kids will have to deal with the same thing as they grow up. Elizabeth has already told me once or twice that people have called her Chinese. And even after she corrected them and said that she's not Chinese, that she's Korean, they still insisted she's Chinese.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Nut allergy

Elizabeth was diagnosed with a nut allergy last year. For the most part it doesn't really affect our day-to-day lives since I'm not a huge nut fan, although I do appreciate a good candy-covered nut once in a while. But it's not something that I insist on eating, and frankly I could go my entire life without tasting a nut and I'll be fine with that.

Elizabeth hasn't had an anaphylactic reaction where her throat closes shut and she stops breathing, but she has broken out in hives and complained about her mouth hurting. The allergist has told us to keep an EpiPen around at all times, just for that reason. It's a prescription that hopefully we'll never ever have to use, but it's there, for that slim chance that we might need it.

I'm generally good about checking for nuts when I give food to Elizabeth, and she's generally good about reading the ingredient list as well. And if something has nuts in it, she knows to avoid it, even if it's a tempting treat that everybody else is happily munching on.

Recently I realized that Indian food (one of my husband's favorites) commonly contains nuts, so we're very careful to ask about everything that we order when we go out to eat.

And on Friday we had a potluck lunch at the girls' preschool, and once again, we were careful to ask about the common offenders. Thankfully the suspect items (a banana muffin and an Indian dish) were homemade, so the parents were able to say that the food that they brought didn't have nuts in them, and I was able to give the girls a taste of each.

Unfortunately there was an offender that I didn't know about until after Elizabeth ate it all up. It was a sandwich. The bread was a sweet Hawaiian roll (nut-free), and the filling looked like it was a tuna or chicken salad (apparently nut-free, at least in all of my previous sandwich-eating experience). I'm not a sandwich-type of person, especially for potlucks, but I know the girls will eat them, so I put one on each of their plates.

Elizabeth ate all of hers up, along with everything else on her plate, and she said her tongue tickled. I asked her if it felt like an allergic reaction and she said it didn't, so I just let it go. And then Abigail ate about 2/3 of everything on her plate, so I finished off her food, including half her sandwich. (Yeah, that's how I get my seconds at buffets now.) A few bites into the sandwich I realized there's some texture in there that's a little different from your typical sandwich filling, so I took a closer look and realized that there are chopped almonds in there.

Folks, I just fed my nut-allergic daughter a chopped almond sandwich.

Thankfully her only reaction was the tickly tongue, but it could easily have become a much more dire situation. I don't know much about allergic reactions other than what the allergist and a few allergic-children's-parent-friends have told me, but I have been told that a reaction to nuts that involves the face or mouth can easily become a reaction that involves the airway closing shut.

And that scares the crap out of me.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Happy birthday, honey!

Today is my husband's birthday. Won't tell you how old he's turning today though.

I'm picking him up from work in Tracy, about 25 minutes to the east of us. And then we're going up north another 30 minutes to Stockton to eat dinner at The Old Spaghetti Factory (haven't been in years!) and then drop off the kids with my grandparents. And then after that, who knows what we'll do. I know, it sounds like so much fun. Probably we'll end up going to Borders, sip coffee, and read magazines across the table from each other while not saying a single word to each other, close the place down, and then see a movie. Maybe. What an adventure, huh?