Arthur and I both grew up in a Chinese family in a western culture and I think we benefitted from that a lot. We see that as we work and as we become adults and have kids. We like to say we are bicultural: Born in Hong Kong but raised in Vancouver.
Arthur moved to Canada when he was 9, I was 5, as part of the so called 97 movement. It marks the moment Hong Kong was returned to China.
We would like our kids to have the same chances we’ve had. There is a huge Chinese population in Vancouver, so it’s actually really easy to have two cultures from the start. I find it much harder to be bicultural in the UK. You just aren’t.
Chinatown is a very interesting cultural phenomenon. I think in the western world lots of big cities have such a place. How do I explain this? It is almost touristy. I believe for culture to be really integrated in family life it’s about it being everywhere. In Vancouver or Toronto it’s part of your local life. We don’t have a Chinatown, there’s simply pockets of Chinese people everywhere.
It sounds like you can stumble upon Chinese things in Vancouver whereas in London it is more concentrated in a touristy show off world.
Exactly, and that’s what I’m missing: To stumble over things randomly. To find Chinese food - randomly. To find the decorations I need for Chinese New Year - randomly. In London I have to plan for it.
Apart from Chinese New Year, mid-Autumn festival is a big deal. It is sort of the eastern version of Thanksgiving. It is very light weight. There are lanterns for the kids, we read a poem, but we try to not just do the big things and have Chinese culture in our daily lives.
On Friendships and Family
We don’t have family in London. It makes me feel a little silo-ed. It makes sense: With our move to London we’ve lost a lot of our roots and a lot of our grounding. It was fun when it was just Arthur and me but now that we’re a family we desire those roots. For me that’s healthy, too. We’re trying to create them for our children and feel a lot better in London. It is starting to happen.
What kept you from developing roots earlier?
You need time. It’s investment, right? You need time as an individual and London needs time as a place, too. In part it’s also the capital’s lifestyle that keeps you busy.
I always compare my time in London to my time in Vancouver. In Vancouver I was busy with lots of social commitments. In London the opposite happens, I find that we have more time to ourselves. I still have to find the right balance. It’s great to spend so much time as a family and I love it. But I also want to have more external influences.
I think the Chinese culture has very strong family values, which I’d like my children to have growing up, too. I’m very close to my family and you learn a lot about responsibility: Responsibility towards your sister, responsibility for your parents, be close to each other, care for and have family gatherings. This holistic approach is very Chinese to me.
How often do you manage to go back home?
It is quite a treck and it’s become tricky because I would like to go back once a year but we probably won’t be going as often anymore. Monetary issues aside, it’s the jet lag that’s really hard to cope with.
It would be great if our parents could come and stay with us. I think especially now that our daughter is a bit older and understands things a bit better, I’d like her to see our extended family as part of our life. When she’s older, I would love her to involve me in her life as well so I need to lead by example.
A Window of Opportunity
Do you speak to your children in Cantonese Chinese exclusively?
Yes, but I am also keen for our children to pick up Mandarin. Part of me is thinking “why not?” and at the same time it’s pretty useful.
Our daughter’s Chinese is a lot better than her English. We understand her really well in Chinese. She goes to nursery and will get her English there.
How did you learn Chinese? You said you moved to Vancouver when you were five?
I was five and my brother was one and a half. That made a huge difference. He wasn’t exposed to Chinese as much as I was in his early years so his Chinese enunciation is different to mine.
My parents took him to Chinese School, just like they did with me, but I already had Chinese friends and was into Chinese pop culture, I used to read Chinese comics, and sing pop songs at Karaoke. It wasn’t the main reason I learned Chinese but it helped a lot. It has nothing to do with formal education, I was simply exposed to it a lot more at a much younger age.
I believe there is this window of opportunity for exposing children to the sounds of your language in the early years that is hard to catch up on if missed.
Is pronunciation something important to you?
Yes and no. If my daughter develops an accent, it's fine. For me it is a "nice to have" not a "must have". The use of words, the range of vocabulary, the ability to read are all more important to me.
Arthur and I both speak Cantonese and we can integrate it easily in our daily life. But the actual teaching of a language? I’m unsure how we’ll manage that.
We aren’t great at writing Chinese ourselves and we didn’t need it growing up. It’s important to be able to read, but to actually write Chinese is almost a different skill altogether.
We need to consider: Do they really need to learn how to write with their hands? At the same time it would also be kind of sad to lose that. Is writing an essential skill to have or aren’t there other aspects of our culture we should prioritise?
How do you learn to read without writing and vice versa?
It’s possible. We have to remember: We’re first generation Chinese. They are second generation. We grew up in an environment that had a lot of Chinese in it. Our children are so far removed from it, I think it will be a challenge.
Facing Identity Issues
Do you worry that your children will have issues with their identity?
Not really. Every kid has them growing up. It’s going to happen and we’ll have to deal with it when it happens.
I had them myself. I always felt I was on the border: Am I Chinese? Am I Canadian? I had lots of issues with that. I think my children - if they end up growing up in London - will grow up in a predominantly Western culture and in a way this will be easier than what I had to deal with. I was literally stuck in the middle. In terms of identity they will probably have it less hard than I did. Our core family will be more Chinese but they won’t face that conflict between Chinese and Western friends the way I did. Our daughter will just be one Chinese girl among many other nationalities.
Are you and your husband speaking Cantonese Chinese between the two of you?
Yes and no. When we came to the UK our Chinese declined. We didn’t have Chinese speaking friends and would speak English all day long. For us it was easier because we talked about work a lot, too, and in this context you use the English terminology anyways.
Our Chinese has improved a lot again thanks to the children. If it’s work stuff and we’re having dinner as a family, we try to say it in Chinese but this has proven a real challenge. There are new terms I wish to say in Chinese, but even Chinese people use English words for it!
And there's another challenge: When I’m in Hong Kong and meet my friends from Canada, I’m fine. But if I meet a Hong Kong local I’m in trouble. There are things like slang that are very cultural and very much tied to an era, a particular time in life. My dad who works in Hong Kong as a consultant is much more into the lingo than I am.
I love languages. They are constantly evolving. It’s not always something you can put down in writing, it is something that needs to be experienced.
On finding the right materials and activities
How do you source materials?
It’s hard to buy them. I usually get my dad to buy them for me when he’s in Hong Kong or China. I ask my parents to get me bits and bobs. We went back to Hong Kong a couple of years ago ourselves and I picked up simple things here and there.
Many of the resources we have are not beautiful or useful enough. That’s how we decided to create an app. It uses words that you would use everyday and rather than having flash cards we’re integrating them in a story so children can learn them applied in context. Within the story kids can look at the key words and play with combining them in a sentence to read out loud. We try to integrate fun elements, too. There are different animals, themes such as playing football or trying to solve a puzzle. We’re probably going to launch the second versions sometime in June.
Is there a sort of Chinese library in London? A centre where you can get or exchange things?
There are a few but I haven’t explored this too much. There are quite a few mums like me who are trying to create initiatives or playgroups.
There is a Mandarin nursery at the Barbican. It’s fully immersive but because we speak Chinese at home we don’t feel it’s as important to us right now. I think when our daughter is older we’d want her to go to Chinese school or find some additional learning opportunities.
What can be done to make life easier for you?
It’s difficult to have one good place to find resources. If apps such as Hoop had a Chinese language filter and Chinese initiatives got their act together and would post on a central directory like that, it would be amazing because it would make it easier to find. Even I probably don’t know half the things happening out there. To have a place where all that is collected would be great and simplify my life massively.