My four-year-old daughter, Xun — her name means wind in Chinese — started attending the universal pre-k program at the Bugbee Children’s Center on SUNY-Oneonta’s campus.
One day, she took home her first big school project, “All About Me,” looking somewhat distressed. “What’s going on, baby?” I inquired, sensing that something might have happened at the center.
“Dad, am I an American?” Wow, an identity crisis of some sort already, I thought to myself. She was born an American. “Why do you ask, baby?” “My friends in school said that I am not an American. They said that I am Chinese.” Oh, one of those recurring situations so familiar to so many immigrants.
“What do you think, baby?” I asked.
“I am an American just like everybody else.” Her certainty reassured me so that I felt a little better.
“How do you know, baby?” I pressed on.
After a brief pause, she said, “Because I speak English.”
She was a loquacious girl, fluent in both English and Chinese. So I asked her again.
“But you also speak Chinese, baby.”
Without any hesitation, she said, “Then, I am also a Chinese.” I took a black marker and wrote in block letters on her “All About Me” poster:
“I AM BILINGUAL.”
She paid close attention while I was writing. “Bi- means two, and lingual means language. Bilingual together means a person who can speak two languages.” I explained to her.
“Do you like one or two pencils?” I asked her, knowing so well what her answer would be since she was an avid pencil collector then.
“Two, of course!” She exclaimed with excitement.
“Well, if two pencils are certainly better than one, then two languages are better than one as well, right?” I prodded.
It worked. Back to her care-free self again, she skipped happily around the house like a breeze, holding her Dora, the Explorer, shouting rhythmically, “I- am- bi-lin-gual! I- am- bi-lin-gual! … …” She even learned how to spell “bilingual” and understood its meaning. For quite a while, she retained its spelling. Even if she later on might have forgotten the word momentarily, the concept stayed with her, especially the concept that two languages are better than one.
Language is a huge part of a person’s identity; we are what we speak. Language is not only a carrier of culture, but also its cultural crystallization. To assimilate new immigrants into the United States, English is of necessity so that they can communicate and make contributions to the American society; simultaneously, to keep their rich cultural heritage, they need to use their own native languages respectively.
According to the Washington Post, 20 percent of Americans, roughly 63 million, can speak in two or more languages, whereas this number for Europeans is 56 percent, and for the entire world population it is estimated to be 50 percent at least. According to data from the Kids Count Data Center, as of 2016, 22 percent of American children, slightly more than 12 million, are bilingual who can speak a language other than English at home.
Being bilingual, Xun not only acquired the best out of two distinct cultures, she also doubled the ways in which she could help her neighbor. When she was six, she went back with the family to China to spend the summer as we normally do at least every two years if not every year. The Chinese school was still in session for one more month, so I made arrangements for her to attend first grade in an elementary school for the duration. Her fluent English and her stories about her life in America in general and her experiences in kindergarten in particular fascinated the Chinese children, and she instantly became the center of attention, a tiny American cultural ambassador and firm clapback against the schoolchildren who once taunted her as un-American.
As a second grader in America, her bilingual ability was called for to help solve a school emergency. One day, a boy from Taiwan came to her school with little English. His father was invited by the local university to serve as a visiting scholar for a year and he wasn’t as bilingual as Xun. His classroom teacher couldn’t communicate with him at all, so she asked Xun for assistance.
The old adage that “two is better than one” is even more true when it comes to language because it conscripts people into a form of service that binds communities and limits exclusion. Without Xun, that young boy may have felt alienated and confused. But with Xun and her two languages, he was understood and included.
Xun’s bilingualism made her third-grade project on China more appealing than maybe it should have been; it attracted quite a few visitors, including community and PTA members. She shared her personal experiences and knowledge about China with them together with her teachers and classmates, and she even spoke a few Chinese words as examples. Her China flag and photos of inviting landscapes, the Great Wall, foods and customs became relatable to people who never entered the country. It wasn’t the posterboard but the little girl who had pasted those paper lessons on it, she with the tiny legs that learned to keep one foot in each of two cultures, that drew in the audience. Bilingualism adds dimensions to people.
Seven years to the day from when she learned the word “bilingual,” Xun graduated from the Greater Plains Elementary School in Oneonta, New York. Named the salutatorian of her class, Xun gave a speech. A stool lifted her tiny mouth to the microphone, as the audience watched the top of her head — that was all they could see, even with the stool’s assistance — and spoke. I don’t even remember anything that she said because I was so overwhelmed by it. I just remember carrying home for her a presidential award signed by President Barack Obama and one from the New York State Comptroller.
I’m her father so each day I’ve spent with her assured me that she’s brilliant. But what blighted my memory that day was the way that my daughter’s duality that drew in otherwise dispassionate onlookers. I know that it’s the multitudes that exist within her that allowed her as a girl — one of the little people so bombarded with negating messages daily about their intelligence, their faces, their bodies, their identities that’s it’s a wonder they can still stand up, much less stand tall — to have the confidence to succeed unapologetically.
Xun’s now a Political Science major at UIUC, and will take a Chinese class to better her character writing. Like any young adult, she will question her identity — all immigrants do in this country. But she’ll always be living proof that two languages are better than one, especially for children.
Hanfu Mi is a Professor of Literacy Education and Linguistics and a former Dean at the University of Illinois at Springfield, and a Public Voices Fellow of The OpEd Project.