By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
Outside Jing Mei Elementary School, there are Chinese characters inscribed in wooden pillars. Inside the office, a map of virtues in Chinese and English is displayed for visitors to pore over.
Tina Bogucharova, Jing Mei’s principal, embodies this kind of mixing of languages and cultures. She moved to California with her parents from Taiwan at the age of 11 and immediately felt embarassed.
“My earliest encounters were not positive,” she said. “The burden was on us, the kids [to communicate]. It was very embarrassing. The phone would ring and my mom would say it was the PGA [utility] guys on the phone and she would shove the phone in my face, and I would have to explain she doesn’t speak English. Or at the doctor’s office or the supermarket, I would say, ‘Mom, don’t scream Chinese. It’s so embarrassing.’”
Bogucharova wore a floral dress and speaks English fluently, with an American accent. With degrees in psychology, Chinese literature, and an Master of Arts in the pedagogy of teaching Chinese speakers, she is equipped to handle the mix of students in her school speaking various levels of Chinese, from Chinese mixed with English to pure Chinese.
As two young kids dart into her office, lunch trays in hand, one of them satirically said, “Why are you wearing pa-jah-muhs?”
Without a pause, Bogucharova responds, in oversimplified Chinese, so they can understand. “Zhege bushi pajamas. Zhege shi dress.”
She believes that the ability to speak two languages, and to switch at will between them, conveys a sense of power.
“I’m not placing a value on power in itself,” she explained. “But I do place value on knowing your own native language and the power it has to help you preserve your culture and traditions.”
Such power might also remove the greatest obstacle to adjusting to a new culture.
As Bogucharova did as a child, immigrants can experience significant anxiety when moving to a new country.
Newness and anxiety
“There is a type of anxiety that could be linked directly to being in a new country,” said Jonathan Goodman, a psychotherapist who practices in Seattle, “with new laws, a new language (one that they might not be proficient at), and cultural differences.”
“This is not PTSD, but it can result in significant anxiety in its own right,” he added. “It may not be linked directly to a trauma, but it can be linked to long-standing situational stressors and can therefore become both chronic and quite significant in nature.”
Kenna Chick, a Collegiate Mental Health Innovation Council Member at Georgetown University, added that children of immigrant parents, in particular, carry tremendous social and emotional burdens.
“To be the child of an immigrant means growing up faster,” she wrote in a blog post for Mental Health America, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the mental health of Americans.
“To be the child of an immigrant means taking responsibility for your family,” she adds. “To be the child of an immigrant is to carry the hopes and dreams of your lineage.”
Learning to process between two languages and cultures seems a way not only to ease this anxiety, but to propel students to greater heights of adaptability and success in their new country.
“It’s not just about learning Chinese,” said Bogurachova. “I could be offering Spanish or French. What matters is the development of cerebral flexibility so they can immerse in a bilingual environment as the norm.”
“If they go to work in Germany, for instance, monolingual kids have a culture shock when they go abroad,” she explained. “At Jing Mei, it’s not just about learning the language, we want to reset the norm for the kids — a bilingual environment is the norm.”
Dennis Su, a prominent architect and president of the Greater Seattle Chinese Chamber of Commerce, is another embodiment of bilingualism. Like Bogurachova, he practices a type of code-switching, sometimes within a single sentence even, often switching between Chinese and English.
When Su took an important call, about a protest over a development in the International District, he switched easily and spontaneously between Cantonese and English.
For a non-Cantonese-speaker, the conversation sounds something like this:
“Houfa mouah hai reng baiyyurr li do architect hunghay gerrung hoommuau city zoning houla houla moua moua exactly exactly mouah mouah leigh houah bingdoh regulations.”
Su later explained that the multilingual mind switches easily between phrases and words depending on the emotional content. For instance, when he’s irritated or furious, as he was during the meeting, the mind automatically switches to the mother tongue. A protestor was apparently yelling questions at him.
“When you’re reacting to crazy comments,” he added. “We switch to our mother tongue. It’s a gut feeling.”
Bogurachova has the same take.
“Talking to my mom is always in Mandarin,” she said. “That way we can connect our hearts. We talk from the heart.”
Speaking in Chinese at her school, she added, disarms and empowers Chinese parents.
“When I get to speak Mandarin with a Chinese parent, I can be more qinqie (intimate),” she said. “We’re both immigrants here. I’m saying, ‘I’ve got your back. I understand your needs. I’m one of you.’”
In fact, parents that can code-switch between Chinese and English enjoy a sense of privilege at her school.
“In English, the parents feel lost at Jing Mei,” she said. “They feel this is a place where privilege doesn’t happen to white people. [Rather] privilege is enjoyed by Chinese parents that are bilingual — they can toggle back and forth between both.”
Most linguists agree that cultures — and ideas embedded in cultures — are not only absorbed through language, but also through watching people and observing society.
So creating a school culture that promotes awareness of attitudes and behaviors reflected in different traditions is one of Bogurachova’s priorities.
“We just held a professional development on biases,” she said. “How do you surface your biases as a teacher?”
She believes that there is no single way to combine values from different societies.
“Every child is different,” she said. “There is no unique program, you have to know what you have in your tool belt. You fill your tool belt and then decide what you want to use.”
Mahlon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.