I read the book, I Am Golden by Eva Chen and Sophie Diao, to my niece for what felt like over a hundred times this weekend. It’s a beautiful book about being a child of Chinese immigrant parents and really the story of my sisters and me more than hers. Each time we read we had to stop and linger on the page that was illustrated with a table full of Chinese dishes. “Oh cucumbers! There’s choi choi. A bowl of rice with green beans. That’s xiaolongbao! Sesame balls!” my niece would exclaim as she pointed at each dish. What was so wonderful about this was that she used three different languages to describe each of these dishes–English, Cantonese, and Mandarin. Her first language was English. Her grandparents on her mom’s side, my parents, speak Mandarin and Taiwanese. Her dad and his parents speak Cantonese. All of her grandparents speak some level of English. These all come together in a common experience of the enjoying a delicious meal.
Last year I was asked, “What does it mean to be American?” I didn’t answer completely then, and I won’t here either. But I will say that the experience of my niece and the languages that surround her are part of the answer. (Wait until you hear about my nephew who has grandparents who are ethnically Chinese, but speak French.)