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The House Special Hot Soup comes with stinky tofu. (Photo by Judy Chia Hui Hsu)
The House Special Hot Soup comes with stinky tofu. (Photo by Judy Chia Hui Hsu)

It’s not a coincidence that some of the most popular Chinese restaurants in the Seattle area are Taiwanese. Taiwan has a reputation as one of the best food destinations in Asia. Chinese-American foodies that I know say that Taiwanese restaurants are where to go to find their Chinese food fix.

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“It’s demanding because there’s always a bit of work to do each day,” says Lin. She spends one to two hours on her CHIN 101 coursework every day.
“It’s demanding because there’s always a bit of work to do each day,” says Jessica Lin. She spends one to two hours on her CHIN 101 coursework every day. (Photo by Candace Kwan)

A few months ago, before a crowd at Tsinghua University in Beijing, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg spoke Mandarin out of nowhere, and headlines around the world hinted that he put the “rest of us to shame” by speaking fluent Chinese.

Well, did he really?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m no hater. Zuckerberg deserves praise for being able to conduct an entire interview in a language he picked up in his late 20s. That still shouldn’t overshadow the language abilities of many other Americans.

According to the American Community Survey, 22 percent of children aged 5 to 19 speak a language other than English at home. But that doesn’t equal literacy. For instance, I can speak Cantonese effortlessly and make my way around a tabloid magazine and a menu. But that’s as far as my fluency goes, even though I grew up in Hong Kong.

And by no means am I alone. This seems to be the case for many Chinese Americans. The two most spoken dialects in China are Cantonese and Putonghua, also known as Mandarin. The nuances of the languages are completely different. Cantonese has eight tones, while Putonghua has four. They also use different characters in the written language. Cantonese utilizes traditional Chinese characters, while Putonghua utilizes simplified.

While most Chinese immigrants come from places that speak Cantonese, Putonghua is more widely taught. Fluency in one dialect does not automatically transfer to another, which complicates being literate and fluent in Chinese for many Chinese Americans.

In my case, my family returned to Hong Kong from Montana when my grandpa became ill. We thought it would be a temporary move.

I enrolled in an international school, where three out of 20 students spoke Cantonese. The only kind of formal Chinese education I received was optional after-school Putonghua lessons.

By the time I transferred out of the international school system in favor of a local, all-girls Catholic high school, there was no way I would be able to catch up to the local Chinese curriculum. I took French instead.

As much as it pains me to admit this, I’m Chinese illiterate.

In a nutshell, I’m an “ABC” (American-born Chinese). There are worse terms for people who don’t speak the language. Some people use the term “jook-sing,” translated literally as “hollow bamboo.”

Sometimes, terms like these motivate Chinese Americans to pick up the language later in life, especially in college.

“I’ve never been called a ‘jook-sing’ by my family members or friends, but I’ve heard words like these thrown around a lot by others,” said Jessica Lin, a sophomore in the University of Washington Foster School of Business.

“Cantonese is the language I use to speak with my family, and they have always been supportive. I’ve never felt pressure to learn the language, but I always wanted to take lessons.”

Lin began taking CHIN 101. The Chinese Program, Department of Asian Languages and Literature at UW offers two separate tracks: heritage for students who speak the language at home but might not be able to read or write, and non-heritage for complete beginners.

Even though Lin speaks Cantonese at home with her parents, grandparents and brother, she was placed in the non-heritage Chinese class. She chalks this up to not being able to speak Putonghua and not being able to write or read in Simplified Chinese characters.

Lin plans to continue taking Chinese lessons throughout her education at the UW. (Photo by Candace Kwan)
Lin plans to continue taking Chinese lessons throughout her education at the UW. (Photo by Candace Kwan)

“I don’t feel that I’m learning Putonghua from scratch as my background in Cantonese helps me,” Lin said.

Still, Cantonese and Putonghua have slightly different structures, and words that sound similar can be misleading.

“There’s a girl in my class who speaks Cantonese too,” Lin said. “If we don’t understand something, like a term, we try to translate it into Cantonese to help each other out”.

Nyan-Ping Bi, a Chinese instructor at the UW, said many Chinese American students get formal training in the the language before college.

“They take classes at weekend schools, churches, K-12 levels in school etc. And of course, many Chinese Americans do speak the language at home without taking formal lessons,” Bi said.

That was the case for UW sophomores Julie Lu and Ray Hui. They speak Cantonese at their homes, and have had less than two years of informal Chinese lessons. Both Lu and Hui also spent the summer in Hong Kong as part of a study abroad program.

“I don’t plan to take Chinese at the UW, but that doesn’t mean I don’t actively seek out opportunities to speak the language,” Hui said.

Julie Lu and Rayman Hui spent a month in Hong Kong, and various parts of Southern China  in the summer as part of a tour to explore their roots in China lead by UW’s American Ethnic Studies Department. (Photo courtesy of Julie Lu)
Julie Lu and Rayman Hui spent a month in Hong Kong, and various parts of Southern China
in the summer as part of a tour to explore their roots in China lead by UW’s American Ethnic Studies Department. (Photo courtesy of Julie Lu)

“I didn’t have any problems in Hong Kong,” said Lu. “I understand everything that’s said in a Hong Kong TV drama, and I can have a full on conversation with someone who speaks Cantonese”.

Hui also can hold a conversation.

“I have an accent though, and can’t pronounce everything right,” Hui said. “It’s easy to see that I’m not from Hong Kong when I’m there.”

While Hui may brush off mistakes with ease, it’s not so easy for me. It sounds terribly silly now, but for a while I didn’t like speaking in Cantonese because I was too worried that I would stumble on my words.

Picking up Chinese was difficult as I only started speaking it seriously when I was 10, with a lot of trial and error. I learned how to read Chinese by paying attention to the subtitles on TV. Recognizing characters got a lot easier with time.

I’m a junior with two majors, and I doubt I will have time to pick up Chinese lessons at UW. I’m always going to be striving to strengthen my grasp of the language, but I’m happy where I am right now.

Ultimately, I hope to read a newspaper with ease in a few years, but until then, I won’t be giving up my ultimate guilty pleasure – reading Chinese tabloid magazines.

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    An AirAsia plane takes off on Jan. 8, 2014. (Photo by Clement Alloing via Creative Commons license.)
    An AirAsia plane takes off on Jan. 8, 2014. (Photo by Clement Alloing via Creative Commons license.)

    KIRO-TV reported Tuesday that a Shoreline family says that six of their Indonesian family members were among the passengers who were on AirAsia 8501, which crashed on Sunday.

    Jack Song of Shoreline told the TV station that his wife’s father, Soetikno Sia, and her mother, listed on the passenger manifest as Jou Christien Yuanita, were on the flight, according to the report. Traveling with them were his wife’s uncle and his family, Song said.

    Song told the TV station that his wife and her brother are hoping that AirAsia will fly them to the rest of their family in Indonesia.

    Recovery teams discovered debris from the plane and bodies of passengers on Tuesday in the Java Sea, two days after the plane disappeared from radar screens, according to news reports.

    Tony Fernandes, CEO of the Malaysia-based airline, has been on the scene and expressed his sadness over Twitter.

    Flight QZ850, which was on its way from Surabaya, Indonesia, to Singapore, had 162 people on board, including 155 passengers and seven crew members, according to The Jakarta Post. AirAsia listed the nationalities of the passengers and crew on its Facebook page:

    Passengers: 

    1 Singapore

    1 Malaysia

    3 South Korea

    1 United Kingdom

    149 Indonesia

    Nationalities of crew:

    1 France

    6 Indonesia

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      Seattle is an ethnically, culturally, and religiously diverse city. It is home to a dozens of synagogues, mosques, minority churches, and cultural centers. But Seattle is in the grip of Christmas every holiday season.

      A giant Christmas tree towers over Westlake Center. Homes from West Seattle to Shoreline are decorated with inflatable Santas and his twinkling reindeer. Apart from a menorah thrown in here and there, most Seattleites don’t see other celebrations that take place in our city this holiday season.

      According to a study from the Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, 72 percent of Washingtonians identify with a branch of Western Christianity. Twenty-three percent do not identify with a religion at all, one of the highest percentages in the country. The remaining 5 percent identify with a variety of faiths from all over the world. This is about 350,000 people in the state of Washington, who celebrate something other than Christmas on Dec. 25. So what holidays have we missed in our Christmas monopoly?

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      Delegates from Seattle in Cuba earlier this year as part of the U.S. Women and Cuba Collaboration. (Photo by Misa Shikuma.)
      Delegates from Seattle in Cuba earlier this year as part of the U.S. Women and Cuba Collaboration. (Photo by Misa Shikuma.)

      Cindy Domingo, organizer of a Seattle delegation of women that travels every year to Cuba, said that their annual cultural exchange could look a little different after U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuba President Raul Castro have begun warming relations between the two countries.