How Do You Connect to Your Heritage?

How Do You Connect to Your Heritage?

Students in U.S. high schools can get free digital access to The New York Times until Sept. 1, 2021.

When you think of your family or cultural heritage, what comes to mind? Do you think of language? Of people and places? Stories, traditions and artifacts? Songs and dances? Meals and holidays?

How familiar are you with your family’s heritage? Do you feel connected to these roots? Or do you feel distant or cut off from them?

In “Connecting My Children to Their Heritage in Mandarin,” Connie Chang writes about growing up as a child of first-generation Chinese immigrants and straddling two worlds:

On Sunday afternoons, my grandfather would sit by my elbow while I gripped his prized calligraphy brush, tracing inky lines on tissue-thin paper. “Many Chinese consider calligraphy a high form of art,” my grandfather reminded me whenever my attention flagged or arm drooped.

I’d sigh in response — this weekly ritual just felt like more school.

Growing up as a child of first-generation Chinese immigrants, I was used to straddling two worlds — that of my parents and the country they emigrated from, and America, where the pressure to assimilate buffeted us constantly. The message was clear in the media and popular culture of the 1980s: It was better to speak English, exclusively and without an accent; to replace thermoses of dumplings with hamburgers. My father’s college classmate, also a Chinese immigrant, proudly boasted that his kids knew no Mandarin, a claim confirmed when his son butchered the pronunciation of his own name while my parents looked on with unconcealed horror.

My parents, instead, dug in their heels against this powerful wave that threatened to wash out the distinctive features of their past. I spoke no English until I started preschool, but in Mandarin — according to my grandmother — I was a sparkling conversationalist, a Dorothy Parker of the toddler set. The school administrators wrung their hands, worried that I’d fall behind, but my father shrugged, figuring (correctly) that I’d learn English quickly enough.

But as I grew older, Chinese lost ground, inch by incremental inch. And while I happily accepted the bills tucked in crimson envelopes that adults bestow on children for Lunar New Year and consumed my weight in mooncakes during the Moon Festival in autumn, I didn’t feel connected to the culture.

Ms. Chang writes about teaching her own children Mandarin, despite her own limitations in a language that she had barely spoke in 15 years. She describes its challenges and rewards:

But it’s an uphill slog. According to the Foreign Service Institute, Mandarin, a Category Four language, takes four times as many hours to master as languages like Spanish or Italian. And, as I can personally attest to, maintaining fluency is a lifelong commitment.

Still, when I see my youngest converse with his grandfather in rapid-fire Mandarin or when my daughter insists on fish for Lunar New Year (“fish” and “abundance” are homonyms in Mandarin — it’s somewhat of a sport among the Chinese to play with these happy coincidences), the time spent poring over books and taking them to activities feels well-spent. Although my parents’ English is serviceable, it is only in Mandarin that they’re at ease, that they can inhabit their own skins.

In Mandarin, I can almost see the people they were before they uprooted their lives in search of better opportunities in a foreign land. I think about how frightening it must have been, what an act of bravery it was, to raise their children in a language whose rhythms and meanings will always remain cryptic to them, to know that those children will forever be wai guo ren — “foreigners.”

Students, read the entire article, then tell us:

  • How do you connect to your family’s heritage? Tell us about the values, culture and traditions that matter most to you and the ways you are able to maintain meaningful ties to them. Do you have a specific memory or story that best illustrates the role of your family roots in your life, such as the way the author remembers writing calligraphy with her grandfather each Sunday as a child?

  • How familiar are you with your family’s history and heritage? Do you ever feel disconnected from your roots? What aspects would you like to know more about?

  • Ms. Chang writes: “I was used to straddling two worlds — that of my parents and the country they emigrated from, and America, where the pressure to assimilate buffeted us constantly.” Do you ever feel as if you “straddle” two worlds, or even more? Have you tried to hide your heritage and cultural identity or felt pressure to assimilate?

  • Ms. Chang, recounting her son’s performance of a celebrated Chinese poem, writes: “Buried in Mandarin’s rounded vowels and tones, in the whimsical idioms that pepper our speech, in the Tang era poems every child knows, are irrevocable pieces of me, of my family.” Do you have anything — words, phrases, a language, artifacts, customs or traditions — that powerfully conjures pieces of you or your family?

  • What aspects of her essay resonate with you most? Does reading Ms. Chang’s piece make you want to connect more with your own heritage?

  • What part of your family heritage would you want to share with your own children one day? How will you, in the words of Ms. Chang, “connect future generations to past ones”?

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Students 13 and older in the United States and the United Kingdom, and 16 and older elsewhere, are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.