Real Intercultural Family in the U.S.: Mandarin, Spanish and English


Welcome Michelle and Tim!


Where are you from?


Michelle: ZhengZhou, Henan, China


Tim: I was born in Trinidad and Tobago and when I was about six weeks old, we moved to Puerto Rico. I don’t feel Trinidadian. If anything I feel more Puerto Rican or just plain old America.


Where do you currently live and how long ago did you come to the U.S?


El Cerrito, California (San Francisco Bay Area).


Michelle: I came to the U.S. six years ago.


Tim: I came to the U.S. when I was 20.


How did you meet?


Tim: We met in a college in China. The university I went in the U.S. had a relationship with the university she went to in China. After I finished my Masters, I found this opportunity that was available to teach English in China.


Michelle: The simple answer is he was my English teacher.


Tim: In class, she would never say anything. So one day I approached her and told her “You have to practice.” She said in flawless English, “I think my other classmates need it more than me.” Then I realized this is someone I can speak to, besides other Westerners. She became my translator and guide.


Michelle: I think I got his attention at the Halloween party we had with the class. I dressed up as an Indian Princess. It was totally unintentional. I only had a colorful bed sheet to play with.


Tim: I originally didn’t want to stay the year and had decided to leave after a couple months.


Michelle: That’s when I felt like oh, I guess I’m not going to see him very long. And that’s when our relationship changed.


Tim: It sped up. And I thought then maybe I’ll stay and hang out for a while. And the one year turned into four.


Did you ever face any difficulties in people accepting your relationship?


Michelle: At the beginning in China (10 years ago), where I’m from it’s not a major city—it’s a small city that is not so exposed to other parts of world. People don’t see foreigners a lot. When we stepped out in public, people yelled “traitor,” “disgrace to our country,” “we’ve lost faith in you” at me. I was really young and it really shocked me.


Tim: It was situations like that we realized we can’t live here. Also I’m not white—I’m dark—so that compounds it. Dark is not well liked in any country in the world. I also found that in the U.S. if I dated a white girl, but it’s augmented in China.


How old are your children and where were they born?


Tim: Daniel is almost three. Saira is 10 months.


They were both born here in Oakland.


What passports do you and your kids hold?


Michelle: We all have U.S. passports. I had to renounce my Chinese.


Tim: I used to have the dual Trinidadian but not anymore.


What language do you speak together?



In what languages do you speak to the kids?


Michelle: We each speak our native language to the kids: Mandarin and Spanish. Daniel already knows I don’t speak Spanish. He asks me to sing Spanish songs or read Spanish books to make fun of me.


Tim: I used to understand quite a bit of Mandarin, now it’s gone. I’m relearning it again. And my son will try to teach me.


What languages do the kids speak?


Tim: Saira is too young. Daniel speaks all three fluently (Spanish, Mandarin and English). He realized a few months ago that he could say things in different languages and we wouldn’t understand.


Michelle: For example, when he’s with my mom (who is living with us at the moment) and she says “no,” he’ll say, “Daddy says it’s ok.” And they can’t communicate to know.


Tim: So it’s the classic go to the other room and ask your mom, but he can do it while we’re all in the same room.


Tim: Way before having kids we knew we wanted to raise them in our native languages. One of reasons we wanted them to learn our native languages is I didn’t know my parents spoke an Indian dialect until I was 15 or 16. And when I learned they were native speakers, I let them have it. So I never learned the Hindi dialect they speak (Malayalam). They explained that were struggling to learn Spanish because they had just arrived in Puerto Rico when I was a baby. So in my teenage years, I knew my kids were going to learn whatever languages I had around.


Michelle: I can’t wait to see what language they will speak to each other once Saira is older.


How do you reinforce all three languages beyond just the parents speaking it?


Michelle: We have a Mandarin daycare one block away. So we decided to send him. It’s worked out and she’s a good teacher. We plan to send Saira there as well.


Tim: We favored Chinese over Spanish school, considering how much more difficult it is, the more experience and immersion they have, the better. You can speak Spanish without needing to learn letters. Also given that China will be a rising power, that’s an advantage I want them to have. This is something they could use for work in the future or talking with other people. Our only concern is writing in Chinese takes much longer compared to English-writing. Plenty of American-Chinese friends I know speak it but can’t read it or write it. It’s a lot.


Do you have any concerns about your child’s language development


Tim: Here in the Bay Area no, but anywhere else in the U.S. yes. We have American-Chinese friends who live in Tennessee. Their daughter is the same age as Daniel and she mostly speaks in English. And they only have two languages. The place makes a big difference.


Michelle: At the beginning I was concerned they might have speech delay, but that didn’t happen with Daniel. And some smaller things, that aren’t really concerns but things we’ve noticed like sometimes he gets frustrated that maybe he only knows how to say the word in one language. He tries to explain it to my Mom and she doesn’t get it when we are not around.


Tim: “R’s” are still difficult for him to roll. Daniel gets all the tones in Chinese. He started to correct me on tones. I’m like you’re not even three and you’re correcting me.


Aside from the language, the other concern I had is all my life is I grew up being an “other.” This is a place they won’t be an “other.” Here there are a lot of “others.”


What religion are you?


Tim: None. We celebrate American and Chinese traditions.


Michelle: We also celebrate Latin ones like Three Kings Day. We decided we are going to introduce as much to them as possible. For the last two years they didn’t get it anyway so I was sort of lazy. Now that Daniel gets it, we’ll celebrate every holiday.


Tim: I like to celebrate Three Kings Day as it makes me feel like I’m part of Puerto Rico. Even Latin people born here don’t know about Three Kings Day.
Tim: So we’ll do that as well as Chinese ones like Chinese New Year. We really don’t do anything.


Michelle: We do the red envelope.


Tim: Ok, the red envelope.


What are some of your cultural differences?


Tim: Music. She has no clue about anything music. That bothered me for a while. I dragged her to Paul McCartney when she was nine months pregnant because it was Paul McCartney, a Beatle, we must go see it.


Michelle: Most of these pop culture and media thingys I didn’t grow up with. He can’t stand us watching Chinese soap operas. We get one channel in Chinese and he makes fun of it: “Oh another person crying again.”
Tim: I complain about it because for four years in China that’s all I saw. Women always crying; the man with the moustache is always bad guy; the scantily-dressed girl is always the bad one. It was funny to see they have the same concept as telenovelas (Latin American soap operas) but with different people and costumes. But I grew up with that—I don’t need to see it anymore.


Michelle: He also doesn’t really have the Latin culture. He doesn’t dance or listen to Latin music.


Tim: I’m different that I come from a split culture to begin with.


What have been your greatest challenges as an intercultural family?


Tim: My difficulty is since China still a developing country, there are a lot of differences. During SARS time, they didn’t understand the importance of covering your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing. Or you see a “no smoking” sign with three people smoking right in front of it. These differences are not necessarily cultural but educational stage. That’s sometimes been a challenge when I was living over there. Now when she goes back to China, she gets angry at some things she sees whereas before she wouldn’t have thought twice about it.


Michelle: Because we’re living with my mom, she’s old school. She grew up in a totally different point in time—people starved to death. She came from a very different background so certain things are not in her mind like hygiene things. She’s more interested in getting food in their mouths and getting them fed. Now for us, it’s more like eating it clean and healthy.


Tim: Because I can’t communicate with her mom, I get upset with her that she hasn’t told her mom something. She is the recipient of everything. One simple example, that’s not too horrible, is the door. In China you don’t lock doors. There is a heavy solid gate that slams shut behind you. American doors don’t slam shut. They are not used to these doors so they don’t lock the doors. And I get angry that they don’t lock doors…it’s simple things like that.


But when it comes to big things, we’re all in same place—we have the same values.


Michelle: Another big challenge is we don’t have families around or friends that we grew up with. We don’t have brothers and sisters living around us. We don’t have an extended support network. My dad has not even met the kids in person yet.


What have been your greatest joys as an intercultural family?
Tim: Food. A variety of foods I think. Also, from a language point, we can go a lot of places in the world and one of us will be able to communicate with something. It’s easier to adapt or relate to the world like that.


Michelle: Languages open my eyes to different cultures. I think it’s such a privilege to me and my kids because there are so many people around the world that don’t get to see other cultures or speak another language. I feel this whole world getting smaller and cultures are getting mixed. It will be much easier and much better for them to adapt as they grow up.


Tim: And in the political, world sense, once the U.S. is not the dominant power, I feel comfortable these guys could go somewhere else.


They have the opportunity if a company wants to send them somewhere— they wouldn’t be at a loss.
Thank you Michelle and Tim!


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