When you can finally speak your parent’s language (culturally and literally) a pandora’s box of empathy opens up towards them.
That’s the realisation that I came to when I started learning Chinese and living in China last year.
My name is Michael Liang, 2019 UNSW B Commerce/Information Systems Grad. In 2019, I moved to Shanghai to study and learn Chinese. mostly driven by cultural curiosity.
Like a lot of language learners, I did it for business purposes but once I got started it quickly turned into a journey of discovery about family and culture that I had no idea what I was getting into.
I love my parents to bits but, like a lot of Chinese Australians, culturally we disagreed on many levels about almost everything. They were always “so Chinese”.
I don’t think people question this dynamic enough but I’d love to share with you my journey and how that brought me towards creating Culturestride to help other culturally curious Australians learn Chinese language and culture.
I’m going to share with you the journey I went through in 2019 and the parent-child dynamic shifts as Chinese proficiency improved.
2 months into Chinese
I started from HSK 2 (starting to be able to string together sentences) and in 2 months, I hit HSK 3 (comfortably creating sentences).
My relationship with my Mum historically is loving but less “how was your day” type. She engages and corrects and laughs at me when I screw things up.
For the first time ever, I was joking with my parents.
4 months into Chinese
Finished HSK 3, started learning HSK 4 (conversational).
I can chat to them in Chinese, tell them about my day and where I’ve been travelling to. When we video call, I’d try to talk to them only in Mandarin but often would fail and get roasted about how trash my language was.
My maternal grandmother who raised me is the first to know about my Lao girlfriend via text. I tell her to not tell my parents in case they don’t approve 😂. Previously I typically only connect with her at family gatherings.
1 Year into Chinese
Finished HSK 4, studying HSK 5 (business level)
A lot less is lost in translation and for me, my parents have become more human.
Our family WeChat chat is no longer an exercise in Google Translate but actually accessible. I keep in touch every day with what’s happening with my grandparents and extended family. Things that I just accepted about Chinese culture start to reveal themselves as I learnt more about China. For example, I never got why Chinese people focus so highly on education until I understood gaokao 高考 (China’s university entrance exam).
In Chinese society, your university determines a lot of your place in society and business opportunity.
For jobs, certain companies won’t even consider you if you didn’t go to the top 5 universities (Tsinghua, Fudan, Peking, Jiaotong or Zhejiang University).
And from society and people, you are viewed with pearly eyes if you went to one of these universities — ego boost.
With university entrance being guided entirely by your performance in this single exam (100% weighted), it flows why my parents wanted me to do tutoring to kill the HSC.
This is still an ongoing journey and I’ll continue to learn more and more as I spend more time interacting with Chinese society and culture. I’m nowhere near fully literate linguistically or culturally but the hope is we’ll get there one day.
For culturally curious Australians, I’ve set up some infrastructure to help you go on this journey without moving to China with an online language school — Culturestride. If you’d like to talk or have any questions, please feel free to reach out to me on Facebook, LinkedIn or email.
[This is a repost from UNSW ACYA].