When we brought the boy we call Superman home from China four years ago, we had big dreams. We were going to maintain his language and his culture, and all of us were going to learn Mandarin, besides.
At the time, our family lived in the Seattle-Tacoma area of the Pacific Northwest, where Asian churches and markets and tutors were plentiful. So the first week after that 2 and a half year old boy stepped foot on U.S. soil, we were already (poorly) attempting to recreate the dishes we’d tasted in China, researching Lunar New Year traditions and marching him to Mandarin lessons at the home of a local tutor we found on Wyzant.com.
And then, just three months after settling into a routine and lessons with our tutor, my husband’s job moved us to the other side of the country to a Southern city an hour from the nearest Asian market and without a noticeable Asian population in sight.
The first thing I did upon moving (after finding a new social worker to complete our post-adoption reports) was research Mandarin tutors in the area.
I looked on Craigslist, Wyzant, Care.com and multiple other sites.
And there were none.
I finally contacted a professor at a university more than an hour away who said he’d be willing to drive to us for a one-hour lesson one day per week … for $180 per lesson.
We’d just completed an international adoption and couldn’t even justify dessert at dinner for our then-team of five, so my cheap and broken heart had to say no thanks.
After exploring every option possible, including contacting a few of the local Chinese restaurants in the area to see if anyone there would be interested in a side job tutoring Mandarin, I waved the white flag and prayed.
Lord, if you want this boy to maintain his culture and his language, please just throw us a Mandarin bone.
Two years later, He did.
I was walking with my friend and her friend, and this friend-of-a-friend mentioned that her daughter was taking Mandarin.
I stopped in my tracks — and stopped hers, quite literally — and asked her how she ever found a Mandarin tutor in this area.
One of her husband’s coworker’s children had studied Chinese in high school and was now majoring in Mandarin in college, and when she returned in the summers, she taught their children how to speak.
Like a good mom, I failed to ask about this college student’s demeanor, her integrity or her way with children before I demanded her information.
“I NEED HER NUMBER!” I exclaimed, probably frothing at the mouth like an addict waiting for her next hit of Mandarin. Right then. At that second. Before I was willing to allow this woman I’d met 20 minutes before to get in her car and call this sitting duck of a college student on the way home to warn her about the psycho who was about to contact her to teach her children Mandarin.
I texted this Mandarin speaker at college that very day, interviewed her on the phone that week and planned for her to meet our three superheroes when she returned from college the next month.
And that is how I found Mackenzie, the Chinese tutor and now dear friend who changed our family’s Chinese-speaking story.
Our very own gift from God.
Mackenzie turned out to be not only a gifted and fluent Mandarin speaker, but also the sweetest, kindest, most amazing and patient girl with children you have ever seen. (Thank you, Lord, because this mama didn’t exactly run the background checks in the name of some good Chinese.)
The first summer she came to our home, while I worked my publishing job from home, she spent two mornings a week teaching our children common Mandarin phrases, common Chinese children’s games and playing hide and seek with them for endless hours to teach them their numbers. (Sidenote: You look really cool to all your children’s friends’ mamas when they come over for playdates and your children are counting to 20 in Mandarin. Just don’t let them ask your new Chinese learners anything else, lest they discover that 1 to 20 sounds way more impressive than the other five words your superheroes can remember… and utter with a Southern accent.)
She made crafts with them, decorated Chinese ornaments with them, even brought her piano music and her ukulele so that they could learn and perform common children’s songs in Chinese.
The second summer she came to our home, she wasn’t just our tutor. She was our dear family friend. And, while I spent two weeks of hospital-cation in another state with Superman, she spent one of those weeks from 6 a.m. until 6 p.m. providing our older two superheroes with a Chinese immersion camp.
For 12 hours a day, our oldest superheroes ate meals using only Chinese, baked recipes using only Chinese, played games using only Chinese and even spent time learning about God and memorizing Bible verses… in Chinese.
They also completed the research report for their newest brother’s (a 3-year-old boy we were not-so-patiently waiting to now bring home) city, province and country with the help of Mackenzie’s China experience. (As if this girl weren’t amazing enough, she had spent the year between our summer sessions living in China and working at a foster and healing home, where she loved on, translated for and advocated for the “special needs” sweethearts our family calls “superheroes in disguise”. And, in her free time from China, translated letters we sent in packages to our superhero-in-waiting.)
When Superman and I returned home, the boys used a PowerPoint and a binder to present to us everything they had learned about their soon-to-be littlest brother’s area, including the places they wanted to visit and the things they wanted to eat when we traveled to China later that year.
And were we ever thankful. Because two months later, when our family of five traveled to China to become a family of six, the boys knew where to go, what to do and how to order all our basic food when we were eating at restaurants without our guide present.
They also knew how to communicate with their new little brother.
Which, in addition to the Chinese index cards Mackenzie placed around our house to help us remember the Chinese words for things like “toilet” and “toothbrush” and “banana,” made his transition into the family a virtual breeze.
Now, five months after bringing our second Chinese-born superhero into our home, Mackenzie comes over ever Tuesday to help maintain the language and culture we are trying to help him preserve.
Sometimes she completes formal lessons with the boys. Sometimes she does Chinese arts and crafts with them. Sometimes she just plays with them. Always she speaks Chinese to them (even though Superman, who has now lived in the South longer than he lived in China, says “ni hao” with a drawl). And each of them, even the youngest superhero who, for the first four months, rejected Mackenzie’s Chinese games, now love their Tuesday time with her.
Our superheroes aren’t fluent, and they probably couldn’t hold a very long conversation with a native speaker. But they can understand the basic language. They can communicate in short phrases. They can sing Chinese songs. And they can interact with the superheroes in our community just home from China in a way I never imagined was possible.
Offering our Chinese-born children the opportunity to keep their native language in their ears and our American-born children the opportunity to invest in their brothers’ culture has been a gift we hope they enjoy forever.
Looking for a Chinese tutor to keep the language fresh and flowing in your home but just don’t know where to start?
1. Search online. We found our first tutor on Wyzant.com. Sites like Care.com and Preply.com also offer tutors, some of them virtual. Which means that, with a computer or tablet, your superhero-in-no-more-waiting can take Chinese lessons from almost anywhere.
2. Connect with your local Chinese community. Don’t be afraid to visit Chinese churches, restaurants or other local Chinese-owned establishments to ask if any Mandarin speakers might be looking for a side job. You could even meet on site to enjoy some authentic Chinese worship or treats to supplement your experience!
3. Contact local colleges or universities that offer Mandarin classes. Even if the professor isn’t available (or affordable), one of his or her advanced students might be! We struck gold with our college-student-turned-graduate!
4. Connect with the local adoption community, or simply ask your social worker. They may know of others in your area who have used translation or tutoring services for their superheroes.
5. Connect with the national Chinese adoption community. The China adoption community is smaller than you think. (Exhibit A: In writing this very article, we discovered that our precious Chinese tutor is now living in the very house where Stefanie, the founder of No Hands But Ours, once resided! In adoption land, God stories and crazy connections abound.) Ask around in Facebook groups and blog communities (like this one!). You never know what kinds of connections you might find.
6. Pray. For two years, every door we tried to pry open slammed shut. And then God himself brought us the most perfect and amazing tutor who became not just a teacher but a beautiful family friend. Pray boldly. Ask Him to bring you one.
In the meantime, don’t forget about the countless resources available to help preserve your Chinese-born children’s language and culture. Our favorites include Chinese language DVDs, Mandarin Sesame Street videos on YouTube and the Rosetta Stone Chinese lessons our children can access free through their local school. If all else fails, check out your phone’s app store for one of numerous free Chinese language learning apps (our favorite is Chinese Skill, a free learning game app for beginners) to keep your children active and engaged.
Language is a link to their history they’ll enjoy forever.