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An Academic's Passion Project, Sparked by that Immigrant Upbringing





"If we the parents are predominantly speaking English with each other, then how do we get the children to speak Chinese - in any form - at home without having to be a Tiger Parent about it??" My name is 余捷, some call me Jenn, and a fluent Cantonese and Mandarin speaker on a mission to get some answers to that question. To add fuel to fire 火上加油, Chinese representation where we live is shockingly weak - considering we live by UCSB - and an immersive Chinese environment is nearly impossible to find. This site was created partially out of fear of losing the precious resources we do find. The other reasons stem from the heart, since Tom 余泰明 and I met while I was working for - and he was getting a Ph.D. in - the Department of East Asian Studies at Princeton. So our passion for the Chinese language and literature - contemporary and classical - brought us together, and we hope to spark some joy into our children's lives with it too.


Having moved around the Bay Area with my immigrant parents, witnessing their struggles, I was so afraid of being seen as a FOB that NOBODY outside of our home knew I could speak both Cantonese and Mandarin until college—first for the much-needed boost to my SAT score with a 790 in Chinese, then for enough credits to graduate from college. Yet, this level of fluency came at a pretty high cost. My childhood weekends were spent reading and reciting Classical Chinese poems I never thought I'd use, writing characters from dictation (the dreaded tīngxiě 听写), and memorizing multiplication tables in Cantonese and Mandarin, all the while fiercely protesting my parents' parenting methods with silent treatments, streaming tears, yelling contests, petty threats of running away from home, etc.


And yet, as an adult, I managed to fall in love with the Chinese language all over again, received a master's degree in Chinese-language pedagogy, and managed the Chinese-language program for Princeton in Beijing and Princeton University for six fully immersive and intense years. So, THANK YOU, PARENTS! But now that I'm a parent, I'd really like for my children to discover the beauty and benefits of embracing their heritage without waging domestic warfare in the process. Fortunately, my husband is equally on board - and sometimes more eager to learn Cantonese when Mandarin starts to take a toll - so his research practices combined with my desire to pass on the dialects have encouraged us to persist at documenting our process.





自扫门前雪 mind your own business, lucky swallows



[各人]自扫门前雪, 莫管他人瓦上霜
[gèrén]zìsǎo ménqián xuě, mòguǎn tārén wǎshàng shuāng



Roughly translated, this Chinese proverb means: to sweep the snow in front of your own door, nevermind the frost on other’s roof tiles. In other words, mind your own business (MYOB). It can be used either in the context of advice, or to describe a selfish act with no regard for others’ well-being. Its earliest use can be found in Shilin guangji 事林廣記 of 1264, where it attributes the couplet to a person named Chen Yuanjing 陳元靚 (about whom nothing else is known).





The conflicting double meaning elicited by a mere 12 characters is mind-boggling! Yet, the brief complexity is not the reason behind this work of art. The story and inspiration behind this calligraphy piece is: Bird shit. LOTS AND LOTS OF BIRD SHIT, eight months at a time, year after year.



Shortly after moving into our house, before we really knew what was going on, we were asked to pay an extra $300 (on top of the usual $550 monthly) by our HOA to install netting for our neighbors' homes. Our understanding was that if the netting worked, the money collected would be used to install netting for everybody. What’s the netting for? Apparently, cliff swallows make love nests for themselves under the overhangs of our roofs every spring (mating season) into fall.


So up went the nets, incorrectly installed, and the swallows just came back and built their nests below the nets...right on the stucco walls. Our HOA then determined that the netting was ineffective, so when the swallows migrated over to our immediate neighborhood the next year, there was no budget for us to install nets for our homes, even though it proved to be 70% effective once installed properly. Our neighbors, one after another, eventually, reluctantly, forked up the $400-$1100 to put netting around their overhangs, just to have at least a relatively clean facade, free of mud pellets, swallow spit, and swallow droplets.


Another year went by and, of course, we were the only ones left on the block without netting. We had moved in before the Thomas Fires, followed by a bunch of other fires that kept everybody indoors and away from conversation. In the meantime, we had our first kid, then pregnant with our second. By the time we even acknowledged the swallows to be a problem, we were in the thick of it, struggling to survive as new parents of two kids under three years old during a global pandemic.


In Chinese culture, swallows were a symbol of luck and prosperity...and their “rare and valuable” nests (basically hardened saliva) are worth a fortune! And these endangered/protected species were all over our house! So, we let a few build their love nests at our house and called it good luck that accompanied Tommy’s birth. Then we quickly realized they were ALL congregating at our house and made such a toxic, smelly, mess on our driveway that we became imprisoned in our own home, with no driveway/front porch to play on.





By then, it was too late for netting and the only way to discourage more nests from being built was to hose down the sticky mud on the wall that had not become nests yet. Once built, we would be fined in the THOUSANDS of DOLLAR$$$$ PER NEST if destroyed. Though at times Tom sprayed down the overhang above our driveway as if he were going to war, truth be told, we didn’t have the energy - nor the heart - to do so frequently enough. Next thing we knew, dozens of nests were built at warp speed by the entire swarm of them in a single morning, and our house became a destination for the entire community to swallow-gaze at. So we caved (pun intended) and simply waved from inside our garage to passersby who felt sorry for us and our cute babies.


EIGHT MONTHS, tons of wasted California water, and nearly 200-nests-in-a-single-year later, we decided the swallow nets had to go up before the next mating season. It was not practical, nor healthy, to let this continue every year, and the kids need a place to do chalk art. However, it was the notion that we had to pay hundreds more for something we thought we had already paid for that made it difficult to stomach. Meanwhile, our neighbors down the street - who had their nets paid for by the rest of us - were no longer complaining about the handful of nests that landed on their house every season.


Don't get me wrong. We LOVE our neighbors, they are good people who probably never intended for us - the newbie first-time homeowners to live in the largest swallow dump of the neighborhood. However, in the process of everybody trying to take care of their respective houses, they "minded their own business" - for better or for worse - and so with mixed emotions, 自扫门前雪, 莫管他人瓦上霜 (zìsǎo ménqián xuě, mòguǎn tārén wǎshàng shuāng) came to mind. Or maybe this is what we, humans, get for building houses on the cliff swallows’ natural habitat in the first place? And so the plot thickens, yet the same proverb applies!


There’s a scene in Nomadland where a prominent character, Swankie, is kayaking by a cliff full of swallows’ nests, enraptured by these rare and beautiful tiny birds, as a soft melody hums in the background. Swankie, in that moment, felt at peace, levitated by a sense of freedom and serenity. In that same precise moment, my husband and I looked at each other and couldn’t help but let out a bitter laugh at the irony of our ongoing, sometimes traumatic, experience with the same species of swallows.


Written: 2021-06-10

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