Interview with Dianna Lee: On identity, language, culture and being part of the international Chinese Diaspora
Dianna | Mom of 2 | Identifies as: Part of the international Chinese diaspora
Grew up in: Hong Kong, China, Singapore, US (California)
Fluent in 4 languages: Mandarin Chinese, Cantonese, English, Hokkien [Chinese dialect]
Raising multilingual children
We first met Dianna while living in Beijing and marveled at her language ability. She can effortlessly move between English, a Beijing Chinese accent, a Southern Taiwanese accent, Hong Kong Cantonese, and more. Just watch her YouTube videos, and you will understand what we mean! We hope you enjoy this conversation as much as we did!
Dianna Lee (@coolmumdianna) is ... Chinese? Singaporean? ABC?
I’ve actually struggled with that all my life. I probably most closely identify with being part of an ‘international Chinese diaspora’ - born in Hong Kong (with parents from Fujian, China), moved to Singapore when I was 7, later educated in the US (California). So in many ways, I’ve felt like a foreigner in every place I have lived. It wasn’t really until college that I identified this ‘international Chinese’ group that I probably feel closest to.
You are fluent in Mandarin Chinese and English; what other languages?
Mandarin Chinese, English, Cantonese, and a Chinese dialect called Hokkien. Hokkien - I learned to speak with my grandmother, who took care of me and brought me up. Cantonese - was because I was born in Hong Kong. English - my first exposure was in Hong Kong and primary school. And Chinese - because my parents spoke Mandarin to each other, it was taught in Singapore, and because I later lived in China.
How did you pick up so many accents?
I think it’s about exposure - but also about survival and fitting in. Because I grew up in multiple places, I feel like I adopted language as a way to “survive.” Language and accents are the easiest way to identify with people. So depending on which group I’m with, I switch … between a more Northern Mandarin accent if I’m in Beijing to a more Southern-accented Mandarin with Taiwanese friends. (Northern accent is more back of throat, and Southern accent is more tip of mouth.) I also switch between American English and Singaporean-accented English, depending on who I’m with.
How did you learn to read and write Chinese?
I read 武侠小说 wǔ xiá xiǎoshuō [famous martial arts novel genre] when I was young - and that, I think, single handedly elevated my Mandarin from primary school to high school level. I think it’s the same as people who love Korean or Japanese … you find something you’re culturally interested in - whether food, comic books, music, etc. and then language is not just about one's environment or a subject in school - it has purpose.
It feels like you're not multilingual but multicultural - and move easily between cultures. How?
I think it goes back to trying to survive - because I never identified as one thing. I never felt fully Singaporean - or - fully Cantonese (香港人 xiāng gǎng rén) - or - fully American. So, I used language as a way to fit in. And by language, I don't just mean textbook learning but everything that goes along with it - local accents, slang, popular culture. For example, living and working in Beijing helped me move from the textbook-Chinese I learned in Singapore and the family-Chinese I spoke at home to having more cultural fit, picking up slang like '牛逼 niú bī' (amazing), '气场 qì chǎng' (charisma), '凡尔赛 fán'ěrsài' (Versailles - meaning humble brag). Same thing with English - even though I grew up in Singapore (which is bilingual English / Chinese, with English as the primary language), my college years in California gave me the setting and cultural context to make my English even stronger.
How do you think about language learning for your own kids?
For me, being bilingual (or multilingual) is a necessity. I think I will emphasize to my kids the importance of a multicultural world. If you only plan on living in one country, maybe it’s easier not to have to think about other perspectives. But as someone who has moved a lot and would identify as an international citizen, I think this multicultural understanding is so important. That’s one of the reasons I love living in Singapore now actually - it feels like a truly bilingual country - where there is emphasis on both English and Mandarin Chinese, because we recognize the importance of being bilingual.
How do you plan on raising multicultural kids?
It helps that I’m in Singapore, where bilingual education is part of the curriculum and expectation. But of course beyond school, I want to provide an environment at home where they are exposed to multiple languages - not just Chinese and English. And most importantly, I will encourage them to find attachments that they love in other languages. For example, my little one has picked up some Japanese, because he loves Japanese animation and Totoro. Maybe in the future it will be K-Pop for Korean. For Chinese, I would probably seek out some aspirational Chinese content that helps make Chinese more culturally relevant, so it’s not just a learned subject.
What types of bilingual, bicultural content do you find relevant for Chinese - beyond 'textbook learning'?
It’s really anything that might pique interest in the language or culture. That’s one of the reasons why I love the Habbi Habbi series - it makes language exposure delightful and fun. I also like the Mandarin version of Peppa Pig and 大圣归来 dà shèng guīlái (Animated cartoon series). Also, I think it could be as simple as things like favorite Chinese foods and being able to order at a restaurant - or - loving Chinese music, fashion, or other aspirational content. (I’ve been particularly interested in watching historical Chinese clothing and instruments having a comeback, feels like a Chinese Renaissance). Basically, I want to find things that help him feel proud of his Chinese heritage, nurture love of the culture, and therefore create purpose to learn. That would be the most sustainable.
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