Bridging Generations with Language
Wei Wong, proud father of 3, laughs out loud as he recalls enrolling his oldest daughter, Jasmine, in Kildare Elementary School more than 20 years ago. He didn't know about the Chinese (Mandarin) Bilingual program the school offered until he accidentally ran into the principal. As they say, the rest is history – he's been involved with the Edmonton Chinese Bilingual Education Association (ECBEA) ever since.
The principal convinced the Wongs that there was no downside to enrolling Jasmine, even though she did not speak Mandarin at home. Parents today worry about that too, but Wei says, “Actually, it's a worry that shouldn't even cross their minds.” Jasmine could have easily transferred back into the regular English stream if she floundered. Of course she didn't – Jasmine's a nurse now – and neither did her younger siblings (Amber's also a nurse, and Ashton is entering his 4th year of Computing Science at the U of A). Wei's happy his kids have chosen to stay in Edmonton, and that the Bilingual program has taught them more about their heritage.
As a child, Wei spoke Toisan at home. But, like many of his generation, school and the desires of his family changed that. His parents wanted their kids to fit in and to have better opportunities. “It was kind of a dilemma, because they wanted us to excel in English," explains Wei. "We sure did, but at the expense of losing our mother tongue. I don’t think that story is unfamiliar for other immigrants.”
Living that dilemma has shaped Wei's passion for the importance of language and the crucial role it plays in life. He credits his kids for teaching him details about his heritage. The program builds more than language skill – it builds an appreciation for the culture, which naturally flows from teaching and learning a language. And learning a language always joins the past, present, and future.
“You kind of have to know where you come from. That gives you, I guess, your character," says Wei. "If this program wasn't here, I would not have been able to teach my kids any part of their culture really, myself, right? Sure you go down to Chinatown, you buy the food. But we really didn't get actively involved. But now, the ECBEA is kind of my connection to celebrating.”
Language also brings people together and creates opportunity – Bilingual program students at Edmonton's M.E. LaZerte High School felt such compassion for the victims of the 2008 Sichuan Province earthquake that they insisted on helping in some way. With the ECBEA's help, the 12 Bilingual program schools raised $96,000 last year.
And this year, the ECBEA has helped bring a group of Chengdu orphans to Edmonton. A group of 18 students between 10 and 17 years old, who lost their families in the Sichuan Province earthquake in 2008, are visiting Edmonton for 8 Days of Hope and Happiness. Each visiting student will be paired up with a Mandarin-speaking buddy around the same age.
“I hope when they come they know that somebody in this world cares about them,” Wei says. “Hopefully the kids will learn from each other...hopefully this is fun for them; it's an adventure. And they'll come here and think this is great because Edmonton has Mandarin-speaking people, so they feel a little bit at home and not just completely lost ... Maybe, if they have a good time now, they'll think about coming back for school when it's time for university, and so they'll build a kind of educational link there.
“Our kids will be ambassadors for Edmonton, and I'm sure they'll be very good ones too. And the kids coming from Chengdu will be ambassadors for their city, but also China.”
Play the audio file below to hear Wei Wong's story in Mandarin.
Wei Wong is a flight service specialist. He has lived in Edmonton all his life, and his dad used to farm the piece of land now known as Onion Park, where some of his onions still grow. Located in the Lauderdale neighbourhood, the park is an off leash site these days.