Guest Column: A Young Person’s Multicultural Experience, or 多元文化体验的孩子们

Remember the name Jameson Dalpe. As far as we’re concerned, he’s going to be a big star someday. Actually, he already is: Dalpe lays claim to being the youngest contributor to Saratoga Living, having published his first column for us at the tender age of 11, when he was still a seventh grader at Christian Brothers Academy (CBA) in Albany. Back then, amidst the global pandemic, he provided our audience with a thoughtful, first-person account on what it was like to be a middle school student during such a frightening time. He followed that up with a second column, weighing in on the differences between the hybrid and in-person teaching models, which sprouted up during the pandemic. And having recently concluded the eighth grade at CBA, Dalpe is back with another column, this time discussing the value of multiculturalism. Read it below.

Whenever I mention that I’m multicultural, having adapted to both Chinese and English cultures, people ask me to say some words in Chinese and then  enthusiastically question me on what that “gibberish” means. After a while, knowing that they don’t actually understand Chinese, I’ve learned just to say random nonsense, explaining that whatever I just said means the English word for “cherry” or “book,” regardless of its actual translation. It’s always funny to see these people return to their friends or family, proudly believing that they have finally learned some Chinese and that they are now Chinese “experts” and as multicultural as I am.

Becoming multicultural, though, shouldn’t be just for a cheap trick, a way for people to show off the words they know from other languages in order to impress their friends or family members. It should be used to communicate and connect with others, especially if those other people live in a different country or even on a different continent.

It might come as a surprise to you, but Chinese is not actually a language, but rather a family of languages spoken by more than one billion people (that sum constitutes approximately 16 percent of the world’s population). Examples of languages inside the Chinese family of languages are Cantonese, Taiwanese, Taishanese and Fuzhounese. But the Chinese language that has the most speakers is Mandarin; it is spoken by approximately 900 million people, and it comes in two different forms: Simplified Chinese and Traditional Chinese. To be exact, I speak (and am currently learning) Simplified Chinese; this is the only native language that I know.

However, there are also two additional forms of Simplified Mandarin Chinese: one whose form is represented by calligraphy, the other, which is spoken verbally. The calligraphic form uses simplified pictures to convey a message to another person. Calligraphy is most commonly found in Chinese stories, ancient texts and legends. Its verbal form is, of course, spoken and is created by writing lines over certain letters (i.e. accent marks) to convey a message to another person. The verbal form of the language requires accent marks, because Simplified Mandarin Chinese includes many characters that have the same one- to four-letter spelling. In order to solve this problem, Simplified Mandarin Chinese places accents over certain letters in its characters, so that every character is different and has a contrasting definition to its same-spelled counterpart. The verbal form can be used almost anywhere, as long as you have a partner to talk Mandarin Chinese with.

As you can probably see, there are a multitude of differences between Simplified Mandarin Chinese and English. Written English, for the most part, does not have any accent marks, while Simplified Mandarin Chinese does. (Editor’s note: The exception to that rule in English would be a word like “résumé.) English has 26 letters in its alphabet, while Simplified Mandarin has more than 50,000 characters in its own “alphabet.” English represents its language with different shaped lines that form letters, which ultimately form words, while Mandarin Chinese represents its language with different shaped lines that form pictures or “characters,” and then the characters form words. Mandarin Chinese has a multitude of different dialects, too, or a version of the language, which is spoken in a specific region or by a particular cultural group. In many cases, one Chinese person may not understand another one, depending on the dialect he or she is speaking. English, on the other hand, also has different dialects, but they’re much more subtle and can be understood by all Americans, regardless of where they live. In other words, a person from Alabama might pronounce “cherry” different than someone from New York, but both will be able to clearly understand that it is the same word.

Additionally, China has two preferred geographic areas, rural and urban, while the US has three: rural, urban and suburban. China uses the Renminbi or RMB as its money, while the US uses the dollar. And being that it is basically on the other side of the world, China has a 12-hour time difference compared to the US, if you ever decide to travel over there.

Surprisingly, though, in many ways Chinese culture is very similar to that of American culture, despite being experienced in different languages. Just like the US, China has movies, sitcoms, children’s shows, dramas, soap operas and cartoons. Chinese people  have an amazing appreciation for family and life, just as Americans do.

In China, I have a family consisting of one grandfather, one grandmother, two uncles, three cousins and two aunts. My grandfather is named “水福,” which is pronounced “Shuǐ fú.” My grandmother is named “根娇,” which is pronounced “Gēn jiāo.” My older uncle is named “国云,” which is pronounced “Guó yún,” and he’s married to my aunt, who’s named “秀珍,” which is pronounced “Xiù zhēn.” My younger uncle is named “国康,” which is pronounced “Guó kāng,” and he’s married to my aunt, who’s named “建香,” which is pronounced “Jiàn xiāng.” My older cousin is named “鹏飞,” which is pronounced “Péng fēi.” My middle cousin is named “菲菲,” which is pronounced “Fēi fēi.” My newborn cousin is named “进进,” which is pronounced “Jìn jìn.”

In order to visit my home away from home, my American family and I have to travel three hours to New York City, then take a shuttle to Newark, NJ, then catch a 15-hour direct flight from Newark to Shanghai. When we arrive, it is too late to continue our journey, so we stay for the evening (our daytime in America) at a local hotel. Then, the next morning, we have a three-hour train ride that brings us to a “small” city (population: over 2.5 million!) known as Quzhou. After that, we have to take a taxi or ride in my uncle’s car (sometimes he comes to pick us up) to my family’s home. This exhausting process, including breaks and rest stops, takes almost two days, but when I finally get to see my Chinese family, it feels like the trip was all worth it. My family is caring, kind and compassionate towards me, surprising me with a nice gift every time I visit them. I think they might actually spend more money on me than themselves. They also try really hard to communicate with me in English and learn my English culture, or, as they say, “Western Culture.”

To me, being multicultural is difficult. Every Sunday, I go to Chinese school and am assigned homework that I have to work on throughout the week. Because Simplified Mandarin Chinese is such a complicated language, I’m positive that I will never truly understand each and every word of it. Even if I did learn every character in Simplified Mandarin Chinese and everything about China’s culture and history, I would still have to work hard to retain my knowledge of the Chinese language. Although I might not be the best or even average in terms of speaking, writing or reading Simplified Mandarin Chinese, it’s nice to be able to connect and communicate with my family—and let’s be honest: It’s fun for me to prank unsuspecting people with my multiculturality as well.

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