Learning Chinese Hits Close to Home

Li-Lei Liu teaches Mandarin Chinese at Brooklyn Borough Hall. (Photo by Sierra Leone Starks)

Italian-American Vito Marinelli and his wife Lily, who is first generation Chinese, are among a few dozen people who signed up for the first Mandarin Chinese classes at Brooklyn’s Borough Hall this winter.

“It was something that he wanted to learn,” Lily Marinelli said of her husband’s idea to join the weekly lessons. “And it was something fun to do together.”

Married for three years and in their “late 30s,” the Marinellis are among the 5.4 million interracial marriages in the U.S., 6.6 percent or about 356,400 of them in New York State. Lily is also among the over 25 percent of Asian Americans who intermarry, according to a 2009 report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The free Mandarin Chinese classes, sponsored by Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz and the Taipei Economic & Cultural Office (TECO), began the second week of January as a way to promote intercultural exchange, be that between friends, associates – or significant others.

“There are impediments and there are beautiful features in interracial marriages,” said Harsh Bhasin, the chair of the Department of Asian and Asian American Studies at SUNY Stony Brook.

The free Mandarin Chinese classes end February 19 but may return in the future. (Photo by Sierra Leone Starks)

Learning the partner’s language is a way to overcome an obstacle unique to interracial marriages, said Bhasin, who is originally from India. He speaks from experience – both his children are married to someone who is not Indian.

Though it may prove impossible to master the foreign language, “whatever little you can learn substantially enhances the relationship,” Bhasin said.

In many immigrant communities, a marital relationship goes beyond the spouses to the extended family. In that context, learning the mother tongue can be very helpful.

“When my son-in-law goes to India, he just captivates the hearts of everyone in our family”  with his “monumental” effort to speak Hindi, Bhasin said.

Considering that there’s about 500,000 Chinese people living in New York City and a growing demand for Mandarin Chinese language skills in the job market, not to mention several Chinatowns in the five boroughs, it only makes sense to make Mandarin Chinese the first language program offered at Brooklyn’s Borough Hall.

Lily said after a few classes, her engineer husband was beginning to understand simple phrases.

“When we get the chance, we’ll try to review,” she said, citing car rides together and free time at home in Brooklyn as chances to practice what they’ve learned in class. “I’ll be his teacher and try to help him.”

The classes attracted 30 students who attended straight through. They wrap up Tuesday, February 19. TECO education director CJ Liu said he would be interested in extending the cooperation with Borough Hall in the future.

“I’m grateful for the classes,” said Lily, a voice coach. “I think it’s a great thing the city is doing and I’m glad to see so many people have showed up.”

As for how her family will receive her husband’s efforts to be able to communicate with them, “I think they’ll get a kick out of it,” she said.

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