Katrina Liu on Asian American Motherhood: “Mina Learns Chinese”

There are a lot of things that delight me about children’s books despite being a single, childless, young adult. For example, in Katrina Liu’s bilingual book, “I Love Boba,” I’ve found a new favorite bit of joyful dialogue: “但是你是叫它波霸奶茶, 珍珠奶茶, 還是泡泡茶呢? Do you call it boba, pearl tea, or bubble tea?” 

That, and a sweetly illustrated girl wisely explaining why fat straws are more appropriate than skinny ones for drinking boba. 

Frustrated by the lack of engaging, accessible Chinese books with Pinyin and English, Katrina Liu created her own book series, the most recent of which is “I Love Boba! 我愛珍珠奶茶!” Liu identifies as Chinese and Taiwanese American; her husband is third-generation Chinese American. Katrina can speak some conversational Mandarin Chinese; her husband speaks only English. Neither read nor write Chinese, which is what makes this venture so special: these books aren’t developed for parents to teach Chinese to their children, but so parents can learn the language alongside them. 

Other books in the series include “Mina’s First Day of School”, “Mina’s Scavenger Hunt,” and “Mina’s Ups and Downs.” Mina, of course, is inspired by, and written for, Liu’s daughter. 

“I regret not being fluent in Mandarin Chinese, and I want to ensure that Mina is exposed to this aspect of our heritage,” she writes. “I grew up in the 80s/90s and went to a predominantly white elementary school. I was extremely shy and insecure as a child. I pushed away everything about my culture because of how badly I wanted to fit in with the other kids. I purposely stopped speaking Mandarin at home and hated eating Chinese food. I was trying to erase so much of myself that in the 6th grade, my school forgot to put my picture in the yearbook. My ENTIRE grade only had 30 kids — I was that forgettable.” (A school bully, by the way, taunted Liu for bringing a Taiwanese tea egg to school, calling it a “rotten egg.” There was definitely a rotten egg in this encounter, and it wasn’t the snack.) 

Her experience, or at least her lost fluency, may be familiar to later generations of Asian Americans, who for any number of reasons were unable to develop or retain multilingualism in their own households. Her determination to cultivate this in adulthood, though, feels particularly inspiring from the vantage point of a “next” generation of Asian American parents: “As my daughter was about to embark on her next milestone of going to school, l hoped and wished that she would have a better experience than I did. That she could feel confident in herself and proud of her culture and heritage. I also wanted her to have the opportunity to be bilingual —something that I always regretted pushing away during my childhood.”

Part of why Liu’s story fascinates me so much is that she and her peers are cultivating a new Asian American community that is less tethered to the challenges of immigration and assimilation of their first-generation parents, and more explorative of their own agencies as a more confidently situated diaspora. Taiwanese Americans especially have a more recent immigration history than many other Asian American communities; people like Liu are really forging the blueprint for second, third, fourth generation Taiwanese American identity as they go. They are making important choices about how they will identify, and what their Taiwanese and/or Asian heritage will imply for their own children. 

“My mission,” she concludes, “is to leave a legacy for my daughter by creating books where she can see herself reflected in them.” 

And now so many other Asian American children will benefit from this mother’s gift to her daughter. 

You can learn more about “Mina Learns Chinese,” including where to purchase the books (available internationally!) here: https://www.minalearnschinese.com/

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