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  • Eileen Horng

How do you teach cultural appreciation?

Our family spent Thanksgiving week in Taipei, Taiwan. Due to the COVID pandemic, we have not been able to visit Taiwan for three years. Prior to that, we brought our older children to Taiwan every summer for eight consecutive years. My husband’s work only allowed him to stay for one week, but I stayed with the kids for an additional six to eight weeks. (While I enjoyed living in this extremely fun city, it was challenging for me since I am not fluent in Mandarin.) We enrolled the kids in summer camps to supplement the Mandarin they had learned during the school year in their U.S. Mandarin Immersion school.

There were other reasons why we spent our summers in Taiwan. My in-laws live here, and we wanted the children to spend an extended amount of time with their grandparents to get to really know them. We also wanted them to develop an appreciation of their cultural heritage. My husband is ninth or tenth generation Taiwanese. There is no amount of reading books, watching movies, or listening to stories that can match a lived experience in truly understanding and appreciating a culture.

The first few years I brought the kids back to Taipei for the summer, they looked forward to the trip. There was a sense of excitement in exploring a new city. However, the novelty eventually wore off, and the trips involved a combination of bribes and “I don’t want to hear any complaining; this is just what you have to do.” In all those years, there was barely a glimmer of appreciation or understanding about their cultural heritage. They thought learning Chinese calligraphy, creating clay pottery, and making paper were fun activities. They tolerated the er hu and yangqin (traditional Chinese instruments) lessons. They politely humored grandparents with walks in the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial park and visiting the Taiwan National Museum.

My daughter (the older one) was always more acquiescent, whereas my son was more recalcitrant (i.e., required a lot more bribing and cajoling). But something magical happened this trip to Taipei. Perhaps it is because we have not been able to visit for over three years or because he is now 16 years old and finally mature enough to understand that his cultural heritage is an important part of his identity. A few months ago, he actually asked if he could take er hu lessons and has progressed remarkably quickly. (Doing things because you want to rather than because your mom is making you probably has a lot to do with that.) We were renting the instrument and yesterday went to a local music store to purchase one for him. I was pleasantly surprised by the reverence he showed towards the instruments and the care he took in selecting one. Then he surprised us by asking if he could learn Taiwanese (the Chinese dialect his grandparents speak). He has also become very interested in my husband’s family history. And the best part is he has the Mandarin speaking and listening skills to ask his grandparents about it. He finally appreciates having the skills to communicate with them directly rather than through a translator. And then there are the little things: how much he loves the local food and knows how to order and eat it; the pride he has in feeling comfortable navigating his way through Taipei; his feeling of belonging here and musings of perhaps living here one day. (Again, I think he finally has an appreciation of having the language skills to have that even be a possibility.)

So the title of this blog was a trick question: How do you teach cultural appreciation? I don’t think that it is something that can be taught in a traditional sense with lessons. I do think that lived experiences can teach an appreciation of one’s cultural heritage - if you are patient enough to consistently provide those experiences and trust that someday something will “click” and the appreciation will show itself.

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