Hello, my name is Karen Yoon-Kung and I just learned of the Asian Language Exchange & Social Network today when I was browsing through the Yelp website and there was a Yelp page for this site. I was aiming to sign up for Mandarin classes at ABC Language Exchange in Chelsea in September but I also found this website as well. This is a dream come true for me as I’ve been looking for a place to fulfill my dream of learning, promoting and helping Chinese to everyone. It is a sad state that none of my family members in the next generation is as fluent as I am and use English as a primary way of communication without much knowledge of Chinese at all. What bothers me more is when they have no interest in learning. I know Cantonese is a dying language, but I want to do my best to save and pass it on as much as I can. I’m about to write a lot because I feel so passionate about language learning.
My Father and Mother were born in Hong Kong and eventually immigrated to the U.S. in their teen years where they met each other and got married. Naturally, they both have a native Cantonese tongue. Both my grandmothers speak Toisanese. I didn’t have a chance to spend time with my grandfathers (one past away before I was born and the other passed away when I was a child, but I believe he spoke Toisanese as well.)
I grew up in Long Island, where I felt like I didn’t belong since there was barely an Asian community there and spent my entire childhood Saturdays in Chinatown, NY. My parents sent me to the Yamaha Music School and then Chinese school when I was young. I went to a Chinese School on Elizabeth Street (I think) when I was really young (probably about four years old) when at the beginning of each class, we had to stand up and sing Chinese military sounding songs (which I believe now are possibly Chinese Nationalistic songs) in Mandarin. I had no idea what I was singing. Afterwards, we were seated. Even before that experience, I remember holding on to my mom’s legs because I was scared to attend class. Then my teacher pried me away from my mother’s leg and sat me down at the back of the class and asked me if I can write the number “9” in Chinese, which I told her I could. My grandma was teaching me written Chinese even before I attended classes. I assimilated into the classroom quickly, but I remember the next week, another boy did the same thing and held on to his mother’s leg and I realized that I had grown up because I thought he was silly. At this old school, I also learned Chinese calligraphy, my favorite part of class and homework.
All my life, my mom never hesitated to place me in different situations and classes. She eventually pulled me out of the school on Elizabeth St and put me into the Chinese Transfiguration School on Mott St. where I spent the rest of my elementary education. I actually failed second and third grade about two times in total so it was sad and a bit humiliating when I couldn’t graduate with the classmates that I knew and ranked bottom three of my class. Every year I saw different faces, but I never quit like my younger brother did. Teachers always commented about my complicated last name “gong” with twenty-two stroke counts and the fact my words are written so ugly. While most students are casual learners, by the time I reached fifth grade, I was determined to rank #1 by sixth grade. I shaped up and memorized words to the best of my ability. I’ll never forget my favorite teacher Ms. Cheung who eventually trusted me as a good student and always called on me in class.
Also at this school, we were given Church classes once a month where we talked about Virgin Mary and we always said a prayer before we went to class at the Church or the nearby school where classes were held. I was not religious, but I went along with it. We had special music classes maybe once or twice in my childhood.
Before school, my mom usually buys me a Shanghai bun and I eat it before going to class or we go to have dim sum with my grandma. After school, sometimes, I would go to the stationary store and buy a “Lao Fu Zhi” (Old Master Q) comic and read it mostly for the pictures (Later on I would actually read it.)
At age 15, I accomplished my goal and rank #1 in my sixth and final year of elementary education. It was a glorious moment for me and I received a trophy.
Though, I am thankful today for the education, I did not feel like I received a full education. I can read some words, but I have trouble understanding at times. I felt I received a random education. I can read more than I can write and I usually guess the words I don’t know and it ends up being right. Cantopop, TVB and ATV dramas fueled my interest in Cantonese thorughout my life up until my parents divorced and I had a period in my life where I rejected anything Chinese, therefore, going upstate to avoid everything, avoid my fate.
Fate returned when I persued a Music Industry degree and took up interning jobs in Manhattan. Eventually, I joined Sinovision TV station as an intern for the music show, Chinese Popstar with JoJo Zhou. With my limited knowledge of Chinese, I was translating documents into English, but had limited understanding of Mandarin, which everybody spoke. Another internship I worked on was at HKVPradio.com headed by Annie Lam where I wrote biographies about Hong Kong pop singers and also archived Cantopop music.
After obtaining a job in an unrelated industry, I went to Nassau Community College to take a Chinese Mandarin course. The class was going too slow for me, but I learned the importance of pronunciation, Romanization, and the four tones. I was able to connect Cantonese and Mandarin together.
After marriage, I settled down in Queens, NY where I realized that being in Flushing, NY is such a scary thing. Everybody spoke Mandarin and that scared me since I could not confidently communicate. People started treating me differently because I couldn’t communicate. I don’t know the difference between Taiwanese and Mandarin languages so I shied away from Flushing.
I always take the opportunities to learn Chinese when I come across them. Last year, the Queens library was offering free Chinese classes at the Woodhaven library once a week for ten weeks for free. My teacher was Taiwanese and taught me Mandarin using traditional characters to my relief. Unfortunately, what I learned didn’t stick to my memory and I probably forgotten everything I learned. The lessons were really random and it was hard to practice.
Ever since marrying my Korean husband, I have taken a liking to Korean culture. I love its food, music, and TV dramas. I have made it a life-long goal to pursue Korean so I am able to speak to family members and perhaps some friends.
I’ve tried Pimsleur audio lessons, bought various books, and I’m still learning randomly Cantonese, Mandarin, and Korean, my three main language passions.
I plan to start some self-help blogs regarding Cantonese, Mandarin, and Korean in efforts to demystify the language and get support and help from others. There are so many things I don’t know about the language and culture that I hope to learn. This could be a silly dream, but if I could, I would build the best language school for learning. The only problem is that I lack the confidence and knowledge to do so. I hope to my future child learns at least four languages: English, Cantonese, Korean, and Mandarin.
Though, language learning is my second biggest dream, my first biggest dream is to write fiction books.
Now that I found Asian Language Exchange & Social Network, I hope to participate in any way I can.