When she was young, Kimberly Tan thought of her grandfather’s apartment as the “center of Taipei.” Though she grew up in New Jersey, she spent many summers at her grandparents’ house, often bunking three to a room with some of her nine cousins. During the day, relatives would take them to local attractions, like the port city of Jiufen or Yangmingshan National Park. At night, they’d gather around the dinner table and she would converse with her grandmother in choppy English and Mandarin. “My grandmother didn’t speak any English, but she loved pretending to learn,” Tan remembers.
These are some of Tan’s fondest memories, and she credits her time in Taiwan with sparking dual interests in travel and language. But as enjoyable as those dinnertime conversations were, actually learning Chinese proved to be more difficult, as it required more effort and time. Once she was back in New Jersey, her grandfather would ask her to mail him letters in Chinese, and he would reply days or weeks later in English.
Simultaneously, Tan’s parents emphasized the importance of attending weekend Chinese school, where many suburban Chinese and Taiwanese Americans learn their parents’ native languages. Tan says the decision to drop out is so common, it could almost be considered a rite of passage for suburban Taiwanese Americans like her, but she stuck with it. “I was very lucky that my parents almost forced me to learn the language,” Tan says. In retrospect, she says, “it wasn’t a chore, it was just difficult.” It’s a distinction that Tan often considers in her fifth-grade classroom at Ethical Culture, as she encourages students to push through concepts or lessons that initially appear to be overly complex or unappealing.
Eventually, language grew to be more than just an academic challenge for Tan. Speaking Mandarin morphed into a connective tissue between her and so many other Chinese speakers she encountered during her travels. It was as if learning the language gave her access to some special community, one whose secret code just happened to be the world’s most spoken language.
In college, while Tan majored in human development — which she describes as similar to child psychology — she took as many Chinese and Spanish courses as possible. At this point, her parents reversed course. “The running joke is, my dad asks me, ‘What the heck did you major in? It’s Cornell! You should’ve gone into engineering!’” Tan recalls, laughing. “But there was no way.” She had already seen the doors that language could open for her.
Dad, you’re missing the point: You have to learn something different.
Her junior year, Tan chose to study abroad in Spain — another decision that baffled her dad, who wondered why she didn’t go to China instead. “And I said, ‘Dad, you’re missing the point: You have to learn something different,’” Tan recalls. She chose to study at a university in the city of Salamanca, a smaller college town a couple hours northwest of Madrid. It was the type of place where you’d see the same people every day — and because few people spoke English, the type of place where one was forced to use the local language.
Speaking Spanish gave her yet another network of people with shared experiences and understandings — it was what her parents had wanted her for all along. Language means connection.
These days, she tries to impart to students the importance of studying foreign languages, especially if it enables them to better communicate with family members who aren’t native English speakers. Some students occasionally complain to her that it’s too difficult, and they want to quit.
“I tell them, ‘Absolutely not. It’s good for you. I’d know.’”