Bilingual Bites! - Multi-disciplinary Artist Gracie Chai who Had a Love-Hate Relationship with Chinese While Growing Up

Having children gives us a chance to relive parts of our childhood. We get to rediscover and relearn many things too! In this Bilingual Bite, we speak with multi-talented mama Gracie Chai to hear more about her bilingual parenting journey.

Tell us about yourself, your family, and your career!

Hi, I'm Gracie! I'm a mum of 3. Currently, my kids are 7, 3 and 1 years old. I met my husband in Australia when I was doing my degree. Tongue in cheek, I thought he'd make for a good souvenir and brought him home!

My primary calling in this season is to be a stay-at-home-mum. I will occasionally, however, pick up commissions if they're a good fit time-wise and if it wouldn't take me too much away from my work at home. The closest I've come to describing what I do would be a multi-disciplinary artist. 

Please share with us your passions, hobbies, and projects!

I love to draw and make music, though I find it hard to make time for it now knee-deep mothering littles.

I've recently discovered a passion for bread making - because my kids just love eating it, and I want to be in precise control of the ingredients that go in them.

I'm also a bookworm. You'll most likely find me with my nose buried in a digital or physical book, bringing me to my latest project!

I'm delighted to share I've written my first story for 3 to 6-year-olds, titled: "So Much to See! So Much to Hear! A Week with Ari". It is a project initiated and produced by Migrant x Me. 

I'm also stoked to work with Lydia Yang (Oak and Bindi), whose illustration work I adore! It is a set that comes with wooden block puzzle pieces too! 

We hope this book and block set can help young children appreciate the migrant workers in our community and the invaluable work they contribute to our society. It is now available on Migrant x Me's website (!

What would a typical day look like for your family?

Lots of cooking together, reading aloud, working through chores, boisterous free-playing, napping and pacing ourselves with our academic goals.

What was your experience with the Chinese language growing up as a Singaporean? What was it like for your husband?

It's a love-hate relationship with the language. 

Being raised by my grandmother in my foundation years, who only spoke that and Cantonese, it's actually the first language I've used growing up. I recall not knowing much English in kindergarten, so I got bullied for it! At around the same time, my family hired a helper. English then became the default language of communication at home. I recall telling myself Mandarin had no currency at that point in my life and intentionally directed my energies toward mastering English.

Although I attended a reputed Chinese school, most of my peers spoke English. By then, I was fluent in the latter, and Chinese was just another subject I had to do well in. Nevertheless, I scored relatively decent grades, primarily by doing tons of 习字 and memorising some 好词好句 for my compositions. Communicating my thoughts in Mandarin in the same way I can in English is still something I grasp at.

I must say it's been at least a decade of not using the Chinese language since graduating from secondary school. My friends' preferred language is English too. I couldn't appreciate the language as much as I would like, mainly because of the dry way it was introduced to me at school. 

Another deterring factor was how my Mum always scolded me in Chinese (her most proficient language). When there was chastising to be done, she would switch from expressing in English to scolding in Chinese! As they say, "当作耳边风" (Oops, sorry, Mum!).

However, there is one memory that left an indelible impression on me. It was an episode of Sesame Street I caught as a primary school-aged kid. 

They introduced Chinese calligraphy and featured the word 川 by animating brush strokes into a moving stream. My mind was blown by how the word was literally a drawing! I recall mentioning it to my Mum on a night she would quiz me for my 听写. She would later show me more examples of pictographic words like 串, 口 and even traditional words like 龜, similar to a tortoise on its side. 

My husband is a true-blue banana: yellow on the outside; white on the inside. He's Aussie and knows little about the language aside from maybe the simple 你好, 谢谢, 再见, 要/不要, 这个, 那个. Although lately, he's been inspired by the YouTuber "老外爸爸"!

How does that impact how you raise them as bilinguals now?

Since the hubs know not Mandarin, the kids actually delight in being able to "teach" their Papa! Their latest triumph is getting him to say "robot".

Though this also means the duty of speaking and teaching the language at home falls squarely on me. 

Not wanting to have them experience how I picked up Chinese, which was by rote memory, I try to make things as fun as possible.

When my firstborn was still in kindy, I would have him form his 听写字 with Lego blocks to keep things interesting. I'd even shaped them out of bread dough once so he could go further than just playing with dough, but eat it too!

I also make sure to supply our home library with tonnes of beautifully illustrated picture books in English and Chinese, reading aloud to them daily.

In hindsight, have your children's preferences, confidence, and attitudes toward Mandarin changed?

They have improved leaps and bounds! 

From a fierce "YUCK I DO NOT LIKE CHINESE" (quoting my firstborn when he was merely 2 on just getting him to recite the numbers 1-10 in the language), to now willingly picking up books to read — even bugging me to go through their 四五快读 curriculum, and speaking to me in short Mandarin phrases on their own accord: I would say it's been nothing short of a miracle!

I see them slowly and indeed enjoying the Chinese language.

What hopes and goals do you have for your children as bilinguals?

I hope they discover the beauty in Mandarin earlier than I did as an adult. There is so much to plumb even just with its etymology alone! 

I hope they see the elegance and wit in a four-worded 成语, the delights and dance in a 歇后语 — accumulating knowledge in these, not as a means of scoring points in their compositions or simply to impress invigilators during oral examinations, but to really have a deep grasp of this poetic language. Mostly not to pit the two languages against one another but to give them their own proper standing and dignified weight. 

What are your favourite ways to engage them in Mandarin?

Through books and music!

What is your best piece of advice for a fellow bilingual parent?

Just keep at it and work on our own biases if we have any. Don't be discouraged. Growth is a process! 

Take it as an opportunity and a new lease we get in our own learning journeys. Let's embrace the ride we get to go on with our kids.  

As they say: 刀不磨要生锈,水不流要发臭! Let's learn alongside them!

Do you have any tips for choosing books for your home library?

Pick things that suit your kids' interests and even your own. After all, you will be the one who will be doing lots of the reading with them! 

Don't be afraid to curate a wide selection of genres. The more varied their reading diet, the better! 

Also, get gorgeously illustrated books. Those will give you tonnes of mileage even when the story gets too "kiddy" or old. 

In fact, I tell the kids, these are all MY books. They just get to browse them 😛.

What are your children's favourite Chinese books from My Story Treasury?

A hard one! There are too many they adore!

My firstborn loves 房子电车开车了 from 开车出发系列 (第三辑). It sparks his imagination so! The whimsical illustration truly transports!!

My daughter loves 逗逗镇 成语故事. She insists I read a booklet to her every night. I think the simplicity of the page layout captivates her, but mostly she finds the characters' names hilarious. 

My toddler really adores the 小布启蒙成长翻翻书 series. You'll find him grabbing for one the moment he wakes and bringing it back to the bedroom to peruse silently by himself — it's adorable! I think he must identify with Buster!

My favourite Chinese food is...

Herbal soups of any kind. A Cantonese through and through (though I, unfortunately, don't speak the dialect)

I like to unwind by...

Reading, go figure! 

A favourite childhood memory is...

I plucked borlotti beans out of their pods with my grandmother, and the time she rubbed a warm boiled egg over my nasty head bruise. 

A family tradition I love...

Is making special-motiffed bread for each kid's birthday

My favourite part of the day is...

When ALL my kids have gone to bed, I get some quiet time to myself just to sit and think.

At the end of my life, I'd like to be remembered as someone who...

Pointed people on the path in pursuit of the Prince of Peace.

Thank you, Gracie for sharing your tips on bilingual parenting and reminding us that growth is a process!

Be sure to check out her latest book So Much To See! So Much to Hear! A Week with Ari, and connect with her on Instagram.

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