Almost every Asian kid who’s grown up in a Western country has some semblance of experience with ‘Chinese School’; an unappealing waste of any adolescent child’s weekend that could be better spent anywhere but in a classroom for six hours. In the two or three months I spent at Chinese school, the only word I remember learning was 不倒翁bu dao weng (a roly poly toy), a phrase which until today I have yet to put to good use. Other friends have endured years of Chinese school, coming out the other end to only remember how to say 你好ni hao (Hello). This collective experience, along with many other factors have cumulated in a collective understanding of learning Chinese as 'uncool', sparking a trend of media representations that normalize and render it widely acceptable for Asian diasporic youths to overlook their cultural heritage.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with Asian diasporic youths not being able to speak Chinese per se, as individuals are diverse and unique. But conversely, the lack thereof of representations which encourage a return to ones' roots may be harmful to those who find an understanding of their native languages and traditions helpful in their search for identity and meaning. In a previous interview with Korean-American singer-songwriter Big Phony, he put it most aptly when he spoke of how learning Korean helped him to work through many of his own personal issues:
"For me, learning Korean helped me sort out some issues in my life I didn’t even know I really had. Although, I have Asian American friends that don’t speak their native languages and they seem to be doing just fine. I had all sorts of personal problems before moving to Seoul. Learning Korean was positive for me but I can't really say for others. If you feel it might help you in some way, I say explore it."
But getting back to the topic at hand, it’s about time someone championed a new breed of content that encourages language and cultural exchange in an easily accessible manner for Asian Americans, Canadians, Australians and more. Despite YouTube and new media being widely hailed as safe spaces for Asian diasporic communities to come together and thrive, the content of Wongfu, Ryan Higa, David Choi and more often fail to touch on the importance of native languages and the influence of Eastern tradition on their lives and their content. But it seems that the task has fallen to a group of guys from Toronto going by the name of CantoMando who are passionate about sharing their Asian diasporic experiences and native language skills with the rest of the internet.
A YouTube and new media platform that was created in 2016, CantoMando was founded by Toronto-based university student Sheldon Ho for teaching Asian Canadian/American/Australian youth Mandarin or Cantonese in a relatable manner. Today, joined by close friends Mike Wu and Edward Leung, CantoMando’s content has evolved into relatable skits featuring everyday situations (my favourite being Shit That Happens At Chinese School) and long-form content that creatively tests the three amiable guys’ somewhat limited Mandarin and Cantonese skills (see their 2x Korean Nuclear Spicy Noodle Translation Challenge). Although onscreen it seems like it’s all fun and games, Ho reveals that there has always been a game plan involved - to make learning Chinese and Eastern culture cool for other Asian youth like themselves.
“Our goal was to teach Mandarin initially... so when we went to skits and comedy, we wanted to bring that whole theme of Chinese language, Cantonese/Mandarin into our videos and skits, and kind of show Asian Americans, Asian Canadians the Chinese language. Because over here a lot of people think it’s not cool and I used to think that Mandarin was so stupid sounding, same with Cantonese, I used to hate hearing it all the time. So it was kind of just to show that (our language is) something to be proud of and something you should embrace.”
It was also interesting to see how the three guys came to discover their passion for understanding Eastern culture and language in various different ways (hint: NOT through Chinese school). Sheldon rekindled his passion for the language due to a culture shock (when he was young he thought Cantonese was a majority language in the world, before realizing a large majority of Asians speak Chinese while in University), while it took Mike a trip back to China to gain a sense of home and belonging. Edward found his passion through a genuine interest in different cultures and languages.