My wife brought my attention to a cool show that the “Nick Jr” channel (aimed at small children — of which we have one ) will be starting soon, called Ni Hao, Kai-lan. It’s a really great concept (article from the New York Times here). The animated shows strives hard to actually stress bilingual presentation of content (shifting between English and Mandarin). Whereas some shows — like Dora the Explorer — try to teach children a few words here and there in other languages, they are pretty much conducted 99% in English.
The show also aims to have a ‘comparative culture’ theme, whereas Dora like shows mostly just travel to other countries, always leaving the child watching the show engaged with other cultures in full “tourist” mode. As a parent (but also as a world citizen), I think Ni Hao is a great departure into new territory. It’s good to see that Nick Jr. recognizes the need for American children to become more familiar with China and with Chinese culture. This is not just because of globalization, or because the “world is getting smaller” — it’s just important to always be able to think about your own culture as opposed to being uncritically lost within it. And the only way to be able to do that is to be familiar with, and take seriously, cultures other than your own.
Too often, American children (and even grown ups) think of other cultures as Disneyland exhibits. If they go to visit those places, they quickly run to the “sights” and that’s it (a way of engaging endorsed by Dora, say). France isn’t a culture with a way of life and a history, it’s “France World.” It has good rides, like the Eiffel Tower, and it has a good food court and good mall shopping at the Champs Elysees (which has l’Arc de Triumph at the end for another good ride). For a person who has done his fair share of study-abroad trips, it astounds me the number of students who are very little interested in departing from this mode of travel. Instead of engaging with another culture, they “consume” it like it’s a product.
I’m glad to see that Nick Jr. is trying to start early and to get small children away from this. Let’s get away from just getting kids acquainted with the Great Wall and more into the Chinese way of living, which is just as authentic as our own. Moreover, let’s try to learn some of their language, not just a word or two here and there. These small steps — in cartoons aimed at small children — go a long way. Our attitudes towards foreign cultures start somewhere, they aren’t innate within us. Starting early to head off bad habits is a smart move on Nick Jr’s part.
Of course, given that we (Christie, Parker and I) will be in Beijing for six months next year, we also think it’s important that Parker pick up some Mandarin now (since she’ll be enrolled in a Chinese pre-school there). Well, to be honest we need to too. So we’ll probably be watching the show just as intently as she will!