Mandarin lesson

The little cartoon girl with the black hair and the big eyes looks straight into the camera, grins and opens her mouth. The words come out, and they are unexpected in both sound and tone: "hong se" &

the Mandarin Chinese term for "red."

In Nick Jr.'s new children's animated series, "Ni Hao, Kai-lan," the protagonist is Chinese American, the cultural and design influences echo China, and the embedded lessons are focused on the language spoken natively by more people than any tongue on earth.

"Ni Hao, Kai-lan" ("nihao" means hello in Mandarin) premieres Feb. 7 to coincide with Chinese New Year. The mindset behind it &

and how it seeks to do with Chinese what "Dora the Explorer" does for Spanish &

offers insight into how Chinese culture is ceasing to be exotic in America and taking its place in everyday life.

"We tried to respect not only Chinese culture but American culture also," says Karen Chau, a New York-born, Plano, Texas-bred Chinese American who created the show. "It's really 100 percent American and 100 percent Chinese," she says. "What we really don't want it to be is this isolation of one culture."

In an era when diversity is a buzzword, China remains, for many Americans, a broadly misunderstood culture. Many depictions of Chinese in American popular culture still suggest, if not overtly evoke, outdated notions of the "exotic Oriental" with the elaborate dynastic robe and even the wide-brimmed hat and slanty eyes.

But the emergence of Chinese culture here has only accelerated in the past few years &

particularly as more kids get to know Asian classmates, the economic status and education level of Chinese immigrants increases rapidly and American parents realize the importance of China in the global culture. In 2006, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were 3.6 million Chinese Americans &

not including the thousands of Chinese nationals who live here but are not citizens.

"There is a major emergence of Chinese culture and Chinese language, Chinese art, Chinese activities in the mainstream of U.S. society," says Sam Zhao, who runs the Center for U.S.-China Cooperation at the University of Denver in Colorado.

"Chinese people had so much more understanding of the U.S. than American people did of China for quite a while," Zhao says. "There was a deficit here in the U.S. in terms of understanding China. Now that understanding is becoming more balanced."

These days, "Mommy and me" Mandarin classes are expanding rapidly in suburbs and exurbs as non-Chinese Americans join up.

Each month brings new books on Chinese culture &

from last year's lovingly illustrated volume of posters made during China's Cultural Revolution to March's "The Fortune Cookie Chronicles," New York Times reporter Jennifer 8. Lee's exploration of Chinese food's journey through America.

"Ni Hao, Kai-lan" takes that mainstreaming directly to children &

no surprise from the kids' network behind "Dora," "Go, Diego, Go" and the multiracial CGI series "The Backyardigans."

"Our goal was to create diverse shows," says Brown Johnson, executive vice president and creative director for Nickelodeon Preschool. "We were trying to broaden our lexicon and look and the kinds of stories we told."

At Nick Jr., staffers associated with the series have been taking crash courses in Mandarin Chinese so they can be more literate about the show. Cultural and linguistic advisers are on board, too. To hear the show's producers tell it, all the immersion has been illuminating.

"There's just a tremendous amount to be learned from this culture," executive producer Mary Harrington says. "And China's place in the world and the global economy is going to have a big impact on kids, on today's 2- to 5-year-olds."

"Ni Hao, Kai-lan" focuses on a little girl, Kai-lan Chow, and her friends Rintoo (a tiger), Tolee (a koala), Hoho (a tiny monkey) and Lulu (a pink rhino). Together they wend their way through American childhoods and Chinese cultural adventures &

including lantern festivals, campouts and playing in the snow &

and learn lessons on how to manage anger and cooperate.

Kai-lan's most important relationship, though, is with Yeye, her grandpa ("yeye" is Mandarin for grandfather). The intergenerational interplay is wonderfully sophisticated and subtle for a kids' show, and the mannerisms of the grandfather (voiced by Clem Cheung) are pitch-perfect. "What I really wanted to share was bringing generations together," says show creator Chau, who was very close to her grandfather.

Linguistically, the show takes a two-pronged approach. A few words are showcased each episode, and viewers are given an opportunity to pronounce them aloud in a call-and-response session with Kai-lan. More seamlessly, Chinese words &

and the occasional Chinese character &

are offered up in context so it's easy to tell what they mean. Even the plots are calibrated to reflect aspects of Chinese and Chinese-American culture.

"Ni Hao, Kai-lan" has a look that's a little bit Pokemon, a little bit "South Park" (without the bad attitude) and a lot of Chinese toy and kid culture. Its visual style would feel right at home on a pencil case sold in any department store in central Beijing. One can imagine the appeal it could hold for the "Hello, Kitty" aficionados among us.

For anyone interested in China, "Ni Hao, Kai-lan" is a dramatic illustration of how much Chinese culture &

like Irish, German, Italian and so many other immigrant cultures before it &

is not only present in America but is part of us. That's part of why Jade-Lianna Gao Peters, the 11-year-old Milwaukee girl who voices Kai-lan, is excited about what American kids unfamiliar with Chinese culture can glean from the show.

"They can learn a lot," says Jade-Lianna, who was born in China and adopted when she was 8 months old. "They should watch it because the world's going globally Chinese. And they can learn a little Chinese ... and learn how to be a good friend."

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