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'Ni Hao, Kai-lan': Tigers and Dragons and Mandarin Lessons

Joe Strike interviews the principals behind Nick Jr.'s new bicultural preschool series.

Ni Hao, Kai-lan started as a few shorts and evolved into TV's first preschool series to explore Chinese language and culture. All images © Nick Jr.

Ni Hao, Kai-lan ("Hello, Kai-lan") is Nick Jr.'s latest preschool series, and the first on TV to explore Chinese culture and language. Teaching Mandarin to 3- to 5-year-old viewers might seem a fool's errand, but that is way down on the list of the show's actual intentions. With a week's worth of new episodes premiering on March 24, show creator Karen Chau and Teri Weiss, Nickelodeon's senior VP of Preschool TV Production & Development, recently discussed young Kai-lan's adventures and her role in fostering cross-cultural understanding

Karen Chau: Ni Hao started out as a handful of shorts, but my original, original, original conception for them were as children's book illustrations. They were actually my first drawings in [Adobe] Illustrator.

I posted them on a book illustrations website. My character's name was Xiao Xiao Pong, which means "Little Little Fatty" -- it's a cultural thing, a term of endearment -- not an insult. [Ni Hao Executive Producer] Mary Harrington saw them, I met Mary and it went from there. I got to do three shorts for My World Stories [the Nick Jr. interstitial series exploring foreign cultures] called Downward Doghouse -- you know, like "Downward Dog" in yoga?

Joe Strike: How did it make the jump to series?

Teri Weiss: There was something really unique about the character. From a purely visual point of view, she really pops off the screen with her big, big eyes and the exuberance she had in her stories. Every time it came on the air our viewers couldn't get enough of it.

The background designs Karen created were really so unique and beautiful. It was really an opportunity to explore culture and experiences of a Chinese-American and use Karen's personal experience as a kind of platform for the idea of these two cultures coming together.

We were trying to figure [things] out from a curriculum standpoint -- obviously we were dealing with the richness of the Mandarin language, and the incredible things to explore in Chinese culture.

JS: There seems to be one word of Chinese per episode. Are you really planning to teach Chinese to preschoolers a word at a time?

KC: I think it's more of an introduction to the language. From the cultural standpoint, it's a playful perspective from Kai-lan's view of what Chinese-American culture is.

When I was growing up, it was truly bicultural, but it was a clashing of cultures. At home it was a very traditional Chinese household, versus going to school and being an American. I really wanted Kai-lan to be representative not just of the two cultures coming together, but a true hybrid celebrating both.

Ni Hao's creator Karen Chau wanted Kai-lan to be a true hybrid celebrating both Chinese and American cultures.

TW: In terms of the emotional component, I think the idea of integrating an emotional-intelligence curriculum stems from what Karen was talking about: the juxtaposition of expectations of how to behave in her conservative home versus how to behave as a preschooler or an elementary school kid.

We're not really born socialized. Kids have to learn aspects of integrating yourself. The idea of identifying emotions, your friends' emotions, then taking it to the next step of how to react to that, and then graduating to how do you help a friend solve a problem. [It's] an emotional moment, whether it's anger, jealousy, frustration or the excitement of not being able to contain yourself, or looking before you leap, thinking about one thing and not about the group. All of those social dynamics are really challenging for a preschooler.

JS: I noticed Rintoo the tiger seems to have a hard time dealing with things.

TW: What's really groundbreaking about Kai-lan is I don't think there are many shows where you see a tantrum. That is really interesting for kids -- to see all life onscreen. Kids really recognize it; they know what that is. All of a sudden here's Kai-lan trying to figure out how to make him feel better and help him understand how [his behavior] impacts everybody else.

It's a wonderful tool for kids. There's an excitement and playfulness about this show that's undeniable -- but there's also this substantive element.

KC: Tolee [Kai-lan's koala friend] has an identity crisis -- she wants to be a panda. It came from me. I guess I was a little bit peculiar when I was little: I would draw paws on my hands because I really wanted to be a bear. I thought being a bear would be the coolest thing.

Ni Hao also deals with kids' socialization issues. Tolee the koala (left) has an identity crisis and Rintoo the tiger (center) has tantrums.

JS: Do you still feel that way?

KC: Well sometimes, yes.

JS: Karen, this must be exciting for you. It sounds like you did some illustrations, and the next thing you have a show based on your characters. That doesn't happen very often.

KC: I feel like I got picked off the street -- I never thought it would happen. I used to doodle all the time and my dad would ask, "When are you going to get a real job?" To this day I'd go home every Sunday and, "When are you?" It's like a cultural difference thing. I think he's kind of mellowed out though -- my dad definitely understands "Viacom." Once he saw that attached, it's like, "I can kind of see it now." I'd show my dad pictures that I do or give him pictures as gifts and my dad goes, "I'm not sure what to think -- this is cute, right?"

Kai-lan really is founded in reality. She is a real 5-and-3/4-year-old Chinese-American. All the kids are very, very real; their emotions are real. At that age, emotions are something to learn and identify.

JS: Was the increased economic and political prominence of China in the world, and the upcoming Olympics, a factor in making Kai-lan a series?

TW: I'm really proud of how organically it evolved. We certainly didn't set out to say the next series we're going to make will have a Chinese-American protagonist. But as we brought her to forefront and she came to life and the show kept evolving, the Mandarin component became more and more intriguing to us. We also saw how much more aware kids are of China now. Preschools all over the country are celebrating Chinese New Year, and I can't say they did that five years ago when my son was in preschool.

KC: Not only is the Chinese-American population growing at a really high rate, but the Asian-American population across the board. Those kids identify instantly with Kai-lan too, because she looks like them. I think it's pretty amazing. When I was growing up in Texas, we were one of very few Asian-American families.

Nick didn't set out to create a series with a Chinese-American protagonist, but the Mandarin component and a growing awareness of Chinese culture in schools intrigued the network.

JS: You must've had a few rough spots because of that.

KC: A couple of rough spots. It's unfortunate but true that in a lot of Asian-American cultures, girls are not as valued as boys. I really think Kai-lan's independence is really important for girls and Asian-Americans in general.

JS: It sounds like you're not only trying to respect and spread the culture, but also help it evolve at the same time.

KC: It's a real coming together of two cultures. There's so much I appreciate in Western culture, in the ability to show affection and warmth, that it's okay to be open and hug your father. My dad has never hugged me, except for once when he was in the hospital and grabbed my hand -- and I've been around for 30 years.

In some ways, it's a very stoic culture. Being able to be so open with affection in the West is pretty amazing. I think there's a balance though -- in American culture it's all about the individual, but in Chinese culture it's all about seeking harmony.

My father was my biggest role model. He has so much heart. When I was seven, he taught me one thing that I hope is instilled in Kai-lan: whatever you do -- it doesn't matter whether you're cutting tofu or anything else -- just make sure you use your whole heart.

In Chinese culture, the heart plays such a big role, even linguistically: when you're happy, it's literally "open heart"; if you're sad, it's like "your heart is hurt." When my dad said those things to me, I didn't understand the depth of it, but as I get older I understand it more and more. It's such an amazing life lesson.

JS: You're telling half-hour (actually, 24-minute) stories rather than 11-minute ones?

Ni Hao's interactive component engages the show's young viewers in a call-and-response exercise based on the episode's Mandarin

TW: We've had so much success with Dora the Explorer's and Diego's format, and The Backyardigans are all 24-minute stories. Particularly with the interactive component that's in Ni Hao, Kai-lan, the call-and-response piece of it [where the show's young viewers repeat the episode's Mandarin "target word"] actually takes up a certain amount of time. To tell the kind of stories we want to tell, we needed that much time to get our point across, and to integrate the target words as often as we wanted to.

We put a lot of goals on our list of what we want to get into every 24 minutes. We didn't want to race through it in 11. It kind of came out of the first batch of scripts, when you get an idea of the kind of stories you want to tell and the beats at which you want to tell them.

The interactivity is a key component and it's hard to get our interactive shows in at 11 minutes. The Backyardigans isn't interactive, but it is a musical with four full-length songs in every episode. The interactivity piece [in the other shows] allows for a bit of breathing room as you tell the story.

JS: How many episodes have you done and where do you see it going in the long run?

TW: We just have 20 episodes for now. We launched on February 7 and we're doing really well in the ratings -- we're riding a wave. In a little bit of time, we'll be making some decisions about hopefully going back and doing some more.

JS: Karen, what's your next project?

KC: I'm focusing on Ni Hao at this point. Originally I wanted to do children's books and hopefully I can do one in the future.

JS: I would be very surprised if you don't get to do at least one based on your show.

Joe Strike is a regular contributor to AWN. His animation articles also appear in the NY Daily News and the New York Press.