Ni Hao Kai-Lan Nick Jr. Show
I just happened to read an article today about a new Nick Jr. show called “Ni Hao Kai-Lan” which has been hailed as the “Dora the Explorer” for Chinese American kids.
It airs tomorrow morning on Nick Jr. I’ll include an article I read about it, and the website on Nick Jr. Maybe someone can check it out and let us all know how it goes.
New Nick show ‘mainstreams’ Chinese culture
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if not overtly evoke, outdated notions of the “exotic Oriental”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
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
“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