BY JEANMARIE TAN
IT PAYS to speak Mandarin.
One million dollars to be exact, in the case of US-born-and-bred siblings Tammy and Victor Jih, winners of the 14th season of popular reality series The Amazing Race.
And they have their hard-driving, mother tongue-endorsing parents to thank for it.
Although already considered one of the front runners this season, the Harvard-trained lawyers of Chinese descent received an even bigger boost when two legs of the race were set in China.
It was then that they started taking advantage of their 'imperfect' knowledge of Mandarin to communicate with the locals while the other English-speaking racers floundered with the language barrier.
The brother-and-sister duo also excelled in tasks like taking customers' orders in a Chinese restaurant and writing calligraphy.
They also made several self-deprecating remarks during those episodes, like bringing shame to their parents who may 'cry themselves to death' if they didn't come first in the China legs.
Tammy, 26, told The New Paper over the phone from San Francisco that those comments were 'part serious and part joking'.
She said: 'They'd be proud of us no matter what, but if we failed (those tasks), it would be shameful (because) they invested time and effort in getting us to learn the language.'
Victor, 35, added: 'Now they fight over who's more responsible for our success! But both of them are just happy we came home alive, because they expected us to lose.'
According to him, during their childhood, their mum refused to speak to them in English and forced the family to communicate only in Mandarin at home. Temper tantrums ensued.
Their parents are originally from Taiwan and lived in the US for 30 years, but have since returned to their home country.
Victor recalled: 'In kindergarten I couldn't even say 'I need to go to the bathroom' in English, so I wet my pants on the first day...
'We fought with our parents growing up (over attending Chinese school), but now we're grateful they never gave upon us.'
Coincidentally, the timing of their victory - which was filmed months ago but aired only on Sunday in the US - couldn't be more perfect as it fell on Mother's Day. Tammy said: 'We convinced them to make this crazy trip and fly to New York City at the last minute to watch the finale with us.
'They didn't know we'd won, so it was so special to share it with them, especially on Mother's Day.'
As their new windfall would go into paying off Tammy's law school loans, how are they going to repay mum?
Victor said: 'We're working on it, but they've said they'll take the Hawaii trip!'
That's one of four holidays the pair won for nabbing first place on one of the race's legs.
First Asian-American team to win
The Jihs are also the first Asian-American team to pocket The Amazing Race's US$1 million ($1.47m) prize.
Victor said: 'It was a surprise anyway, so it's great winning. Period. But it's also a vindication of the way we were brought up.'
The siblings - who were portrayed as being smart, strong, competitive, friendly and even physically attractive - said they've received e-mails from Asian-Americans and Asians from all over the world who were 'happy and proud' of the way they carried themselves onthe show.
Victor revealed that one of the e-mails came from a 'little Japanese kid' who said he had always argued with his mother too. But after watching them on the show, he thought it was a 'good idea' to stay in Japanese school.
Even though Victor had visited China before - most recently to Beijing for last year's Olympics - he saw the country in a new light after The Amazing Race.
He said: 'I felt very American around the other racers because they never treated us differently.
'But then I felt very Asian because the Chinese people around us treated us well too and were rooting for us, so it was then that I completely accepted both parts of my identity.'
This article was first published in The New Paper.