The International Mom
Mixing cultures, languages and countries
My mom is from Hong Kong and my father is from England. Up until I was two years old I only spoke Cantonese. I’ve lived all over the world: Zambia, Hong Kong, Australia, Fiji, Egypt, the US, and boarding school in the UK.
When I was at school in London, I identified as being from Hong Kong because that was where I had spent most of my time before then. But when I turned 16, I couldn’t call anywhere home. I went through a bit of an identity crisis. I’m now more English than I am Chinese.
I was 22 when I came to Beijing to study Chinese, and I just stayed. My husband is born-and-bred Roman, through and through. When I first met him, I had never been to Italy. We met in a nightclub in Beijing nine years ago. In those days it was the only place people went. The next time I saw him I remembered his name and pronounced it correctly. That was it for us.
The more I understand his family dynamics, the more I can see the synergy between China and Italy. Both cultures are focused around food and family. It’s quite similar. We’ll probably send Marco to an international school. Here there’s a real pressure to get your kids into school really early. I’m not sure if we would send him off to school this young if we were in the UK or Italy.
When my son first started talking he spoke mainly Italian, I think because the sounds are easier to make than English. And I thought: “Where’s your mother’s tongue!” Now his English is much stronger than his Italian. At home we speak all three languages: Italian, English and Chinese. Most of the time when it’s the three of us we speak English, but when his ayi is around we all speak Chinese. He does tend to mix the three languages. Later, Marco might go through something similar to me: where does he belong, what is his identity. He’s born and raised in China but he isn’t Chinese. But he is going to have a pretty good understanding of Chinese culture, which is important.
As far as languages, I just get by. I cheat. I use pinyin; I can’t write very well but I can read. I’m not so fussy about my tones – I just talk and people understand me. My husband, however is a perfectionist. He knows his tones back to front. I understand a lot of Italian and when pushed I can speak, but it’s not as good as my Chinese. I wouldn’t say my husband and I have any cultural clashes, but the Italian way of expressing yourself is very loud, so excitable. My husband tends to raise his voice. We both understand each other though. He is very patient; he’s a major support
. We’ve been in Beijing so long; we’ve seen a lot of friends leave. I’m so used to it now, it’s been that way my whole life. Moving to so many different schools, making new friends all the time. But I was always the one to leave first. I find it difficult now to maintain relationships with friends overseas.
I used to push: “Move on, move on, move on” but Mauro, my husband, has been in Beijing for fifteen years – the guy is never going to leave. Years ago we talked about moving on, maybe to Hong Kong, but we’ve invested so much time here. We’re just coming into our own now. If we were to transfer to Hong Kong we’d go backwards six or seven years. I appreciate my mother’s culture more since living in Beijing. Now I understand why we have certain holidays, eat certain foods – these things have much more context than when I was a child. As told to Imogen Kandel.
Vanessa Marescialli is the Marketing Director for Swire. She is the mother of 2-year-old Marco.