Bringing up a child in a foreign land has many advantages. To me, the major one is that they grow up learning another language without trying to.
My child was born here, has been to Chinese schools since kindergarten, and at nearly 7 years old speaks Chinese and English equally well. His Chinese is, of course, far better than mine, his tones are spot on, and he has no trace of a foreign accent. While I can still stamp my authority on him, I find myself constantly reminding him that my English is still better than his.
At the moment, I can just about understand everything he says, though it gets tough with a Chinese friend in mid-play.
But what I hadn’t bargained for was a shift in the balance of power that comes with the ability to not only speak the language, but to speak it like a native.
In the depths of winter, it’s cold walking back from school. One afternoon, we stopped to speak to a neighbor I’d known since I was pregnant. She was with her toddler.
No sooner had we stopped to say hello than the conversation was simply snatched out of my mouth.
– “Boy or girl?” piped up my 7-year-old.
– “How old?”
– “A year and a half.”
– “Nice and fat, isn’t he? I should think he eats well.”
And so the conversation went on, from general chitchat about her son to my own son’s school, the food, the teachers, and so on.
After ten minutes on the sidelines stamping my feet, I heard myself whine, “I’m freezing, can we go home now?”
“In a minute, I’m just talking,” chided my meter-high master.
A week later, we passed a classmate of his on the back of her grandmother’s bike. She is picked up from school every day by her grandparents. On this particular day, her grandfather had been too busy to come.
I was just about to call out to the little girl, “See you tomorrow!” when a voice rang out from the child seat behind me:
“Her grandfather hasn’t come to pick her up today, then?”
He didn’t address his own peer; it was Grandma he spoke to, who simply answered, “No, not today.”
In this simple greeting, he showed how he knew exactly how a Chinese greeting would be made.
Where I called out the Western “See you tomorrow,” he stated the obvious – just like when you bump into a neighbor, they are likely to ask “Come back then?” when it’s obvious you have just returned home.
Last week, a toothless old man smiled at him in a park.
“What happened to your teeth?” immediately piped up my little boy.
“Oh, they just fell out,” said the old man, with no trace of offense.
If a Western child had said that to a Western old man, his mother would have scolded him for being rude, but here my son had already worked out that as he meant no offense, the old man wouldn’t take any.
I started feeling quite grumpy about this talent as we got home.
Then, suddenly: “Mummy, I can’t open the door, and I’m hungry, and I want some milk, can I have a lollipop?’
Well, at least between ourselves I still have the power.
Debbie Mason has lived in Beijing for more than ten years. She thought her Chinese was okay until she realized she could not understand her son and his Chinese playmates. In a bid to try and keep up with her 7-year-old, Debbie is taking Chinese classes at Live the Language. Follow her progress with her blog posts on beijingkids.
Photo by ernop via Flickr