I speak to my 18-month-old daughter, Echo, exclusively in English. My husband and my mother-in-law (who is her primary caregiver) speak to her in Chinese. English is being double-teamed at our house (let alone by the society in which we live), so I talk a lot. I tell my daughter everything about my day. I report our plans and daily schedule. I describe the view. You could say I’ve become a very chatty mommy.
One day, when I was picking up my daughter at my MIL’s house, I spoke to her about what we were going to have for dinner. “What is your Mommy saying?” my MIL said to my daughter with a guffaw. “You don’t understand, do you, Echo?”
I was shocked by the comment. “Of course she understands!” I said to my MIL sharply in Chinese. “Does she understand you when you speak to her in Chinese?”
“Of course she does!” she said dismissively, taking the bait. “Watch this!” From across the room, she directed Echo to bring her one of the blocks she was playing with, which my daughter obediently did.
I followed up with this: “What makes you think she understands you, but doesn’t understand me? The problem is that you don’t understand, but trust me – Echo is completely aware of what I’m saying!”
Then the games were on. I stood up and sat by my MIL across the room. I pointed to the crackers on the table and asked my daughter in English to bring Mommy a cracker. Again, obediently (and with a slightly bemused expression that perhaps belied her understanding of the cultural arm wrestle taking place), my daughter stood up and toddled toward the crackers. She grabbed one and walked over to Mommy with an outstretched hand.
Predictably, my victory was celebrated with nothing but a quick change of subject. The Chinese people in my life don’t typically admit defeat or acknowledge their error, but I knew recognition would come. Eventually.
The next time we visited my husband’s hometown in Shandong, while sitting in his extended relatives’ living room, I noticed a fruit knife lying on the coffee table. Echo was circling the table to everyone’s delight, and noticed the knife almost at the same time I did. We simultaneously lunged for it. I shouted in English: “No, baby, don’t touch that! Mommy says you can’t touch knives, remember? Those are very dangerous!” She froze mid-reach, and I got to the knife in time.
My MIL witnessed this exchange and spoke about her granddaughter’s inherent genius. “Did you see that? She already understands English and Chinese!” she said. The other family members nodded approvingly, repeating the age-old belief that mixed babies are naturally more intelligent than Chinese babies.
That was my acknowledgement of victory. These subtle moments can be easily missed if I’m not paying attention, but they are golden nuggets of recognition from my Chinese family. After five years, my ears have become keenly attuned to their glint.
Nowadays, my MIL has taken her pride one step further. She recently proclaimed: “I don’t need to learn English! I’ll always have a real-life translator by my side!” I had to laugh; we’ll see how willing her granddaughter is to translate when she’s a teenager…
Illustration by Sun Zheng
This article originally appeared on p55 of the beijingkids August 2013 issue.
Check out the PDF version online at Issuu.com