Sunday, July 27, 2008

Parenting in Tongues

It's 6pm on a Sunday night.  Ming's boss's son, Kai is here in our apartment.  He a seemingly well-behaved boy of seven.  Ping, Ming's daughter, age four, is also here.  And then there's me; that makes three.

I've never been afraid of kids, just like I've never been afraid of adults (meaning, people my parents' age) because I feel at ease around people who aren't my peers.  But living in China puts a new twist on things, as always.  Suddenly, I'm a bit terrified of both little and big people.  

These two munchkins have been perched in front of the TV since 2 o'clock.  Sitting a child in front of the TV has never been my style.  Even as a nanny I always tried to keep it to a minimum of an hour or so during the day.  But there's no arguing, TV gives baby-sitters and parents a great break from responsibility-clearly, or I wouldn't be writing this blog right now.  It's not a break I'm looking for, however; my downfall is my lack of words.

My Chinese has progressed to the point of being able to tell Ping to pick out a DVD, get dressed so we can go outside, and stop eating junk food because she's gonna have a tummy ache.  While being able to express such things is a great help, my inability to explain or reason with her still remains.  While I'd like to ask Kai what else he'd like to do besides watch TV, I'm scared he won't understand me.  Or I won't understand his reply.  Or I will understand his reply but won't be able to explain why that choice is unacceptable.  This leaves me mostly silent and it's a problem that plagues me on a daily level.  To get over the fear and to just speak is key to language learning.  I know that, but putting it into practice is difficult.

I don't always give myself enough credit.  When Kai came over he asked Ping (in Chinese, of course), "Can your mom speak Chinese?"  I was not looking forward to Ping's answer.  Ping, like most young children, is brutally honest.  She was gonna tell it like it is.  She was going to out me for what I really am, a wannabe-Chinese-speaker.  Afterall, whenever Ming speaks English Ping often cuts in, "Let mom say it.  You say it wrong.  You can't speak English."  Girl is way harsh; that's why her reply surprised me.

"Yeah, my mom can speak Chinese.  She can speak English too.  She can speak both."  A shining moment.  A burst of confidence.  Little good it's done.  I've been mostly keeping quiet this afternoon.  But the shyness isn't the worst of it.  The worst is the frustration.  And frustration hit me hard earlier in the week.  

It was about dinnertime and Ming's mom came over to cook.  She told me to go downstairs and watch Ping, who was playing in our apartment complex's playground.  She'd have Ming call me when he got home from work and dinner was ready.  

When I arrived at the playground, Ping was being watched by an elderly lady.  She pushed Ping and two other girls in a tire swing.  
"My mom's here," Ping exclaimed, waving at me.  A minute or two passed as I watched the group play.  
"Where's your mommy?" the elderly lady asked Ping.  
"She's right there!" Ping replied, again pointing at me.  
"Impossible!"  The old lady exclaimed.  
"Really, that's my mom!"  Ping insisted while pointing.  I began to wave.  
"Really?"  the old bag asked skeptically.  I looked her in the eye and began nodding. 
At this point, a whole posse of old ladies, waving their Chinese fans, began eyeing me.  Me, the impostor.  Me, the infiltrator.  Me, the foreigner.  But I held my head up high.

Ping got nearly a good full hour of playtime in when my phone rang and it was time to go.  She was playing with a few girls in a gazebo while one girl's father looked on.  I approached them.  I called Ping's name, praying she'd go without a fight.  She ignored me.  
"You're mother's calling you," the father told her.
She looked at me casually.  Then looked away and continued singing with the other girls.
"Ping," I said again, keeping my voice level.  No response.
"Ok, bye-bye!" I said, walking away.  It's a good trick.  If they think you're leaving, they're bound to follow you.  Well, it usually works.  When I looked back, she wasn't behind me.  She was still singing happily away.
Now she came running.  I grabbed her hand forcefully.  Everyone was looking at us.  We walked quickly.  I wanted to tell her that it was important to come when I called.  That grandma and daddy where waiting for us.  I wanted to tell her so many things.  And I probably could.  But my fear and anger silenced me.  

I'm not sure how to get over my silence.  Then again, maybe I don't have to.  It is now 6:45 and they have grown tired of TV.  They are playing make believe (school, and Ping is the teacher).  They are doing exactly what I want without me even telling them.  I only had to wait a few hours for it to happen.

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