Wednesday, January 26, 2011

My Blond-Haired, Blue-Eyed (Part) Chinese Boy

Cedar, 9 months

I never expected to give birth to a blond-haired, blue-eyed boy. Especially since my husband and I both have brown hair and brown eyes. But my husband was blond when he was a young boy, and the blue eyes probably came from somewhere on his side, too. They most definitely did not come from my mom’s side of the family, a.k.a. the Chinese half of my blood.

Cedar is one-quarter Chinese. Some insist that they can see the Chinese in him, and in certain pictures his Asian features do come across real strong. But most of the time when people look at him, I seriously doubt that they would guess he is part Chinese unless they saw me and knew I was his mom. 

I want Cedar to learn Chinese, but I seldom speak to him in Chinese. Here and there, every now and then, but probably not enough to make a big difference.
Instead, I’m half-heartedly counting on my mom, his Popo, who watches him once or twice a week for a few hours, to be the influencing factor. The time they spend together is not a lot, but nevertheless a couple of the words that he knows the best are ones that she taught him. The first is ‘xiao niao’, little birds, which he likes to watch out of my parents’ big picture window—the chickadees that flit to and from their feeder, the crows that make their daily migrations across the sky. The second word is, ‘deng’ or light—“Kai deng deng”—turn on the light. Or kan deng, or guan deng—look at or shut off the light. 

Since I know that Cedar is learning these phrases from my mom, then I reinforce them myself so that now these words have become the very words that he recognizes the most. It helps that they are associated with daily occurrences that are interesting to him. Cedar loves to watch birds and we see them often on our walks to the pond. Sometimes when we look at books together and I point out the ‘xiao niao’ on the page, his head will whip around to look out the window. And when I say something about the ‘deng’, his head automatically turns to wait for me to turn on the light. Watching him learn is so incredibly satisfying.

But it’s hard for me to use Chinese with Cedar more often. English is my dominant tongue, and thus the most natural language for me to chatter in with him throughout the day. I’m not in a phase of life when I’m using Chinese often, like when I lived in China or when I studied Chinese at the UW, and so it can feel a little forced to me at times to say things to him in Chinese. Even though you’d think that talking to a baby would be simple enough, sometimes I still stumble upon words that I don’t know and I’m just not fluent enough, at least not right now, to keep up the constant dialogue. It takes too much effort—and any extra effort right now is in short supply. It helps to hear my mom talk to him, and to thus be inspired to repeat the phrases that he’s already hearing elsewhere. But on my own, I often don’t do much more than point out a few words in a picture book.

My sister gave Cedar a book of images from nature for Christmas, and perhaps because I know how to say all the words in Chinese, I’ve deemed that the book to be the one that I read to Cedar in Chinese. So when we read that book, the banana is a ‘xiangjiao’, the flower a ‘hua’, the cat a ‘mao mi’ and the dog a ‘xiao gou’. But then, in other contexts, mixed in with the natural flow and chatter of our day, the dog mostly goes back to being a doggie, the cat a kitty, and the banana a banana. 

It’s hard to switch back and forth between languages. I don’t want to switch mid-sentence because that seems confusing, yet I don’t have enough discipline to declare certain times of day or contexts “Chinese immersion times.” If I were really serious about Cedar learning Chinese, I should use Chinese with him exclusively-- that’s the only way that it would have a shot in hell at competing with English which will eventually be reinforced for him everywhere. But I just don’t see that happening. Mothering is too hard as it is to want to impose one more challenge on myself. And since I’m the person who is with him ALL the time and I mostly speak to him in English, it’s only natural that I want to glean the satisfaction of seeing him recognize those first words that in English too.

They say that kids who grow up bilingual are usually a little slower at first to master new words and phrases, but by age four or so their dual vocabularies take off and then they can easily speak two languages. This is what happened with me I suppose, and I think it is also why I was so shy when I first entered preschool—all these people, speaking in English, a language I understood perfectly, but not one I used all the time. 

Cedar, in a more "Asian moment."

It’s not going to be this way for Cedar though, and I know I needn’t over-think this whole process. I should just speak Chinese to him as much as I can so that, first and foremost, he’ll become familiar with the sounds and tones and therefore make it easier for him to pick it up later in life if he should choose to study it (or if I should choose to make him study it before he’s old enough to protest). 

Easier said than done though, of course. What I’m encountering here, is a three decade old pattern of resistance to speaking Chinese that I’ve built up—and broken down—and built up—and broken down, over and over again, in myself. As a child, I understood and spoke Chinese with fluency, yet the older I got the less comfortable I grew in speaking it. It took moving to China for three years in my twenties and cohabitating with a Chinese boyfriend for my Chinese to finally attain a level of fluency that I could be proud of. Yet now, I’m back in a ‘haven’t spoken Chinese regularly for WAY too long’ phase in my life. 

But Chinese is still important enough to me that I can easily imagine putting on those annoying Chinese children’s c.d.s, and maybe even eventually starting my own Chinese class for kids in my living room when Cedar’s a bit older (in which he can be the star pupil)—after all, if the Caucasian neighbor kids are learning Chinese, Cedar better be too!  My ability to speak Chinese—and my desire to stay fluent—is a vital part of who I am. And by extension, I’d love to pass this language on to my son.

Not only could Chinese be an incredibly useful asset to his life, but more importantly, I want Cedar to know that, like mama, he is also part Chinese in more than a “this is what we sometimes eat” or in a census-form kind of way. I would love for the sounds and rhythms of Mandarin to infuse Cedar’s childhood memories as they did for me. I would love for this language to be one more thing that we share-- even if he may not remember it.


  1. Great post, Anne. My sister is currently living in China and studying Chinese. It was hilarious when they were home for the holidays and her kids (1/4 Japanese) rolled their eyes at her for speaking Chinese. "Just speak English," they said. Someday they'll wish they'd tried a little harder on that second language. The few Japanese words I know still resonate with me as I'm sure they will with little Cedar.

  2. Thanks, Noriko! And thanks for reposting my link. Yes, I can imagine Cedar saying that to me someday. But if he understands what I'm saying, then that's what counts.
    I used to work at a preschool and would occasionally say a few things to the Chinese kids there in Chinese. "Why are you talking like that?" they'd say to me with wide-eyed wonder-- Chinese was for home. They weren't used to someone from the outside public world speaking in that tongue. I'd confused them. But in the toddler room the Chinese kids could go in and out of languages with me. It's fascinating to me when those shifts happen between public and private worlds/languages for kids...

  3. My partner is 1/4 Eskimo. At 57, he now has a white beard, lots of gray hair and the same blue-green eyes. His half Eskimo mother and full Eskimo grandmother, I am told were, quite amazed when he showed up.

    Both he and I live in the world of "born as mixed-race children", now negotiating the world at mixed race adults.

    He is the lightest of all of his 5 siblings. I am a medium shade comparatively with my also 5 siblings.

    We both have lots of stories about color, other people's view of our color, color comparisons, hair textures and color, tanning, depth and shades of eye color, etc.

    But the old and young traditional people in our villages see us both fully - all parts. That has been a joy and a relief to both of us. A home finally claimed us as theirs.

    Over time, I have come to make my inner life energy/force my first/most primary identity and to view all external identities as secondary - my physical shell.



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