By Trevor Marshallsea
It’s started already. My offspring are only 8 and 7, yet I’m undergoing a common parental transformation. I’m changing not so much from hero to zero – as the cliché goes – but from hero to complete, utter, hideous embarrassment.
This happens to expat parents earlier than to common house parents. It’s not because expat kids are more precocious than domesticated ones (though they do get world-weary by the age of about five). It’s because of the language they use. In our case, the language is Chinese.
Parents often complain they can’t understand what their kids are saying. In this case, it’s the reverse. I could swear, bellow or shriek – all are more acceptable to my daughters than me speaking Chinese.
My particular brand of Mandarin gets described in various ways by various people. These include “Great!” by me; “Fantastic, amazing, I can’t believe you’re not Chinese,” by the polite locals; “Awesome!” (me again); “No, we’re laughing at you,” by my wife; “Lucrative,” by my Chinese teacher; and “Dad, are you speaking Chinese?” by my two insubordinates.
It’s easy for them to say. It’s a lot harder for me to say.
This is because they’ve been learning it, properly, from the ages of three and one. They don’t know it’s sometimes ranked third-hardest language on Earth (I’m never going to the Basque country or Hungary). And they didn’t have to get their head around any linguistic revolutions, because everything was new to them anyway.
Unlike them, with my greater years I could assess things about Mandarin – such as how learning to use its four tones correctly is actually very hard. That’s why I took an important early decision concerning the tones: that I would not bother using them.
I do get by with my Chinese. I can make myself understood, though sometimes it’s like a dodgy lawnmower – it can take a few goes, and some physicality, to get it operational – and is about as pleasing on the ear. And quite often, bits fall off and I can’t find them again when I need them. Such as little words that mean so much, like zi.
‘Dà xiāngzi’ means ‘big box.’ Forget the ‘zi,’ however, and – assuming you’ve got the wrong tone – you’ll be talking about quite a different object. This was illustrated by a recent exchange between myself and a bookstore assistant, witnessed by my two cringing girls:
Me: I’ve bought quite a few books. Do you have a bag?
Shop Assistant: No.
Me: Then do you have an elephant?
Me: An elephant.
SA: Err, no.
Me: Do you have an elephant out the back?
SA: Really, we don’t.
Me: Jeez! What kind of a...
SA: Ooooh! You mean a big box!
Me: Yes! That’s what I said – an elephant!
Not only did they not keep a dà xiàng out back, they didn’t have a big box or bag. So who looks foolish now, hmmm? I blamed the kids, for not correcting me sooner. They defended themselves, saying they had “no idea what the hell” I was talking about.
The girls were excited about our recent trip to Harbin for the Festival of Freezing Your Butt Off. Well they were excited, until I started asking our hotel’s young female receptionist about dog sledding.
I figured ‘chē’ would do for ‘sled,’ as it’s used for most vehicles, although it does sound a lot like ‘eat’ (chī). And, heck, it’s easy to confuse ‘dog’ (gǒu) and ‘tall’ (gāo), right? Any fool could do it.
Me: We want the vehicles that go on the ice!
Receptionist: A sled?
Me: Yes. The kind that are pulled by the tall.
Receptionist: The… the what?
Me: You know? We want to eat… a tall sled.
Receptionist: (The Chinese for WTF?!)
Me (with dogsled-driving actions): This!
Lani: Daddy! She thinks you’re doing Gangnam Style.
Me (still doing Gangnam Style): Woof! Woof!
The kids edged away. The receptionist stared. Who knew Chinese dogs don’t say ‘woof woof?’ Turns out they say ‘wang wang.’ (German dogs say ‘vow vow’; Albanians ‘ham ham,’ etc.) The receptionist clearly had no idea who or what goes ‘woof woof’ while doing Gangnam Style in a hotel lobby, but you could tell it wasn’t something she’d easily forget.
OK, I admit my Chinese can be like a can of worms left open in a minefield. For example, our ayi’s two favorite sayings of mine are:
“The kids are hungry! Give them a scooter!” (Snack: xiǎochī; small vehicle: xiǎochē.)
“Their hands are cold! Get them some chips!” (Gloves: shǒutào; French fries: shǔtiáo.)
But I’m heaps better than the kids in other areas. I mastered swearing, slang and Beijing’s ‘pirate’ accent early on. There’s no way the girls could say: “That’s not the #*%@ing price we agreed, you son of a turtle!”
Sometimes I feel I bumble through life here like Mr. Magoo. But people always seem to laugh. That’s got to be good, right? And as every parent knows, what’s more fun than embarrassing your kids?
// Trevor Marshallsea was a foreign correspondent in Beijing in the 1990s and returned a decade later. This time around he stays at home to grow the kids. Read more of his domestic adventures at: www.thetigerfather.com
[image via IMDB]