Tag Archives: cultural difference

‘Stop Saying thank-you All the Time. You are Becoming a Real Foreigner’

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WP_20150524_036Last time when I visited family in China, a few days into the trip, my sister told me ‘Stop saying thank-you to me all the time. You are becoming a real foreigner!’.

I initially was quite taken back by the comment, but then when I reflected on it, I realized that 11 years of living in France/Australia is definitely leaving a mark on me – in terms of what ‘being polite’ means.

According to an article ‘What ‘Thank You’ Sounds to Chinese Ears’: the Chinese way of being polite to each other with words is to shorten the social distance between you. And saying please serves to insert a kind of buffer or space that says, in effect, that we need some formality between us here.

It’s so true. From the beginning, I struggle to come up with a proper sentence to teach Nina the equivalent of ‘can I have some water please’ in Mandarin, simply because we do not use ‘can I … please’ in China under such context. The literal translation (‘请问我可以要些水吗’) just sounds not quite right, especially addressing the family memebers.  ‘I want some water. Thank you’ (我想要些水。谢谢)would be the most polite and popular way of saying it – even then, more often than not people will omit ‘thank you’ too, esp within family and close friends. There just aren’t many ‘thank you’ and ‘please’ floating around the Chinese household. And it’s ok. In fact it’s more than ok – it’s expected, and the opposite of it (adding ‘thank you’ ‘please’ everywhere) is considered a bit out of place.

For my husband and in many Western cultures, teaching manners to children such as saying ‘thank you’ ‘please’ “could I’ ‘may I’ is extremely important – in fact is considered as basic education. For these cultures, Chinese can come across quite blunt and rude without using these expressions often, if at all. Even I, a native Chinese, become really aware and sometimes uncomfortable when these practices clash. Many Chinese friends I make outside of China do not often say these words, and many times I have to remind myself that they are not being impolite at all, but just an act of showing them considering me as their friends. Among friends, such formality is not required. They show their friendship and politeness by offering me help and advices in ways that most friends from Western cultures will not. And that’s fine too.

It’s not an issue of value. Being grateful and graceful are equally important values in both Chinese and Western cultures. But the practice of it is very different in respective culture. People show their respect and gracefulness in very different, sometimes even seemingly conflicting, ways.

Being a parent who’s trying to pass on not only the language but also the culture to my child, it’s an act of practice and awareness (sometimes soul-searching and not necessarily obvious one) that’s required to be respectful of all cultures involved. Hopefully nobody becomes a foreigner in our own land.

Dilemma on Reading

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maclaryWe have books for Nina in all three languages that she’s growing up with. So far, Nicolas and I stick to OPOL (One Parent One Language) quite religiously, which also applies to the book reading time. It means that when I read a book with Nina I read in Chinese, and when Nicolas reads a book with Nina he reads in French.

So here is the dilemma. When we read a book that’s not written in ‘our language’ basically what we do is speaking ‘our language’ (by live translating or simply improvising) while looking at the written language of the book. One of Nina’s favorite books at the moment is ‘Hairy MacLary from Donaldson’s Dairy’, a picture book in English about the little hairy black dog Maclary going out and about running into other dogs. It’s a beautiful book both in drawing and in text. The text rhymes, but of course it rhymes in English only! So when I read – meaning Speaking by half translating half improvising the story in Chinese – the rhyme is totally gone!

While it serves the purpose – from linguistic point of view – on providing Chinese language input in this case, it loses the beauty of its original language (in English in this case).

So I wonder if there are times, such as reading books, when it’s better to just follow the language that the book is written in?

<update on Oct 19th>

I shared my dilemma with ‘Raising Multilingual Children’ group on facebook, and got some fantastic insights from the members there! It’s relieving to read that I am certainly not the only person with the dilemma – there are many others out there facing the similar challenge and come up with their own solution with trials and errors. A more popular practice through these comments is to eventually read the book in  the language that the book is written in. However there is one practice that I particularly like, which is to make sure at least certain amount of time every day (20 minutes in that case) to read the ‘minority language’ books. I like this practice because: 1) it ensures the quantity of the exposure of the minority language (in reading/speaking/hearing)  on regular basis; 2) it respects all the languages that the books are written in, hence ensures the quality of exposure of all languages by helping the children to build the connection between the written form and the spoken form of these languages.

So I decided to give a try this morning – not live translating non-Chinese books into Chinese, and read only Chinese books in Chinese. Nina picked up one of her favorite French books (Tchoupi Part En Vacances), and came sitting next to me signaling me to read the book to her. I have read this book many times with her in Chinese, but this time I started to read … in FRENCH! After I read the first phrase or so, I saw Nina literally turning her head from the book to me, looking at me … puzzled/surprised. Did she realize that I was not using the ‘normal’ language? Did she notice something different? Was she saying ‘why are you reading this book like papa’?

It’s absolutely fascinating to see how much a child at her age (merely 21 months, who has only less than 2 dozens of vocabularies) is aware of what’s going on around her, from linguistic perspective. She knows what mama is talking about in which language, and picks up immediately when mama starts to do things differently. They are exquisite observers, which make them the most exquisite learners.

Now what’s left to do is to make sure we build a good collection of books in Chinese and French (the more difficult ones being in Australia), and read English books in English.

坐月子 ‘Sit Through the First Month’, eh?

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Since I cannot get my mind off this HUGE Chinese tradition around what to do during the first post-natal month, and its big ripple effect in my little family, I thought I’ll just post a blog. I believe this could easily be one of the biggest cultural differences/shocks in play in any sino-foreign family.

This traditiona is called 坐月子in Chinese, which if literally translated means ‘sit through the first month’ – a weird name though because according to the ‘real’ tradition, it should have been called ‘SLEEP through the first month’.  

The tradition basically governs what a Chinese woman SHOULD do and SHOULD NOT do during the first month after delivery, in all possible aspects that you would think of, and beyond. Some are real eye-openers (to put it mildly) to Nicolas, my French husband who is not new to Chinese culture. A few of the rules that stand out are: 

– she should not take shower nor wash hair for a month (‘ca pue !!’  (‘it stinks!!) Nicolas’ reaction)

– she should not brush the teeth

– she should lie on bed all the time except strict necessities (such as going to toilet). Breastfeeding is done on her bed. Holding baby while standing is not recommended.

– she and the baby should not go outside

– she should not touch cold water nor drink cold water

– she should avoid fruits and vegetables, but eat/drink lots of fluid-based food such as congee, brown sugar water, chicken soup, fish soup etc. Food is an important part, and the list of dos and don’ts can go on and on.

– She should not cry

– she should not start breast-feeding until 24 hours after birth

– … much more …

Chinese believe that these measures help the women to fully recover from labour and otherwise will have disastrous result even into their elder years. Many of these rules came from a time when hygiene could be a real concern and nutrition & food variety were not readily available. However in the modern society most of us fortunately live in, a lot of them are no longer relevant to say the leaset, if not against the best interest of the young mother’s recovery and young baby’s development. As more and more people in China including doctors start to argue the scientific (or rather non-scientific) value of these traditions, some young mothers would no longer follow strictly what the tradition says. However, many still do. In fact, from what I gathered on internet, an amazing vast majority still do, even to an extent more than I would have imagined.

Another interesting fact is that although many people (esp. young parents) have very vague idea about what 坐月子precisely means – indeed you can choose to follow from 100% to just 1% of the strict tradition – everyone subscribes to the prevailing idea – 坐月子 IS VITAL. Listen to your mom.

As a result, the young mother basically becomes ‘immobile’ – synonym of ‘useless’  – during that month. So traditionally the young-mother’s mother or mother-in-law will live with the family during the first month to take care of everything (the young mother, the new-born, and household chores). Some may stay much longer – that’s another story altogether.The modern intepretation is to hire a specialised helper (called 月嫂 or ‘first-month-auntie’) or to stay in a specialized resort/care center (月子中心 or ‘first-month-centre’) during the month.

That who is around during 坐月子becomes such an intergral part of the tradition itself that nobody seems to ask the question ‘Do I really need some extra help apart from just me and my husband?’. It’s commonly neglected as a question worth asking. And this is something that Nicolas has to come to terms with. Me too.

With no exception, during the converstaion with my Chinese friends, one inevitable comment comes up: ‘your mom is coming, isn’t she?!‘ 

My mom lives in China, 12-hour flight away. Her entire family except me lives in China. She knows nobody else but me in Sydney. She speaks no English. She eats no non-Chinese food. She has never taken a long-haul flight on her own. She would be comfortable that I do not take shower for a month. She may have very different idea about bringing up a baby.

But none of the above matters. It’s decided that she’s coming. No discussion is solicited. Suitcase is being packed.

And that got me to think. Is that what I want? Is that what Nicolas wants? Is that what our young growing family wants? And equally importantly, is it what my mom wants

Don’t get me wrong. I LOVE the idea of being taken care of and doing as little house chore as possible, esp after a possibly stressful labour. And I LOVE the fact that my mom gets to spend time with her grand-daughter. But to what extent am I willing to trade/comprise/battle through potentially vast different opinion among my mom, Nicolas and myself? And how would it impact the dynamics of the family that’s already going through dramatic change with a new-born baby? And how much influence my mom will have on my following or not following some of the traditions?

I’m still looking for answer. I’m trying to find out each other’s expectation. I’m trying to understand where each of us stands for. I’m trying to figure out what each of us is willing to comprise, and what not. I’m trying to start a conversation that no one expects.

坐月子 is indeed a blur yet extremely powerful concept! It keeps me awake at night. I have four more months of such nights to reflect upon the subject before my 坐月子 period starts for real.

A Chinese-german artist illustrates the cultural differene betweens Chinese and the Westerners by graphics. Here are two about ‘child’ and ‘senior person’s life’.