Monday, November 03, 2008

Three months in

We’ve just passed the three-month mark in Shanghai. I haven’t settled into much of a writing routine yet but I’m trying to continue to jot down notes on our language acquisition.

Max still hasn’t started to do much speaking. He had almost no exposure to Chinese in Korea so I know his listening time will be longer. He has surprised me by offering translations lately -- he’ll tell me “Mommy ‘gei wo’ means ‘give me.’ Gei wo blah blah” where blah blah is some Chinese-sounding thing he makes up and explains to me as “the ghost that killed the bad guy and has to hide under the table” or something like that. As far as I know translation is a different skill than being able to speak so I’m surprised to see him so actively translating. Perhaps this offers some insight into the way he thinks. I think of him as a very verbal kid, a kid who easily repeats what he hears, but looking back I guess he’s only repeating that which he thoroughly understands. That explains his recent Korean explosion, I suppose -- he’s finally verbalizing that which he had heard before but hadn’t understood well enough to say.
Max is also very conscious of who speaks what languages. He seems to categorize the kids in his class by what language they speak well and seems a little suspicious of being good friends with the kids who only speak Chinese -- at least, that’s how he sounds when to talks to me about them. But his teachers tell me he gets along well with everyone and he’s pretty chummy with a little Japanese-Chinese girl who doesn’t speak English. It’s hard to figure out how much weight to give his self-reporting.

Recently Max likes to say, "aiyah!" He says it very seriously and tells me that that is what his piano teacher says when she gets mad. Ha.

I forgot to write about this funny incident in my last post: Max takes piano lessons in school and told me, one day, that his teacher speaks a lot of Korean. I was surprised and asked him, “What Korean words does she say?” He said, “Do rae me fa so la ti do!”

One of Max’s best friends is a little girl named Julia who is black. Max has lived his whole life in Asia and hasn’t seen that many black people, so when we’d go out every time we’d see a black woman he’d tell me that she must be Julia’s mom, and any black kids must certainly be Julia’s siblings. Ha. Anyway, Julia’s mom and I had been exchanging text messages trying to get the kids together to play. (aside: One bad part about being a second child is that your social life always takes a back seat to your older sibling’s. I have been trying to make an effort to find Max a close circle of friends and give him more play dates.) We finally met on a school field trip and then they came over to our place to play afterwards. Julia’s mom is from South America and speaks Spanish, French, English, Chinese, and a little Portuguese. Her Chinese is very good and she’s doing a masters degree at a local university. It was very interesting to talk to her; she’s lived in Asia for a long time and her older son in particular has had a more difficult time finding friends because they stand out so much. Shanghai’s foreigner population feels much higher and more integrated than Seoul’s but most foreigners are white, Asian, or Indian. Her son is local school too (not the same one as Aiden) and it sounds like its been a rocky experience. Julia speaks very good English and Chinese and is quite the social butterfly in kindergarten, but her brother had some trouble with language confusion too. Julia’s mom used to have a good Korean friend (back in HK?) and was talking to me about how she reached out to some of the Korean moms here because she missed her Korean friend, but how hard it is to break into that social circle. I can totally understand that -- it took me a long time in Korea to really break in, even though I spoke Korean well. But I haven’t had any trouble here, I guess it is like riding a bike. I kind of know when to speak, when not too, what to say, how to time my approaches. Talking to her I thought that if we had a third kid I’m not sure how I’d introduce the languages -- three at a time? Or two first?

Aiden has just really started to speak: I see it and he is also reporting to me that he can now participate a little in Chinese during “tai quan dao”-- no longer “taekwondo.” He now will answer his tutor in Chinese. He has covered 30 chapters of their current textbook in class and can recite almost all of them by heart -- he’s got a good memory. I was a little uncertain about the value of so much memorization (especially since the text includes some pretty difficult and bizarre passages) but he does pull out relevant sentences and use them in real life.

We just returned from a weekend trip to Shunde in Guangdong, where my paternal grandmother is from. They speak Guangdonghua there which is totally different from mandarin. We were last there three years ago and Aiden played with a bunch of my cousin’s kids; at that time, they didn’t have any languages in common and communicated with body language and “argh, pew pew, zzzt,” etc -- fighting words, basically. This time they spoke putonghua (Mandarin) to each other -- we were all surprised and delighted to see how well Aiden could get along with putonghua, English, and body language. Aiden doesn’t know how to tease in Chinese but his textbook has a passage about a “mommy chicken” so “mommy chicken” became his new teasing insult, complete with chicken-like head bob.

Aiden’s progress is truly amazing, and his pronunciation is incredibly clear. I think I have pretty good pronunciation, but he puts me to shame. He has also really gotten the hang of pinyin and can spell correctly based on sound. He doesn’t always get the tones right though.

I heard guangdonghua when I was growing up because my parents spoke it to each other (mostly when they were trying to talk about me and my brothers without us understanding) and to their friends, and I always thought it was normal, and putonghua (Mandarin) was a sissy, wussy sounding dialect. Well, after not really hearing guangdonghua for many years I went to Hong Kong a few weeks ago and was shocked to find that guangdonghua is really, REALLY weird sounding. Actually, it sounds awful. It has a lot of sharp, guttural sounds. At first I was so surprised I couldn’t pick out any words. After a few days I started remembering some words. Then this weekend we were in Shunde with my relatives, all of whom were speaking guangdonghua (but speaking putonghua or English to me and KC) and I could pick out more words. Now that I’m learning putonghua I can start to translate word for word (when there is a word for word translation) and appreciate how different the dialects are. “Mei wenti” (putonghua) is “Mo wentai” (guangdonghua), but “xihuan” (putonghua) is “jongyi” (guangdonghua, my romanization). Totally different. Even though I’m a slacker student, putonghua is feeling more natural to me these days, and sometimes if I’ve been speaking Chinese I have trouble switching to Korean.

KC’s made a lot of progress. His ear has improved a lot so he can guess the general meaning of a lot of conversation despite having the least time to study (he’s still the worst one in the family). His knowledge of characters has helped a lot and also I think his general very utilitarian attitude -- he doesn’t try to sound perfect, he just tries to communicate. Shanghai people are pretty used to trying to figure out what others are saying despite differences in accent and in normal conversations I’ve found listeners to be pretty forgiving. I can make all sorts of mistakes (that will cause me to blush and hit myself on the head later) and they will still understand. Perfectionist tendencies must be pushed to the side during the beginning stages of language learning.

Starting now I'm making more of an effort to speak Korean at home. All of us have naturally begun speaking more English (and better English) as time has passed. I think we have to make a conscious effort to make Korean our home language before we get out of the habit of speaking it altogether. If we don't make a habit of speaking it we'll all forget it (especially the kids and I) pretty quickly.

Languages aside, I’m finding that three months in we’re still really adjusting. I know that the process takes a long time but I have to remind myself that even though we have a routine and things have gone smoothly that the psychological toll of moving to a new place (and a new country) is a long-term one. We’re all a little rough around the edges, we all have trouble holding our tempers, we all find ourselves less nice than usual. I’m usually the temperamental one and KC is usually pretty even-keeled, but we’ve both been equally affected and for myself, at least, I need more time to spend alone with my own thoughts so that I can be on better behavior with others. This is the tricky thing about moving -- it’s not a wound you can see or a hurt you can sense, but something that just makes you feel a little less like working and a kind of rawness that makes you get angry before you can think about why. I think that much of the dissatisfaction expats have with their new country of residence has to do with those unrecognized psychological discomforts than with something that is really there -- of course, there are difficult parts, but often the anger at those difficulties seems irrational or overblown. Another American friend of mine who also recently moved to Shanghai after living in Seoul for a long time told me she worries she is depressed. She doesn’t really want to go out, she’s happy to be alone, she just hasn’t been herself. I told her I think it’s just the move and to give it some time. I think it must be even harder when you’re older (she’s probably 20 years older than me) and have lived in the previous place longer.


David Harris said...


It warms my heart to know that you, KC, Aiden, and Max are doing so well in Shanghai ! Also, it's very reassuring how flexible children are and how fast they learn.

We're not 100% sure yet, but we'll hopefully all be moving to HK at the beginning of next year for 3 months. None of us have been to Shanghai yet and it's been a while since we've seen you guys, so we'll have to make a family trip up north (and east).


Micah Sittig said...

> I am not exactly sure who reads this
> blog...

I do! Mostly because my wife and I are raising two little daughters who will be raised in a bilingual home, and I'm curious about how their language will develop. And then a little bit because you wrote to ask about SMIC, and also a bit because you live in Shanghai.

I'm writing to comment about what you said about Aidan and memorization. As somebody who spent his formative years in Spain's public education system, I have quiet a bit of experience with memorization in a way that I imagine is very similar to the Chinese system. So I wanted to say that, while it's true that Aidan will undoubtedly grow up to be an intelligent and high-achieving young man, and that the content will take care of itself, I do suspect that he will find that the *way* he learns and the way he thinks about things will be different from his American peers if he goes back to the US. My experience is that I was at a disadvantage in high school and college classes that called for creative, critical thinking, and it was very frustrating for me who was used to being a very high achiever to not be able to perform at the same level as my peers. The Chinese automaton stereotype is not without foundation, and that foundation is the Chinese educational system and its methods. This system does produce some very smart, accomplished people, but 99% of its graduates will have a hard time competing on a US playing field.

I hope I was clear in my explanation. I'm not trying to be a scare monger or a troll, I'm just trying to give you a sense of how Aidan's schooling is affecting him beyond the content that he learns, based on my own experience. I'm still thinking about this issue as a father facing the choice of where to send his daughters to school, so I don't have a solution to it yet ("combine the best of East and West!"), or I'd gladly share my ideas with you. If you have any thoughts on this I'd love to hear them.