Monday, February 04, 2008

Broken Chi/Fre-nglish

In preparation for the Chinese New Year supper my parents hosted this past weekend, my folks and I planned a trip to Costco at the end of last week. They have this pre-marinated pork roast that my mom wanted to try. At this point of their lives (and ours, with all of the siblings now parents of young children), the less complicated the dinner, the better.

We thought we would go for some dim sum lunch before our trip to the warehouse. After G's preschool program in the morning, we went to a local Chinese restaurant, where my parents go at least once a week. We were greeted warmly by the manager and all the servers, as my parents are well known regulars. Of course, this was all in Cantonese.

As I'm not with them very often, my mother introduced me to everyone who came up, proudly showing off her little granddaughter. And a few of them would look at G and say "Mixed? Look at those big eyes!". My mother would respond, "Yes, but my daughter also has big eyes. Look at them." And others would be "Oh, but your daughter looks like she could be mixed too." My mother "Well, no, she's not." Dad's just sitting there, smiling, but not saying anything. And me, no I'm not saying anything either. Because I'm not that comfortable speaking Cantonese, even though I pretty much understand everything that's being said.

Which my mother apparently forgets. She continues her conversation, bragging about all of my accomplishments as if I'm not there. You know, that the eldest daughter is currently at home but started her own consulting business, oh and she did get a degree at U of T, and then got another three letters from business school, yes a very smart girl. Did you know that she also did very well at piano and she excelled in ballet (ok, last time I did any ballet was perhaps about 30 years ago!!) Eldest daughter's husband does a lot of travelling so it makes sense that she's home now with the kids... and the grandson is very smart and doing well now too.

And when people ask whether G speaks Chinese, Mom says that she doesn't. After all, her own kids don't even speak because their father has spoken to all his kids only in English while growing up. All Dad's fault.

During these episodes I've learned just to smile, and respond in English, whenever I can get a word in edgewise. I love my mother, she's one of the kindest-hearted, generous people I know. But this is one thing about her that I find annoying... she's likes to brag. About any little thing.

While this discussion is continuing about language skills, or lack thereof, my little girl decides to pipe up. She starts mumbling a little bit, and then saying quite loudly to our server ... "Bon Joo, Bon joo, BON JOO!!!".

I try to figure out what she's saying, and then it dawns on me. She's saying "Bonjour". Let's throw a little French into the conversation. I thought I was confused before, but I suppose this is what happens in Canada, where there are two official languages, and a multitude of cultures.


When Ian and I decided to have children, we had an understanding that we would expose them to as much Chinese culture as we could. We think it's important that they know their heritage.

Although my father had come over quite young, I was part of the first generation of our family actually born here. And I grew up during a time when, while not really denying my heritage, we made more effort to embrace what was more of an anglo-Canadian way of life. My father was actually very much like that himself. I think I was just more a product of what was happening in the country at the time. I was usually the only, or one of two Chinese kids in my class while living in the burbs. It wasn't until high school that more kids were coming into our schools from Hong Kong.

Nowadays, you can live, work, get a driver's license, do pretty much anything without speaking a word of English.

With the language, we did attempt to keep L in the Cantonese weekend program a couple of years ago. But it was very difficult to cultivate that, as the way of teaching is very much rote, pure memorization (there's no alphabet), old school, dry and boring. And with me not very confident with the language myself, and L just becoming progressively more stressed and miserable about classes every week, we pulled him out. We have to give him kudos for getting through at least one year, his teacher said he really tried hard, but he was certainly at a disadvantage without having stronger backup at home. Having gone through several years of Chinese instruction myself as a kid, and miserably (how much do I remember now?!) I couldn't subject my son to that.

For now we're at least trying to keep up with as many of the traditions as a family, with my parents, siblings and relatives. Chinese New Year being one of the most important of them. The kids at least are quite responsive to that.


While we were busy getting ready to go to the grandparents' for the big feast, to spend some fun time with uncles, aunts and the babies, G was excitedly chattering about the reason for the party.

"I'm Chinese, Goh goh (ie. big brother L) is Chinese, you're Chinese, Mommy" and looking at her father she continued ..."and Daddy's just plain!"

Well, at least she didn't call him boring!


Curiosity Killer said...

Isn't Giselle adorable!??! She's obviously thinking grandma's saying she can't speak whatchamacallit - well, I'll show you! I can so speak "Bon-joo!" LOL

Oh man - don't I understand the irony of it all. Chinese is a hieroglyphics language and it's just impossible to learn it unless you've been around it all your life. I'm lucky my mum's a Chinese-English translator, my dad's a proud Chinese, plus I loved to read when I was a kid (my parents gave me tons of chinese fantasy novels, and I'm always welcome to ask questions) - that's the ONLY reason I managed to read Chinese nowadays.

Just don't ask me to speak Cantonese. You'd drop to the floor laughing.

It's funny to hear that Toronto is becoming more Cantonese too. Wouldn't it be neat when a new generation of Franco-chinese sprout from Ontario??

Don Mills Diva said...

Your mom sounds like my mom. I am always hearing through the grapevine how she brags about me to everyone in our small town. Flattering but kinda embarassing too!

Maria said...

I have no clue how to address the flood of cultures/ethnicities that are part of our households.

Hopefully mine are @ least as in tune as Giselle. :)

another good thing said...

You should have seen the gorgeous costumed ladies on every corner in Manhattan for Chinese New Year.. I only wish I had time to attend some of the events.

gmcountrymama said...

Giselle is so funny! We sent E to Hebrew School for a few months but I found the people there not real friendly and I started dreading having to take her there. There isn't any other Temple in the area so we just gave it up for now.
My dad knows all of the female employees at the Costco near his house,so whenever I shop with him there, he must introduce me and talk about me just enough to annoy me.

melissa said...

I totally understand where you are coming from on the language thing. Even though I can't speak Spanish yet, I understand a lot of it. At least enough to know when people are talking about me and if what they are saying is positive or not.

And Daddy is plain is priceless.

We call our guys "sprouts". They're half "spic", half "kraut". :)

familymclean said...

Giselle is too cute!!
I lov how kids think.
Your mom is funny too, I think it would make me blush!

Kat said...

Bon Joo? That is hilarious.

Daddy's just plain? I love imagining the thought process behind that statement. YOU guys are special, and he's just regular? Or... he's like vanilla ice cream and you guys are yumm like strawberry? I don't know, but any of the possibilities are pretty cute.

Rachel said...

Giselle sounds like a very smart little girl. I am sorry that your mom talks about you to her friends as if you not there. Parents are strange, escpecially moms. I am learning that my family is right here with my hubby and son. I love my parents but they are just different. Different generation etc.

Laural Dawn said...

That's so cute!
I think it's wonderful that you're embracing your culture in the way you want to, and not forcing your kids to do what they don't want to.
I'm 4th generation Canadian, so we don't have any unique cultural traditions, but my husband's family is dutch. I love that my son is exposed to different fun traditions so he has a better idea of who he is.
I can even say a few Dutch words myself now.

C said...

What a great post! Little G is absolutely adorable! LOL!

I often wish I learned how to speak my parents' languages. My Dad is Chinese from the Caribbean (Trinidad & Tobago) and has lost most of his dialect. His family speaks Toysan, which isn't as common as Cantonese or Mandarin. My Mom's mother tongue is Tagalog, a dialect of the Philippines.

Growing up in Quebec, French is my second language and English is my first. Other than that, I know a bit of Spanish and Japanese. I wish I had learned Chinese though. I can understand Tagalog, but I always answer in English because when I was visiting relatives in the Philippines, they laughed at my "English" accent. Hmph!

It's so true that in Toronto new immigrants can survive without ever speaking English. "Korea Town" is growing and many of my students hang out there, work there and never ever use their English.

Speaking of which, check out this interview! I made front page news (LOL...of our local newspaper)!

Huckdoll said...

I love bon-joo! Adorable little Canadian!

Sleepynita said...

Canada is indeed a confusing place language wise. My father was Scottish, spoke English with a think Scottish accent and then learned Ukranian (fluently) and spoke it with a Scottish accent.

Funniest thing I ever heard


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