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Early or lifelong identity problems?

8 Mar

Children are an emotional double-edged sword. They have the capacity, or rather power, to put you on top of the world when they show you their affection or attachment and to break your heart, even if unwillingly when very young. Around the time my daughter S. turned one, she split my heart in two. She woke up one morning, around 8:00 am, which is the time when her nanny H. arrives. I got into S.’s room first and H. came in right after me. As I was reaching for S. in her cot, she saw her nanny and raised her arms to her without even looking at me. A bit stubborn and in total denial, I lifted S. from her bed thinking she would realise it was me and stay with me at least for a quick morning cuddle. Instead she used her infamous terrorising technique of screeching screams and leaned unequivocally towards her nanny, making it clear whom her preference was for. This deeply upset me for some time. I complained to J. with a teary voice that S. didn’t love me anymore and I kept getting painful reminders of this by S. more or less every day throughout that week.

You get it, S. really loves her nanny which I guess, in spite of me feeling rejected by my own baby, is a good problem to have. She greets her with a big smile every morning. When we came back from Lebanon in September, after a 5-week stay, it was as if they had never left one another. To be fair, H. has earned this love. Not only does she take excellent care of S., she also spends a lot of time playing with and speaking to her. She is amazingly patient and converses with S. all day long in Mandarin mostly, with a few expressions of Shanghainese. She is twice as talkative as J. and I combined. So much so that S.’s first intonations sound Chinese and so are her first words (except for Papa). We hadn’t realised that until a trip to Europe where we were told that S.’s first noises weren’t the same as those of French, British or Lebanese toddlers.

While I was complaining about S.’s rejection to my cousins, it dawned on me that S. is probably going through a phase of thinking, or rather believing, that she too is Chinese. Although physically it couldn’t possibly be the case (she’s blond with blue eyes), she’s not conscious of what she looks like yet and I think she truly identifies with Chinese and, by default, Asian people. Think of it, she spends more time awake with her Chinese nanny than with us. Going out on the streets, she sees essentially Chinese faces who, due to her foreign features, blondness and – let’s face it – cuteness, are rarely indifferent to her. Her little buddies in our residential compound are a mix of Chinese and foreign kids, who are mostly looked after by Chinese nannies. She is therefore very much immersed in Chinese culture and language.

That S. may believe that she is Chinese and that only her parents are bizarre is actually something that J. and I have witnessed with our friends and neighbours’ daughter. The mum is Lebanese too and the dad Italian. We used to babysit their daughter regularly from the age of 4 months until S. was born. She is now four. Around the time she was 18 months, she would run around our place speaking Chinese to us, although she could clearly see we don’t have Chinese faces. She would run around our place shouting “wo lai le, wo lai le!” instead of saying: “I’m coming, I’m coming!” So much so that we would occasionally reply back in Chinese when we really wanted to make sure she understood us. However, with her parents she would speak her mum’s language, occasionally punctuated by Chinese words. Like S., she would be super friendly with Chinese people and really be attracted to Asian faces when abroad.

I still need to do my own little investigation and ask parents of other kids growing up in China, but I generally suspect that this is a common phenomenon amongst foreign children of a certain age who are looked after by Chinese ayis. These kids, if they spend a significant part of their childhood and teen age in a country which is not their parents’, will end up what is called “third-culture kids”, i.e. children who grow up immersed in cultures and languages different from those of their parents. These children, and later adults, are generally very good at navigating different cultures but the downside is that they also may not feel any sense of belonging in their parents’ country and culture of origin, or anywhere in particular for that matter.

3rd culture kids diagram

So here’s how our sense of self is supposed to work. Source: http://laurakeeney.weebly.com/third-cutlure-kids.html

 

I left Lebanon nearly 15 years ago now and, while I do feel it is still the home of my heart, until about a year ago (around the time ISIS came about) I always felt that, God forbids, should shit hit the fan in my life, I could always go back to Beirut. I often wonder how S. and her eventual sibling will relate to their “home” country Lebanon in the long run; whether, in spite of our efforts and regular visits, they’ll enjoy going there, appreciate its history, culture and uniqueness and melt in the warmth of its light or sight of the sea. I am all in favour for S.’s immersion in Chinese culture; in fact she has just joined a Chinese kindergarten. At the same time, I worry that Lebanon may just be another country for her and that she may not be able to develop any attachment to it or, worse, end up feeling rootless, with no sense of home for her multi-cultural self.

Where's my home

Source: melbourneriffraff.com.au

 

The Cult of the Míngpiàn

6 Jul

There are lots of things to unravel about Chinese culture and not least of them is how to do business and how to interact with your Chinese co-workers. There’s a very delicate balance to respect and much of it can be quite opaque for those of us foreigners coming from a Judeo-Christian background. In the latter culture, borders between yes and no, right and wrong tend to be quite well defined and we generally struggle with the grey areas. In Chinese culture, there’s a lot of grey. To start with, there are no words for “yes” and “no” in Mandarin. It feels like a truism to say this now, after having lived a year and a half in China. If you are asked a question, you would reply using the main verb to signify the equivalent of a yes or a no. For example: – “Are you Lebanese?” – “I am.” Yes and no questions are often asked in a positive/negative mode: “You want you don’t want…?”, “Is there isn’t there…?” but then again, because of the lack of single words for yes or no, you answer: “I want” or “I don’t want”, “There is” or “There isn’t”.

To add to this, Chinese people rarely ever refuse to do something or admit that they don’t know how to do it. Fear of losing face I suppose. So they rush into agreeing or saying ok, ok, ok or kěyī, kěyī, kěyī (i.e. I can, I can, I can) and you have to read between the lines to understand that it’s a no. Many foreigners who have worked here will testify to this. I can see it on my students’ faces. I’d ask them if they’ve understood something and they would always say it’s fine even though I can clearly see their faces decomposing.

We were once explained by our French friend S., whose parents are Chinese, that Chinese attitude and interaction are a question of harmony and maintaining an equilibrium amongst all things present or at stake. Therefore, yes and no positions can be a bit brutal for the contextual balance. (S. please feel free to correct me on this.) After having spent over 5 years in Shanghai, he said he was getting better at navigating within this fragile equilibrium and that got him a lot of satisfaction, as he was being able to draw the best out of his team at work.

All this restraint however blows away when it comes to networking. Then Chinese people can become rather forthcoming whereas we first engage in a bit of small talk before getting into the business side of things. At various events, I have noticed that they spot the slightest opportunity to talk to you and immediately ask who you work for and tell you what it is that they do, without much preliminaries. Essential to this process is the exchange of míngpiàn* or business cards. Some of them have those ready in their hands as they start speaking to you. I say hands because manners here require that you exchange business cards with both hands and that the text on the card is oriented towards the recipient. In turn, the latter should receive the card with both hands and read it duly and respectfully before putting it away. Mingpian are so important that everyone should have one and foreigners have in turn started to refer to them as “name cards” – the literal translation of mingpian – instead of the more correct “business card”.

So next time you do business with Chinese people, make sure both your hands are free and never, ever throw your business card nonchalantly across the meeting table.

* To be pronounced mingpyen

Conversations with my Chinese teacher

14 Mar

I get along very well with H., my Chinese teacher. Apart from teaching me Mandarin, we actually talk about lots of other things and ask each other questions about our respective countries and cultures. She’s been teaching foreigners for a long time and therefore is very exposed to Europeans and Americans. Less so to people from the Middle East, so she sometimes asks me what’s going on Syria these days. Apparently and unsurprisingly, the Chinese media convey very matter-of-factly information, such as: “there are some skirmishes between a faction of the population and the government.” We then had a whole conversation about the Arab spring and she didn’t know what the word “dictatorship” meant.

Other times, she gets really perplexed about some specific issues pertaining to western culture and asks me about them. I think she perceives me as somehow mid-way between a Westerner and non-Westerner, having lived in Europe for a long time and being familiar with it, whilst not being a European myself.

The other day, she told me in a very serious way: “Lì Yà, I need to ask you something. Can you tell me what’s the difference between cheese, butter and mayonnaise?” So I explained to her that mayonnaise, even though it is white, is not a dairy product, how you could derive different products out of milk through either fermentation or concentrating fat. Likewise, the sequence of a “western” meal was very alien to her. She didn’t fancy butter and bread (Chinese eat neither). Aside from the fact that she thinks there are too many dishes, what she finds the least logical is the alternation of hot and cold dishes. “But how can I eat ice cream after eating a warm dish?” From what I’ve understood so far about the Chinese conception of the body and philosophy of eating is that you have to maintain the balance of your guts (and by extension of your whole body). So you shouldn’t brutalise it by eating really warm food and then iced food or the other way around.

She also doesn’t mind me asking questions about China. I also enquired about the sequence of Chinese meals (tea, cold (room temperature) appetizers, hot appetizers, main course, rice to make sure you’re full if you haven’t eaten enough of the rest, and I think desert is more of a western influence), about Chinese manners and other things derived from our lessons. I refrain from asking anything directly relating to politics, periods of Chinese history or other sensitive issues. I let her do the talking and every now and then she expresses quite strong opinions about some policy and other governance issues, but without ever elaborating too much. However I do get to tease her sometimes and she’s always taken it well, even on Mao, who apparently comes from her hometown in the province of Hunan. She was once explaining to me how the hometowns of various presidents became really wealthier or experienced economic booms due to the guānxi (i.e. almighty personal relationships or networks – good luck doing business in China without the guānxi) with the government of the time. So I told her, with unambiguous extra sarcastic enthusiasm: “Yeah well this guy may come from this town and this other one from that town, but surely no one beats Mao Zedong!” And it made her laugh!

One Hundred!

4 Mar

I have come a long way since my post titled “Zhōng wén” as I can now write ONE HUNDRED Chinese characters!!! Yes, I can! This means more than one hundred words as each character is a word of course, but combining characters make other words.

At the time I wrote the “Zhōng wén” post (November 2011), I was seriously discouraged about being able to write Chinese. Soon after, I decided to persevere and took a more methodical approach. I bought the special Hànzi (Chinese characters) gridded pads and started with the basics: I, you, he/she, it, we, you, they, to be, to have, father, mother. Then I learned characters that would enable to make sentences, in order to write more intelligible stuff and remember characters more easily. My first sentences were: “My father and mother do not live in China”, “Hello/How are you?” (same thing in Chinese “Nǐ hǎo”, literally “you good”), “Very good and you?”. Over time, it got a bit more elaborate: “Are you hungry? I’ve got an apple and a banana.”, “Are you thirsty? Would you like to drink tea?” or “His older brother is a teacher.”, “Too expensive!”, etc.

As you write and write and repeat and repeat characters – it takes an awful lot of time and I think by now I can cover the walls of our bedroom with all of my writing sheets, you start developing a relationship with each character. For an inexplicable reason, I like the characters “I”, “tea”, “méi” (i.e. negation for the verb to have or negation for the past), “to be” and “this”. For equally elusive reasons, it took me ages to finally memorise “banana”, “can”, “study” and “Chinese”. Not a trivial combination regarding the latter three…

When I browse through my books to pick on the next characters to learn, I become very choosy. No not you, you look very unsympathetic, not you either you’re too complicated. You’re not too bad, but not very inspiring. I don’t need to know you now, you don’t fit with my sentences. You sound exactly like the other one I know, you’re going to confuse me. Ah, you look alright, likeable and useable. You too and you too!

Although a hundred is not much and I have to pace the learning because I need to do repeat sessions before getting on with new words, it has become slightly obsessive. On the streets, I keep trying to decipher shop fronts, advertising boards, etc. and get very excited when I can.

Fruit shops

5 Dec

Fruit shops are very sweet here in Shanghai. There are plenty of them around town and at least three near my flat. They only sell fruits and, every once in a while, you think you may have spotted vegetables but those are technically fruits, like tomatoes or avocados.

Anyway… I find them extremely sweet for several reasons. First, the fruits are always so impeccably displayed and vendors have a real feel for colours. Striking out are the yellow of pomelos, the soft orangey-pink of grapefruits, the unambiguous orange of oranges and darker orange of tangerines, and then, taking over, the spectrum of reds of apples, to finish with the amazing fuchsia of the dragon fruit. Second, they’re open late, very late sometimes and, with their characteristically open frontage, they brighten the street with their energy-saving light bulbs and colours, when shops around have shut down or when people rush back home. Finally, it always feels like they constitute a small hub of family or even community activities, during both daytime and nighttime. Because the shop is permanently open onto the pavement, the grand-mother, mum or whomever sits opposite, peels some vegetable, feeds the baby or teaches a toddler how to walk. Older kids run around naughtily and customers buy their fruits while walking their dogs.

I’ve chosen my favourite fruit shop somehow randomly but I’ve decided to be exclusive to it as a strategic measure to start knowing the local community outside my compound and, perhaps more importantly, to practice my Mandarin. The guy I assume to be the main shop owner turns out to be very nice and sympathetic to my linguistic efforts. He gave me a sincerely amused but polite smile when, instead of asking for píngguǒ (apples), I asked for péngyou (friends).

This is my one. The man in the middle is the shop owner. I was trying to be discreet...

Zhōng wén*

30 Nov

The frustrating thing about learning to write Chinese characters is that you have no sense of any alphabet, at least not in the way that H. has asked me to do it. Sure, I can recognise a few strokes but they don’t mean anything at all to me, either phonetically or in terms of associating the stroke to any general or specific semantic concept… If I understood correctly, strokes are not letters and if they are, it’s only for some words which don’t have a graphic concept. Also, you don’t know how flexible the strokes are, meaning when does your writing becomes wrong? Is it ok if this rectangle becomes more squarish or not?

It’s not that I’m not enjoying writing ten times each of the 29 words she asked me to write. It is actually quite relaxing to replicate each character and overall I find something quite aesthetic in the two pages I’ve just filled. However, I do doubt my ability to recognise, let alone write again, most of these words in the future and therefore my capacity to read or write (not replicate) to ever develop…

* i.e. written Chinese. There are different words for written Chinese (Zhōng wén), spoken Chinese (Hàn yǔ) and Mandarin (Putòng huǎ i.e. common dialect).

Aì Lì Yà

18 Nov

I now have a Chinese name and it is Aì Lì Yà! Aì being for my surname and, unsurprisingly, Lì Yà for my first name. In Chinese culture, everything goes from the general or wider context to the particular. So you always put your family name first and you introduce yourself this way as well. The same goes for giving or writing dates, the year first, followed by the month and day.

Back to my name, I did know, thanks to a Google search a few months back now, that my first name would most probably be Li Ya. But I didn’t know what it could mean and let alone all the intonations. My friend Clo, who has been studying Chinese since she’s 16, told me then that it could mean beautiful (Li) duck (Ya). We cracked a few jokes about it but I did like it very much and that’s how my blog was named Joli Canard.

When H. said I should have a Chinese name and named me Aì Lì Yà, I immediately asked her about the meaning to see if I would be officially baptised Beautiful Duck. So Aì means to love (except that the character above is only a phonetic one indicating the surname) and Lì does mean beautiful. I anxiously asked if Yà meant duck but H. looked at me, frowned slightly but unconvincingly and ignored my question outright. She said Yà means the second one. Sorely disappointed, I told her the beautiful second does not mean anything! She said: “Why? Do you want to be the first one?” Almost insulted by this remark, I said that I just wanted my name to mean something a little more meaningful! She calmly raised her eyes to the ceiling, thought for a moment and then said: “It could also mean Asia.”

So here we are, I am called she who loves beautiful Asia.

(I still love duck though…)

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