Tag Archives: mandarin

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

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).

Deux jours à Shanghaï

3 Nov

Bon deux jours à Shanghaï, moins de 36 heures officiellement, mais déjà plusieurs différences, curiosités voire chocs culturels au compteur.

Jour 1 – Différences et/ou curiosités 1, 2 et 3

Hier, arrivés quasiment à l’aube et déjà crevés. Normal, après 11 heures de vol. Mais la journée ne fut pas consacrée exclusivement au rattrapage sommeil, particulièrement pour J. Après une ou deux heures de somnolence à l’hôtel, rendez-vous à l’agence de relocation ou Mylène (française) et puis Tiffany (chinoise) nous prennent en charge. Tiffany nous mène ensuite à la banque à quelques mètres de son bureau. Elle se charge de remplir les formulaires tout en mandarin. Nous signons deux ou trois papiers auxquels nous ne comprenons strictement rien, sauf pour un qu’ils ont bien voulu traduire en anglais et grâce auquel nous certifions sur l’honneur ne pas être de PEPs. Comprendre: politically exposed personalities. Un(e) PEP est défini(e) comme étant ne pas être un haut gradé militaire d’un autre pays et autres choses que j’ai sincèrement oubliées. Ce dont je me souviens par contre c’est que les définitions étaient extrêmement détournées et indirectes.

A force de nous observer signer des papiers, Tiffany pousse un cri d’étonnement et nous dit: “Mais vous écrivez tous les deux de la main gauche?!?!”. On acquiesce. Elle poursuit: “Tout le monde écrit de la main gauche en Europe???”. Nous la rassurons et lui disons que nous sommes les représentants de quelque 5% de la population. Elle continue: “Ici il y a des gens qui mangent avec la main gauche, se coiffent les cheveux, etc. avec la main gauche mais personne n’écrit de la main gauche. A l’école tous les professeurs demandent à leurs élèves d’utiliser leur main droite pour écrire.” Circonspecte, je ne sais comment interpréter cette information… M’indigner au nom des gauchers ou relativiser en me disant que les sinogrammes sont plus propices à l’utilisation de la main droite?

Le temps de cette conversation et nos comptes bancaires sont créés et nos cartes de débit remises et actives. En Europe, on aurait dû attendre au moins deux semaines, avoir une adresse permanente, justificatifs de domicile, sources de revenus, etc. Incroyable, d’autant plus que j’ai le statut d’une touriste pour le moment. Les pin codes ici sont de 6 chiffres. Candidement, J. fait remarquer à Tiffany qu’en Europe ce n’est que 4 chiffres. Elle répond subtilement qu’en Chine il y a bien plus de monde.

Jour 2 – Chocs 4 et 5

Nuit réparatrice avec 7 bonnes heures de sommeil (pour moi en tout cas). Mis à part un petit passage au bureau pour J., la journée est consacrée à la recherche d’appartements. Nous fûmes productifs: 10 appartements visités dans 5 compounds. Deux compounds et au moins quatre appartements sont éliminatoires (comme dit JP ☺ – bisous au passage) d’office. Les noms sont drôles: Edifice, La Doll, First Block, One Park Avenue et Merry Apartments! C’était aussi l’occasion pour moi de voir l’artère commerciale de Puxi (rive ouest de la ville). Il y a surtout des malls, et beaucoup de chaînes de magasins plus ou moins connus et luxueux.

Retour à l’hôtel vers 17h20. Repassage à l’agence de relocation et au bureau de J. Repos puis diner au resto chinois littéralement en face de l’hôtel. On est encore déphasés, j’ai eu un gros accès de sommeil complètement inexpliqué avant. Nous étions prévenus que les restaurants fermaient tôt en Chine et même en Asie en général. Mais bon, nous n’étions pas vraiment préparés à ça… On nous admet très poliment au resto. Très peu de temps après nous avoir installés, le serveur vient prendre la commande. Pas encore prêts (les menus offrent un choix énorme ici), nous demandons un sursis. Le serveur nous dit qu’il faut quand même passer la commande vite vu que la cuisine ferme. Rien d’inhabituel jusque-là, il était bien 21h passées. Nous commandons très vite après et recevons notre repas. Un petit quart d’heure plus tard, une serveuse arrive avec l’addition. Bon nous réglons en nous disant que ce n’était pas grave, que ça leur faisait gagner du temps sur la fermeture. Autour de nous, tous les serveurs s’affairent, rangent, nettoient, redressent les tables pour demain, etc. Puis revient notre serveur initial qui nous demande de but en blanc si on voudrait prendre le dernier plat servi en “take away”. ?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?. Sonnés, on comprend qu’en fait on nous vire! Et sans beaucoup de ménagement. J. demande si on peut quand même finir de dîner. Je ne pense pas que le mec ait compris, en tout cas il réitère sa question. Cinq minutes plus tard, nous étions dehors l’appétit coupé avec un sac contenant le bœuf sauté, le riz et les dimsum dans des tupperwares. Pour couronner le tout, deux jeunes filles franchement très correctement habillées et parlant l’anglais ont mendié les dimsum que, dans le dégoût, nous leur avons cédés avec un franc sentiment de nous être fait doublement arnaquer.

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