Stupid Tits and Other Cruel Childhood Memories

Here is another pain in the ass assignment I had to write for my intercultural communications class.  I’m not sure I count this as writing, because after panicking about doing this last-minute, I decided to follow my son’s sage advice, “Relax Mama, don’t stress.  You don’t have to work so hard on it like usual.  It’s ok to do some half-assed work once in a while.”  I don’t know what dark place this memory barf came from, but it turns out I was a giant asshole when I was a kid…

English was my first language.  I grew up surrounded by many foreign languages, however, listening to my Chinese mother exclaim, “PAH-suh-woah!” when I would jump out and surprise her.  Literally, it means “scare-death-me.” The equivalent of “You scared me to death.” Or she would rub her tummy before a meal, roll her eyes and say, “Woah UH suh la!”  Again, the words literally meaning, “I hungry died.” The equivalent of “I’m starving to death.”  Because I was raised hearing the language formed in that way, I didn’t find it confusing. I just had to dial back my thinking to very simplified word combinations. The thing you say when you see a person after a long period of time – “Long time no see!”  That is a literal Chinese translation, “How jo bu-jen!”  We regularly spoke a hybridized version of English and Chinese in our home.  In Chinese, the Chinese language is called, “Jung-wen.”  We called our special language “Jung-glish.”    When I began to learn Chinese formally in school (unfortunately with my own mother as the teacher), I rebelled in teenage fashion and used my English to twist the Chinese.  Many Chinese words are homonyms; they are pronounced identically, but with a different tone to indicate the different meaning.  The casual word for Father (the equivalent of “Dad” in English) is “Baba”; with the emphasis on the first syllable. And the word for the way children say “poop” is also “baba” but the tone drops down and up on the first syllable and then the emphasis is on the last syllable.  Speaking Chinese is like singing a language. Unfortunately, meanings can be easily changed with different tones, and the “Ma” for mother can turn into “Ma” for horse or “Ma” to mean scolding. So as a teenager with an American attitude, being forced to suddenly transform into a proper Chinese daughter, complete with filial piety, I made horrible jokes like, “Dad was in a race and he stepped in dog poo as we are cheering him on. ‘Go Baba Go!  OH NO, Go-baba!  Go-baba!’” My parents were not amused. When we were young, we were cruel. My mother would lose her temper and start yelling at my sisters and me; and while she spoke fluent English, she never could say one word properly.  She never could say “stupid.”  It was always “stupid-tit.”  She would yell that we were acting “stupid-tit!” and my sisters and I would drolly reply, “Mom. We aren’t tits.”  I kick myself every time I remember those times.  Her accent (pg. 273) was strong in my early childhood, and we looked down on it, thinking the reason must have been because she didn’t learn her English well enough.  Later on, she would look me straight in the eye and say, “Considering I was born Chinese, I would say my English is pretty damn good. English is actually the most difficult language to learn in the world.  And it’s not just the words – sometimes I just don’t get you Americans. Be careful before you judge.”

 

Now the tables have been turned.  It is 40 years later, my mother is no longer living, and I am married to German man who spoke no English when we first met. He and our oldest daughter actually learned their English together when she first started speaking.  He is fluent now, and my German has not progressed past the level I learned in boarding school 35 years ago.  When I write letters to my mother-in-law, I pass them to my husband to proofread, and I always see in the corner of my eye, his shoulders begin shaking as he tries to suppress his laughter.  “WHAT!” I huff. He wipes tears from his eyes and giggles, “Honey, your letter is so cute…like it was written by a kindergartener!”  I felt just like my mom must have felt.  German has words like “Wintersturmwonnemondwende”.  It means “Delight at the changing of the seasons.”  They crammed all the individual words together; it literally means, “Winter-Storm-Bliss-Moon-Turning.”  Languages are complicated!  And as the NPR broadcast Shakespeare Had Roses All Wrong pointed out; when learning a language, we are not just learning the words, we are “learning whole cultural systems.” My stupid teenage antics were perfect examples of what not to do with my newly learned Chinese language; as I matured, I learned to be more mindful (pg. 289).  I learned to treat the language with the dignity that the Chinese people have for thousands of years.  I grew to appreciate the synergism between Chinese and the culture that my mother was attempting to share with me. I was the younger generation that was disappearing into the American culture, and she wanted to use her native language to pass down her culture to my generation (pg. 266) before we lost our ties with our heritage. The information learned in this chapter, teaching us about mindfulness (pg. 293) with learning new languages, explaining how words can be misinterpreted for many reasons, and how to be aware of conversation taboos (pg. 293) would have been quite useful in teaching the teenage version of me how to use my second language competently in an intercultural context (pg. 293)

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: