Monday, January 14, 2013

Linguistic Confusion

Many people cringe at the constant changes in country, language, and culture that I welcome into my life. I have been asked - on more than one occasion - why I am unable to settle down in a small, gated suburban community where I could enjoy a golden Labrador, bed of tulips, comfortable shoes, and a lifetime Costco membership?
While these inevitable changes may seem tortuous for some, they have been positive for my family. In fact, I would argue that this pseudo-volatility has encouraged my toddler to become a flexible and open minded child who is developing a deep awareness and appreciation for the world and its delightful diversity.
Giggle. Giggle. Well, ahem, he is the prototypical child described above once in a while.
The rest of the time, my son is a typical toddler who unabashedly shares his thoughts - ones that are unfiltered, brutal and culturally insensitive. I wonder at what age his brains synaptic growth will introduce a mechanism that filters his thoughts before they are expelled violently? Andy and I were horrified last week in Sri Lanka. While walking through the Botanical Gardens a group of burka clad women passed us on a path. Cedric began to excitedly jump while shouting “Gorillas, look there are gorillas! Where are orangutans? I love gorilla monkeys!” Goodness. Andy and I exhaled a huge sigh of relief once realizing that nobody had made the connection between what he was saying and where he was looking.
These rabbit-hopping-ants-in-the-pants-lightning-paced changes in his life have also provoked a tad of linguistic confusion. Funnily enough, we welcome this confusion since it masks his blunt comments! The incident that best summarizes his linguistic goulash was when he barked ** “Bu yao, go domu” (which means “I do not want you here, go away)” to a temporary babysitter in China.
Perhaps-maybe-or-even-indeed a bit aggressive and rude, but the impact of his comment was diluted by the curls and contagious giggles of my precocious toddler coupled with my babysitter’s lack of comprehension. As a side note, we quickly learned that she lacked comprehension in most matters, irrespective of the language being used. As Cedric challenged her to respond to his puffed aggression, the babysitter tickled him and commented on his cherubic expression. ‘Brave lady’ I thought, shuffling uncomfortably and red-faced as I tried to stifle emerging giggles of my own. 
With time, one learns to expect such verbal outbursts and a few months later in New York I hardly flinched when trying to conceal one of Cedric’s blasé observations. While we were riding the subway, he was suddenly distracted by a woman who was horizontally challenged (at about 300 pounds) and asked ** “Why pani gruba? Bu jolie.” While I tried to discreetly place Cedric’s accusatory finger back on his lap, the woman’s eyes began to dart back and forth, questioning and defensive. As she started to huff, puff and protest I - overflowing with sweetness and smiles - informed her that she reminded Cedric of his very beautiful grandmother.  
My heroic overture was deflated by my son remarking - rather loudly and with newly honed impeccable pronunciation - “Mama, why you say she look like **Babcia, she no look like Babcia!” The conclusion is that, while I fear imposing my own cultural-linguistic-confusion on him, his potpourri of influences seems to make perfect sense in his mind. 
Despite the hiccups, or perhaps in spite of, we try to foster multilingualism at home. Cedric has his own opinion however, and prefers to chat almost exclusively in English, pushing to the side his Chinese-Polish-Swiss-German-and-French. Excepting for a few negations (I don’t want, I don’t like, I don’t do) his level of Mandarin is decreasing daily and his Polish is nearly nonexistent. We were a bit ambitious (read: naive) in assuming he would not forget the basics of these languages when moving to France and even hired a Chinese babysitter to maintain his Chinese level. At this point we either need to admit defeat, increase her hours or frequent the gourmet Chinese take-away shop on our road. In fact, the lady who works at this intimate shop adores Cedric and is thrilled when he asks for jaozi in Mandarin. Her face lights up when he confidently prances through the door and once can see her twitching in anxious delight for the moment she can scoop him into her arms. Despite her little dance that begs the question - do you have to pee - she always waits until her customers have trickled out of the shop before lunging towards him. Quite accustomed to being handled by oodles of strangers around the globe, Cedric tolerates her effusive and loud bouts of affection. I suspect that the candies and spring rolls that she - literally - shoves into his open and eager mouth contribute to his malleability. As she runs away to the back kitchen with Cedric en tow, I can hear her chattering to the kitchen staff in excited tones “Yes, yes he understands Chinese!” Smiling, I sit down and have a coffee and enjoy the 30 minutes of free babysitting.
In terms of his Polish, I spoke to Cedric exclusively in Polish for the first two years of his life. Since we moved to France five months ago I switched to English and now, when I speak in Polish, his response is “Mama, why you no speak English, I don’t understand your Chinese.” Enough said.
He has already mastered the French terms that are obvious-necessary-and-fundamental-for-the-survival-of-a-toddler. His favorites are c’est a moi, no, jolie pee-pee, vous pas partage, and of course, frommage. In just a few weeks he has also developed the tendency of saying ohh la la and throwing kisses to everyone. His English is also increasing by leaps and bounds and the logic of his sentence construction is often entertaining. For example, when leaving a friend’s home I asked him to thank her for her hospitality as well as dinner. Eyes wide, he looked at her earnestly and said “Thank you for having me, and thank you for eating me.”
Despite the mild linguistic confusion caused by a massive input of stimuli that swirls around in his tiny head, he remains fascinated by the world. His love of maps and planes is relentless (mildly-bordering-on-compulsive-obsessive) but isn’t this better than a love for Hello Kitty, Barbie or Transformers. He takes great pleasure in thoroughly examining maps and he has two favorites - the first was a map (in the form of a placemat) and the second is a vestige of mine from college. When looking at the placemat he explains that the “Eiffel Tower is in Paris next to man who sell ice cream. Cedric eat ice-cream every day.” He exaggerates, but I must admit that years of lactose deprivation in Africa and Asia have resulted in a cult-obsessive-fascination-and-adoration for the Indian man selling Italian gelato near the tower. And forgive me for I have sinned and I have fed excessive amounts of ice cream to my toddler.
When not fixated by the placemat during meals, he can often be found with his nose pressed to a large map that hangs in our home office. Despite the fact that it is wrinkled, bent and assumes an obnoxious amount of precious Parisian space, it had made its way into our shipment from Shanghai. Ooops. Staring at it intently, he scratches his head and says, “I’m thinking” before inquiring about every inch of this map. Every-single-mountain-range-river-country-border. And then repeats the same questions ten minutes later. With his finger and often accompanied by a miniature car or plane, he traces around different countries. “Mama walk from China to Babcia Babcia at New York, and Cedric take plane to Sri Lanka to wash elephants.” During college I also spent hours gazing at this map and writing down the names of the countries I wanted to visit; perhaps this is proof of our genetic compatibility.
And he embarks on lovely voyages through the power of imagination all day whether in the bath, walking to school, or at the park. At the park there is a large wooden train upon which he sits and his favorite voyage tends to repeat: after taking my payment of a few rocks, he lets me know that “We driving to Shanghai to see Amaia and say Hola.”

** Phrase 1 - Bu you, go domu / I don’t want you, you go home
Bu you (Chinese, I don’t want), Go (English, go), Domu (Polish, home)

Phrase 2 - Why pani gruba? Bu jolie. / Why lady fat? It is not beautiful.
Why (English, why), pani gruba (Polish, fat lady), bu (Chinese, not), jolie (French, beautiful)

Phrase 3 – Babcia (Polish, grandmother) ***

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