Thursday, October 13, 2005

Language and Culture

When I travel to other countries, I try as hard as possible to not be the typical American, speaking English loudly and expecting others to understand.  It helps that in this case, I actually know a little Mandarin, although not nearly as much as I'd like.  The fact that I look Asian has made for some interesting encounters. 
 
For one, my accent is good but my vocabulary extremely limited, so I can usually carry a conversation for about two exchanges and then by the third I have to spring a surprise on my unsuspecting counterpart -- "I don't understand what you're saying, I'm from America."  This has already happened countless times, and is usually followed by the other person rushing away to their friends and co-workers and telling them, "He's an American!" 
 
Even right now, in this Internet cafe, a few minutes ago a prompt came up and I had to ask the tech for help, telling him, "I can't read Mandarin."  Given that I look Chinese and I had just spoken a couple of sentences in perfect Mandarin, he looked at me as if I had two heads.
 
Another interesting phenomenon is when Amy and I are walking around with Jada.  When I tell them she's our daughter, they don't assume she's adopted.  Even better, they tell us how much she looks like Amy! 
 
It is fun to have conversations with people who can speak a little English, and so we're both stumbling around to communicate.  I feel like in those moments, we're having a genuine cultural exchange, one that leaves us both a little better.  But even better would be if I could speak Mandarin even better.  Well, we do plan to enroll Jada in Chinese school, so maybe Amy and I will linger around in class after we drop her off. 
 
We'd love to come back, after we're done adopting kids, and live in China for a few months or even a year.  A lot of adoptive parents have told us how important it is to bring the kids back to have an encounter with their home country.  I couldn't agree more, and wish even further than we could return not as tourists -- dabbling in the country and culture -- but as more permanent residents.  Like if I was able to get a job that called for a short-term assignment in China.  Or I took a sabbatical and Amy and I got short-term jobs here.  I feel like that would be a better way for our kids to more authentically take in the country and culture that is a part of who they are. 
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