In an instant, my reputation as a mother shattered in the eyes of our ayi.
I’ve finally begun Mandarin lessons. This past week, I learned the word for juice. I sat at the kitchen table with my tutor and made a mental note that it sounded similar to the English word for juice.
Fast-forward one hour. I took the leftover apple cider out of the fridge to give to my kids and thought it might be fun for ayi to try some. I poured a small glass and offered it to her, saying in my slowly deliberate Mandarin, “This is apple juice,” which I hoped would be close enough to “cider” and she could figure it out from there.
And here begins our conversation, in which I became a terrible mother.
Note: This all happened in Mandarin, aside from my thoughts, and ayi’s Mandarin has been paraphrased for the reader’s understanding.
Ayi, pausing: “Jiu?”
My thoughts: “That sounds like what I just said, with better tone, and it’s close to juice. That must be it.”
Ayi: “I don’t drink that.”
My thoughts: “That’s so strange. Maybe she thinks it will mess up her digestion or something.”
I put her cider down and pour three small cups for my three children. As I warm it in the microwave, ayi turns from doing the dishes to watch me.
Ayi, very strongly: “They (the children) shouldn’t drink that.”
Me, reassuringly: “It’s okay. It’s okay.”
My thoughts, as ayi coldly turns back to the dishes: “What’s the deal? Maybe the Chinese don’t let their kids drink apple juice? There was that one fruit that she said they shouldn’t have too much of. Maybe it’s like that. Too much sugar? Bad for digestion?”
Me: “Just a little bit is okay for them.”
I give the cider to the kids, and then ayi turns to me again.
Ayi: “I can’t drink it because I have to drive my scooter to my other job.”
Me, horrified, as I realized the word she had used: “No, no, no! Not ‘JIU’!”
I quickly grab the bottle of juice out of the fridge: “This one!”
Ayi, after scrutinizing the label on the bottle: “Oh, ZHI!”
And then she smiled, realizing that I give apple juice to my little ones… not apple wine.
Welcome to the world of language, where a simple error can wreak havoc in real life conversations.
My husband and I shared a hearty laugh about this episode, partly because of ayi’s horror at my parenting and partly because of my embarrassment. As a child learning to speak, adults give us so much grace and patience. I think of one of my nephews who recently tried to say the lovely phrase, “Nana’s beach.” It came out sounding like something that I won’t write here. We laughed and enjoyed the moment, but we didn’t reprimand him or became angry because he accidentally blurted out something else. We expect that toddlers won’t get their words or pronunciations correct all the time, especially at first, and we listen carefully to understand what they try to say.
I wish that we adults would have the same grace for other adults and for ourselves when we learn a new language. I’m a big perfectionist. I don’t like to fail. I don’t like to be incorrect. I want to say something the right way the first time and every time after that. But it’s not possible.
While I desperately want Mandarin speakers to display patience toward my attempts to speak, the only person I can control is myself. So I hope to be patient toward students or friends I meet who are learning English, realizing that their trying means they actually care to communicate with me. And I want to give myself grace to know that I will fail linguistically but that I am free to try and to learn and to laugh at myself.
Oh, and ayi drank her cider and said it tasted delicious.