When my son was 6, he asked to be dropped off at the birthday party of a French boy where he’d be the only child who couldn’t speak French.
“Are you sure you want to go?” I asked, worried whether he could ask for water, much less directions to the bathroom. Rainey nodded.
“I had a great time!” he chirped afterward.
“Did you understand anything the other kids were saying?” I pressed.
“No — but I still played Star Wars with them,” he responded, grinning at the thought of lightsabers and Jedis.
My son had parachuted, willing and alone, into an environment without the skills to communicate verbally, and had a fabulous time.
We’re an American family living in China — I’m a writer, my husband’s a journalist — and over the years I’ve watched our son develop a cultural agility that makes me proud. It’s a flexibility borne partly of circumstance: Rainey’s been enrolled in China’s state-run school system since he was 3.
Almost always the lone American in a roomful of Chinese, he’s learned to make daily cultural adjustments, big and small. He isn’t musically inclined, but he’s learned to play the recorder, which the Chinese consider a bellwether of musical talent. He picked up a second language through complete immersion. He’s grown accustomed to play dates where other families boast different priorities.
“You are very free in allowing your son to play,” my Chinese friend Ming told me, as she watched Rainey leap after a ball with arms flapping. It was an insult, delivered in the euphemistic Chinese way. I tried my best to let it go, as Ming’s boy sat intently before a pile of Legos, as if he were preparing to reverse-engineer the Three Gorges Dam.
As the years pass, my son has shot so far past me on the cultural-awareness meter that I’ve become a liability — an embarrassment. It began with the Coach purses.
As the Chinese New Year holiday approached, I’d heard other parents were planning elaborate gifts for their teachers. “Louis Vuitton, Prada, L’Occitane, Clinique, Godiva,” one Chinese parent told me, ticking off the Western luxury items she liked to bestow on her daughter’s master teacher.
Thinking I was adhering to cultural norms, I tried to hand my son’s teacher a box emblazoned with the Coach logo while another adult lurked nearby at school pickup. The reaction was emphatic and immediate.
“Bu yong, bu yong — no need, no need,” she exclaimed, hands raised with palms out as she backed away, then pivoted and sped in the opposite direction. I stood there like an idiot.
The next time I dropped Rainey off, he skulked behind my legs, and found a reason to wander off as I approached his teacher.
Later, my husband laughed. “Yes — it’s like when I stopped wanting to hold my mom’s hand in public. He’s embarrassed of you.”
“Yes, but Rainey’s only 5! I just didn’t think it would start so early.”
Rainey’s nearly 9 now. Over the years, our family has made little adjustments to round out his Chinese schooling experience — which focuses on academics — by infusing weekends with sports and art. I like to think our efforts have paid off. He knows a Sichuan peppercorn from the garden variety you buy at Costco, and he’s just as comfortable talking to a friend from Minnesota as one from Bali. He plays soccer with European friends, and when we decamp to the U.S. in the summer, he frolics in lush, green American parks with other friends. In California and New York, I overhear him talking to friends about baseball and favorite players, conversations that wouldn’t necessarily happen with his Chinese classmates.
Finally, I’m beginning to take cues from my son.
Take the piñata incident. Back in China, we attended the birthday party of Rainey’s Chinese classmate, whose mother had imported a staple of my American childhood.
I watched, enthralled, as a scrum of children thronged around a piñata — Elsa, the main character of the Disney film Frozen — in an undulating mosh pit. Swings were delivered at random, baton passing from hand to hand in no particular order. Magically, no one was struck in the face.
After 20 minutes of whacking, Elsa fell to the floor. I braced myself for the familiar rush of children scrambling for candy, only to find the kids wandering off, bored: Elsa was an empty cardboard box. For all her preparations, the birthday girl’s mother had missed the point of the exercise — ramming the piñata full of sweets and treats.
I chuckled, heading over to the girl’s mother to inform her, but Rainey, 6 at the time, suddenly materialized before me. He pulled my ear down to his level.
“Shh … I know, Mom, I know. But don’t say anything, okay?” he whispered, sparing me an embarrassing exchange. Rainey was skilled at saving face, and he’d nudged me to leave the mother in blissful ignorance.
Therein lies my hope for our future. As the world grows smaller and smaller, and let’s face it — more competitive and uncomfortable — it’s not just about language ability, but cultural understanding. Empathy. Reaching out. Finding a way to communicate with someone from an entirely different culture or set of values. Entering new communities and spaces. My son’s well on his way, and I’m beginning to follow his lead.
Lenora Chu’s first book, Little Soldiers: An American Boy, a Chinese School, and the Global Race to Achieve (HarperCollins), has just been published.