Wednesday, March 3, 2010

A million dollars and some human suffering

I was all set to rant about being slighted at parenting workshop last night. But I'm reading a book called "Falling Leaves - The Memoir of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter" and my gripes are starting to look a little bit less consequential.

Allowing some wider perspective into our insular little lives... well, I won't go so far as to say it cheers me up, because this book breaks my heart. Knowing of other people's great pain breaks my heart. But it takes some of the pressure off of myself if I remind myself that I'm not the center of the universe.

In case you're curious, this was the slight. I was griping that my attempts at baby sign language weren't working, and I can't seem to remember any of the signs long enough to teach them to AwesomeCloud - and even worse, everyone keeps telling me I need to do sign language, need to need to NEEEEED TO.

The instructor is apparently of the opinion that I NEEEEEEED TO use baby sign language too. She said to me, "If I told you I'd give you a million dollars for learning 15 signs, you would do it."

I fumed silently for the rest of the night and into today. My fuming was truly kept internal - I cheerfully participated for the rest of the workshop. I have lots of practice keeping the hurt from stinging remarks to myself. But it did sting. I kept thinking, A million Dollars?! I don't even want a million dollars! She wasn't listening to me!

What was bothering me so much?

I realize it now. Her remark implied 1) I don't care enough about communicating with my child to try hard, and 2) if I don't care about communicating with my son, I'd sure as heck care about a million dollars.

AwesomeCloud is very young, but many families adopt older children who are already quite conversant in Mandarin. And yet these families don't prepare for the adoption by becoming fluent in Mandarin themselves. They complain that it's difficult to communicate with their child, and the casual observer may wonder, "Well, why don't you just learn a little Chinese?"


Mandarin, and all the other Chinese dialects for that matter, have the tonal element that is completely alien to English-only speakers. Not only must we learn a new vocabulary, but a whole new approach to pronunciation. It's a very, very specialized skill. Additionally, new languages are by nature extremely difficult to pick up when there's nobody around to practice on. You can take a course at the language institute, listen to Rosetta Stone, put vocabulary magnets on your fridge, make flash cards, but no matter how hard you try, the language doesn't stick and you get frustrated.


I tried hard to learn Mandarin, and yet the few words I did learn were almost incomprehensible when I spoke them. For instance, our housekeeper at the White Swan Hotel asked me my baby's name.

"Yun Gui," I proudly told her.

She frowned. "I don't know what that means," she said.

And that was the word I'd practiced twice as much as any other word I knew!

Besides, the promise of a million dollars implies that there are no other influencing factors, like the fact that AwesomeCloud and I are learning small new ways to communicate every day. If I make up a sign for "drink" he stares at me blankly. But if I find a twig on the ground and give it to him, he marches around with it, saying, "Stick stick stick!"

I think it's fascinating, and wonderful, that baby sign language is a generally useful tool that allows pre-verbal children to communicate a little. But it's not mandatory. It's not a mark distinguishing a caring parent from an uncaring one. And it is its own skill set; a skill set that some people may find difficult to adapt to.

People love to give new parents criticism. The experts, especially, take it upon themselves to tell us how many ways we're doing it wrong. If they don't understand the nuances of a situation, for instance the peculiar communication issues in any international adoption, they will still tell us we're wrong.

We knew it would be like that when we started the adoption. All in all it hasn't been super frequent, although we're not super-social people all the time. We're a little bit insular in some ways.

But there are worse experiences in life. There are always worse experiences. A lot of them are recorded in books.


  1. That book was eye-opening, to say the least. And I'm sorry for all of the judgment you've faced lately. It's always SOMETHING, isn't it? *sigh*

  2. Maybe all this criticism is a side effect of modern living. We all have the urge to help each other as if we were all members of a village. But we don't actually know each other very well. Therefore there's little consequence to giving advice too heavy-handedly. We don't have to learn how to assist each other in helpful ways - we just have to sate our own helpful urges.

    Not that I'm much better myself.

  3. I totally understand what you are saying/feeling. I used the Baby Signing Time DVD's (available at the library, too)--added bonus was that they easily taught "me" sign language and our daughter (home 1 year from China), loved them -- still does, even though she is verbal now. Did I miss the point? Hope not.

  4. I tried to do baby signs with my first two, and they were just too uncoordinated, LOL! By the time they learned a few of them, they were speaking paragraphs and the signs I'd worked so hard to teach them were laughably not useful. Certainly life has gone on quite nicely with many, many parent/child relationships without these. I've seen you two interact, and you're doing just fine. Hugs!