Unlike the child, the adult enjoys the benefit of context. To the adult, the posting to China is just another chapter in a long list of chapters. There was a before and there will be an after. To young children however who have very little experience to look back on, the expat adventure can quite easily come to feel like the whole book. The entirety of their experience. What to the adult is seen as an exciting, transient, adventure to a child can feel like an overwhelming new life. Furthermore, the adults, quite rightly, are in the driving seat. The child however is just a passenger. A passenger on a journey not of their choosing with a destination beyond their control.
So it was with my daughter, Isabel, who arrived with us in Shanghai when she had just turned 3. We had wrongly assumed that a young child’s world was that of her immediate society, in short, her parents. We thought therefore that so long as she was with us, she would be happy. We were wrong.
It wasn’t long before Isabel was showing signs of a growing insecurity. She increasingly clung to her Mum and started to wet herself on a regular basis. It was a worrying time.
It had never occured to me that such young children had a real feeling of national identity. However, quite comically, it became clear that Isabel not only had a sense of national identitiy but that she feared that she was losing hers. Like many expats, we employed an ayi (maid). The ayi, having no English, spoke to the children in Chinese. Not being discouraged by the fear of looking stupid that besets us adults, Isabel picked up Mandarin fairly quickly.
Like any other child, Isabel loved being praised however when it came to speaking Chinese it was an altogether different matter. My wife Heather had complimented Isabel on her Chinese a few times only for Isabel to maintain steadfastly that she didn’t speak any Chinese.
I once came home from work to find Isabel having a fierce slanging match in Chinese, with the Ayi. I asked her what it was all about ;
“Qing Hui said that I had to put my socks on in my bedroom but I told her that they were my socks, and if I wanted to put them on the settee whilewatching tele, then I could if I wanted. Then Qing Hui said that I had to do what she said and I said no…..”
At which point I interrupted her and said “I thought you couldn’t speak Chinese ?” to which she replied …”Of course I don’t speak Chinese Daddy. You know that. I’m English !!”.
Isabel’s interjections soon became common place. She would interrupt; to tell the woman at Haagen Dazs what flavour ice cream she wanted, tell the taxi driver where we lived, to inform the ayi that she wanted fried dumplings for tea.
Heather once discovered her having a row with several Ayis (maids) in the compound playground in Chinese. They had apparently complimented her Cinderalla like looks only for Isabel to rebuke them that she looked nothing like Cinderella as Cinderella had blonde hair whilst she had brown curly hair. This full blown row was conducted entirely in Mandarin of course. An onlooking Swedish friend of ours complimented Isabel on her Chinese. A mistake. “But I don’t speak hardly any Chinese ! I’m English !” retorted Isabel.
In time Isabel settled down and a more happy, contented demeanour returned. She realised that her identity was secure and this new, seemingly overwhelming environment was not really a serious threat to her and her identity.
I was pleased and relieved to see my little girl happy again, though rather selfishly, I came to lament the disappearance of her comic ‘little Englander ‘ routine. Selfish I know, but I sometimes wish my little patriot could have developed the act a little further. How cute it would have been if my little toddler could have maybe added the lines ..” dem Gairmans…dey bombed our chip shop in the war….”