“Petra is becoming Chinese,” I told my wife one night over dinner.
“I’m becoming like my friends!” my daughter corrected me.
She is becoming Chinese. Children don’t just absorb language but culture as well. The kid talks like a Chinese person, struts like a Chinese person, reacts to situations like a Chinese person, and doesn’t seem to understand what’s wrong with tossing trash on the ground like a Chinese person.
I was sitting with my three and a half year old daughter in a park one day when it occurred to me that she probably didn’t know what the word waiguoren means. This word means foreigner, and wherever we go in Taizhou a choir of people chattering “Waiguoren, waiguoren, waiguoren,” follows us. So I explained what this word meant to my kid, and she just sort of listened and stared off into the distance. I wasn’t sure if she got it.
Then a little later we went over to a playground and a little Chinese girl got into my daughter’s face and mockingly called her a waiguoren. Petra clocked her with a right hook. Apparently, she understood.
My daughter has already spent a good deal of her childhood in China, a country where kids seem to be a little meaner, more aggressive, and more direct than they are in floofy poofy, “everybody’s a winner” Western cultures. She is growing up tough here, that’s for sure. Not only do Chinese kids seem to lack discipline in regards to being mean to each other, but many behaviors that Western culture considers rude just don’t register here. My daughter also looks and speaks differently than them, making her an increasingly easier target the more she is able to interact.
She has responded by being the alpha-kid. She pushes bigger kids out of her way and mixes it up with her equals. She often dominates the playing, coming up with the ground rules and telling her playmates what to do. The kid is small for her age, but she is a real brute who knows how to dish it. Though she can take it too.
Though she seems a little confused here as to what constitutes proper social protocol. She has yet to understand how to behave in various different contexts. Pushing back against a bigger boy who is barreling through the other kids on a playground is one thing, saying something mean to an innocent bystander is another.
It is sometimes an embarrassing position being the father of a little girl who sometimes decides to insult or push other kids on the playground, but it seems to me as if she just thinks this is what kids do here. It is what they do.
But this does is not really as bad as it may sound. It all works out, my kid has friends, and, for the most part, she doesn’t act much differently than any other Chinese kid. For each time that my daughter has told some kid on the playground that she doesn’t want to play with him/ her some Chinese kid has said the same to her. Kids have very thick skins, they take insults and bounce back fast.
China is made up of those who dominate and those who are dominated. It is like this everywhere, but here it seems to be to the extreme. There is a clear line between the two groups, and you can see where everybody stands. For men, there are meatheads and geeks; for women, dragon ladies and mice. This is a culture that conspicuously lacks middle grounds.
My daughter, though female, has taken a few plays from the meatheads’ strategy, but mostly she is over aggressive because she really just wants to play with the other kids and she seems to think she’s doing it right. On the playground she has modeled herself off of the little boys who knock the other kids out of the way and proclaim their position as the king of the mountain. My kid hasn’t yet realized that she is much too little to usurp those kings, but she keeps trying anyway.