By Yen Yen Woo
There’s considerable potty language in this story. So, if you have a problem with that, you may wish to cover your ears.
My daughter was verbal very early. One day, when she was two years old, she yelled urgently, pointing to her bottom “Jia zhu le, jia zhu le!”
I didn’t know what she was saying … until her Shanghainese nanny eased her discomfort by pulling her wedgie out.
It was an awakening for me…
Who is this child that I’m bringing up in Flushing, Queens?
Is she going to grow up using the language of “jia zhu le, jia zhu le” to describe a wedgie, instead of the more correct linguistic form of “kiap tio leow, kiap tio leow?”
How did this happen, right under my nose?
“Jia zhu le” – what is that?
We have been living in New York City now for the past 16 years and have lived in Flushing Queens the past 8 years. Yes, Flushing. As in what you do after you go toilet. It was established by the Dutch West India Company and named after the Dutch city of Vlissingen. How Vlissingen became Flushing, I don’t know.
Flushing Queens is a crazy mix of immigrants from all over. More obviously, you see Chinese immigration from all the different parts of China, and you hear on the streets, Taiwanese, Fuzhou, Northern Chinese, Cantonese.
And there are also many Koreans, Indians, Sri Lankans, Bangladeshis, Filipinos, Irish, Greek Russians, Jews and Italians.
If ever there was a Babel where people speak all the different languages and they sometimes understand each other and at other times misunderstand each other, this is Babel. There is no one center. It doesn’t matter what language you speak or how long you’ve been in the country. Everyone assumes that they are the center.
Neighbor: ni men na li ren (where are you from?)
Me: xin jia po (Singapore)
Neighbor: Oh, wai di ren (you are from elsewhere)
Me: ni shi na li ren (where are you from?)
Me: lai duo jiu le? (How long have you been here?)
Neighbor: san ge hue (three months)
So … and you’re not “wai di ren” (from elsewhere)?
We all assume we are the center.
As I observed my daughter’s language development, I began to notice one important assumption that she has growing up in this crazy linguistic world.
She is five now. She does not assume that she is the Center linguistically. When someone doesn’t understand her or doesn’t respond, she doesn’t assume that it’s because the other person is stupid. She assumes that she just hasn’t got the right language.
When she sees an Asian-looking person in the elevator, she would try…
“ni hao” … no response
“ahnyung hasyeo … no response
“Ola commo est ta?”
If she meets a little girl in the playground and all languages fail, she might touch her hair and go, “your hairstyle and my hairstyle are the same.”
She works hard to listen to responses and to find the right language.
The kid in her classroom has communication challenges?
“Phil, give me the block?”
“Phil, “Let it go, let it go … “ (as in the Elsa song)
And Phil lets go.
What are we able to do, who are we able to communicate with, when we listen like we are not the Center?
There are a few words and phrases she uses that I would consider her Mother Tongue. Words that have survived the journey between Singapore and New York City. These are the words she speaks in her most visceral moments, in a moment of urgency, in a moment of pain, in a moment of love.
When she was younger, she said “ngh-ngh” (poop)
“bang sai” (regular poop)
“lau sai” (diarrhea)
I told you there was going to be potty language in my story.
And as I recently discovered, “chi-ba-boom!”
We were registering in her new school for kindergarten and her teacher was evaluating her facility with English to see if she needed English as a Second Language support.
The teacher asked her “what do you want to do when you grow up?”
She said “i want to be a scientist.” The teacher was very impressed. She continued “I want to study chemistry.” The teacher looked at me with that nod of approval. She didn’t stop there. “I want to study chemistry because you can mix chemicals and then the chemicals go “chi-ba-boom” (the Singlish sound for explosions).
When Kaikai was three, we went to an Afghan restaurant in Flushing, Queens. Where the important NYPD, New York Police Department, reportedly hangs out and listens for terrorism leads. Apparently the fact that it’s also where you can get the best kebabs in all of New York has nothing to do with why the NYPD hangs out there.
At the restaurant, she needed to go to the toilet. We went, she struggled to get onto the potty herself when she yelled out in pain, “Mommy!!! The potty kiap-ed my pee-gu!” (the toilet pinched my bottom).
Imagine this mother’s pride and joy at this visceral utterance in my young daughter’s moment of pain and extreme vulnerability… “the potty kiap-ed my pee-gu”….three languages in one utterance! English, Hokkien and Mandarin!
And I have to say, the English teacher in me was especially proud that she even used the correct tense. It wasn’t “kiap” … it was “kiap-ed”.
At that moment, in that small restroom in the Afghan restaurant in Flushing, Queens, the only words that came out of me were the words that my mother spoke to me and her mother before that spoke to her, “Mommy sayang, mommy sayang.”
Assoc. Professor Yen Yen WOO is the CEO of Yumcha Studios LLC, a New York-based multimedia production company and the co-creator of DIM SUM WARRIORS, a Mandarin/English bilingual iPad app and graphic novel series about kung fu-fighting dumplings that has been featured by Time magazine, the BBC, the New York Times, Fast Company magazine (which named it one of the Top 10 Coolest Original Digital Comics of 2012) and Publishers Weekly (which awarded it an Honorable Mention in their Critics’ Poll of the Best Graphic Novels of 2012). Yen Yen is also a screenwriter and movie director whose feature film, Singapore Dreaming, won the Montblanc Screenwriting Award at the San Sebastian International Film Festival and the Best Asian Film Award at the Tokyo International Film Festival, and has been sold to multiple territories worldwide, and screened at numerous festivals and venues, including the Smithsonian Institution and the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Yen Yen received her Doctorate in Education from Columbia University’s Teachers College, and is currently an Associate Professor at Long Island University’s College of Education and Information Sciences, where she specializes in curriculum development.