The Neighborhood Watch

In the past two months, our Ayi has begun to take Leo outside to play during her shifts. Before that, we were a little too worried about him being outside without one of us. But now that he’s a big bad 18 month old 🙂 – we figure he can handle it and our nanny has proven herself capable of caring for him mostly according to our liking. She still puts multiple layers of clothing on him (sometimes he’s a little too warm when I get home, and I have to strip a layer or two off), and every once in a while she sneaks in a few contraband crackers/sweets, but for the most part, she honors our standards. We joke that she is like his Chinese grandma, and she feels that way too. After 10 months of caring for him, the two of them are peas in a pod in some ways.

A few days after I agreed to let her take Leo out during her shifts, I was doing some shopping at the vegetable market down our street. As usual, the neighbors were all gathered on the street, chatting and joking around. Two ladies and a security guard began playing with Leo, and soon another little boy about his age was in on the action. As they were all having a good time laughing at the little ones trying to climb onto a few stools they had set out, I began chatting with a couple of neighborhood ladies. They instantly began to tell me how things were going with Leo and our nanny. The ladies gave me a full report on their activities outside – how long they were out, what they did, where they went, and who they talked to and played with. I gladly received this information, because although I knew that it was good for Leo to get out of the house with Ayi, it still makes me nervous, even now. I had reiterated a list of rules for her (don’t let other people kiss him, take him out of your sight, or feed him anything, and watch him like a hawk, because he moves fast and the streets are narrow), but all rules aside, it was new territory for me as a mother to have Leo outside in China without a parent. I apparently had nothing to worry about though, because everyone in our neighborhood knows Leo and they were keeping an eye on him just as our ayi was. The report was mostly positive; the ladies’ only exception was that they felt Leo was out a bit too long for his own good.

One of the ladies then asked me, “Does your ayi have culture?” This took me a few seconds to digest, and I truly wasn’t sure how to respond. I sort of knew the answer was no, but I didn’t have any intention of belittling our ayi. I wasn’t sure if I said yes, was I going to look silly? If I said no, was I going to be speaking unkindly? This is one of the challenges of language, the uncertainty of the nuances and meanings of certain words in certain circumstances. I didn’t have to worry about how to answer for long though, because the other lady piped in, “Certainly she does not have culture; she’s from the countryside.” So I surmised that culture meant being from the city and having some education. They didn’t approve of this either, but I assured them that she was very warm and loved Leo very much, and it didn’t matter to us that she was from the countryside. They seemed to accept this. In some ways, being a foreigner is easier than being a local because we can get away with not conforming to certain social standards because we are outsiders. So if I think it’s okay to have an uncultured nanny for my son, then people are for the most part accepting of that and chalk it up to me being a foreigner, even if they think it’s wrong.

Speaking of the language, Leo is starting to sound more and more Chinese as the days pass. We are starting to be more intentional about speaking English with him, as his Chinese is arguably better than his English at the moment. I come home from work to find Leo saying, “Dui!” (Yes or Correct) and “Diaole!” (It fell!) and “Baobao” (Pick me up!). His language is a bit behind his peers, but his comprehension is not. Which, from all reports we’ve heard of children raised in bilingual settings, this language lag is pretty normal and he should catch up as the Chinese and English sort themselves out in his mind. The funniest part is that recently, I’ve had people begin to ask me (when just the two of us are out together) if his Dad is Chinese. People even debate about which of his facial characteristics come from his father (who must be Chinese). Last time I checked, JM was most certainly European American, and I do explain this to dubious strangers on busses and in stores. I really think that the people of China just want to claim Leo as their own, and who can blame them? He’s a pretty cute kid!

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1 Response to “The Neighborhood Watch”


  1. 1 Becca April 5, 2009 at 3:42 pm

    Heck! I want to claim Leo as my own! :o)


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