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My Chinese “little sister” is, surprisingly, a spoiled brat

July 4, 2010

In the past two weeks I’ve done many interesting, fun things that I’ve failed to blog about, mostly because of three reasons: 1) I was watching Chuck (done now! that excuse is gone), 2) I was lazy, 3) I felt “backlogged” on blog entries. I’ve decided to just forget about it and write what I feel like.

So instead of writing about my trip to the Great Wall or the Forbidden City, or what I thought of the Peking Opera yesterday evening, I’m going to save those for later and write about my experience today with my Chinese family (Zhong guo jia ting).

At HBA, you can choose to be paired up with a Chinese family. It’s entirely optional, but it’s an opportunity to learn about  a part of Chinese culture, they tell you. So I signed up. Each family is paired with two students. So, this kid Colin, a third-year Chinese student and rising sophomore at Harvard, and I were paired up with the Li family.

Mrs. Li is a teacher at BCLU. She and her husband have a small and seemingly adorable daughter, age 6, called Weiwei (pronounced “way-way”).

Today, Colin and I were invited to the Li’s home, a small but nice apartment, to make dumplings and “play activities.” I was asked to “prepare an activity,” but I could not for the life of me come up with one that I’d be able to do in Chinese, so I just bought some fruit to give them as a gift (you must always bring a gift when you’re a guest in China) and hoped for the best.

Turns out all was well with the gift and the lack of an activity, because we spent the first hour making dumplings and the second hour eating them. The Li’s had another family over, I assume neighbors, who had a son the same age as Weiwei. I forget their names, but the man was very friendly, loved to talk in his thick Beijing accent. So, we made dumplings – roll out a wrapper from dough, put filling in wrapper, close it up – and chatted in Chinese.

Colin held up his end pretty well, being a third year and all, but I came to the sinking realization that while I might be getting much better at understanding my teachers and my classmates at HBA, I can barely understand a normal Chinese person in a real life situation. Gulp.

I still had fun, albeit with a lot of blank stares and empty nods to the conversation around me. When we finally ate, the food was delicious. I even tried a duck egg for the first time – delicious! – and I was very proud of the dumplings I’d helped to wrap.

We drank Chinese beer (oh how I love you, pretty darn good, super cheap Chinese beer) and even some baijiu (pronounced “bye-jeeoh), Chinese liquor, that was shockingly tasty. All you ever hear is how awful the stuff is, but some brands, clearly, are not that bad.

All this was fine and well until we got the “play” part of the afternoon. Neither I nor Colin had prepared an activity, so we played one Mrs. Li had prepared. I don’t think the game has a name or even any rules. Pretty much the worst game I ever played, although I was quite entertained watching it unfold. Every person takes a number, and then you go through, starting with 1 and each person performs something in front of the group. Yup, that’s it.

First, their guest did a magic trick for the kids. Then, his son recited something strange that I didn’t follow. Then Mr. Li sang, Mrs. Li played a Japanese harmonica of some sort, and then it was my turn. I sang a segment of “Part of Your World” from the Little Mermaid. Well received. Then Colin, who admitted to be “freaking out” to me under his breath, performed a rousing rendition of “The Itsy Bitsy Spider.”

Oh the thrills of Beijing on a summer day!

But then came the most interesting part of the day, to me at least: Weiwei, after performing a song with hand movements, broke down into a temper tantrum. A full fledged one, with crying, screaming, running, stomping, and refusing to listen to her parents. It lasted about 20 minutes. Whichever one of her parents was in the room with us smiled as if nothing was wrong and made small talk. It was quite uncomfortable.

Things started clicking in my head then. I recalled that during the dumpling making, she’d talked back to parents quite a bit. I even saw her hit her dad once. Reminded me so much of myself as a kid.

As she had her tantrum, and both parents tried to calm her down, neither getting very angry with her (I could hear the whole thing, no door between the living room and the bedroom she chose for her tantrum), I realized: this girl is a totally spoiled brat, just like any American six-year-old.

I guess I was so shocked because all you hear is how parents in China are so strict, kids are really kept in line, etc. But here was a girl, raised in a big Chinese city, living a middle class lifestyle with her own bedroom and access to a nice TV, internet, etc., living just like an American kid with the same lack of discipline. I didn’t see that coming.

As the tantrum subsided, we watched a little bit of Disney’s Mulan with Chinese subtitles. It’s actually quite popular in China. But while we watched in the living room, Weiwei watched the same movie, about a minute behind us, defiantly a few feet away on one of her parents’ laptop computers. Her parents, likely relieved that she was keeping quite, didn’t disturb her.

Maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised. I mean, the quality of life in China is rising all the time, kids there are always only children and have access to far more material things than their parents ever had. They’re getting spoiled. Apparently, this is called “Little Emperor” syndrome. I still clung to the idea of the strict Chinese discipline, respect for your elders, etc. But in a house like the Li’s, with a quiet, passive father like Mr. Li, it’s easy to see that tradition is being eroded everywhere in the PRC.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Chris Carothers permalink
    July 6, 2010 9:28 am

    Hey, fun times. Don’t sweat the understanding ordinary Chinese, that takes time. I find that the longer I spend with any given person, the more I understand their particular intonations. And some people, I still can’t understand anything they are saying!

    Basic rule of Chinese peasants: the more teeth, the easier to understand.

    Anyway, if you guys are going out this weekend or anything, give me a call on skype (chris_carothers).
    Or you can email me at cjcaroth@fas.harvard.edu.

  2. Cbuck permalink
    July 21, 2010 1:54 pm

    dumplings
    yuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuum

    that game sounds terrible
    i wouldnt know what to do
    i hate the idea of having to entertain people
    i think i would have done the macarena

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