Language is the heartbeat of a culture: Perspective from an American mom raising an adoptee from China
Mom of Bo Bei - Adoptee from China
Grew up in the US | Lived in Germany the last 13 years
Native in English | Living proficiency in German | Learning Mandarin
We still remember the first time we met Liz. She reached out on Instagram, expressing such gratitude and love for our product. As we started to chat, we were overwhelmed by her story and the recognition that our product was making a real impact for adoptive families like hers. Delving into her story was such a treat. There were so many nuggets in this conversation that touched us deeply, and we hope it resonates with you too.
Let’s start with an introduction! Where are you from and what languages do you speak?
I was born in Washington DC and grew up in Florida. When I was 18-months old, I was involved in an accident that damaged the left-side of my brain. I am dyslexic and was always told from a very young age that I would never be able to speak another language. I avoided it, since it was a really big fear of mine.
This of course changed because I ended up moving to Germany. I came to do a short photography course but then met Uli, my husband, and stayed. So, of course language became an essential part of my new home and life. It really is a struggle for me, but I had to figure out my way of learning German. Now after 13 years of living in Germany, I wouldn’t say I’m fluent - but I can get by.
On top of German, I’m now learning Chinese - because we adopted our daughter, Bo Bei, from China. I have always loved China and Chinese culture, because my dad studied it and would speak about it often. When he and my mother travelled to China in the late 90s, they would show us all these wonderful photos. At that time, there was a lot of discussion around the orphan crisis in China, and even though I was only in middle school, these stories stayed with me. When we adopted Bo Bei fom China, I thought “We have a big responsibility to keep her Mandarin.” And even though I was still dealing with trying to improve my German, there was no question in my mind that learning Chinese would be essential.
What is the role of the different languages in your house? Between English, German, and Chinese?
They’re all important. Uli and I have travelled a lot - with our band / non-profit work we have done. And for us, one culture does not bend to another. One is not more or less important. We always tell ourselves - we didn’t just adopt Bo Bei - we adopted the Chinese culture. Just like - I didn’t just marry Uli - I married the German culture, and he married the American culture. This being said, it doesn’t mean we are a perfectly trilingual household - in fact, far from it. We don’t put any pressure on anyone to be perfect. We just try to give space to all 3. I guess you can say it’s just part of our family’s DNA to have 3 cultures and make sure all 3 are evenly welcomed.
Tell us more about learning Chinese - because you’re not only trying to help Bo Bei retain it - you’re trying to learn it yourself.
We knew a tiny bit of Chinese before we adopted Bo Bei because we had been to China multiple times. But they were mostly basic things like greetings / hello - nothing remotely like having a conversation. When I started, it was definitely intimidating - especially because Chinese is not an alphabetic / romanized language; it has tones, so the sounds are on a completely different level. Sometimes you’re not sure what you’re hearing - was that a word or a sentence? A lot of times, I thought “I’ll never be able to get there.” But because of Bo Bei, I just needed to attempt it. I’m not always sure that I’m saying it correctly - but I try. And you know the first time you say something where the other party understands, you just feel such a rush.
Can I tell you my favorite memory? We were in China, going to pick up Bo Bei who was 3.5 years old. She already spoke a lot (She is a talker!). We were outside on a big street and at one point, she went one direction so quickly that I didn’t get a chance to hold onto her. Nanning is a huge city with huge streets, and as a mom, I panicked. I screamed, “拉妈妈的手, lā māmā de shǒu (Grab Mama’s hand).” And Bo Bei turned around and grabbed my hand. The feeling I felt then! There I was, first time mom, meeting my daughter, speaking a language I thought was insurmountable, and we communicated. At that moment, I remember thinking, “I can do this.”
That’s amazing. How are you actively incorporating Chinese into your lives?
Well, you guys (Habbi Habbi) have changed our lives. We are the biggest fans, and it’s just been perfect for all of us. For Bo Bei, she can learn both the English and the Mandarin. There are so few products like that. Products that are just in Chinese are too hard for me and Uli. With your product, we are all learning together. You know there is a saying in life that say “The best things in life are stupid simple?” Well, you guys have made it stupid simple, and it’s the best.
We speak all three languages throughout the day, but we also try to have specific ‘days’ focused on different languages. For example, when she visits her grandparents (Uli’s parents), they speak to her in German. Sometimes we have Mandarin days where the TV she watches is in Mandarin, and I try to speak to her in Mandarin. We also play stories to her when she goes to bed, as she falls asleep. Also as a dyslexic, I am a huge advocate of songs. The first time I tried to learn German, Uli gave me a Beatles album where all the songs were in German. He said “Just listen to this. You know all the songs, so you can learn German this way.” When we picked up Bo Bei, she kept singing nursery rhymes in Chinese, and I recognized the melodies there too. And we do our Habbi Habbi books every day!
We love the themes in this conversation. So much of it seems to be around respect for culture and language.
For us, language is the heartbeat of a culture. It’s not just a ‘task’ or ‘subject.’ I think when you dive into a different person’s language, you are saying, “I want to understand your heart.”
And I do think it’s about respect. Through our nonprofit work, we have visited so many different cultures - Ethiopia, India, China, etc. And every time we visit a different place, we try to learn a few phrases. In the States, everyone is expected to learn English. But everywhere else in the world, it’s so clear that you show so much respect if you just try.
That being said, it’s not always easy! Sometimes I get frustrated saying the wrong thing in the wrong way. I am worried it makes me sound stupid, but I consciously make the decision to try. It’s definitely been a humbling but choiceful experience.
Playing forward, what is your goal for Bo Bei with respect to language?
We plan on exposing her as much as we can to the different cultures. That means visiting the Chinese Cultural Center (after COVID / things open of course). We will also make sure we go back to China, just like we have time in Germany and the United States. We’d like to make sure she is able to spend time in all 3 countries. We want to practice the culture, holidays, festivals - of all three cultures. And we want to surround her with friends and role models that are also Chinese, so she can connect to them. That’s what we see as our responsibility. And then through that exposure, she can decide what role she wants the different cultures to hold in her life.