I think I can bet on that aside of culture differences, international relationships mostly struggle with language barrier. Lion’s share of the AMWF relationships I know communicate in English or in a native language of one of the partners, but in 95% of the cases there’s at least one non-native speaker.
Probably you’ve been in a situation you just don’t know how to express your feelings. It’s especially annoying during the argument, in my mind I have so many good points, I could easily crush my husband with them but I just don’t know how to speak up. Then I make upset face and win anyway, but I wish he knew how brilliant my argumentation can be.
Or sometimes I just go ‘full-blond‘ and ask my husband like I was Peggy Bundy
You know what I mean… Babe, you know, that flat things we put food on?
That’s dining table.
One thing is when it’s only between you and your partner. You can always say ‘That’s not what I meant’ or ‘Give me a second, I don’t know how to put it’ or simply just make up a word or phrase, but it gets really bad when it comes to you and your in-laws.
My biggest fear when Momzilla came here was that I won’t be talking to her at all. It took us two hours to go from San Francisco International Airport to our home and we didn’t talk at all. Two hours of awkward silence. To make things worst, Sing goes out to work at 8AM, comes back after 7PM – strangely, since she came he has much more overtime at work… That basically gives me 55 hours a week of time alone with her.
At the beginning I tried to go shopping every other day but since AC Transit changed the fare I cannot do it more than once a week. So what two people who technically don’t speak the same language (and I mean have a real proper talk, not writing or using a dictionary) can do?
As you might notice I’m studying, more or less, Cantonese and I’m not a native English speaker, but I can write well enough for you to understand me. My mother-language is Polish, which gives me ‘cute accent‘ – at least according to people in 85C Bakery in Newark, but they might say it since I’m their faithful client also known as the Black Forest Grapefruit Green Tea Lady.
My mother-in-law speaks Cantonese, but with very heavy accent, that I’m the only one who cannot understand, because she had a 2 hours long conversation with a Hong Kong lady she met on the street. She also reads traditional signs, but she’s native for Shanghainese and raised with simplified Chinese.
Years of living in Hong Kong taught her British alphabet so she has some base, comparing to the relatives in China. I remember once Sing’s outside-grandma had a talk on the phone and had to give us some passport information, but since she didn’t know the alphabet she just described the letters. I lost it when I heard ‘beede’ (sorry, that’s the closest pronunciation I could make) which is ‘queen‘ in Shanghainese. Yes, grandma was describing ‘Q‘ you can find in the stack of cards.
I kinda admire her – she went to Hong Kong with Sing’s father not knowing Cantonese, then she went to Europe to see my family not knowing English. Her flight was cancelled because of the bad weather and she managed to stay informed without our help. She even got a visa to America and passed the immigration with just a letter we wrote for her (if you are in similar situation with your family click here to get a sample of the letter you can give to your relatives). That’s impressive for a 58 year old lady.
So there we are. Awkward and silent. Can’t be worse, can it? All until she picked up a book, ‘Cantonese for everyone’ by Chow Bun Ching – great book given by my dear friend – that includes ‘Immediately Useful Expressions’‘. She went through it, pointed at us and said ‘Me Gwóngjàu Wah, you English‘. Since that time we go with the rule ‘One day, one phrase’. She stopped to teach me speaking Cantonese, since according to my husband I’m killing it with double-non-native-accent, but she helps me in writing and everyday encourages me to spend little time either reading an articles or working on my handwriting. Momzilla on the other hand made a huge progress.
Would you believe that a woman in her age can be so eager to study? Everyday after lunch she grabs the book and ask me to teach her. She cannot say full sentences yet, we still go with simple words, but it’s just adorable when she walks around the house or our neighborhood, points at things and say ‘cat’, ‘sun’, ‘bus’. She greets my husband with ‘How is it going?’ everytime he comes back from work. Of course she also learnt things like ‘Chocolate no’ or ‘Cold no’, she wouldn’t be herself if she didn’t. Now she can deny my right for a dessert in 3 languages.
The thing I was scared the most actually brought us together. We spend more time together, we have more interaction that also includes sign language. We no longer try to avoid each other. I feel much more relaxed being around her and I feel closer. It also gives us a good laugh, I’m pretty sure even thought she didn’t say that, but I could see a smile on her face when I mispronounce things. It’s a shameful confession, but my Shanghainese pronunciation is much better than Cantonese. In 2012 I said so many times ‘Don’t know, don’t eat, full’ that I became fluent in those 3 phrases.
So there’s my advice for anyone who’s struggling with the same thing as I did: try teaching them your language, the language you use to speak with your partner or make a language exchange! Any kind of phrase book could work. It can only make things better, even if your relationship with in-laws won’t get better at least you will know more and you might even be able to know if and what they talk about you! Or at least kill that silence, you can always point at something and teach them a new word. I’m so lucky and glad Momzilla thought about it because it’s week 5 of her stay here, and even if she’s sometimes annoying and just being a Momzilla, I start to feel I will miss her once she goes back to Asia.
At the end I want to share my favorite mispronunciation by Momzilla. Luckily she cannot share with you how bad my Cantonese-speaking skills are, but I’m pretty sure she could say the same thing about me. God bless there is no need for voice input on the phone and I can just write things because I would be screwed! In the end I think it’s super-cute and sometimes super-funny!
- Take care – taker
- University – newspaper (to be clear – she still doesn’t know a word ‘newspaper’)
- Cat – catSSSSSS
- Mainland – Maidan
- How – wh…, term used to describe a prostitute…
- Question – cusion
- Island – iron
Was a language barrier ever a problem to you? Any funny or interesting story you can share? Can’t wait to hear them! :)