Parenting Stories and Tips

A very odd multilingual encounter

My parents live in a city where there are lots of bilingual or multilingual speakers, we’ve had to spend a lot of time in their city as of late because of the renovation that’s currently taking place in our home.

We have been around a lot of bilingual parents when we go to public play areas, but I ran into one of the weirdest caretaker this week.

I have had a scratchy throat lately as a result of a getting over a recent cold, and I often clear my throat like “um hum”, when they feel scratchy. I never thought it is a big annoyance to people other than me. So out we went one afternoon to a local museum’s play area.

As we arrive the play area there was already a family there, a young boy with his grandmother. The grandmother was talking to the boy in Cantonese and I thought great, Emilia will have company!

Shortly after we settled in something weird started happening, the grandmother was not acknowledging us at all and didn’t want to interact. Alright I thought maybe they just don’t want to deal with other people. Then the mother showed up, and the grandmother started swearing in the middle of talking to the boy or the mother! She would talk to them in Cantonese, then sandwich in a swear word in Shanghainese. This got me extremely confused, why would she swear at her own daughter and her grandson like that? Then I heard the grandmother say to her daughter, “retard”, “acting like she own the place”, “what the f is the hum hum for” and I realized, SHES TALKING ABOUT ME!

The whole time they avoided eye contact with me, acted like I wasn’t there, and used Shanghainese specifically for swearing about me. My guess is that the grandson doesn’t understand Shanghainese, and they assume I didn’t either.

So after finally realizing what was going on, I thought to my self: should I lash out? Confront her? Should I leave? Why should I be the one to leave? Where am I gonna go? While I was trying to think of the answer to all of these questions, things got even more weird.

The grandma think we are cancer and has retrieved into a corner with the grandson, she read him stories in Cantonese, was commenting on his play in Cantonese, and continued to sandwich swears and sometimes when I clear my throat she would copy me loudly followed by a complaint in Shanghainese. This went on for nearly an hour while we were there. I didn’t leave because of it since due to them hiding away, we had the whole play area, and Emilia was very happy about that. I didn’t see a reason to confront them at that point too since we already had the whole place to ourselves. So the story ends with a pretty lame ending – my father called to pick us up and head to our next destination, and I answered the call with Shanghainese before leaving. As I got ready and walked away, I saw the grandma heading back towards the toy section where Emilia and I played, I can’t help but to wonder what was going through her mind as she overheard my brief phone call with my father.

This was a good reminder on how not to use multilingual skills; I also feel uneasy thinking about the boy, who generally know more than we give them credit to in term of what they understand. Emilia was thankfully largely unaffected, since she didn’t understand those Shanghainese swear words – no one ever speak those at home – and the grandmother was sandwiching it in Cantonese speech, while making no body language to provide context, so the odds of her understanding is pretty low as well. She wanted to play with the boy, but was also happy with all the toys. While I don’t feel upset over the encounter, this one is weird enough for me to remember for a while. While unfortunately it isn’t uncommon for bilingual speakers to diss others using their bilingual skills, I’ve never seen anyone do it in front of their children let along so seamlessly with regular speech.

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