It’s difficult being an example of “how to sit still” when I can’t sit still. A small person is using me as a chair and a source of comfort. I’ve become a human shield, protecting Penelope from the unfamiliar people and new surroundings. Maybe even from the young Chinese woman sitting feet away and facing us. holding a microphone out to Penelope to repeat the name of an animal she is familiar with in English, but hearing in Chinese for possibly the first time. Does the word hou2 zi (monkey) get used much in daily conversation in Beijing?
I’m sitting on a rug at Little Busy Bee Mandarin Academy and my legs are burning. It’s the kind of feeling I get from running long distances or doing squats, if I ever did those things. I look over at a father to my left, sitting on a chair holding his son. Much smarter than me. I bet he’s got no leg pain right now. Not only can he sit comfortably but he can understand everything the instructor is saying. Every switch from Mandarin to English does not derail him. My legs are like Tetris pieces, shifting and turning to find just the right position (put a leg behind me, kneel, squat?) Meanwhile I’m flipping through my meager Chinese vocabulary in a futile attempt to translate what the instructor just said.
Finally we are in my comfort zone. Counting in Mandarin. I can take a mental rest, even count with the class. Except the class are counting so fast my mouth can’t keep up with my brain. I not talking anymore, I’m trying to get marbles out of my mouth. It’s as if I just had a huge spoonful of peanut butter the moment before I was asked a question. The sounds are coming out and smearing all over my lips, mangling the language with every syllable.
BUT, I got a sticker in class for being the first person to correctly identify the pig puppet in Chinese. I was trying to get Penelope to say it. I think I’m whispering so quietly no one else would hear. I’m excited. And maybe that enthusiasm seeps out as I place my lips close to Penelope’s ear and say “ZHU” (pronounced JHOO with a flat tone). Penelope knows this one so well. If we were anywhere but a classroom full of strangers she might say it unaided. She’s surrounded by children who have stickers, their reward for answering correctly. I want my daughter to get a sticker too! But the teacher hears me and gives me a sticker.
Did I just blush? I wonder if the other parents sitting with their children in the half circle are thinking thoughts about how I was giving my daughter the answers but got caught. CHEATER! Several minutes later I take the sticker off and put it on Penelope’s hand. She turns around, peels the sticker off the back of her hand and hands it back. I can imagine her saying “I don’t need your charity!” or “No, YOU keep it. YOU’RE the one that wanted to be here so badly! I just wanted to sleep in!”
We are in the zygote phase of language learning. I toss out little bits each day, because really that’s all I know. Bits. The “Play and Learn Chinese” videos by Mei Mei are great. Penelope asks to watch them every evening. Little Busy Bee Academy is the next rung in the language ladder. Jenn and I love the instruction and instructors. The Mandarin/English split a “take no prisoners” approach I think is great for children. We have been in class with two instructors so far (Ms. Liu and Ms. Sonia). Both are exceptional at balancing every aspect of the session. The material flows seamlessly, the children are encouraged liberally, and distracted children are brought back into the fold with gentle guidance. If distance and money were not an issues Penelope would be enrolled in their daily immersion program.
If her interest continues to grow Penelope will stay enrolled. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t care. I hope she becomes fluent in Mandarin. I’ve made a pact with myself. I’m not going to push it like David Sedaris’ pop did with guitar lessons.