Guest Post: Be Careful What You Teach Your Kids

Today I’m featuring a guest post by Nicki Chen who blogs at Behind the Story. The first time I came across her blog was when Nicki had just published her fourth post. Four sounds like a small number, but every single post was a great story in itself and made me yearn to read more about her life. Nicki has been married to a Chinese guy and after initially living in the US together, they moved to the Philippines where they stayed for 15 years. They got married at a time when the cultural revolution was at full force in China and they first visited China together when it was just being opened up to foreigners. Apart from her amazing talent for writing stories, the fact that she has experienced China at the wake of Reform and Opening is what makes reading her blog so captivating. Nicki is currently working on her second novel. Here’s her guest post:

Nicki's three girls (photo courtesy of Nicki Chen)

Nicki’s three girls (photo courtesy of Nicki Chen)

You never know where or when your children might repeat the “harmless,” playful words they learned from you.

Center seats on a 747

We were on homeleave, flying from Manila to Seattle on a Boeing 747, the sun rolling away from us. The flight attendants had picked up the last dinner tray and were waiting quietly at their stations for requests for another cup of coffee or glass of Scotch. Our three daughters, sitting beside us in the large middle section of the plane, talked and giggled and looked at picture books. They must have been about two, four and five years old that year.

The roar of the jet engines created a noisy silence that was broken only by the occasional cry of a baby or small child. But then a couple of men behind us who’d been having a quiet conversation in Mandarin Chinese became more animated. Our middle daughter stood up on her seat. She leaned against the backrest and looked at the men. And in her childish voice she recited the only Chinese phrase that must have come to mind: “Chou pigu,” she said. Stinky bottom.

Oh, my gosh!! Her older sister, my husband and I sank into our seats and tried to swallow our giggles. We didn’t dare look back at the men behind us to see their shocked and perhaps angry expressions. How could we explain?

Nicki's husband and their three girls (photo courtesy of Nicki Chen)

Nicki’s husband and their three girls (photo courtesy of Nicki Chen)

Not exactly bilingual

So how, you might ask, was that phrase one of the few our daughter knew in Chinese? My husband spoke English, Mandarin and Hokkien. He could have taught them much more. But when I suggested he teach them Chinese, he said he was tired after work. He wanted to play with them, not give them language classes.

And play, he did. One of the games they liked when they were little involved being chased around at bath time, my husband teasing them about having “smelly bottoms.” Ironically, it was one game they played in Chinese.

A missed opportunity

My kids grew up in the Philippines. Everyone they knew spoke English. The one foreign language taught at the International School to Elementary students was Spanish. Besides, China was unapproachable in those days. It was the 1970s. The Cultural Revolution was in full swing in China. The “Bamboo Curtain” kept the Chinese in and the rest of us out. So why learn Chinese?

Well, they are half Chinese. It would have been nice. As it turned out, one daughter did study Mandarin in college, and now her children are studying Chinese in high school and college. The second daughter is fluent in Russian. The youngest speaks Spanish sometimes with her husband and takes her five-year-old son to after-school Spanish classes. She’s hoping her Spanish-speaking in-laws will make him fluent. Unless they’d rather play with their grandson.

Have you ever had a similar experience? I’d love to read about it in the comments’ section.

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Would you also like to write a guest post that is connected to the topic of this blog? Send me an e-mail at chinaelevatorstories{at} I reserve the right to refuse publishing guest posts for any reason.

12 thoughts on “Guest Post: Be Careful What You Teach Your Kids

  1. I literally started to cry from laughing with the stinky bottoms 😀 I wish I could see faces of those men. it reminded me how I stared to learn Cantonese and I talked to my husband’s friend ‘You know, Sing told me one useful phrase. You say it like ‘delay no more’ – they started to laugh, I had no idea why. Later he told me that ‘useful phrase’ is diu lay lo mo – f… your mother.At least now I will know what to avoid when I have my own children 🙂 great post!


  2. Thank you for introducing Nicki here on your blog. I’m a big fan of Nicki and I thoroughly enjoy her wonderful stories, and she tells her stories in such a beautiful way.

    My 12-year-old son was born in England and before he went to the nursery (about 3 years old), he spoke Mandarin to me fluently. He was slowly losing his Mandarin when he started primary school since aged 5. (In the UK, kids starts primary school from 4 years 9 months.)

    I still teach him Chinese and he can read with the help from pinyin and he still speaks with beautiful accent — the first few years of speaking gave him the sense of the language and the natural feel for the sounds.

    Our language is now mostly English. I’m still speaking to him in Mandarin, especially when I give instructions or tell him off. However, I need to respect that English is his dominant language (his father is a white British) and my son identifies himself with the British culture. It is fair to say that English is his strong language, though Mandarin was his mother tongue for the first few years in his life.

    I believe that one day he will be able to function in Chinese if he chooses to do so as an adult. Time is precious and he is developing his ideas and shares his world in his English blog. Of course I would love him to be more fluent in Mandarin (and Hokkien) and write well in Chinese, but I’m so proud that he has a dominant language that he is able to express himself well in English and he finds joy in English.


    • She’s a wonderful writer and person!

      Thanks for sharing your experience with us. We always think that having kids grow up bilingually is an easy task if the parents have two different mother tongues (at least those of us who don’t have kids yet), but just like you said, it’s not that easy at all and it doesn’t always work the way we expected it to. It’s great though that your son finds pleasure in using English and does find joy in using it.


  3. Thank you for introducing Nicky, I hadn’t heard about her before.

    It seems not to be that easy to have your kids grown bilingual even though the parents have different native languages. I hope that in the future me and my boyfriend can manage to do that. It would be such a shame for them to lose Finnish for example if we live in China.


    • Definitely check out her blog, she’s an amazing story teller.

      I’ve heard quite a few accounts of how raising kids bilingually didn’t work the way it was supposed to work, but like Nicki writes in her post, sometimes it works out differently and quite alright as well.


  4. Nicki shares interesting stories. I appreciate her willingness to give us a peak into her life. She’s certainly had wonderful, often unexpectedly humorous experiences!


  5. Also for me a big Thank you for introducing Nicky.

    I know myself the troubles of growing up bilingual. I am half German half Finnish and grew up in Germany. Until I went to kindergarten I spoke better Finnish than German which of course changed when I was surrounded by German kids later… Even though my mom tried to speak Finnish to me I forgot more and more until I only knew the basics of the language. Now I live in Finland and I still don’t really speak it…ofcourse I can have normal conversations but my accent is terrible and I dislike the language entirely, just because I should be so much better in it and yet I struggle all the way. My son will be learning German and Chinese, and perhaps I will try some basics in Finnish, if he is willing enough…


    • There’s really nothing to thank me for, she’s a great writer and I’m happy if more people come across her amazing stories.

      Thanks for sharing your personal experience with us. There must be a lot of pressure on you knowing that Finnish is your mother’s mother tongue. Learning a language actively is hard, and your experience shows that growing up partly bilingual does not necessarily make things easier.


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