A personal essay by Denise Svenson, PKS Elementary Math Specialist
I recently had the whirlwind experience of "dropping in" on the fifth grade trip to Huizhou Town (徽州古城). One of our students had a visa issue that required a delay in his departure and, having a ten-year multi-entry visa along with being one of his teachers, I had the privilege of accompanying him to meet up with the group. We arrived in the middle of the night, and he was quickly tucked in and sleeping in his bunk.
When I met the group for breakfast, many students offered (in English) to help me get breakfast. I thanked them, and let them know I was ok on my own, and that they didn’t need to translate. I can point and say “一个这个” just fine. I can also say “喝水” and “不要 袋子 谢谢”。I tried to model that no matter how poor my tones are, and although my grammar is appalling, I would prefer to struggle through on my own in Chinese than to have a translator. I’m never embarrassed to give it a try.
However, my presence had an obvious impact on the group dynamic. Students have had the habit of code-switching without realizing it, and the habit was impossible to break. Additionally, my daughter, who hadn’t missed me at all, sat next to me for breakfast, and I found myself nudging her to try things, to eat more, to use a napkin... Generally, I was annoying. I was cramping her style. I was taking away from her experience, so I reminded myself to let it go. About five minutes passed before I gave her another "‘helpful"’ tip.
Because I had come all the way there, I was invited to join the morning excursion to the tea fields. How exciting for me! I could even catch a train back to Shanghai from a town near the tea fields. As we walked around the hostel grounds, I asked my daughter if she had applied sunblock. She replied yes, of course. I then followed up to ask if she remembered her ears, since she had her hair pulled back. That one got an eyeball roll.
I realized then that I would not be getting on the bus. I told my daughter that it was better for me to explore the old town by myself and then get a cab to the train station. We said a quick goodbye as they boarded the mini-bus.
I had a lovely day in the old town, exploring the alleys and getting my steps in. It would be wonderful to have shared this experience with my child… for me. But for her, it would not be the same experience. Someday, we’ll go back together, but she’ll be the expert guide.
So I returned to Shanghai, ate some 小笼包, saw the Bund from the rooftop bar of my hotel, and went to sleep. The next morning, I caught the subway to the airport and returned home. These few hours inserted into the trip let me know in my heart what I knew in my head - I had no place on this trip, and neither does any other parent. It would dilute and drastically change all of our kids’ experience.
Our family has invested the past five years in Mandarin immersion education. This trip marks a rite of passage for our kids. It’s an invaluable gift that will change their lives, and it’s a gift for them, that they’ve earned through years of hard work. To make it a family trip would be taking away from everything we’ve hoped for them - independence and confidence navigating in a Chinese-speaking environment. This would be true even if I did speak Chinese. I’d still remind her to finish her yogurt; I’d still remind her about sunblock; I’d still mess up her independent identity. We’ve given our kids their Chinese language roots. It’s time to let them fly.
This is the note I left for my baby girl, folded and slid under their dorm room door, when I left. It wasn’t easy, but it was the right decision.