Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Cross-Cultural "Truth" in Socialization of Children by Bedtime Stories

After I arrived here in Kunming last month, I found that my 3 year-old son, Geoffrey, who has been here since January, has ceased to speak in English. When he left Canada he spoke nothing but fluent and unaccented English. Now he speaks exclusively in rapid Yunnan-accented Mandarin sounding exactly like his classmates in the local kindergarten. I find this unexpected development somewhat disconcerting (albeit something of a linguistic marvel). So with a view to turning the situation around, I make a point of speaking to him in English. After an initial period of confusion he evidently he still comprehends English at least, thank God. But he still responds to me in Chinese. Anyway I sure hope he starts producing English in response soon. Geoffrey is scheduled to enter junior kindergarten at Oakridge School in St. Catharines in September. I will not be too happy if he is put into an English As A Second Language stream! Following along the same logic, I have been reading to him in English too. We don't have any English-language story books here, so my method is to do a simultaneous interpretation into English of the Chinese text, trying my best to make it sound as if the story book was actually written in English. It is a bit of stretch for my linguistic talents to do it smoothly without pauses as I process the text, and to not simply render Chinese expressions into a machine translation-like English rendering. The upshot is that as Geoffrey and I read through the little illustrated books my brain is so preoccupied with the interpreting of the text from one language to the other that I don't have enough left over consciousness to pay much attention to the content of the story as such . Turns out I may have to re-think this "clever" approach to turning Chinese story books into English ones.

The other day, I cracked open one of Geoffrey's little books and we read "The Little Grey Mouse's Cake" (hui xiaoshude gaodian). The little grey mouse's cake did not taste nice as he made it with salt instead of sugar. The lesson of the story is that one should pay attention to detail in all things. So far so good. Next was "The Little Bear Who Loved to Eat Candies" (ai chi tangguode xiaoxiong). Here is the full text in my English rendering: "Dudu, the little bear just loved to eat candies. But he had bad habits: he did not like to brush his teeth, and after eating candies he wouldn't rinse out his mouth. One day, Mummy Bear had to go out to do some shopping. As she left, she said to Dudu, "Be a good boy while I am out and don't eat any candies!" Dudu said, "I won't Mummy." But he didn't really mean it. Actually he was happy he was being left alone. He thought to himself, "With Mummy out of the house, I can really have a go at those candies." As soon as his Mummy was gone he opened a big tin box full of candies and started stuffing them into his mouth. It wasn't long before the big tin box was completely empty. He had eaten the lot! Suddenly, Dudu's teeth started to ache. He cried out "Oh no! My teeth hurt really bad! It hurts really bad!" It hurt so much that he fell to the ground writhing in pain. When Mummy finally got home and saw Dudu in such pain, she rushed him to hospital. Dudu was weeping "Mummy, Mummy my whole face is swelling up! It hurts so much!" Mummy answered him sternly "That's what you get when you don't do what Mummy tells you!" Dr. Rhinoceros examined Dudu's teeth and said "It looks like you have a cavity! We'll have to pull that tooth right out!" From that day on, Dudu no longer craved candies to eat. Moreover he brushed his teeth every day. And his teeth never hurt ever again."

After I had finished the story with a hearty "The end!" my mind caught up with the substantive content of what I had just read to Geoffrey. I was rather horrified by the fact that I had given the boy an untruthful impression of the potential consequences of eating a box of candy. After all, throughout my childhood my friends and myself had eaten the equivalent of a tin box full of sweets Hallowe'en after Hallowe'en and to my knowledge none of us ever had to be rushed to hospital for painful emergency dental surgery, although mild tummy aches the next day were not uncommon. So my Canadian parenting inclination would be to warn a child: "If you eat that entire box of sweets, you will probably get a tummy ache and you will be sorry afterwards." But not: "If you eat that entire box of sweets your teeth will ache to the extent that you will collapse to the floor writhing in pain, that your face will swell up to enormous size and you will have to be rushed to the hospital in excruciating discomfort and your teeth will be immediately extracted (evidently without anesthetic)."

But "The Little Bear Who Loved to Eat Candies" story did appear to have considerable impact on Geoffrey who actually was having tooth brushing "issues." After he arrived in China a few months ago, he refused to brush his teeth with the local toothpaste claiming the flavour of the toothpaste was too "spicy." So when I came to join my family here, I brought some milder tasting children's toothpaste from Canada. But he was still reluctant to brush. But the evening after I read him "The Little Bear Who Loved to Eat Candies" he brushed his teeth with some vigour, not once, but twice before going to bed, much to his Mother's delight!

At the end of the "The Little Bear Who Loved to Eat Candies" story there is a note in different font entitled: "Mummy, Explain the Story to Your Child this Way:" It says: "All children like to eat candies. But you should never eat too many at once. We should learn the lesson the little bear's story and get into the habit of rinsing out out mouths after eating. And we should make a habit of brushing our teeth every day. That is the way to make sure that food does not stay stuck in our teeth so as to prevent cavities."

Certainly Chinese culture is not the only one to menace children with exaggerated consequences should they misbehave as a normal socialization technique. But whether this also socializes adults to feel in general that it is morally acceptable to bend the truth in the interest of some greater good is something of an open question for me. Although I am happy that Geoffrey now brushes his teeth properly, I find "The Little Bear Who Loved to Eat Candies" a troubling children's story.

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