Thursday, November 30, 2006

" 你 好"

How do you say "Hello" in Chinese? Just ask Owen. He knows. And he can pronounce it perfectly -- with perfect intonation, so that Chinese people (even Chinese people who speak no english) recognize immediately that he is greeting them with his perfect Chinese/Mandarin "Hello." So, just in case you don't know (I surely did not), -- 你好 -- "ni hao" (nee-Ha-OW; sounds like "knee how") is "hello" in Chinese.

One day a couple of months ago I was picking the boys up from daycare. Normally we walk out together and I put both of them into the car at the same time. But on this particular day I got Owen out and buckled him into his carseat first, and left him in the parking lot as I ran in to get Kyle. It was a warm day and all of the car windows were down. As I walked back toward the car with Kyle I saw that an older gentleman, who happened to be Chinese, was standing right next to Owen's car door and talking with him through the open window. They were both smiling ear-to-ear and carrying on like two old pals. This older Chinese man (probably about 75, bald, and very thin), and my little guy's-guy Owen (2 years old, dreadlocks, and very husky). When the man saw me he waved bye to Owen and started to walk off down the sidewalk. Owen started yelling something to the man -- something I didn't recognize, and the man started yelling the same thing back. Soon Kyle chimed in and the three of them were all yelling "ni hao" to each other at the tops of their lungs and laughing. I tried to talk to the man, tried to ask him what it meant, but immediately realized he spoke no english. He walked into one of the apartment buildings next door to the daycare center. And we drove home.

A couple weeks later I was picking up the boys again. It was another warm day and the toddlers were playing outside in the front fenced in play-yard of the daycare. I was standing talking to one of Kyle and Owen's teachers as we watched all the kids play. Suddenly I noticed that Owen was off in the front corner of the fence waving through it and jumping up and down yelling "ni hao" over and over and over. I could see that down the sidewalk a bit the same older gentleman was walking toward the daycare. As I was observing this I watched Kyle run over to join Owen, and the two of them cheerily shouted repeated "ni hao's" with huge smiles on their faces. None of the other kids seemed phased by this and just kept playing. Soon enough the man was right outside the fence, saying "ni hao" with a huge grin, giggling out loud, and waving sweetly to my two boys. I asked the staff about it. They told me that this happens almost daily. They explained that several Chinese families live in the surrounding apartment buildings and that this particular older man always makes a point to say "ni hao" to Kyle and Owen... and that Kyle and Owen have learned to say it back. Apparently this back-and-forth-greeting is a pretty frequent highlight of the day for my boys and the man and whomever of his Chinese family or friends he may have with him on his daily walks. The whole thing just warmed my heart. I waved to the man as he walked away. And I remember telling Braydon all about it that night.

Today after daycare I had the boys in the grocery store with me. We were waiting in line at a register to buy our things. Kyle was in the front of the "truck cart" and Owen was seated in child-seat of the cart. I was kneeling down talking with Kyle when suddenly I heard Owen saying, loudly and confidently "ni hao!" "ni hao!" I stood up to see him coyly smiling and flirtatiously waving to the two people in line behind us-- an older Asian woman and her 20-something son. The son started laughing, and the woman was blushing a deep red. I said, "hi!" to them, and didn't know quite what else to say. I kissed Owen and said, "that's so nice Owen." The son said to me, "what is he saying?" And I said, self-consciously, "he's saying 'ni hao', he's trying to say 'hi.'" He said, "Oh my god, that's what we thought he was saying!!! My mother speaks Chinese." He then turned to his mother and started speaking in quick Chinese with her. And she quietly and self-consciously said, "ni hao" to my Owen. Owen giggled and said, "ni hao" back. The son then said "ni hao" to Owen and Owen said "ni hao" back. The son then said to me, "geesh, this is kind of amazing." And I said, "yeah, I know." As Owen and the older Chinese woman giggled and flirted and cooed to each other in Chinese (the only thing they could say to each other was "ni hao" -- the woman spoke no english), I said to the young man, "You know, they say that young children don't recognize race, but they do. He [owen] knew you were Chinese. That's why he said that to you. I've only ever heard him say it to another Chinese person. And I did not teach it to him. And he's only 2." The guy just shook his head in amazement, neither of us quite knowing what to make of it. He said, "And he's..." and his voice trailed off. Somehow I just knew he wanted to acknowledge that my little son is black. I said, "Yeah, and he's black, and when he sees black men he'll often try to do a fist-pound with them -- like, he'll kind of acknowledge 'hey, you're black too!'" The man said, "Yeah, that's what I was trying to say, it is just so amazing, because, like, he's black, and we're Chinese." And I'm white. And the whole thing is just an incredibly great example of why our life is amazingly interesting and rich and such a great, great journey every single day.

The beauty is in the details. 你好


Anonymous said...

This story is unbelievable. You are such an amazing storyteller Heather.

The Tiger said...

Ni hue shua pu tong hua? The answer is bu -- No, I don't speak Chinese. But I wish I did! How cool!

Chelsea said...

Hi- I just started reading your blog a couple months ago and decided to look through the archives after reading your "top 10" lists. I love this story! I think it should be voted as a Top-10 all time story :).