Language Gaps

In my language classes we learned words like table, went and cold.

We learned how to describe our homes, our families and our interests.

We learned how to talk about our home countries, its weather and how people celebrate Christmas, or not as the case may be.

We learned so many useful things. Things  that I use on a daily basis. Language that helps me go to the shops, to pick up the kids from kindy, to pass pleasantries on the bus.

But I never learned the words for breathing. I never learned the word for bleeding, or vomit, or rash. I never heard the word for seizure.

I never learned these words until I needed them. Until after I needed them. I learned these words in hard places. In doctor’s offices, or in panicked late night phone calls.

No matter how good at a second language you get there are always gaps. Little gaps mostly. Ones that you can work through if people repeat their words slowly, laying the bricks down like a bridge forming in front of you. Or that you can shrug off, walking away from a stranger with a smile, sure that whatever it was being said it was, at least, kind. Or gaps so small you can just skip over them, without slowing down the tempo of your already clumsy conversation.

The gaps might just be single words that you can fill in. A connect-the-dots conversation where you are a very determined five year old. Pencil gripped firmly between your fingers. Eventually the time comes where you are tired and you lay your pencil down. Brain done. Can I watch TV now?

We learned how to ask someone to speak English, or to speak slowly. We learned the common phrases, you’re welcome, how are you, how much is this apple? But we never learned what the operator will say when you call an ambulance at night. So your brain catches when you hear it. A slight panicked freeze in which all you can find are your gaps. Because in these gaps are all the important words.  All the fear of the what-ifs that can’t be spoken out loud, no matter what language you try to say it in.

People are kind. They hide their frustration. There is always that fortune of living where English is widely spoken. Even then, those times when defeat is admitted, or the conversation is too important for my mistakes the gap is there. Each doctor finds their own unique gaps. Our conversations slip and slide as our languages are mixed. A word here and there, untranslatable – do you understand? Mutual incomprehension is, thankfully, rare.

We nod, our brains churning. The glazed stares of parents still in shock. The English slides over us too. Important facts snagging, to be held onto and inspected later. Only now in the moment we must keep moving forward. Any questions? Always. There are always questions. The deeper you go you find that there are not always answers of course.

We are grateful, so grateful, for every person who makes that effort to speak to us in a language we can easily understand. Those who take incomprehensible facts and lay them out in front of us so we can understand them. But it is hard to show grateful when you are scared for your child.

In this we are no different to any other parent. No matter what language we speak.

There are no words for some things, in any language. No word for the measured look in a doctor’s eyes as your questions stumble out. No word for the silences that grow louder as they listen, and measure, and poke. No word for the perspective trick that makes your child appear smaller on a hospital bed, or under a mask, or surrounded by machines, electromagnetic waves aimed directly at the heart.

There is a word we learned. Hjerte.

Then there are the things we don’t need words for. They are the same whatever language you speak. The whispered lullabies. Fingers that stroke gently across foreheads, smoothing down the hair. The questions posed by little arms that clutch to you for safety and the answering beat of your own heart.

A beat that is the simplest, most universal message of them all. A beat that says I love you. I am here.

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A Good Enough Parent

Do you ever worry if your parenting is good enough?

I do. I think we all do. It would be strange not to question ourselves when the stakes are so high, when it is the most important thing we are doing. I reassure myself that other people aren’t judging me as harshly as I judge myself. Which is why I was so shocked last week, when a stranger criticised my parenting, yelling at me, and frightening my daughter, while we were walking home.

I didn’t for a second feel her behaviour was appropriate. I was, and still am, appalled. But in the face of such criticism it is hard not to question yourself, when really the only person we should be judging is the person who felt they had the right to judge me.

We don’t have a car. To move our children around this city we rely on our feet, our youngest, AJ, in a pram, although she often gets out to walk now. She is 20 months old, confident and fast, but with no ability to judge hazards. When she walks we need to walk close so we can grab her if she wanders towards the edge of a footpath. She’s little, but she’s learning.

When I collect my son from his kindy we walk along three streets, in a U shape, ending almost directly behind his kindy at our bus stop. We don’t cross any roads on this walk. Sometimes my son walks with us, chatting about his day. Sometimes he dawdles behind us, picking up sticks, or tracing letters on the signs we walk past trying to unlock their secrets. Sometimes he races ahead, a burst of energy that sees him running all the way to the bus shelter, where he sits and waits. I don’t, indeed can’t, expect him to walk with me all the time. His sister’s needs and pace varies. It is a balancing act.

He wasn’t that far ahead the other day when I saw a woman gesturing wildly at me. She was waiting at a bus shelter we walk past. She frowned as he walked past her, gesturing at me, as I trailed behind with our younger child. My son walked on, oblivious, in his own world.

As I got closer she started yelling at me, I couldn’t catch everything she was saying. Danish is my second language and I am far from fluent. I know my son is small for his age, so I told her ‘he is nearly five, and won’t walk out on the road.’

child hiding at bus stop

My daughter chose this moment to duck behind the glass shelter, making faces at me through the glass, a game I am usually happy to indulge. I went to collect her, as I wanted to move away from this woman and the brood of middle aged women hovering around her, beady eyes fixed on me. My daughter laughed and ran to the other end. As I made my way to collect her this woman stepped in front of me, bent down and scooped up my daughter.

This moment hangs in my memory. A breath caught in my throat. The woman, clutching her prize. My daughter, limp and shocked in her hands. Feet dangling in the air, staring at this unknown person who held her.

“No” I cried, as I snatched my daughter away “You can’t, that is my child” My daughter’s arms circled around my neck clutching me tight, “Mama” a frightened whisper in my ear.

Then this woman says these words

“You must look after your children.”

I was turning to collect my pram, I was stunned, I was angry and I stumbled into a linguistic trap of confusing whether I was telling her that I do, or I will, or I want to. All of which are true, by the way.

She screams in reply “So do it then.”

At which point I fell back on the time honoured tradition of swearing at someone as you walk away. Further confrontation would help no one. Least of all the child I held in my arms.

I’m still, days later, stunned and angry. Now, though, I’ve had time to pick apart her actions, my actions, my children’s actions. I have no regrets about the decisions I made as a parent leading up to that instance.

My daughter was at the back of a wide footpath. I was only a couple of paces behind her. There was no immediate danger. No one should pick up children without consent from the child and parent. My daughter has some stranger anxiety, which is developmentally normal for a child her age. It took weeks before she would be picked up by her Grandad when he visited. AJ would not have allowed this woman to pick her up if she had asked. I would not have allowed it if I had been asked. Therefore this woman should not have touched my child.

If we put that troubling aspect of the incident aside we are left with one of the more hotly contested topics of modern parenting: how much freedom to give your children, and how much of a right others have to interfere with that. There are some parents labelled as helicopters and others as free-range parents. The latter make the news when they are prosecuted for letting their child take a walk, or play in a playground, unattended. I don’t really agree with labelling parenting, but my own values are most closely aligned with the free-range movement. I believe children learn how to manage risk by experiencing risk.

MJ is headstrong and independent. Everything could be a battle if we let it be. He is also, in a way, fairly risk averse. He is thoughtful.  So I am happy if he is relaxed, and enjoying his walk, to let him make his own decisions about how fast he walks, and whether he wants company or would rather enjoy some mental downtime.

I’m not sure, at four, how I could make him walk with me if I wanted to. Am I supposed to collar him? Am I supposed to be strong enough to hold onto him and wheel a pram? I suppose I could try. Forcing him to walk beside me, clutching his arm as he pulled and frothed at the mouth to get away. Each tug tearing at our relationship, until either it or he were broken.

Would he learn more from walking next to me? How can we teach our children to be independent if we never let them make independent choices? Would he be any safer? Or would you just perceive him to be safer?

If I make MJ stay with me, stopping when I stop, walking when I walk, he won’t have better road safety skills than he does now, when he is allowed to decide for himself when to stop and when to walk, within scenarios that are both familiar and safe.

I believe this woman reacted so harshly not because she felt my son was in any real danger, but because she felt if something did happen it would be my fault for not being closer. This is ludicrous. If a car spun out of control and mounted the pavement I cannot protect my child be being there. I am no more or less at fault if I am 50m away or 50cm.

I cannot protect my child in this world. All I can do is arm my child with the right tools to protect themselves.

I’m not parenting anyone’s idea of a child. I’m not parenting the children this woman may have raised. I’m parenting the son I have, in the best way I see how. Our relationship is a two way street. Would other parents make different decisions than us? Of course. There is no correct way to raise a child. There is an infinite array of possibilities. A complex web of events that is spun every day. Every interaction a building block that has led my son and me to the path we are on now.

This woman, she doesn’t know me, or my son. She hasn’t sat stroking his hair while he tumbles into sleep. She hasn’t listened to the funny stories he tells. She hasn’t watched him draw, tongue sticking out of his mouth with deep concentration. She’s never pretended to be interested in his lists of dinosaurs and how big they are and how many claws they have. She hasn’t lain in his bed next to him, listening as he shared his innermost fears and troubles. She hasn’t watched him carefully, pedantically, slicing cucumber to eat (yes we let him use a knife). She hasn’t watched, a smile playing at her lips, as he runs and runs and runs, arms thrown wide with joy.

She has no idea of all the wonderful, amazing things he is capable of.

I do. My husband does. We aren’t perfect, but nobody is in a better position than us to decide how much freedom and responsibility to give our children.

It is too easy to criticise people who make different choices. Too easy to see things in black and white. But trying to parent a child is a million shades of grey. So if I could go back, and muster linguistic control I would say this: I want to look after my children the best I can. I will look after my children, as I see fit. I do look after my children. You just might not agree with every decision that I make.

That’s fine. I don’t need approval. I know I’m not perfect, but I am a good enough parent.

So I won’t call my son back to me. Instead I’ll tell him to run. Throw those arms wide and run.

child playing independently

Nobody is taught language.

The perils of raising a bi-lingual child (when you are not)

Your child will engage adults in conversations you are not capable of following.
This is especially fun when the adults then turn to you and you just have to leave them hanging, or mumble something you hope makes sense, but judging from their reactions usually doesn’t. But don’t worry…

Your bi-lingual child will explain things
They will learn to carry on the conversation by explaining ‘my Mum doesn’t speak good Danish’. They will also occasionally pass on this factoid to other children at their daycare. As for the woman who said hi to them in the supermarket, why not tell her too? How about that guy who just happens to be sitting in the bus stop at the same time as you, it’s probably good information to pass on to him.

Auto-correction is always at hand
No need to go look at phonetics in a dictionary. Your three year old will be ready and willing to correct your pronunciation at any time.

Don’t forget they are only three
But don’t take their word for it. This can lead to embarrassing errors. After mixing up fro and frø, my son told us he had eaten bread with frogs in it. Seeds, he meant seeds.

Reading is a great way to learn
Reading together will boost both your vocabularies. It is great bonding and snuggling time. Just don’t forget the auto-correcting. Reading will suddenly turn stressful as you are unable to produce the desired level of fluency.
‘Kan du finde kurven?’
‘No. Kurven.’
‘Kurven.’
‘No. K-Uurven.’
‘Whatever.’

Enjoy children’s TV together
There is no better boost to your ego than being able to follow the plot of Postman Pat/Per. You can almost convince yourself you have the language skills of a three year old. As long as you are only listening and not trying to join in the conversation that is. And if you get a bit lost by the intricacies of why exactly he misdelivered the post (again), and why he is still considered a local hero just for sorting out the mess he started, don’t worry. I’m sure if you watch it often enough you’ll understand the complexities of Greendale society eventually.

Worry about children’s TV
But beware, if you leave the TV on for something you don’t know well, you may find yourself sitting there wondering if this show really is age appropriate? It can be hard to tell sometimes. If this happens, don’t panic, just switch it off abruptly, and deal with the following tantrum in a calm and respectful manner.

Sometimes you will have to explain things to them
They won’t understand everything, so they may still call on you for help. Leaving you with the conundrum of whether or not to translate ‘lort’ so they can keep up with the other pre-schoolers. Hint: it involves bodily, uh, excretion.

Pass the buck
When your child calls names at daycare, be sure to disapprove. But secretly console yourself that they definitely only learnt that word in one place. And it wasn’t at home!

der har jeg rod, derfra min verden går

Kære Aarhus,

It has been two years since we arrived. An unbelievable two years.

Making the decision to move here was difficult. Saying good-bye to my mother at the airport was heart-wrenching. I know a lot of people were surprised to see us move so far from home, but as my wise cousin said to me that was a decision that could only be made by those affected, and we didn’t have to justify it to anyone. Those words have given me more strength than I think she knew. I made my peace with my decision; though I won’t lie, there are moments of regrets. But I know my mother didn’t want her illness to hold us back. Like any mother really.

We stepped off the plane in Copenhagen, out into a taxi rank, tired, stressed, bewildered at the magnitude of what we were doing. Our son, M, then 18months old, produced two new words that first day, “windmill” and “cold”. Perhaps he understood what this country was about.
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It turned out that a free online course and the first season of Borgen were not great preparation for the reality of getting by amongst Danish speakers. I’ve come a long way since selvfølgelig seemed like the biggest tongue-twister out there. We went for a walk just after Christmas on a day with bitterly cold winds. My cheeks and lips were so numb I struggled to shape them into consonants. Perhaps this why Danish sounds the way it does. Though this would not explain why Norwegians speak so beautifully.

But the language barrier is not so great since virtually everyone speaks fantastic English. Even those that insist ‘only a little. Not very well’ before launching into complex sentences with multiple clauses and only making a mistake when they have to pronounce a ‘v’. Anti-waxers had me stumped for a while. But really Danes, you are very patient with our fumbling attempts to learn your language. At least you know nobody ever arrives on your shores with a high school level of Danish. So you welcome all these beginner level speakers.
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Or do you? It seems, based on your recent elections, you are becoming less tolerant. I think the stress of being more welcoming than most of Europe has become too much. You shouldered a larger burden of migrants while other countries turned their backs. And it has been hard for Denmark. When for so many centuries nobody wanted to come here. To this ‘lille land’. So for centuries there has been only one way to be Danish. All us migrants are changing that, and some of you want that to stop. But I think that horse has already bolted. And perhaps the greatest threat is not people who don’t eat flæskesteg for Christmas, or people who don’t celebrate Christmas, but your growing intolerance.

And we do try to be less ‘udansk’. I realise now we made some grave errors in decorating our apartment. We hung our lights in an incorrect way. You are right, they are not very hygge. Our furniture is not minimalist enough. But I have a Kähler vase now, so I hope that counts for something. I confess that two years here has not taught me to understand all your ways. Like the obsession with the light wood floors. Tell me Denmark, how do you keep them clean? Especially in winter, when the streets are salted and gritted and you have a pre-schooler? Is it possible? Or do you all sweep multiple times a day too?

Often the locals ask me ‘why?’ Why did we move here? To this land of winter, rain and wind. I admit on paper they seemed quite daunting. But looking closer Aarhus, you have half the annual rainfall of my home town. And while your wind is cold, it is hardly ever gale force. To my surprise it is easier to take a pre-schooler out here, in a cold, dry snow than in a boggy soggy Wellington winters’ day. Sure the summer is hardly spectacular, my Australian friends would be very unimpressed. But I find much to admire in your fierce embrace of what summer you get, – sun bathing on your decks at the first rays of sunshine, regardless of temperature.
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I love the seasons. The silver frosted trees -winter blossom my son called it- replaced by tiny green buds. The clichéd red, orange and brown cascades of leaves in autumn. It is the variation of light that I have learnt to enjoy the most. The long, long summer days with nights where the sky never goes truly black, only a deep blue, a promise of sunshine only a few hours away. To the grim grey of winter. I am always amused to find myself staring at a patch of cloud, only to realise that, yes that is the sun hiding behind it. I never understood that the sun would stay so low on the horizon that even day would be so dim. Or that the cloud would be so thick that the temperature does not vary from midnight to midday. But shift slightly either side of that grey, you have whole days where if the sun makes it out from behind the clouds it casts that beautiful magic hour glow you usually only get just before sunset.
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You’ll never win any beauty contests Aarhus, but there are places, views I have learnt to love. The dinosaur sunrises down at your industrial harbour. The Rainbow perched above the city. Those particular shades of orange and mustard yellow stucco on old cottages. Our nature walks along the Brabrandstein. I’ve learnt where to go to get a great coffee, and a pastry. Where to buy decent fish. Where to pick blackberries.
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These are perhaps the greatest achievements to me. That after two years I feel I have solved some of the great challenges of expat life. They are not just good coffee shops, but my favourite coffee shops. My favourite walks. My local shops. We have managed to turn the unfamiliar into the familiar.

I’ve written before about my wish to give my children turangawaewae. At times I have misgivings about our choices. I wonder if the costs have been too high. But today I think we have made roots here. We know our future here probably does not extend further than 2017, so they will never be deep. But this will always be the city my son spent his preschool years, the city my daughter was born in, the city I grieved my mother in. So I know I will look back and be able to say:

Aarhus, for a time at least, you were home.

K.H.

Welcome home, see I made a space for you now

Today I have no jokes. No pithy remarks about my life as an immigrant. I’m not sure I can add anything to the debate surrounding the current ‘migrant’ crisis that can change the mind of anyone who hasn’t had it changed by those photos. I’m not the person to tell you about the crisis in their homeland, and the journey they take.

But, I have something to say about who these people are, to anyone whose fear of the ‘others’ holds back their better natures.

Those others – they really are just like you.

I know this because I am an immigrant in a non-English speaking country. I went to language school. Those others? They were my classmates.

When I started last year, about half of my class would have been migrants from the middle east. The biggest single group – Syrian. Nearly all men, though many had wives in another class, it had just worked out that way. Some had children. One who I got to know well had young daughters who had spent two years of their short lives living in refugee camps.

There were times in the classroom that showed we came from different worlds. Like talking about our families: ‘I’m the youngest of 12 children. But five of them are dead’. That’s not something many twenty somethings in the west would say.

But that didn’t happen often. Mostly they were just like me and you. Laughing at the same bad jokes. Struggling to learn Danish. Working hard, because unlike me, they don’t have the luxury of leaving if it doesn’t work out.

They weren’t terrorists. They weren’t misogynists. I’m a vocal feminist, and if you think I’d be silent if I saw sexism, then ‘Hi’, because obviously we’ve never met. They treated all the liberal western females in my class just fine. Showed interest in all our diverse cultures, and in our families – both to the married mothers, and the unmarried ones.

They were family men. Educated men. Men who worked hard. Men who liked to watch sport and play chess. Men who would laugh as they handed me pens I dropped once my pregnant belly got in the way. Who’d chat about how their families were adjusting. What their kids’ school was like.

I’ve moved around the world. I’m not stupid. I know I’ve been able to do this because I’m the right sort of immigrant. Because of the colour of my skin. My nationality. Because we are educated. Because decades ago my father-in-law was born to New Zealand parents in the UK. Because of quirks of fate.

There are no easy solutions. Many of our leaders are right when they say taking in more people won’t solve the root cause. Maybe they should think about what might. Maybe that doesn’t matter when children are drowning while trying to reach safer shores.

Last year New Zealand celebrated winning a seat on the UN Security Council. This was John Key’s response:

“We have worked very hard on the bid for close to a decade because we believe that New Zealand can make a positive difference to world affairs and provide a unique and independent voice at the world’s top table…It has been more than 20 years since New Zealand was last on the Council and we are ready to contribute again.”

Now is a time to contribute. Our way of life is not so fragile a few hundred people can threaten it. But closing our doors, that black-mark on our humanity. That’s the real threat.

Sign a petition to increase NZ’s refugee quota here.