Is My Own Trilingualism Becoming An Obstacle To Nina’s?

200910-04I speak all three languages (Mandarin, English, French) in which we are raising Nina, although we adopt OPOL (one parent one language) method at home – I speak Mandarin with Nina, and Nicolas speaks French with her. Being a native speaker of Mandarin I am certainly the biggest source of regular Mandarin input for Nina. And I am proud of that.

However recently I have been thinking if my own capability of speaking three languages actually has, ironically, become an obstacle in Nina’s capability of learning them, especially Mandarin.

At about 2 months shy from turning three, she understands Mandarin perfectly, but she doesn’t speak as many Mandarin as French (French currently is her strongest language especially when it comes to verbal production). If she spends long enough hours in a day just with me, or if I prompt her to speak in Mandarin for certain things, she would produce more Mandarin. Lately I have also learnt some techniques in having her speak more Mandarin (or in any language really). However left alone, she seems to use French sentence structure as her base of constructing verbal language generally.

That got me thinking: what if I didn’t speak/understand French at all or just at very basic level?

Would then she learn, over time, that ‘mm mama doesn’t understand me, so I have to find a way to let her know that I want to eat that ice-cream’, so that would leave her no choice but to communicate with me only in Mandarin?

Would I then stick to reading just Mandarin books, as I am not capable of reading books in the other two languages? Currently I would pretty much read whichever book that she asks me to or that comes in handy. And I have dilemma on which language to read the books in, which is an ongoing dilemma.

Would it then also change the language dynamics in the whole family, esp that Nicolas and I would speak more Mandarin than anything else, so Nina would get a lot more Mandarin input overall at home? Currently we speak French between two of us.

These are of course just theoretical questions that I will have no way to find out the answer – and I am not even attempted to try by pretending that I don’t speak the other two languages well enough. I enjoy many advantages of being trilingual – including seeing the confused faces of strangers trying to figure out my accent ūüôā But perhaps like almost everything in life, it also comes with a price.

3 Amazing Families On The Go

Travelling is all about the experience. As much as it’s about different¬†landscape, it’s about¬†the smell, the colour, the look, and the taste. Above all it’s the people we met that makes the most lasting memories. As we were travelling as a family – which was certainly the minority in the long-term-travel department – we naturally paid closer attention to other families we met. So I decided to dedicate an entry entirely just to some of the amazing families we met.

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Family 1 – Cusco/Peru – one big family ready for action

In¬†Cusco, we stayed in an Airbnb house with a very special family for about 10 days. Parents (Bill & Nicole) and 4 kids ranging from 1 to 8 (Liam, Tim, Jeanne, Sam) shared a cosy 2-story colonial house with their guests (they could house as many as 10 guest I believe with 4 guest rooms).¬†Bill & Nicole had to be the most¬†active parents with this amount of little ones under 10 – I simply didn’t know how they managed it, and they managed it so unbelievably well.

Bill and Nicole were both originally from Buffalo/USA. Coming to Cusco when their oldest son was only 1 with no Spanish, they now had¬†4 kids – active, social, capable and polite – and everyone (except Sam who was just turning 1 so not verbal yet) spoke perfect Spanish as well as English. Bill impressed us one day with his fluent Quechua conversation with a cab driver. All kids were being home-schooled (they had a ‘classroom’ at home)! We were one of their first guests as, back in April,¬†they just started their new adventure as a family: build a business with Airbnb room rental + local experience guide. Their business had been going wild since then as I followed their facebook update. They managed everything by themselves with just help of a cleaning lady coming to their place every day (I believe) – starting the business, receiving and looking after the guests, schooling, guests, outdoor, house chores, getting two outdoor showers built, and everything else with 4 kids. Yet they managed to be¬†constantly on the move. They did walks or rode bicycles almost everyday after schooling.

Right before we left Cusco, they were getting ready for a 4-day trekking with all four kids. This was the real hard core type of trekking that we were talking about here: they had to carry all the gears and supplies for 4 days as there were no shops nor established campsites along the way, they had to set up tents every afternoon and take down every morning, they had to cook using only what you carried (including utensils), and they would be walking constantly well above 4000 metres above sea level- so snow would be present. This was the type of trip that even just with one toddler that I would try to avoid, and they were setting out with 4 kids, including one still being breastfed. Talking about madness!

For a week, they got Liam and Tim to practice setting up and taking down the tent in their backyard, and boys would sleep in the tent at night. A few days later, the boys were perfectly capable of taking care of their own tent, entirely on their own. On the day they hired three horses¬† – one for Liam, one for Tim, and the other one for carrying supplies. Bill and Nicole would carry one young child each. As the departure date approached, it started to rain heavily¬†and the weather forecast didn’t give any better news. They hesitated – as any rain in the city of Cusco could mean horrendous snow up in the mountain where they were going. But they decided to go anyway. I was eager to hear from them as we arrived in Colombia – and then I saw them posting some awesome photos after they returned from that epic camping trekking trip. They made it!

Family 2 – Copacabana/Bolivia & Bogota/Colombia – It cannot be more international than this

South America is the type of place where you don’t see or hear Chinese often. In Bolivia, it became even less so.¬† So I was naturally surprised – and delighted – that in the garden of a small boutique hotel in Copacabana/Bolivia I heard a mother speaking to a young child in Mandarin!

Meet one of the most travelled international families I’ve ever known.

Yvonne (Chinese by birth) and Fernando (Venezuelan by birth) lived in Bogota/Colombia with their 3-year-old Luca (born in, guess where, Czech Republic). They were travelling for a month through Bolivia and Chile. Just before coming to Copacabana they did the 3-day jeep trip of the Uyuni circuit which I didn’t attempt to try (we only did the day trip).

We spent quite a few occasions together in the following days before they went back home, including a dinner in a restaurant, an outdoor Jacuzzi feast overlooking Lake Titicaca (the highest navigable lake in the world) where two kids had enormous fun together, feeding llamas, and a dinner cooked by Yvonne (in this most lovely hotel, each room/bungalow came with a kitchen and wood log fire place) and shared over a bottle of Chilean wine, a few beers, and many stories. We felt we had made 2 good friends in an entirely unexpected way.

Who would have thought that after bidding farewell there, we then would meet again in Bogota/Colombia, a destination that even at that point was not part of our plan?! Even more so, knowing we were going there, they insisted to have us stay over at their apartment in Bogota. Yvonne and Luca would be away in Prague (talking about international travel!), Fernando would reside in their sofa while we occupied their master bedroom! Have I mentioned that Colombians were among the most generous and welcoming populations on the planet? Fernando showed us around in the city of Bogota and led us inside a few doors that we would have otherwise never been able to.

Upon our second (brief) stay in Bogota after travelling around Colombia (and loved it), Yvonne and Luca were back, so we were able to spend yet again one day together, visiting the most beautiful school of arts (where Yvonne was studying leather arts), dined and danced in a Japanese themed restaurant with a few chica drinks.

This was a family that played an unmistakably big role in making Bogota such a special place in our trip. This family is still on the move – since then they had relocated to, guess where, Cairo/Egypt! Who knows where we’ll see each other again next.

Family 3 – Isla de Ometepe/Nicaragua – Serene family

A young family with a 6-month-old lived in a remote slice of paradise – on the volcanic island of Ometepe inside the biggest lake in Central America in Nicaragua. They were building their family, as well as their guest-house business, on the farm land that they bought (while still living in USA) and developed over the last 7 years or so from scratch. It was definitely an experience in itself just to get there, but it could easily be one of the most serene/peaceful/natural existences on the planet. With about 100 different fruit trees and many monkeys in the company, days could just be idled away, with plenty of time to reflect or to meditate, or to sip the house-made hibiscus tea. The question is: if some could build such a flourishing farm in such a remote location coming from so far away, what could not be done with some genuine love and persistence?

I have written a separate blog about our 3-day experience there – Finca Mystica, A Destination In Itself.

Where and how to live as a family is certainly a personal choice. By meeting some truly incredible families like the ones above who have chosen to live a different life, in unexpected corner of the world, or in some unconventional fashion, my eyes were certainly opened. Bringing a toddler to travel around the world for 9+ months was not a small deal, but sometimes comparing to these families I felt that was really just breeze.

[D186 – 189] Finca Mystica – A Destination In Itself

[D186 – 189] Isla de Ometepe / Nicaragua

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D186, June 21, Granada -> Ometepe

Well, we are right now literally in the middle of nowhere, a farm lodge called Finca Mystica (‘Mystical Farm’) in the volcanic island of Ometepe in Nicaragua. Within 10km radiance, there are just 7 human beings: the owners Ryan,¬† Angela, Jazmine of their 6 mth old; Thomas another guest from France, and we three. The rest are monkeys, fruit trees, trees, water from Nicaragua lake, and the two volcanoes that our island sits on. Its remoteness reminds us of the jungle lodge we stayed in Tasmania.

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We had quite a trek today from Granada to get here. Ryan from Finca arranged a car/private taxi to pick us up from Casa del Aqua in Granada to the port of San Jorge (for US30 and less than an hour, we avoided ourselves the hassle of walk+bus+walk+bus/taxi that might take more than 2 hours). From there we took the 2:30pm ferry (a vehicle + passenger ferry that costed us 70 cordobas pp for the one-hour ride). At some point the water was so choppy (freaky to think about esp considering that it’s inside a LAKE, well the biggest lake in entire Central America that is) that water came right up to the second floor of the ferry, and the passengers sitting on window seats got sprayed. But the view was simply surreal: looking towards the Isla de Ometepe, I could see the twin volcanic islands soaring up, towards the iconic volcanic clouds. Once debarking on the port Moyogalpa, we had another smiling driver waiting for us to our taxi/private car arranged by Finca again. Well, this time the 4×4 not only was practical, it was almost the only choice. After 20min of paved road, we started a bumpy unpaved mountain roads for the next 30-45 min (I just couldn’t remember how long exactly it was, it seemed going on forever anyway).¬† We passed through some houses, cultivated farms, a bit of beaches, a school, a few road side shops, but most of time just forest after forest. Finally after a long private drive way, we were greeted by the most gentle owner family of Ryan, Angela, Jazmine, and their dog and the howler monkeys. The journey itself was part of the experience, definitely the case here.

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Howler monkeys reside on the farm land. I don’t know how many they are, but I saw 6 or 7 of them on the mango tree under which I was sitting on the hammock with Nina. They looked at us as intensely as we did them. The baby monkey was jumping around nonstop, while the mummy monkey was watching patiently. Exactly the behaviour of human being.

At night these howling monkeys, well, howled. So loudly that I could almost distinguish from which tree they were.

D187, June 22, Ometepe/ Finca Mystica

There wasn’t much to do really, esp for us who didn’t want to walk for kilometres with Nina in tow. We walked down to the beach – not exactly white sand beach, but black volcano sand/rocks, much finer than the one on Luguna de Apoyo. The water was warm, but not clear – was it natural due to the sediments or colours of sand, or due to pollution brought in by boats? If the canal does come through one day through Lago de Nicaragua, there would be more blessings or problems? Well, there was the possibility of opening up a second canel connecting Pacific with Atlantic (the only one currently is the Panama canal), which would be founded by Chinese. I didn’t really know what to think about this.

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There wasn’t much to do around, and I was perfectly happy to just sit around in the hammock, watch birds, clouds, trees, and let time go by.

D188, June 23, Ometepe/ Finca Mystica

Hang around in the finca. Pouring rain whole day, much needed rain for the farmers. Everyone came out to plant seeds as they have been waiting for the rain to start. Ryan told us that they bought the farm/land about 6.5yrs ago. For the first few years, they would work 6mts in US (they are both from there) to earn enough money, and come here for 6 mths to build a bungalow, plant some fruit trees, and go back again. He used to live in Asia, and learnt how to use adobe to build houses, so he designed and built the houses himself with a crew of locals. Three yrs ago, they had enough bungalows (5 for guest rooms, 1 as common area/kitchen/dining/their own room) to start the guest house business. Now they have almost 100 types of fruit trees, including some exotic ones, such as sesame, Granada, star fruit, dragon fruit, nuts. Their rare failure includes durian (haha I wasn’t unhappy). He asked me which bamboo to plant in order to have bamboo shoots. I totally failed it, how do I ever explain śė•Á¨čԾƌܨÁ¨č etc (spring bamboo?? winter bamboo??) !!

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It’s a total madness to think how they managed to bring all that’s needed for these comfortable bungalows (mattress, flush toilets, furniture, etc) being such a long way (and bumpy way) from anywhere commercial. Looking at the lush farm, I had nothing but admiration to them.

It’s a farm so there were many bugs around. Nico even found a scorpion like creature one morning right next to our bedside table. I guess we learnt to be zen – after all, they live here with a 6-mth-old, and they are thriving.

Nina loved picking up mangos under the tree, or found 2 ripe Granada !! Lemon grass are their footpath border plant, I like the idea.

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Ryan and Angela seem to be serene people. Working and living on such a remote place certainly requires special traits. To do so happily, proudly, and successfully is not something everyone could manage. He proudly told me that they employ 12 local people , who in turn feel part of the finca and very proud.

Once here, one doesn’t really have choice but to eat in their restaurant 3 times a day. All food is made from scratch daily, using as many ingredients from the farm as possible, including the daily baked bread, pancake etc. The home-made hibiscus ice tea was awesome, as well as maracuya juice.

At night, it has to be the darkest place I be ever been to. Literally there is no light as soon as I turn off the light of our room. Not even distantly. Nothing. Pitch black. Period. It’s a cloudy night so not even moon light or stars. It’s such an unusual experience.

Yet there is internet, not that you get strong signal, nor consistent, but it’s a working one! They have set up an antenna high enough to receive the signal ‚Ķ from the mainland! I am talking about the mainland that’s 1 hour boat ride away. Hence the quality. But still, there is enough to keep in touch with the rest of the world. Ryan and Angela managed their entire business online after all – they get bookings mostly online, through emails. He told me their bungalows were booked out most of time in the year. Without Internet it’s just unthinkable to have a successful business in such a remote place, regardless how wonderful the place is. Isn’t just amazing to think what technology could do?

Big Challenge Post-Travel For a Little Person

Post-travel adaptation has proven to be massively challenging for Nina.

We started to send her to a casual day care about 10 days after we came back from our trip, 3 mornings a week to start with (despite our intention to go straight full day). The first 2 weeks turned out to be simply disastrous. She would scream, cry, stomp on her feet for a surprisingly long time after we dropped her off¬†– once for 1.5hours straight. She would refuse to get off the car in the morning. She refused to eat and drink at day care (she still didn’t eat after 4 weeks). She simply just hated the idea of going to the day care.

Just overnight, we found our child turned into a monster child. She became so irritable, so angry at just about everything and anything, and so unpredictable. She was no longer the child that I knew of, during the long travel, who was easy to adapt, easy to please most of time, and easy with changes.

As a parent, it’s¬†both heart-breaking and exhausting to see my own child like this.

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Then I reflected. She indeed had her fair share of reasons for what she had¬†become of. After all, not only did she find herself surrounded at day care¬†by lots of strange faces¬†except her parents’ with whom she had spent the last 10 months day and night, but also she was not able to understand and be understood verbally.

By the time of coming back to Sydney, we had spent our 9+ months travelling mostly in Spanish speaking countries (6 months), plus a bit of French and English speaking environments. As we spoke only French and Mandarin among three of us, she understood French and Mandarin perfectly and started to express herself in mostly French and also some Mandarin. We were no longer sure about her English comprehension after a while although English expression was certainly close to zero.

Suddenly she was thrown in this strange environment where she lost all of points of references¬†– languages, familiar faces, things to do, setting (group vs being the only kid most of time). It’s a whole new different routine for her. It must have been terrifying, coming to think of it. She must¬†have¬†felt¬†utterly unsafe.¬†She must then have decided to¬†defend herself in a dramatic fashion.

The carers had told us that she spent most of her day observing other kids. She wouldn’t normally participate in group activities. She tended to prefer to spend time with younger kids because ‘they were quieter’. She preferred to stay with an adult (carer) than with other kids.

I wondered how much of these was contributed by the fact of her lack of understanding in English.

When she was really upset during the first week, once the carer managed to get another Mandarin-speaking parent to tell Nina that ‘your mummy is coming soon to pick you up’, Nina smiled for the first time that day.

Then as expected a classic scenario played out. One day when I picked Nina up, one carer made a comment that we as parents should try to speak English to her at home.

I know she meant well. And it sounded logic. After all, Nina was suffering, obviously.

And this was the moment of truth. The moment to test how strong we believed in what we were doing. I have been an advocate of ‘speaking the minority language at home as much as possible’, and has always believed that kids would¬†just get on with the¬†school language so much more easily. Home would be the only constant source of her Mandarin and French¬†input, and we needed to do whatever in our control not to take this source away.

It’s not without doubt,¬†we carried on with our OPOL (one parent one language) approach, and decided to have faith in Nina and ourselves. If we didn’t, who would?¬†At least we should give ourselves a bit more time before changing our gears.

Things have been improving fortunately. She is still by no means a fan of the day care but at least she now comes to accept it as part of her life. A few times we got away from daycare without her shedding tears. She still doesn’t eat anything at day care but at least now she sits down at the table with other kids. She still prefers to be on her own most of time, but she now likes the story time with other kids (although she chooses to stand at the back of the room instead of sitting down with other kids). At home, she started to re-collect herself. Tantrum became less, and more reasonably controllable.

One day Nicolas went to a playground with Nina. She pointed to the slide and said ‘yellow’, in English!

Another day, she came back home from daycare¬†and started to say ‘peekaboo’ while playing the game. That must have been the game of the day at the day care, as we never used ‘peekaboo’ as the word to describe the game.

When I was reading a book with her one evening, with many beads on a page, she surprised me with ‘one, two, three, four …’ while pointing at the beads. I was thrilled. And I was jealous. She had never counted beyond three in Mandarin so far… And then of course, she went on saying ‘… six, seven, nine’.

She sounded very proud of herself. And I think she should be proud of herself. It has been a very dramatic month, and she’s learning how to cope. It’s a big challenge that this little person is taking up.

So Where Did You Go?

RTW map latestFinally I was able to create a map version of where we disappeared into during that 9 months or so.

Comparing to our rough¬†initial plan (to use the world ‘rough’ would be an overstatement), this map had a lot more dots on it. Although the basic itinerary (which continents for example) remained the same roughly, the exact countries – and places in each country¬†– had changed and evolved so much throughout the trip.

A few notable changes: we added Patagonia in Argentina/ Bolivia (loved it)/Colombia (thank goodness)/Nicaragua; we didn’t go to Chile/Brazil, and we shortened the time in Costa Rica significantly. At times these changes seemed daunting, and other times¬†they were¬†obvious decision. Initially we thought we would stay in each place for a few weeks, and very quickly we realized it was not realistic nor necessary. I will come to some of these changes with more detail in relevant posts.

It’s once again a powerful proof to that good old saying: change is the only constant.

The tool that¬†I used to create this map was an online tool called¬†‘travellerspoint’. Although it wasted me¬†a few precious late night hours when I tried to create the map for the first time (it just didn’t want to save. Totally No stress!), I did find some interesting merits. For example, it told me that:

  • We travelled 77,279 kilometres
  • Days travelling: 282 days
  • The total distance travelled is roughly equivalent to circling the earth¬†1.9 times! (so we’ve got a lot of carbon footprint to be accountable for …).
  • Distance travelled by mode of transport:
    • Boat: 593km
    • Train: 1,117km
    • Bus: 3,064km
    • Car: 4,520km
    • Airplane: 67,731km
  • we have visited in total 17 countries (although 2 should be deducted as they were just transits)
  • It even allowed me to export my trip to an excel format, which was quite handy.

Now I will stop sounding like their sales rep, and return at once to the most burning question.

So where exactly did we go??

Here is a map for visual person like myself.

countries travelled

Here is a list for the more brave-hearted (of the places we either spent at least one night or as major transit stops):

Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
Tokyo, Japan
Paris, Ile-de-France, France
La Capelle-les-Boulogne, Nord-Pas-de-Calais, France
Lyon, Rhone-Alpes, France
Annecy, Rhone-Alpes, France
Hauteluce, Rhone-Alpes, France
Grenoble, Rhone-Alpes, France
Antibes, Provence-Alpes-C√ɬīte d’Azur, France
London, United Kingdom
Paris, Ile-de-France, France
Madrid, Community of Madrid, Spain
Buenos Aires, Argentina (here, bookstore)
Montevideo, Montevideo Department, Uruguay
La Barra, Maldonado, Uruguay
Cabo Polonio, Rocha, Uruguay
La Tuna, Canelones, Uruguay
Buenos Aires, Argentina
El Calafate, Santa Cruz Province, Argentina
El Chalten, Santa Cruz Province, Argentina
Salta, Salta Province, Argentina
Tilcara, Jujuy Province, Argentina
Tupiza, Potosi Department, Bolivia
Uyuni, Potosi Department, Bolivia
Nuestra Se√ɬĪora de La Paz, La Paz Department, Bolivia
Copacabana, Copacabana, La Paz Department, Bolivia
Puno, Puno, Peru
Cusco, Peru
Ollantaytambo, Cusco, Peru
Machu Picchu, Aguas Calientes, Cusco, Peru
Cusco, Peru
Lima, Peru
Bogota, Colombia
Cartagena, Bolivar, Colombia
Taganga, Magdalena, Colombia
Barichara, Santander department, Colombia
Villa de Leyva, Boyaca, Colombia
Bogota, Colombia
Quito, Pichincha, Ecuador
Lima, Peru
Miami, Florida, United States
Oviedo, Florida, United States
Miami, Florida, United States
San Jose, Costa Rica
La Fortuna, San Jose, Costa Rica
San Carlos, Rio San Juan, Nicaragua
Granada, Nicaragua
Apoyo Lagoon, Nicaragua
Granada, Nicaragua
Ometepe, Rivas, Nicaragua
San Juan del Sur, Rivas, Nicaragua
San Jose, Costa Rica
Miami, Florida, United States
New York, United States
Newport, Rhode Island, United States
Boston, Massachusetts, United States
New York, United States
Vienna, Virginia, United States
Mississauga, Ontario, Canada
Fort Collins, Colorado, United States
San Diego, California, United States
Pismo Beach, California, United States
Palo Alto, California, United States
San Francisco, California, United States
Yosemite National Park, Yosemite Village, California, United States
Mammoth, California, United States
Lone Pine, California, United States
Los Angeles, California, United States
Pape’ete, Windward Islands, French Polynesia
Moorea, French Polynesia
Atoll Rangiroa, French Polynesia
Auckland, New Zealand
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia