Thursday, February 16, 2012

Language Barrier

My eldest's TA meets me at the classroom door. "He has had a couple of real meltdowns today," she says. I feel my face go pale. "Oh, gosh, I am so sorry," I stammer, wondering who or what has been damaged, and whether there will be irate parents seeking compensation from us for little Johnny's broken arm. When she explains that she simply means he spent much of the day crying in the toilet, I look at her in gratitude and relief: it's a language difference, meltdown of a child with autism clearly means something different here from in the UK, where you would expect it to involve hours of screaming and flailing, if not bruises and blood. "Oh, I SEE," I say, trying not to sound too happy about my distraught child. But it is, actually, all hugely reassuring - not just because meltdown clearly means "was very upset indeed for some time and managed to tell us coherently what the problem was," but because the school took it so seriously and were so quick to tell me exactly what had occurred. It turns out it is all my fault - I forgot to explain to him that I was sending him without suncream on because the weather was foul, I forgot to check that he had his hat, I didn't explain fully that he needed to fill his waterbottle up from the fountain: I made him write in the wrong spelling book for homework. These things reduced him to tears for most of the day. Mea Culpa. Bad Mother. Perhaps I should go and cry in the toilets too.

The meltdown mistake makes me laugh ruefully, because I have just got back from two hours of visiting kohanga reo, the Maori language nests or kindergarten, with an eye to the future for my youngest child. Yes, that is right, I am totally insane. As if we didn't have family challenges enough.

On one level, it has been futile and depressing - the few places that there are are terribly oversubscribed, he will not get a place for a couple of years (by which time he will be over four: most of the language nests finish at five: it is hard to be sure how much longterm benefit he would get in that time. We would probably have to follow up the kohanga with a couple of years at kura, or Maori school: it would be complicated. It's probably not a goer). But on the other level, it has been a real eye-opener: not just because everyone was lovely and welcoming (I did wonder if there would be raised eyebrows at this mad Englishwoman wanting to send her blonde baby to a Maori kohanga reo), but because the topic of Special Needs was so not the obstacle that I expected it to me.

"He does have a working diagnosis of autism," I said as casually possible to the manager of the second kohanga reo, "But to be honest we expect it to be very mild, his brother has Aspergers and is very high-functioning, we don't notice any significant delay in his language at the moment," noticing the irony of downplaying his symptoms as far as possible, as opposed to the more usual necessary tactic of "this is all really bad and will you PLEASE GIVE ME SOME HELP." "In fact," I add truthfully, "a delay on the waiting list might not be the end of the world, we need to wait and see where he is developmentally, obviously if he's struggling with English like his middle brother then it would be crazy to try to add Maori as well." To my surprise, the manager shakes her head and says "look, it isn't a problem for us, most children start not knowing any Maori and we have all sorts of children here with special needs, speech therapists come and work with them, this would really not be unknown territory, you don't need to worry about that." I am hugely relieved by her openness and warmth. I mean, if I had the job of instilling a Pacific language into a bunch of monolingual toddlers, I would at the very least want them to have proved their capacity to SPEAK first.

At the other kohanga reo, it is the office administrator that I talk to: she is young and when I say he has autism her eyes rest on my son's smiling face for a moment, then looks away shyly. We talk about other stuff and then, as I am filling in the probably-useless-because-it-is-such-a-long-waiting-list-form, she says diffidently, as if she has been plucking up the courage, "People say, that those children with autism, are very special." I smile and agree that they do indeed say it, wondering what is coming next. Then she adds "My nephew has autism, do you know how much he likes tidying up? He loves everything to be tidy." I laugh, and tell her about my son's habit of removing furniture and toys to their proper place, and knowing exactly where the family shoes are to be found every morning. We part as friends, and I briefly fantasise about ensuring we do get a place by bribing her to set fire to her office and thus destroy all evidence of the waiting list. Or maybe I could break in and do it myeslf. Hmm, it's not just my children who can be obsessional about things they want.

Afterwards, I ponder her "children with autism are special" comment. It is something that could from a different person have sounded so crass and patronising. How was it that I found it the opposite? Partly it was the context, I think: we were both on edge, feeling our way in unknown territory, me with the kohanga environment, she with SN. She was saying the nicest thing she could think of, the fact that there is a whole controversy and politics around the use of the word "special" for additional needs was irrelevant. Partly it was the mention of her nephew with such warmth, clearly a special friendship and love existed between them both. But partly it was the simple fact that she was reaching out from behind her desk to welcome me and my son, to reassure me that he would be welcome in this place, make us both feel at home. It reminds me that you can't be too precious about the words people use or the comments that they make: it is the intention that counts, and I need to remain aware of that. Or at least, refrain from making responses of the "Yes, and he's ON SPECIAL too! Free to a good home, for a limited time! Grab this special offer whilst it lasts!" Etc.

I reckon I have done my bit for interlinguistic understanding for the day. But this evening I realise I haven't done the grocery shop, and the fridge is looking very big and empty. So I pop out before tea to the Chinese supermarket. We realised when we moved here that if we wanted to eat cheap tasty food, we needed to go Chinese. Tonight I want to buy some chilli bean paste, for a dish I have never made but which looks lovely (and cheap) in my old Chinese cookery book. When I ask, the shop assistant looks blank, then baffled. I show her the English word and Chinese transliteration, written down. Toban Jiang. She confers with a colleague, then they offer me two bottles: Doban Jhiang and Toban Djiang. Yes, they assure me, they are the same. But as I reach for it, the woman holds it back, then says the Cantonese name, several times, and I realise she wants to teach me to say it properly first. She is serious, it is not a game. I can kinda see her point. If you're going to cook Chinese, you need to know how to pronounce the ingredients. Well, yes, in theory. But it's late and I'm tired, and I've been apologising for not speaking one foreign language all day. Do I have to fail at another? And the grocers next door is run by a Korean, is he going to make me pronounce his ingredients correctly too? I gird my linguistic loins, think of the need to atone for the Opium Wars, do my lispy Western best, and eventually get the paste. She has a mildly disappointed look, and I suspect I didn't get it quite right. I wonder why it matters. Maybe I have been accidentally saying something obscene instead. Hell, I hope they don't do that to my son if he does end up at a kohanga reo, he will go ballistic if they try to make him speak Maori before getting any food. THEN we'll find out what word New Zealanders use for a child with autism in meltdown mode. Quite possibly "RUN!"

1 comment:

  1. I love the language test at the Chinese grocery - reminds me of my attempts to procure sassafras in NY. It's quite possible I was just saying it wrong... The Maori school sounds like a brilliant place to be - hope the waiting list shrinks!

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