The anxieties and frustrations of bilingual parenting

A line drawing of a baby's hand holding an adult's finger

Parenting is a series of procrastinations, of cowering from actions you know to be necessary but avoid because of the newborn wails, infant shrieks, and toddler tantrums they will inspire. Today, I am the worst offender. I flit about the changing stand and bury myself in our usual rhythm, assembling supplies and tugging my baby’s leggings down to her knees. As always, she delights in participation. First she wiggles her leggings over her ankles, then tosses them onto the floor with an impish giggle. Finally, when I can delay no longer, I look deep into her eyes and steady my voice. And for the first time, instead of prefacing the removal of her soiled diaper by saying, “Are you ready?” I smile and say, “准备好了吗?”

Confusion clouds the baby’s large brown eyes. She drops her gaze, hiding behind a row of long, thick black lashes. Moments earlier, she had just landed a particularly large raspberry, mischief lingering in her gaze as we laughed together, and perhaps she had been anticipating a wet blustery one in response, perhaps guessing whether I would blow it loud or long, maybe string together three or five. In the year since I became a parent, diaper changes have grown into one of our special times together. They offer small moments of connection amid the rush of daily life, where tossing raspberries back and forth has become just one of our many inside jokes. Frequently, we talk about the toys she’s explored or the emotions she’s experiencing, an exchange of babbles and words, smiles and glances. Since birth I have narrated her days, always in English. Until this moment, I would have told you ours was a connection that transcended language.

I peer into her face and run a capped palm over the top of her thick, silky black hair. She lifts her eyes back to mine, expression wary. I dip my nose toward her belly, and she laughs in anticipation. I draw out the moment, nose tip grazing her soft warm flesh with exaggerated slowness, to mask my uncertainty over how to proceed. As a third-generation Chinese American who learned Chinese not at home but in bilingual schools and college classrooms and stints abroad in my early twenties, I always hoped to introduce my child to Chinese early in her life. Then COVID infiltrated America when my baby was born, and the husband and I scrambled to cover parenting duties we once hoped to undertake with help from friends and extended family. Suddenly, parenting her in my adopted tongue had felt impossible, a luxury available only in other times.

As my child starts to speak, I realize that the random Chinese phrases I used to sprinkle into our cooing sessions have inadvertently dissipated. My brain has been too tired to opt into anything but default mode. So now I straighten up and repeat, “准备好了吗?”

She jerks her face to the side. Normally she drinks in all the eye contact you offer, but already I can feel her shrinking back into herself. Perhaps she seeks to hide her confusion, or her betrayal at finding herself so unexpectedly amid unknown terrain. Hoping to bring her back to the comfort of our little routines, to the skills she’s been practicing with increasing competence, I ask her, “要打开 … diaper … 吗?”

She shoots one hand toward me. I hand over the diaper, then busy myself with cleaning and wiping as I hear the crinkle of plastic unfolding, the scritch of tiny fingertips prying open Velcro diaper wings. Her eyebrows lift in concentration and her forehead juts forward, eyes resolutely averted from mine.

You don’t need to translate—just speak normally, preach parenting bloggers pushing seven simple tips for raising fluent bilingual speakers. We don’t even speak Chinese, and our preschoolers know 500 words! croon others, inevitably White. Their words carry a double dose of shame: for not doing enough to aid her development, and for being an inadequate Chinese American parent and failing to pass the language on. I am irritated at seeing my ancestral tongue reduced to a prop in the parenting Olympics of brain stimulation. But beneath my irritation flares self-doubt: was I offering her the best? Was I offering her enough?

As I take the unwrapped diaper from my baby and fasten it around her waist, I despair at her indifferent silence, deafening for the coos and burbles that would normally fill the air. I had never expected to provide a perfectly bilingual environment—my patchy vocabulary is proof enough of that. But I also had not imagined my baby might wholly reject the language of our ancestors.


We head out on our daily walk, the baby strapped to my torso, the late winter sunlight casting a weak, silvery glow over the shrubs that line the sidewalk. We stroll past craftsman bungalows and towering Queen Annes, until we finally arrive at a large corner lot with a chicken coop nestled between driveway and front yard. Four regal fowl, huge-breasted and surefooted, prowl about. My baby quiets immediately. Her face is eager and alert as she watches the black one pick its way up a ladder, talons clicking against wood. A crisp breeze nibbles at her reddened cheeks, and she nestles her head beneath my collarbone.

Normally, I’d point out their upward peck to drink, the sudden divebombs to pluck slugs from dirt. She’d clap, and I’d laugh, our hands finding each other again and again, her body warming mine, delight mingling in our gaze. I chose to raise her in Portland rather than return to the Bay Area because I want her childhood to be shaded not by high-rise buildings but by trees, with grass between her toes and birdsong in her ear, lilacs to sniff and leaves to toss. Parenting as gifting that which you wish you’d been given. Parenting as gifting that which you treasured and wish to pass on.

Had I chosen to remain in the immigrant enclaves that dot the Bay Area, grandparents and uncles and cousins and neighbors and shopkeepers might have provided the bilingual ecosystem that one parent alone simply cannot. Chinese has lai largely dormant in my mind for over a decade. Where I’d normally ask what she makes of the strut and cluck of the largest hen, whether she’d like me to tiptoe up a stranger’s driveway for a better peek, today all I can manage is, “你看, 四只鸡. 走来走去. 找什么呢?”

I’m reminded of all the podcast listening and book reading it will take to revive the language that once flowed so freely, the vocabulary lists I will have to draw up while she naps, the bilingual dictionary that will replace the novels I’d just begun to devour with the appetite of my pre-parent self. In other times, I might relish the excuse to watch Chinese movies or soap operas—in my youth, because American media did not offer up Asian American actors or storylines, I escaped into Chinese-language ones—but today the idea tastes more of vinegar than honey.

My baby responds by inserting one finger between her lips. Other adults might react with a pucker of the mouth and a quick tug on her finger, but I know this gesture speaks of unease, a need to self-soothe, and so I have never tried to dissuade her from it. Yet no matter how much I smile or infuse my words with cheery confidence, the finger remains.

We walk home in silence. Maples tower above us, their bare branches offering little in the way of shade, tiny green leaf buds not yet visible. I am too discouraged to toss up more than an occasional, “哇, 自行车… 骑得好快啊!” as a cyclist whirs past. My baby’s eyes track the riot of blue and neon yellow spandex, but her refusal to respond stands between us like an insurmountable wall. I sense the possibility of a future pockmarked by conversational voids instead of inside jokes, one-sided volleys that stunt her vocabulary and under-stimulate her mind. My daughter growing more and more distant, finding intimacy among friends and classmates instead of at home.

Aware that I am raising a Chinese Cambodian American child in America’s whitest city, I had hoped to offer her at least two sets of love songs, two sets of heroes, two sets of worldviews. The knowledge that if this society tries to limit your sense of self, you are not limited to this society in defining yourself. Not once had I considered that this gift might come at the expense of the connection we’ve built this past year.

Despair and frustration mingle in my gut. I think of my grandparents, all immigrants who came to this country as adults. They, too, may have struggled in their adopted tongue to move beyond the two-to-four-word sentences of toddlerhood. Perhaps they, too, felt keenly the vast gulf between the words they could offer and the vast texture and nuance of their dreams and hopes, their wisdom and life experience. Would they have lamented the impossibility of heartfelt communication with their children? Were they ever beset by the bitterness of appearing as the palest version of their true selves in their non-native tongue, all nuance and emotionality stripped bare? Did they realize that, in gaining economic security and freedom from war, they might lose the ability to be truly seen and held?

Unlike my grandparents, I have a choice. I could stop now, forego seasoning her life with the nuanced flavors that living between worlds, between languages, can offer. I could revert back to the language she has known her whole life. It is my privilege to choose.

If only I can know that in eighteen months, as I chant mindlessly while slicing a banana for my baby (now toddler), she will begin to giggle. She will be standing on a step stool, cheeks at counter height and eyes fixed on her snack, body pressed into mine as she strains one hand forward, eager to peel the fruit “me self!”, now a common refrain. Her outstretched hand, the scent of overripe fruit, and her newfound peeling skills will call to mind the Chinese rhyme I learned in childhood:

小姐小姐别生气, Young lady, young lady, don’t get upset.
明天带你去看戏. Tomorrow I’ll bring you to watch a play.
我坐椅子,  你做地. I’ll take the chair and you’ll take the floor.
我吃香蕉,你吃皮. I’ll eat the banana and you’ll eat the peel.

Chinese will have drifted in and out of our lives over the past year and a half, some weeks present for decent chunks of her non-daycare days, some weeks discernible only in my guilt and stuttering half-sentence attempts at revival. Yet in this moment, as the final syllable rolls out of my mouth, she will begin to giggle. Not her usual barking full-throated shriek of unencumbered delight, but a gentle rolling laugh. A quiet joy. Her laughter will be fragrant with possibility—of new inside jokes, spoken in the language I have loved most my life and to which her relationship remains unwritten.


Family, Identity, Place, Language, parenting


2 comments have been posted.

Who knew that the details of a diaper change could take me back thirty years like it was yesterday! The crinkle of the plastic, the tiny sounds coming from tiny gestures… I saw myself in that rarified time of my children's lives, and I melted. I also loved the way you held a light thread of tension over the unexpected responses--or lack of them--as your daughter processed the change in routine. What it brought home to me so poignantly was that unspoken, inevitable separation of children from their parents. But you told it in ways that had me on the edge of my seat! Such good writing, such a pleasure to read. More, please!

Donna Moriarty | April 2024 | Ossining, New York

Jessica, I admire your exploration of these limbic spaces: descending from immigrants, the search for self in a new language and self-centric culture, and the tug between the longing for connection with one's child and the duty to equip them with the tools of independence--and ultimate separation. You deliver it all with surprising details and lyrical turns that make it very easy to hang out with your probing voice. Thank you for giving me a more nuanced understanding of language/culture gaps and motherhood.

Katie Daley | April 2024 |

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