One of the great things for me about a book tour in the chance to talk a little bit with people who are interested in some curiosities of the Mandarin language.
Yesterday I learned something new about a question that has long puzzled me. I had been talking about the word “ai”, which means “to love” in Mandarin. I said that this word first caught my attention about 20 years ago, when we were traveling around China with our two then-small, blond boys. A Chinese woman scrutinized me, sized up our boys, and asked earnestly, “Which one do you love more?”
I was taken aback and responded as any American would, “I love them both the same!” “Ah," she paused, “but really, which one do you love more?”
Trying to understand her, I thought maybe her sense of love was not of a boundless, borderless whole, but rather as part of some zero-sum calculation, which should be divvied up and portioned out.
Last night, a young Chinese mom with her little girl in the audience in Seattle gave me a different interpretation. She said that not so long ago, when generations and extended Chinese families, including often dozens of kids, lived together in a shared housing compound, it was common to ask each other, “Which of the children is your favorite?” And that somehow -- if there were 25 children instead of just 2 or 3 -- it would be a less offensive and less personal question to ask.
I guess I see her point, although it also made me think about how Americans shy away from “playing favorites” in any size group, big or small. If a teacher or a coach seems to do this, people notice, and it’s the cause of some discomfort all around, often even from the “favorites.”
So, I have added this question to the list of those that often startle westerners the first time they hear them, questions like: How much is your rent? How much do you earn? What did you pay for your bag (or watch, or pearls, or scarf)? Now, Which child do you love more?
The good news: with China’s one-child policy, the question won’t be on the list for long.