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Waiting For The Helen Keller Moment

Rui Mei came home one month ago, a spirited little five year old, babbling away in Mandarin but not speaking a word of English. Since day one, I’ve been waiting for the “Helen Keller” moment, the turning point when her chatter would suddenly transform and we would be speaking English together. I compare it to Helen Keller’s breakthrough at the water pump when her teacher ran cool water over her hands, spelling the word w-a-t-e-r into her palm, and all of a sudden it made sense – every object had a name. Helen ran all around the house asking for names of things and by the end of the day had learned 40 words. Although I know learning English will be a gradual process for Rui Mei, I’m irrationally hoping that one morning she will wake up and the words will just start tumbling from her mouth.

For the most part, however, she has shown little interest in learning English. Maybe she figures she doesn’t need to. In the course of our daily routine, we can more or less figure out what she needs, either from rote or by using hand gestures. In the car, I know she wants the window rolled down so she can feel the wind on her face, and whatever it is that she is saying to me I interpret as “window down.” I say “show me” a lot and Rui Mei has figured out that her mother periodically needs the equivalent of a good game of charades to get the message across. She will use two fingers in a cutting motion when she’s looking for the scissors, put up two fists when she wants me to bring her the cup with the two handles, and place her fingers in circles around her eyes to convey that she wants her sunglasses. Sometimes, if I simply can’t comprehend what she wants, she’ll push the hair back behind my ear, cup her hands around it and enunciate, as if turning up the volume will help her aging mom to understand Chinese. All in all, we manage to get by, so why put the effort into learning English?

Despite her disinterest, she has picked up a few words. The earliest was perhaps “Hullo Kwaymah” (Hello Kramer), a result of our campaign to create a cat-friendly world. We also insist on politeness, and so she is required to tack “p-lees-ah” (please) onto what otherwise would sound like a command from the emperor. (A typical conversation goes as follows: “Shui!’ (water) “How do you ask?” “P-lees-ah.”) Another popular word is “whoopsie”, for example when a chopstick accidentally slips onto the floor, to be distinguished from when the chopstick is deliberately thrown on the floor, which calls for an entirely different conversation.

A few days ago after our visit to the international adoption clinic at Children’s Hospital, I had my own Helen Keller moment. I suddenly realized that part of the reason why Rui Mei hasn’t been learning much English is because of me. Up until now, the most important thing for us has been to build connection and trust. Getting Rui Mei to speak English has been secondary to showing her that I will respond to her needs, to getting her to look me in the eye, and to keeping her safe. If she feels secure by knowing “Wo ma shang hui lai” (I will be right back), then that’s what’s coming out. If offering her a “ji dan” (egg) in the morning gets her excited and shows that I care about her favorite breakfast, and if “Bu yao pao!” (no running!) stops her from slipping and falling at the swimming pool, then I’m going to say those things in a way I’m sure she’ll understand.

I must also admit an attachment to hearing Rui Mei speaking Mandarin and I’m loathe for her to lose it. It’s all part of the spunky little China girl we adopted – the Mandarin nursery rhymes sung as if a declaration of faith – along with using chopsticks to eat her eggs and slurping noodles off the side of her bowl. I know these things will be edged out by American ways, but to me they are sweet reminders of the little girl with the earnest look on her face who stole our hearts in Hefei. I wonder, why does she have to lose her Mandarin while learning English? If I were to move to France and learn French, would I forget how to speak English? But from what I understand, as she learns English, Rui Mei’s Mandarin will fade away, unless we take steps to preserve it.

I hope that we will always throw in a “xie xie” instead of “thank you”; that after dinner Rui Mei will skip up the stairs for “xi zao” rather than a bath; and when walking out the door, we say a rousing “Zou ba!” instead of “Let’s go!” The other night at dinner, however, the change may have begun. Rui Mei downed two big bowls of noodle soup along with nine dumplings, and when I offered her the last remaining dumpling in the bowl, she considered it, then looked at me and said, “No sank yoo.”

~Love Without Boundaries is pleased to welcome guest blogger Jean Singer. Rui Mei was a part of LWB’s Huainan Foster Care Program, previously known as “Claire”.

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  • Leslie says:

    We adopted a 5YO son (along with a 10YO son) back in 2010. Our 5YO was cleft-affected and also partially deaf, so he didn’t really speak though he understood the local dialect. Our then 10YO son still knows his native language, though he is a bit rusty for lack of use. He reads it everyday, but doesn’t speak as much.

    As for the slurping of noodles, both of our sons still do this as well as our two daughters. Some things they never lose, which is just fine by me! Congrats on the adoption of your beautiful daughter!

  • Jennifer says:

    Our daughter is 23 months old, home for 5 months. I knew she would go through a phase when she would not be speaking much. I didn’t realize how much I wanted to hear what she has to say–because she clearly has a lot to say! yes, even with sign language so we know a little more what she’s up to. Would love that Helen Keller moment to arrive. Thanks for posting this!

  • beth says:

    So wonderful to see another beautiful Huainan girl in her well deserved forever family. What a beautiful girl. My Huai Rui Wa has been home almost 10 months now and has forgotten most of her Chinese…a small price for a forever family if you ask me. God Bless.

  • Terrie says:

    I really enjoyed your story!! My daughter and I just watched Helen Keller yesterday! We are adopting an older child. I would love for her to keep her native language as well.

  • Kim Hofmaster says:

    We too adopted from Hefei…4 months ago. (are you on the Hefei adoption facebook site?) Your writing made me laugh and feel sad at the same time….she will learn English and she will lose some of those cute “chinese” things that we love! We had the exact opposite experience, our daughter quit speaking Mandarin in China when we got there! She will sing to us once in a while, that is about it. We took Chinese so we could communicate and she will only answer in English! Your daughter is beautiful, what a blessing! Our daughter is 6 1/2 and is the sweetest little diva ever! lol Bless you!! Kim

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