When NEIGE doesn’t mean NIGGA or *****
“Nei-ge!” My son often yells in the store, at the restaurant, and even while waiting in line for something important.
“Nei-ge! nei-ge! Neiiiiii-geeeee!!!” Everyone at the store has turned to stare at us at least once by now.
My husband’s angry. He’s self-conscious.
“Stop saying nei-ge!”
My son decides to ignore his dad. Baba is obviously in a bad mood.
“Mama! Nei-ge!” He points to something on the floor.
“Nai-ge?” I ask in response. I have no idea what he’s yelling about.
People are giving us quizzical looks.
“Nei-geeee!!” Exasperated by my apparent dullness, my son crouches down low and points at the metallic purple star-shaped decoration.
“Ahh! It’s a star! You found a star!”
So what is he saying?
…Did you guess what “nei-ge” means yet?
In Mandarin Chinese, “nei ge” means “that” or in this case, “that one”, to which I would ask my son “which one?”
My son is only two and a half, but he gets dirty looks, even glares, whenever we go out in the States. He doesn’t know why people are treating him poorly, he doesn’t know why his father gets frustrated and won’t let him say the new word he learned a few months ago, or why he should refrain from speaking his second language in public at all.
Once we were at TJ Maxx, reading a picture book near the cashiers. The picture book had animals in it. My son pointed at every single animal and said their name to me. Some animals he doesn’t know the name of, or he can’t say their name, so he says “nei-ge!” (That one!) By doing so, he elicits the name from me and learns.
On this particular trip, we were waiting for his daddy to pay for our purchases, so we remained in place while others passed us by.
Even I could feel daggers on my back when he pointed to a gorilla in the book and yelled, “Nei-ge!”
Not only does he not often see gorillas, but he was especially excited because there was a gorilla plushie on the shelf right above us.
“Nei-ge! Nei-ge! Nei-ge!” he pointed to the the big black gorilla soft toy.
I saw an angry-looking African-American woman walk past us. She glared at both us, and even I told him to keep it down.
Then don’t teach it
Some have suggested we just don’t teach him this word, since he is bilingual and there is an English equivalent. There are two problems to this: one, we shouldn’t have to teach him to not say “that” when it’s just his toddler pronunciation and local racial sensitivities that make a Chinese word sound like a racial slur. Two, we didn’t actually teach him the word.
Nei-ge is also often used as a filler word, similar to “ummm” or “uhhh” in English. We use it habitually, not even noticing it until recently when we’ve tried to reduce its usage. Although we use it in conversation all the time, I haven’t noticed people glaring at us, so I think it’s just my son’s accent.
Unless we were Spanish speakers, I’m not sure why people would think we would teach a two-year-old to say n****. On second thought, if we were Spanish speakers, I’d be equally irritated with how sensitive Americans are in regard to race and racism.
Kids “call it what it is”. When my son watches Daniel Tiger, he points to the dark-skinned girl (Miss Elena) and describes her as “hei hei” (blackie, in Mandarin). That’s an observation. Would you rather he be color-blind? Please. Children before the age of four do not have the malice to other anyone and call them names.
Have you had a similar experience? Did you ever wonder about How “racist” Chinese kids are? How did you handle it?