Wednesday, July 10, 2013

SMALL HEART & the art of juju parenting

We were on our way home from a mad dash to the mall to pick up a graduation gift. It was 95 degrees outside and I had all four windows down since my Honda's air conditioner was being problematic. Lily, my 16 year old, should have been at the wheel practicing her driving on her Learner's Permit, but I had gone all PTSD after that last experience with her 50 MPH parallel park job in the CVS lot, and I was simply too hot for stroke-like spikes of adrenalin. 

Hanna, age 13, had purchased a keychain at the mall LEGO store, and it unwrapped with a tiny sheet of warnings. She handed the paper, covered in Chinese calligraphy, up to the front-seat to her big sister who had just finished year #3 of high school Mandarin.

"What does this say, Lily?"

Lily looked at the Chinese characters carefully and answered "Xiao Xin...Small Heart."

I glanced at her sideways. "What? I would have thought it would say 'Be careful - small parts - not for kids under three'."

"It does," Lily said. "Small heart is 'be careful' in Chinese. You know, protect yourself...keep your heart small so it won't get hurt."

Aieeee. How perfect! Why waste time on general admonitions like "Be careful, don't do anything stupid" when you can cover the worst of life's hellish misfortunes with a powerful, two-character piece of specifically helpful advice: small heart.

I could use this new term on almost all parenting situations, and easily protect my 3 daughters and my own mom-vulnerability from little downfalls and large sorrows:

No running in platform flip-flops!
No putting watch batteries in your mouth!
No falling in love with 17 year old K-pop dancers with cars and undetermined intentions!


Driving along, I began to see true potential in this Chinese phrase; I could make the term personal, and use it for dramatic effect. Graduation party?  I'm on it.

What I say: "Have fun! Be home before 11:00 pm! (Tap chest meaningfully) Small heart."
Translation: "Have a nice time but don't leave your soda unattended and if I get a call from the police it will kill me and definitely not be good for you."

This could be fun, but I think I might be kidding myself, and I'm pretty sure that all the moms in China have already figured out the flaw in this handy Xiao Xin idiom. There is no smalling-down a parent's heart, which overgrows quickly and remains painfully over-sensitive. We warn our children to be careful, we remind them how to make good choices, we even teach them to drive our car - but our warnings and reminders are mere talismans, and our repetition masks both our darkest parental fears and our brightest hopes for our children’s future. What I really mean when I bark "be careful!" is...

Be happy, be healthy, be loved, stay mine.

However, now I will be sure to add in extra juju from my counterparts on another continent, in hopes that its protective powers will help my daughters through high school, college and beyond:

Keep that heart small, damnit...
and let international mother-magic keep us all safe
from breaking.

 Xiao Xin

by Jean MacLeod 

Copyright 2012, MacLeod, All Rights Reserved


  1. Jean, I love your post! Xiao xin takes me back to July, 1995 in an office in Wuhan, Hubei, PRC. It was a sweltering 115+ degrees. Windows closed. No fans. Heavy air. Hard to breathe I discreetly wiped the blinding sweat out of my eyes so that I could see the places my signature was required on a small mountain of papers on the desk. Our 4 month old baby Yue Lin sat on my lap, lethargic from the heat but still able to curiously swat at objects that came within her range. My husband and I were in our second week in China finalizing a private adoption process that had been physically and emotionally exhausting to both our families in the US and in China since Yue Lin was 4 days old.

    The purpose of our visit that day was to have yet another stack of documents signed as we progressed toward the end of our adoption process. All of the things that normally an agency would do us, we were on our own. The 3 women in charge of the process that day conversed with on another in Mandarin. I, being an extrovert, longed to be able to communicate with them - to convince them that I would be a great Mom. I had become an expert on reading body language and voice inflections in those two weeks and I was sensing there was doubt that this white American couple could love baby Yue Lin enough. I knew my intuition was right on. The doubt felt as heavy as the air. I wished that I could tell them I would jump in front of a moving train without a second thought of my Yue Lin. We continued with the business at hand all the while I knew my mothering skills being evaluated.

    Our family in China had helped us all along the process and my bilingual sister-in-law had been by our sides non-stop for the 2 weeks we had been in China, arranging and interpreting legal appointments and asking her family who cared for our daughter all the hundreds of questions we had about what we had missed those first 4 months. I've always picked up languages quickly and she had taught me quite a few Mandarin phrases to speak to Yue Lin to ease her language transition. One of them being Xiao xin.

    The late afternoon sun joined us through an uncovered window and illuminated the fact that my polyester dress was now completely soaked with sweat. Anyone who has done a summer adoption in China knows NEVER to suggest a fan! It is a cultural no-no to have a fan near a baby. One of the women sensed it was a time for some refreshment and brought in some hot tea. Yes, hot tea. I knew I could not handle a cup of hot tea with a baby (and I knew the additional heat would finish me off) so I leaned over to adjust it to a safer distance away from Yue Lin. As I leaned, her chubby hand shot out to help me. Mom instincts had been in full operation for 2 weeks now and I caught that little arm in mid air like a Yankee centerfield catches a pop fly. "Xiao xin, bao bei," I said while smiling at my sweet baby.

    I heard a gasp. I looked up at the three women. One had put her hand over her heart as she gasped relief. One had her hands as if she was ready to clap with excitement and the last woman had a tear rolling down her face as she looked at the other two women and said nodding, "Xiao xin! Xiao xin, bao bei!" By this time, the three women were all laughing with huge relief cantering, "Xiao xin! Xiao xin, bao bei!" Needless to say, everything at that office went along with ease afterward.

    Two little words. Universal Mom - speak: you must be careful. I love you too much, my heart could not take it.

  2. This is totally perfect as a parenting strategy - survival!!!!
    Thanks and love,