How I (Unwittingly) Taught My Son to Hate the Chinese

by Corey · 7 comments

By Corey Heller
Photo credit: Snow Kisses Sky

Fall, 2007

My son is 6 years old and we are talking about his upcoming birthday party. We discuss the foods that we’ll serve, how long the party will last, which games will be played, which kids will be in attendance and a myriad of other items.

Suddenly my son asks, “Will Joe be at the party?” (Name has been changed.)
“Yes, I believe so,” I answer.
My son lets out an audible sigh and shakes his head.
“Are you not glad that Joe will be there?”
“No. Not really.”
“Do you not like playing with Joe so much anymore?” I ask.
“No. It’s not that.”
“Did something happen between you and Joe? Did he say or do something?”
“Then why don’t you want Joe to come to the party?”
“It’s ’cause he’s Chinese,” my son mumbles under his breath.
Shocked silence.

Many Months Earlier…

There was a time when purchasing quality toys meant something. You got to know a company, you liked what they produced, you stuck with them because you trusted them and their products. Toys were made in ways that could easily be reviewed and overseen.

Then bit-by-bit came the era of in which my children were growing up: Toys sold by the same well-known companies but which were now being produced around the world and with little oversight. These toys were being recalled at record numbers because they contained lead paint and other chemicals toxic to young children who touched, played with, and bit them. Cheaper toys means cheaper labor which means increasingly diminished oversight.

It quickly became a mantra in my home to look and see where a toy had been made. We had always done this but now it became a vocal part of our lives. In fact, it even became a sort of game that we played – my mother and brother joining in the fun when they visited.

At the time, toys produced in China were the reigning culprit, so my son would help us by looking at the bottom of his toys and call out, “Made in China!” whenever he saw it written. We picked through his Thomas the Train set to find the tanks that had been recalled due to possible lead paint. We read one article after another trying to figure out what was going on and how to protect our children.

My husband and I were not fanatical about the whole thing but we were cautious. No one wants to be the one family on the block who rejects all of the warnings and then later neighbors shake their head thinking, “Told you so.” So we took strides to remove the most offending toys in our home and hoped for the best.

However, something bigger was going on around us, something that we were completely unaware of.

Linguistic Faux Pas

We all know that children hear pretty much everything that is going on around them. They are excellent observers and they utilize every bit of information they can to help them figure out how their world works. Thus, the continual mention of “the Chinese” and “Chinese toys” and “made in China” was impossible for my son to take lightly.

My husband and I would have discussions at the dinner table about the future of our industrial world and the consequences we may one day face. We talked about our anger at companies in our country and around the world who were producing products in ways that they knew they could not fully oversee. We had trusted these companies and we felt let down.

Unfortunately, what my husband and I didn’t realize during our discussions, of which our son was hearing every word, was that we were making a gigantic linguistic faux pas: Every time we talked about products made in China, we used the words “the Chinese.”

After a few moments of silence, in which I think my head exploded with a billion different worries, fears and anxieties, I asked my son, “You don’t like Chinese people anymore?”
“For any reason in particular?”
“Do you not like something about them?”
“Is there something else that is bothering you?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”

I left the topic alone for a while, in part because I didn’t know what to say. I had been taken completely off guard. When did my son start disliking Chinese people? Did someone say something to him? Did someone treat him badly? Maybe it was something I did wrong in his upbringing?

It wasn’t until my son and I talked again that I realized the source of his dislike.

The problem was this: My husband and I hadn’t been very specific about where our frustration was directed. We used general statements about specific Chinese business practices by using sweeping statements such as, “the Chinese.” My husband and I knew that what we meant by “the Chinese” was “specific Chinese businesses who are willing to follow dangerous practices.” But how could my son know this? He was in the stage in his life where he was just learning how to put these kinds of things together. When we said “the Chinese” he took it to mean “all Chinese people.”

The seed had been planted and grew large and lush. Soon “the Chinese” meant friends of his and people he knew. Soon “the Chinese” came to mean anyone who looked a certain way and spoke a certain way.

As soon as my husband and I figured this all out, we were horrified at what we had done. It brought back my own memories of friends, family and reporters in Europe using the term “the Americans” when talking derogatively about certain American political actions that I too was angry with! So unfair!

As soon as possible, we sat down with our son and talked about it – a lot. We talked about words and meanings, people and businesses, chemicals and health. We laid it all out on the table and just talked. My son asked questions and we answered. We asked questions and my son answered.

And my husband and I started being careful, very careful, about what, exactly, we said to one another, especially when our children were around. We also started paying more attention to what our children were picking up from media around them.

We Don’t Know

When it comes down to it, the truth is, we don’t know exactly how our children are interpreting the things we say around them. We don’t know what goes through their minds when we act a certain way. We think we know, but we don’t, at least not completely.

The only way to get a better idea of what is going on in our children’s minds is to talk – to share information, thoughts, feelings, worries, concerns. The goal is to create an environment where talking about everything (yes, I mean everything) is possible and encouraged.

This doesn’t mean forcing our children to talk with us about how they see the world. It means creating comfortable ways for our children to talk with us when they do have something to talk about. And vice versa: creating an environment where our children will listen to us when we have something to say. They may not change their minds based on something that we say, but at least they will have honestly heard what we had to say – and that counts for a lot!

I remember a time when my mother and I were having a difficult period in our relationship. We were arguing a lot about minor and meaningless things which had become fodder for our bitter fires. One day my mother said, “You know what? Part of the reason I get so upset with you is because I don’t feel like you really hear what I have to say. You don’t have to agree with what I say, I just want to know that you heard me, that you acknowledged my point of view.”

From that point on, my mother and I still had heated disagreements but things were different. We felt trusted and loved by one another despite our strong disagreements. It truly made all the difference!


Where did things go with my son and his feelings about China and the Chinese? He says that he no longer feels any negativity toward them (or any other cultural group, for that matter). He says he now understands the big difference between people who live in a country (Chinese, American, German, Australian) and the specific people who operate businesses in a country. He understands that sometimes people say one thing but actually mean something very different. And he understands that no culture on earth is all bad or all good.

He also understands that although there are individuals in our world that might do harm to others, his parents believe firmly that humans are basically good and will do good if given the opportunity.

Have your children ever talked badly about a specific culture? How did you react? What did you do about it?

Corey Heller is the founder of Multilingual Living and the Editor-In-Chief/Publisher of Multilingual Living Magazine. Multilingual Living is the place where she shares her knowledge about raising multilingual and multicultural children. Corey, an American, and her German husband live in Seattle where they raise and homeschool their three children, ages 14, 12 and 10, in German and English.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jennifer December 12, 2011 at 11:07 am

Thanks for sharing this. I too have heard sweeping comments about certain people groups and have tried to help my daughters to be positive towards all differnt people groups. It is challenging, and delicate area in the way we communicate to our children. I live outside the States and I try to always to make statements like, “the Immigration Office of Panama is frustrating me.” or “That bus driver was really reckless.” Not, “well, there goes another crazy Panamanian driver!” I really appreciate your thoughts.


2 Corey January 3, 2012 at 11:50 pm

Thank you for your comment, Jennifer! It is amazing how our children pick up on such generalizations, isn’t it? I love your examples of being more specific – that person, that office – and then adding the specific offense and event – today she was that way, at this moment, etc.

Sure, we don’t have to do this but we owe it to our children to at least try! Thank you for your thoughts on this!


3 Connie December 12, 2011 at 11:30 am

Loved your honesty. Many people would be too scared to write this article. I appreciate that your family is taking a straight-forward approach to tackling the roots of prejudice. Well done.


4 Corey January 3, 2012 at 11:51 pm

Thank you for your kind remarks, Connie! As you can see, it has taken me a few years to write this. It has been in my mind a lot and I have spoken to many people about this (including in some of my seminars on Raising Bilingual Children) so it seemed time to write a post about this. I hope others will benefit from this insight – it seems like the more of us who try to work on things like this, the more welcoming and less prejudiced our world will become! That’s my hope, at least!

Thank you for sharing your comment! Very appreciated!


5 Giovanna December 14, 2011 at 12:28 pm

It’s scary to see how important is reputation of a specific culture to save a language!!! Thanks for sharing your experience and thankk you for your courage!!!!


6 Corey January 3, 2012 at 11:56 pm

Thank you for your comment, Giovanna. It is amazing how easily things like this can get passed on to our children! My hope is that others will think about things that they might say in their families that their children could possibly interpret falsely. I still have to check myself a lot to make sure that my children won’t get the wrong idea about something I’ve said!


7 Beth Ortuño January 30, 2013 at 12:25 pm

Thanks for the post. I keep asking my husband to tone it down. He thinks it’s just funny teasing when he calls his nephews “gay”. Every article and blog post I show him helps me build my case. As adults we don’t remember where some of our beliefs and attitudes came from. I think many anxieties and prejudices come from a time when we so little we don’t remember it now, so little we took as gold everything our trusted adults said. The things we say around kids have to pass a higher standard. “Little pitchers have big ears.”
My stepkids have done things like putting on fake horrible “Chinese” accents pretending to order noodles with fried dog — while we are walking in public through a grocery store! I put a stop to it but they were too young to have made up that “comedy” routine on their own. They learned it from their mom (the day before, they were with her moving into an apartment in Chinatown, so that wasn’t hard to figure out). I don’t know how to explain to them when they’re so young why it hurts not just a Chinese or Asian person who hears it but actually it hurts all of us. It opens a can of worms; evil things they don’t even know exist. For now at least they have gotten the idea not to do it in the grocery store.


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