kitchen table math, the sequel: Recollection of a Diaspora.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Recollection of a Diaspora.

I remember water, lots of water -- warm, cleansing, refreshing. Opening your eyes after rinsing off the shampoo to the sunlight streaming in is a lot like waking up – and you see, that’s my first ever memory of rinsing my hair.

I’m sitting at the kitchen table, watching my mother slicing cucumbers. She’s showing me how to remove the bitter sap by rubbing the tops and bottoms with the chopped ends. I think it’s the oldest piece of advice that I still remember. One day, when you’re old enough, I’ll teach you to cook, she says.

My sister was born after me, but I can’t recall a memory where she wasn’t already there yet. Did you know, she once coloured the living room wall with crayons? I can’t remember what my first memory of a book is. Too many books. I apparently once drew in some of their pages, but I can’t remember doing that. There’s one showing occupations - - bricklayers, doctors, farmers, painters, police officers – and then, kings and queens. What does a king do? What does a king do?

Here comes a book in Chinese! (What do my parents call it? Ah, huawen.) Oh boy! I’m a bit intimidated. How does this work? Well here’s a picture of a little sister. Mei-mei. A picture of an elder brother. Gorh-gorh! But what about big sisters and little brothers? Do they exist, or are brothers always older than sisters?

My parents spoke mostly English to me at home, save when they were explicitly trying to teach me huayu. A curious fact you see, since now I realise that English wasn’t their native language. Chinese came from another dimension, far far away, and came up whenever people wanted to talk about stuff from long, long ago. You used it whenever Chinese New Year came around – it was like a birthday, only for everybody.

I remember my mother stuffing two large oranges into my hands as my family knocked on a large wooden door. “Give to Pohr-Pohr!” she said. I can’t remember what I asked – something along the lines of, “Why does she want them?” or “Why do you want me to do it?” She hushes me. The door opens and out pour the greetings in Chinese. I wait to say my line before stretching my arms high above me to give my oranges to a familiar and kindly old woman. Inside lay a kitchen table full of food, old-fashioned but good: the reward for putting up with all the Chinese.

I remember sometime later I had the epiphany that my immediate family had four people – one day we were all standing together in the lift and I decided to count them, taking care to include myself. It would be much later before I realised that Pohr-Pohr was my mother’s mother. It was weird at the time to think your parents had parents. It was also weird because I only saw my father’s mother once, in a land called Malaysia, and I never thought of her as Pohr-Pohr. Pohr-Pohr only ever spoke in huayu to me – she would falter if she tried to use English. Her flat was from another era; everything about it was old, and huawen was found everywhere. Outside, the housing estate was surrounded by a forest of tall, thick trees that arched above the roads – trees that had probably been there forever. My grandfather, who I called Gong-gong, spoke neither English nor huayu. He would speak to my mother and Pohr-Pohr in a language no one ever tried to teach me.

Out of the alternatives to English, I think I liked Malay the best. It was enchanting, charming, and perhaps most importantly, it was written with the alphabet. Some people spoke it, though they tended to be old-fashioned like my Pohr-Pohr. You found it on placenames (like Kembangan, or my Pohr-Pohr’s place, Telok Blangah), and in songs I learnt to sing. You’d also find it in the names of foods, like katong laksa, but that didn’t really count, because there it was part of Singlish, and everyone spoke that. A lot of Malay was shared with Singlish, in contrast to huayu, which was rarely shared.

I probably would have been an enthusiastic Malay student, but my father generally refrained from teaching it. I didn’t really like Chinese class in preschool. If one thing epitomised everything I dreaded about “Chinese” for me at that time, it was my laoshi: a towering plumpish woman with a haughty, fearsome voice, dressed in a weird and gaudy floral fusion of a sari and a silk robe from the Chinese dimension. While the rest of my friends enthusiastically chimed in the right words and phrases, I always felt it was a miserable game of playing catch-up and being too scared to ask the laoshi what was going on (in huayu of course). My laoshi was a good taskmaster though, because I remember writing a fair bit of huawen under her, carefully tracing strokes with my neatest handwriting. Tracing huawen was a bit like colouring – you had to make sure you didn’t deviate from the lines.

One day, my parents decided to move to a land called America.

I was told it was a big, big place, far away across the sea on the other side of the world, more far away than Malaysia or China, where my Gong-gong came from. Some of my friends (and my teachers) knew about it. “America is better than Singapore. You should be excited!” they essentially said.

(We’ll miss you though.)

We visited first. I remember my first sights of Cape Elizabeth, and my first visit to the Lobster Shack. The people there spoke differently; the adults liked to call you “honey,” initially a source of constant puzzlement, and likewise they appeared confused when you tried to address them as “auntie” or “uncle”. In the summer, America didn’t feel very far away – it was like any other place your parents took you to, only instead of being whisked off to Telok Blangah, Jurong or Bukit Timah by bus, you were being whisked off to America on a plane.

In Singapore, we packed and I watched my toys and books disappear into boxes. Sometimes, my sister and I would be left at my Pohr-Pohr’s house while my parents did very important business elsewhere, collecting us only at night. This was cool at first, but the toys were strange, the books were all in huawen, and my Pohr-Pohr’s flat was just too old, too repressive, too Chinese. It’s one of the most dreadful feelings in the world, not knowing why your parents won’t come back for you yet, and when none of the adults can understand what you really want to say. Outside of my Pohr-Pohr’s windows lay the world, full of high-rise flats and tall city buildings that rose in the distance. Despite my searching eyes, none of them contained my home; none of the people in them were my parents. Of all the places I had been to, my Pohr-Pohr’s flat felt the furthest from home. I broke down – I bawled, I cried – and then my Gong-gong took me in his arms and sung me a beautiful song I never heard before, in a language that was not huayu.

Our second flight to Maine occurred during a big blizzard of a Nor’easta. Los Angeles didn’t feel very different from Singapore; I had to put my coat on upon touching down in Chicago because it was truly the Windy City, though I saw one lady wearing a fruit basket for a hat; but in Maine it was pouring snow, and before I had previously thought snow was only found in fairy tales.

I remember my first day at an American kindergarten. First, there was the ride on a yellow school bus, which I had never seen before. The whole playground was shrouded in fog – “like clouds, but on the ground,” my mother had said, and I discovered how the clouds became see-through as you got closer, breaking any hope of ever resting on one. It was a vast playground compared to what I had known in Singapore, and I remember the Ciocca twins pushing each other on swings, and how I couldn’t keep straight which one was Alicia and which one was Sonia.

In some ways, integration into the American education system was not difficult. Americans spoke English, and I spoke a different form of English, and this fact usually wasn’t a great hindrance. Best of all, there was no dreaded Chinese, and the truths of math and science didn’t change from country to country. We grew monarch caterpillars on milkweed and watched them make chrysallises to then emerge as monarch butterflies, flying away in the wind to a place called Mexico. By now I had been given a world atlas, which I had devoured; I had mapped the distance from Singapore to Maine and felt like I was the only one who appreciated the distance the butterflies travelled.

Nevertheless, for a while I was placed into ESL, though for a while I did not recognise it for what it was, since it was just another class. Perhaps it was standard practice for any migrant child who didn’t come from the UK, Canada, Australia or New Zealand. I remember the lady who worked with me, who couldn’t keep straight where I came from. “You’re from China, right? You look Chinese.”

I remember being self-conscious of how I looked like for the first time: that realisation of I look like people in China but not like people in America.

It was funny how I didn’t realise until then how Chinese and China were related. China, I learnt, had a shameful history, defeated in countless engagements with the West because of its backwardness and old-fashionedness. And while the American Revolution was championed and the English Revolution was literally glorious, my mother told me the Chinese Revolution “wasn’t a good one.”

Some years later I was told that my parents had purposely refrained from teaching too much Chinese at too young at age to me. English was more important for getting by in the world, and people who spoke only Chinese were marginalised. And it was thus from common experience they had concluded that, “it is easy to learn Chinese once you have mastered English, but to learn English knowing only Chinese is difficult.”1 And in America, smugly proud of my increasing strength in English and my increasing deficiency in Chinese, I marvelled at the brilliance of my parents’ decision while my command of huayu slowly died away.


1. Most linguists would now reject this idea, because of what we now know about language acquisition.


Anonymous said...

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. Are you going to write more?

Anonymous said...

What a poignant story; I thoroughly enjoyed it and found parts of it sad and touching at the same time.


Catherine Johnson said...

in Maine it was pouring snow, and before I had previously thought snow was only found in fairy tales

That is beautiful!

I hope you'll write more.