Many people have asked, in not-so-many-words, “Who are you to write a memoir?” I reply, “I’m writing the story I don’t see anywhere else. And, that I needed.” I’m honored to share, with the #31DaysIBPOC community and world, a draft memoir introduction I’ve been working on. Rest in power, George Floyd, one year ago today.
Draft Excerpt from Introduction of (working memoir title): Speaking Into Existence: A Daughter’s Journey Towards Teaching, Activism, and Her Family
5th-grade graduation was looming, and I had to finalize one more thing for my students: what language class each of my students wanted to take in middle school. Sunset Park, Brooklyn, where I teach, is made up mostly of families from the Latinx and Asian diasporas, and while I hoped Chinese or Arabic would be available classes for my students’ families, only romance languages were on this list: Spanish, French, Italian. At least Spanish was a choice for my Latinx students; New York City schools was a long way from teaching the 600+ languages our students and their families speak. Including my own.
I went up to each student for their answers. “I’m going to learn Italian,” S, a Mexican student, responded. “Spanish is stupid.”
My eyes involuntarily teared up. I knew that feeling of shame and embarrassment too well. I had to interrupt it.
“S, what language do you speak at home?” I knew the answer, of course, after parent-teacher conferences:
“Spanish,” S replied.
I nodded my head. My next question was what I wished I had been asked in fifth grade:
“Does your mom know any English?”
I was in. “Your mom only speaks Spanish, right? And how is your Spanish?”
“Um, I don’t know much.” S began to hunch inward, regretting that she’d said anything in the first place.
“Exactly!” and I continued: “So is your mother’s language stupid? Is your family’s? NO! What do you think will happen when you’re an adult and you can’t speak Spanish? Do you think you’ll be able to speak to your mom?”
“Exactly! The research says your brain is primed towards learning languages in your early teenage years, not later, not as an adult, NOW.”
And without stopping I began to project my own experience onto S:
“I didn’t learn Chinese at your age, and I wish I did or got the chance to, because then I would be able to speak to my parents, and now I can’t speak to them.”
I didn’t stop to breathe as I emphatically pointed my index finger towards my face. “Learn your parents’ language because you don’t want to end up like Ms. Tan not being able to speak to her own parents!”
S looked like she was about to cry. I realized I had unloaded too much on her, so I stepped away to the next student, willing my body to calm down.
I’d made some iteration of this stump speech dozens of times: I was often the first teacher in my students’ lives to do so. But this time, for some reason, the speech stung.
It was the word stupid that got me. I knew that feeling too well.
“Hey, isn’t it time for your Cantonese class?” Winnie shouted from the kitchen.
I looked up bleary-eyed at the clock. 5:58.
“It’s Wednesday, right?” I nodded, breaking my daze. I had just texted my students’ parents Monday night that, because of COVID-19 cases, school was closed in-person Tuesday, texted Tuesday night that we’d reopen in-person Wednesday, and just finished my round of texts that we had a snow day Thursday. I was exhausted.
“It’s really nice to hear you, your teacher and your classmates talking in Cantonese. I don’t really hear Cantonese anymore.”
“Yeah, I know. Me neither.” It was like Winnie was egging me on to go to class, even though I wanted to make an excuse again not to show.
“Ngo5 dei6 ho2 ji6 gong2 do1 di1 a,” Winnie replied.
“Yeah. We should.”
The only times I spoke Cantonese were in class, in Chinatown buying groceries, or with my parents. The calls started after I left home for college, and each day was the same: “Nee hak faan mee a?” In Toisan, or, more specifically, Hoiping: have I eaten yet?
“Sik6 zo2 la,” I wearily replied in Cantonese, the lingua franca of my Manhattan Chinatown but not my parents’ hoeng1 ha2 village languages. Cantonese is the closest language I have to my parents, a language I could at least grasp with a Cantonese romanization system called jyut6ping3, with 6 tones that would change the meanings of words if interchanged; sei3, the number four, was unlucky because if said like sei2, like a question, I was speaking of death.
Of course I know how to say my favorite Cantonese dishes, Mom shows her love through food, after all, but for the phone calls there are certain food words I’ve memorized for my dad: gaai1 for chicken, saai1 gaai3 lan2 for broccoli, faan6 for rice. Other words take longer to remember, if I knew them at all: faan1 ke2 for tomato, and I definitely don’t know how to say some other stuff in my fridge, like salsa, oatmilk, or pickles. And I’m still flipping words: a habit from childhood I never kicked is to say I want more jau4, oil, instead of zap1, sauce, something I still get ridiculed for.
I continued with the routine update: “My 5th-grade students were good today,” wanting really to say to my dad that no one turns on their cameras over Zoom and that I’m mostly talking to myself when I teach. But I don’t have the words to explain.
My dad and mom speak at least four Chinese languages: Cantonese, Toisan, Hoipingwa, and Mandarin, and are able to read, listen to, speak and write in Chinese characters. At home growing up, as with many Chinese immigrants my parents didn’t say much. But when they spoke they slurred their languages, so I mixed them up too. The ABC, American Born Chinese, kids in my Chinatown elementary school, didn’t know which Chinese languages I was mixing up, wouldn’t be able to understand me, then made fun of my accent and tones. I didn’t understand that then, though, why I was being mocked: I must have been stupid, so I stuck to English, the language I did know, not understanding that would put me worlds apart from my family. I only learned jyut6ping3 at 19, when I went to Hong Kong to study abroad, long after the shame had solidified in me, and long after languages were most malleable in my brain.
Even though my parents have been in America almost four decades, they never learned English, never needing it in the Chinese sweatshops, bakeries or construction companies they worked at. And even though I had my brothers, I was the one at the Medicaid and Social Security and doctors’ offices reading, listening, speaking, and writing in English, the only language I was fluent in, and using my meager Cantonese and bodily motions to translate back to mom and dad.
Mom figured out to use number words with the Arabic numerals scrawled in her checkbook to write checks and can make out maybe 50 written words in English, her English language levels similar to my Chinese language levels. If she or Dad really don’t understand something and us kids aren’t around to translate, Mom goes to a Chinatown social service center for help with English paperwork. Or takes a photo and sends it to someone on WeChat to translate.
Winnie, my oldest friend and now roommate, understood all this well: she didn’t speak Hoiping, but she was Toisan and spoke Cantonese, which I would find out maybe a decade after we first met in 4th grade. I looked back at her hopeful face as she marinated a black bean garlic pork dish. Suddenly I was grateful for her presence in this old Chinatown apartment on Broome Street, my childhood home, just two blocks from where Winnie grew up, and now our home together.
I reluctantly flipped to my Google calendar for the Cantonese Zoom class link. I knew, after taking graduate classes in 2014 to be an English-as-a-New-Language-teacher, that my brain is no longer primed to learn another language like when I was in sixth grade. Back then, Winnie and I took Spanish classes; we were focused on getting good grades, and so we actually learned how to conjugate and pick up Spanish vocabulary and sentence structures. I wasn’t wanting at all then to learn Chinese. Now both of us read more Spanish, a language which shares roots with English, than any Chinese language.
I got on the Zoom call, said “hello a Jaa-net” to my Cantonese teacher. Janet, who’s been forever patient in all the times I’ve been 20-30 minutes late to class, when I always leave mid-class to “use the bathroom” aka scroll through Twitter for a while because I can’t focus on the Cantonese I’ll never retain, when I promise to do the “homework” that will take 20 minutes to do which I don’t do, and say “haa6 ci3 gin3,” which sometimes I won’t because I’ll find some excuse to ditch class because of the pure exhaustion of teaching.
I know maybe 300-500 spoken words in Cantonese, those few hundred the ones I’ve held onto since childhood and the building blocks for the most basic communication with my parents. I know I need to learn at least 3,000 words in order to get fluent. Until recently, I didn’t know how to access the tools to get there: it’s only been in the past five years that Cantonese apps and dictionaries like Pleco have existed.
I wonder when I will have time to practice my Cantonese, given how exhausting teaching is, because I don’t have a lot of time left. Every day I wonder when my next relative will pass, another relative whose stories will not be passed onto the next generation. I think about how many stories I will never know, because I don’t share the same language as my grandmother and my cousins and aunties and uncles. And parents. I will never know fully how my parents got to America, where my extended family ended up, the time family spent in China and Vietnam and America and elsewhere.
What’s the use? I’m never going to learn enough to talk to my parents, let alone read the Chinese newspaper. So what’s the point? Jau5 me1 je3 jung3 a?
Even if I spoke the languages, though, would my family even tell their stories? I found out by pure accident, after all, while watching a PBS documentary, that I am related to Vincent Chin, a man murdered by two white men who shouted anti-Asian sentiments at him, whose murder led to an Asian American movement, and whose legacy pushed me to be the activist I am today.* Even if great-auntie Lily, Vincent’s mother and my great-auntie, were alive, would I be able to get her story, of how she fought back, how her words and courage led to that movement?
But then again, that one family story, what I know of it anyways, changed my life. I knew the power of stories, that’s why I began telling stories in the first place. And, if I could find out more, maybe another story could change someone else’s life.
After Cantonese class, I check my phone and see a bunch of texts from parents about the snow day.
“Ok muchas Grasias buenas noches” with a sleepy emoji.
“De nada,” I reply.
“Gracias por todo,” another parent texts.
I sit back, readying myself for another remote day. The building may be closed, but school is always on.
Later I get a call from one of my students’ parents. She speaks to me in Toisan, and I speak back, my Toisan broken.
“Nee hai hoisan a?
Keoi ho hoi seem a, keoi ho zung yi nee doo keoi lo sloo a.
Keoi ho seung hok zung moon a.”
I’m the first Toisan teacher her child’s had.
She is so happy I am her teacher.
She really wants to learn Chinese now.
*If you’d like, you can listen to me tell this story “Remembering Vincent” for The Moth. Then come back for the memoir one day when it is published! Thank you so much for reading.
*This blog post is part of the #31DaysIBPOC Blog Series, a month-long movement to feature the voices of indigenous and teachers of color as writers and scholars. Please CLICK HERE to read yesterday’s blog post by Narin Ramani (and be sure to check out the link at the end of each post to catch up on the rest of the blog series).