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Chapter 49: My Mother’s English Lessons
After she retired from sewing, my mother became fiercely determined to learn English so that she could communicate with Linda, Tom, Harvey and me. We had each lost our ability to speak to her in Chinese. An awkward wall had risen between her and us. She wanted to reclaim her authority. She wanted our respect. She also wanted to be understood when she shopped at department stores and places outside Chinatown.
In 1985, for Mother’s Day, I gave her The New Golden Dictionary, a children’s publication by Bertha Morris Parker. It contained 1,712 words illustrated with full-color pictures. Simple sentences provided examples of how words were used. She used it to learn basic words on her own.
She wanted more. Two years later, approaching the age of 70, she began English conversation classes at Seattle Central Community College. From a color snapshot, I saw that she was the oldest of the 21 students.
It wasn’t easy for her to get there. She walked five long blocks downhill to Rainier Avenue South to catch a bus that dropped her off near the entrance of Seattle Central’s brick building on Broadway Avenue. She started out early because she was slow and unsteady on her feet.
My mother didn’t miss a single day of school. Heavy rain, snow and frigid cold didn’t deter her. Once, she trudged through over a foot of snow, arriving only to find out that school was closed. She returned home fuming. She called to tell me that her day had been ruined.
Each night, she sat at the dining table under a dangling overhead light, wading through her class workbook, practicing her lessons. I came over after work to help with pronunciation and writing. She filled several spiral notebooks with sentences written by hand in careful cursive lettering. In the margins, she scrawled two sets of Chinese characters: one to mimic the English sounds and the other to provide meaning.
She patiently slogged through her lessons with the aid of a 1968 edition English-Chinese dictionary and a big hand-held magnifying glass. She treated her well-worn dictionary with care, covering it in a book jacket fashioned from a discarded Wah Young Company calendar. Her hands—contorted by years of work at the sewing machine, arthritis and advancing age—balked at the task of moving the pencil. Her knuckles bulged as she wrote.
After homework time, she made a full Chinese meal: rice, stir-fried greens, steamed pork and other side dishes. My father, who parked himself in the basement in his cracked leather wingback chair, came up to dine at the kitchen table while my mother and I returned to the living room with our bowls to eat and watch TV. There was plenty of extra food for my older brother’s two young kids, who were dropped off for childcare while my brother went o to work a late shift at the post office.
Working with my mother on these lessons gave me a chance to retrieve my Chinese language skills. As she practiced her English, I learned Chinese. When she looked up the English words, I examined the Chinese characters.
Soon, my mother was teaching me how to make the strokes that formed the foundation of written Chinese. I wrote my Chinese name and the names of my siblings. She told me what our names meant. I wrote her name and my father’s name and the names of their villages. With practice, I learned many other characters. I eased into a new world of understanding. A curtain lifted.
My mother struggled with pronunciation. For one homework assignment, I asked: “How many syllables are there in the word “post offce?” She counted off the syllables with her fingers while saying the word aloud: “Pose-off-fah-see. Thlee gah sill-ah-bow.” Four syllables.
No, I told her. There are three. I sounded out the word correctly to her. She tried to emulate my sounds. She couldn’t. Pointing to the next word, I asked, “How many syllables in “sandwich?”
“Som-mon-gee,” she responded. “Thlom gah sill-ah-bow.” Three syllables.
“No, leng gah sill-ah-bow,” I corrected. Two syllables. She laughed.
“How many syllables in ‘house’? Easy one.”
“How-see,” she said. “Leng gah sill-ah-bow.” Two syllables.
“No, no,” I said. “Only one syllable.” By this time, we both couldn’t stop laughing. I was holding my sides. We had to take a break.
My mother struggled to distinguish between words that sounded like homonyms to her but weren’t. When she spotted the word “tank”—as in “tank of gas”—she asked whether that was also the word in “thank you.” She was puzzled because she pronounced “tank” and “thank” the same way. Over and over, she tried to say the word “thank” correctly, but each time it came out as “tank.”
My mother complained to me about criticisms from her teacher on an assignment to write a letter to a friend. My mother wrote: “On Wednesday, I went to West Seattle and bought material for a blouse.” With a red pen, the teacher changed “material” to “materials.” The instructor didn’t know that my mother, a veteran sewing woman, did mean “material,” as in fabric. The word had been used correctly.
In the same letter, my mother wrote that she had “washed the kitchen.” The teacher changed “washed” to “cleaned.” I saw why the teacher made the change, but I also understood why my mother used “washed.” My mother cleaned the kitchen by using a rag, water, soap and bucket—scrubbing and rinsing. She “washed” the kitchen. That was how she cleaned.
At the bottom, my mother signed the letter, “Gam Har Chew.” Above the name, the teacher added the words “Your Friend.” My mother grumbled that the addition was unnecessary. Again, she was right. Of course her friend would know my mother was her friend.
During the spring quarter of 1988, my mother was introduced to idioms and American slang. It wasn’t something I was especially adept at, as my friend Karen Seriguchi often reminded me. When I told Karen about this lesson, she cackled loudly, “Kind of like the blind leading the blind.” But I wasn’t alone. Idiom deficiency was a common Chinese American handicap. My friend Keith Wong often told the story of how his Franklin woodshop instructor directed him to “put some elbow grease” into sanding a tabletop book rack; he looked around, clueless: “Where can I find that?”
My mother tried to learn phrases such as “bring home the bacon,” “spill the beans,” “broke,” “go Dutch,” “on the blink,” “buddy-buddy,” “hit it off,” and “hang in there.” At first, she interpreted the phrases literally and jumbled them. “Spill the beans” became “Bring home the beans.” Her confusion was understandable. For example, if “hit it off” means you are friends with someone, why would you want to hit that person? And what is the “it” that is being hit? I couldn’t explain. She turned some of her newfound vocabulary against me. She composed the following: “If I hang in there, my sons will get married.”
One day, my mother called me and read two essays she had written. The teacher, she explained, had told the class to “write about one of the worst days in your life and one of the best days in your life.” My mother needed help fixing the grammar. She directed me over the phone in Chinese, “Take a pen and write down these stories while I recite them.”
The first essay read: “I remember about 30 years ago I took a citizenship. After that, I took the driver license. The policeman passed me. That is the best day of my life because inside the gentleman congratulation to me.”
I helped her rework the sentences. It then read: “I remember about 30 years ago, I took a citizenship test. I passed the first time. I was happy because I wanted to bring my relatives from China to America. That is the best day of my life because, inside the court, the gentleman congratulated me. After that, I took a driver’s license test. The policeman passed me. This day was one of my best days, too.”
My mother’s second essay needed very little correction or elaboration: “I remember long time ago, the worst day of my life was when my mother died.”
On Sunday, June 26, 1988, when I stopped by to visit, she showed me her report card. She asked if she had failed. She received a U. In the past, she had always gotten an S. I looked at the back of the report card; U stood for unsatisfactory. She was right.
My mother said she figured that the U was not good. She said the letter “u” was at the beginning of words like “uncomfortable” or “unhappy.”
My mother knew the bad mark was coming. She said the teacher was mean—he used maps with tiny print that older students like her couldn’t see and didn’t allow enough time to respond to questions. The teacher spent too much time on “die-lek-shun” (the closest she could come to pronouncing the word “direction”) and the concepts of “boh-dah on” (border on)” and “fah light, seh-coon low” (far right, second row). All the students had trouble understanding, she said, not just her.
On December 10, 1988, when I came over for a Sunday English lesson, my mother groused that her instructor was trying to move her from her 8 to 10 a.m. class to a 10 a.m. to noon slot. She resisted. She said it would interfere with the rest of her day. If she couldn’t stay in the earlier class, she huffed, she would drop out and study on her own.
She launched into a tirade. The instructor didn’t like her because she was old. That wasn’t fair. Just the other day, she said, she bumped into a former classmate—a white-haired Vietnamese woman—in Chinatown. My mother asked her why she wasn’t in class. The woman explained that she had missed two days and was asked to withdraw. In contrast, my mother said, the younger students were permitted to miss up to 10 days of instruction.
My mother complained that old people were treated like slaves in early America. Just as the hock gwee or black ghosts couldn’t go to the nice schools with the bok gwee or white ghosts, seniors couldn’t attend classes with younger students. Slavery ended, she said, when “Abe-lah-hom Lin-coon” issued the Emancipation Proclamation. She couldn’t quite pronounce “Proclamation,” but I understood what she meant. How did she know this history? It was from her citizenship test. She remembered.
It was the first time I ever heard her compare the oppression of one group to another. I felt proud.
After disgorging her bottled-up fury, we settled down to her weekend homework assignment. My mother told me that on Monday, she would confront her instructor. I thought, “Good for her!” Of late, she had been lamenting her age. Nah lo ghien ga mo yung was a common refrain. (Translation: Old people are considered useless.) Her comments revealed to me that her feisty, fighting spirit remained intact.
On January 5, 1989, my mother’s time at Seattle Central ended abruptly. She was hit by a black pick-up truck on 21st Avenue South and South College Street on her way to catch the bus to school.
My brother Tom called to tell me. My sister rushed to join Tom, my father and me at Harborview Medical Center. We gathered in the waiting area, full of apprehension. Finally, the doctors let us in. My heart broke when I saw her bloody face, heard her moaning in pain and saw her body lying battered on the hospital bed. Linda cried, held her hand and told her that she loved her. I rubbed my mother’s shoulder and tried to reassure her. She was weak, but clear-headed. Fortunately, she had not suffered any broken bones or trauma to her vital organs.
However, a scan revealed that she had a slow-growing tumor in her brain. Now we knew why she was having such difficulty walking. After talking it over with us, she chose not to operate, even though over time she would lose her ability to walk. She decided that surgery was too risky.
Five days after the accident, back at home, my mother finally sat up on her own. The swelling around her left eye had gone down, but she remained in a lot of pain, primarily on her right side. Dizzy, she couldn’t walk without assistance. Tom stayed with her. He bought a Stratolounger from Sears for the living room and brought over extra pillows. He asked a friend to install handrails in the bathroom.
I went to Seattle Central to tell her instructor, Jim Lourie, why she had been missing. My mother pronounced his name “Lough-lee.” He revealed to me her nickname—“The Boss.” He explained that she organized the class party at the end of the quarter. The other students weren’t eager to chip in money, but my mother insisted. She gathered the cash, bought paper plates and food, and made a batch of shrimp chips.
During her recuperation, my mother brewed herbal teas with dried ingredients from the jars in the kitchen cupboards. She used Tiger Balm and Wood Lock Medicated Oil and applied a poultice to her wounds. She continued to pore over her English workbooks.
Her limp became more pronounced after the accident. Her body listed to one side. She never returned to Seattle Central. She drove everywhere instead of walking, even though her eyesight and driving skills had eroded.
At home, she watched televangelists Jimmy Swaggart and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker on cable TV. She was enthralled by the outrageously emotive sermons, the healing miracles and the music. She also tuned in to reruns of her favorite television series, I Love Lucy, laughing heartily at the silly slapstick comedy. At the same time, she listened intently for new English words. She jotted them in a spiral-bound notebook, saving them for our next English lesson together.
During one visit, we watched the Kung Fu TV series starring David Carradine. She didn’t understand the dialogue, but she noticed Carradine’s slow speech and trademark squint. “What’s wrong with that white guy,” she asked me in Chinese. “Why does he talk so funny? How come his eyes are like that?” I told her that he was trying to impersonate a Chinese person.
Despite spending her last decade of life trying, my mother never mastered English pronunciation or grammar. Non-Chinese still couldn’t understand her. It was simply too hard to move to another country at the age of 34, spend the next 30 years cocooned in Chinatown culture and in front of sewing machines in a factory, and emerge with the proper foundation for mastering a second language so different from her native tongue. In her final years, her hard-won English vocabulary slipped away. She reverted to speaking only Chinese.
I was inspired by her effort. She never gave up. During her journey, she taught me how to read and write Chinese. We built a bridge together. She taught me that everyone can become better, whatever their age or circumstances. Anything worth doing is worth doing with all your heart. The payoff is in the quest.
Ron Chew will read from My Unforgotten Seattle:
9/16 at 6:30 at MOHAI’s History Café. Event link: https://mohai.org/event/
10/1 at 7:00 at Town Hall with Naomi Ishisaka. Event link: https://townhallseattle.org/
10/13 at 7:00 at Folio with Carey Gelernter. No event link yet.
11/21 at 2:00 at Wing Luke’s Book-O-Rama series. No event link yet.