I was feeling sick and craved watercress and rice porridge to fend off my scratchy throat. I drove to Happy Family, a vegetarian restaurant in Monterey Park, and decided to sit down for my meal.
Yeet hay, translated to “hot air,” is a Chinese concept of imbalance in one’s body. This imbalance of qi, or energy, in the body was a symptom of illness. I felt yeet hay whenever I ate too many fried foods, or snacked on an abundance of sweets, or, as my coworkers believed, I caught the average cold. To combat it, I consumed foods that had a cooling effect, like cucumbers and watercress—bitter melon was best—and foods high in water content.
“Nay yew mut cha, ah?” the waiter asked. What kind of tea do you want? He spoke in Cantonese. My parents, who grew up in Hong Kong, spoke the same language.
“What kind do you have?” I replied in English immediately, to squash the advance of the inevitable onslaught of words I couldn’t understand and reveal that I was one of those ABC’s, American-born Chinese that can’t speak her mother tongue. The waiter paused as if slowly registering I wasn’t what I seemed. I translated the tilt of his head and the slight pull-back in his step. What is she? She looks Chinese but doesn’t understand? Of course, I was Chinese and I looked Chinese—straight, black hair, almond-shaped brown eyes, pale, smooth skin that betrayed my actual age of 35. I felt bad because the waiter had a false sense of security that he could fire off in his native language.
“Red tea. Black tea. Chrysanthemum,” he rattled off looking out the window at the traffic, while lazily handing me a laminated menu with pictures on it. I loved it when there were pictures on Chinese menus. All I had to do was point.
“Black tea.” I looked past his eyes at the long hair growing out of a mole on his left temple. His pinkie fingernails were long too. It symbolized long life.
“You Chinese? Born here, eh?”
I nodded. I had been mistaken for Singaporean or Malaysian before. Sometimes people just couldn’t tell my ethnicity and their curiosity exploded into the question, “What are you?” Inevitably, I was faced with a choice: muster some Chinese or speak English. That day it was English. I was sick and not willing to entertain a volley of lame sentences. My usual could be translated to “Can understand, but can’t speak,” which obviously was only half-true when I embarrassingly rattled off my excuse. Sometimes, with the formal business-style Mandarin I learned through CDs, I said, “Sorry, I speak very badly,” dropped my eyes, and waited for them to eventually walk away.
I pointed to a beancurd dish and some vegetables.
“Come with rice or porridge.”
“Porridge.” It’s what I was there for. I could taste the bland, thick porridge of broken rice, boiled to a tender chewiness reminiscent of overcooked pasta noodles. Comfort food. He had a surprised look on his face at my choice. I don’t know if porridge was less popular because of its blandness but it reminded me of home. My mom would make porridge when we were sick. The waiter scribbled in his notepad, briskly gathered the menu, and left without a word.
I settled into thinking about why hadn’t I learned Chinese by now. I wanted to learn Cantonese, my parents’ tongue, but my parents urged me to learn Mandarin instead. It had a wider range of use as the official language of China and as such had more language courses and resources available. I was hopeful that I would learn but could never make the leap to really commit to this part of my identity. I didn’t need to use it in everyday communication with my family. My parents’ English was superior to my Cantonese although their speech always seemed trapped in the present tense and articles like “the” and “a” were often dropped. Having arrived in the US in their early twenties, they had a lot of time to use English. They tried to make the most of the opportunities that America provided. They wanted to assimilate. They had to learn.
Most of my friends could speak their mother tongue fluently on top of English. Their parents spoke their native tongue almost exclusively at home, I found out. Others were sent to Chinese afterschool. My parents spoke Cantonese to each other and would tell us to do chores in Cantonese. The rest of the time they spoke English to us.
My Cantonese comprehension couldn’t move beyond that of a three or four-year-old. What I understood clustered around food, commands to do chores, and bathroom talk. I recalled a visit where I was left alone with my grandma. Mom was usually there to translate grandma’s dialect but I was on my own. “Nay sthling fung gow?” grandma asked. I thought she asked if I wanted to eat. I nodded. She proceeded to bring out a blanket, placed it on the couch, and waited to fold me in for a nap. I let her tuck me in and I feigned the nap, all the while feeling stupid for my ignorance.
My brother, had a better handle on the language than me, perhaps because mom spent more time speaking Cantonese exclusively while he grew up. Where did it all go wrong for me?
One of my mom’s stories was telltale. “When Bonn was in first grade he don’t understand the teacher. He came home crying. In second grade, he asked, ‘Why do I have to speak Chinese?’ in English. ‘Because you don’t want to lose it’ I said. ‘See, you understand English!’” She mimicked my brother raising his hand and pointing at her in accusation. “He trick me!” she laughed. “After that, he stop speaking Chinese. So when you come along, you two only speak English to each other. That’s the end.” She said ‘end’ with a rising tone while shrugging her shoulders as if there was nothing to do about my Chinese skills.
We lived in Rancho Cucamonga, far away from Chinese communities. My mother preferred it that way because she hated gossips. “Those women have nothing to do all day but spread rumors,” she said. Besides some friends at school, I got my small dose of Chinese immersion in family gatherings.
We would routinely drive up the I-5 from Rancho Cucamonga to Oakland to visit relatives and celebrate a major holiday: Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, Christmas. It was always fun to see my cousins. We would find ourselves lost in conversations that were like tangled noodles that had no beginning or end. At some point during the visit, it was inevitable I would be caught between my mom and a nosy aunt, who would start speaking to me in Cantonese. I dreaded it.
“She don’t understand,” mom explained. “Gum low, may hawk,” she added, shaking her head. Roughly translated, it meant I was so old and still hadn’t learned. It was a phrase used to ridicule and guilt me into learning. Not being able to speak Chinese was a major source of shame.
“You have to learn,” the aunt would say.
“Kieu hao pa chow,” my mom would conclude. It translated to mean I was really scared of smelling bad, or making a fool of myself. She either had it really right or really wrong. I did fear feeling like the fool. The shaming didn’t work to encourage me as much as it would render me mute. I would rather disappear upstairs with my cousin Kristy, who was half-Chinese, half-Swiss as quickly as possible. For her, it was a given she would not understand Chinese. She embraced her Chinese side though and picked up on her favorite dim sum dishes. I used her as shield to avoid conversations with elders. I was tired of feeling stupid.
Sometimes I would make brave stabs at a short conversation with an elder but they were forced and hardly fun. Unlike my cousins who could speak fluently, I was never engaged in conversations longer than a grain of rice.
“You sound awful. You have an American accent,” my mom would chime in from across the room. I couldn’t hear it, but I was butchering my Cantonese according to her. I thought I sounded pretty good. My speech was peppered with an eagerness to sound correct; it must have sounded stilted. In the end, it was completely obvious I wasn’t a native speaker.
My cousin Ella, in an effort to help, would test my Cantonese. She would start with some easy number drills, saying the words slowly in her pedagogic way. With her bobcut hairdo and collared shirts, she reminded me of a school marm, always quick on the draw to correct.
“Maai,” she said with a deep inflection, her voice scraping low in her vocal range.
“No, it means sell. Buy is maai,” she repeated the sound in a different tone, starting off low and rising slightly.
“They sound the same to me.” I dropped my shoulders, defeated.
“Yeah, we don’t know what happened to you,” she teased.
It became a running joke. My lack of understanding was often a subject of discussion at family gatherings. We didn’t know why I was so dumb at the language. Everyone else could speak at least a little. Everyone else wasn’t afraid to make a few mistakes. Whenever I was stuck with relatives who were speaking only Chinese, I spoke nothing. It was easier to nod and smile. I found a way to enjoy my time by listening in on the conversations around me, not making myself out to be a target for criticism. During meals, I shoveled food in mouth continuously to keep it occupied so I wouldn’t have to speak.
At the vegetarian restaurant I was doing much the same as at those family gatherings. My eyes were trained on my food. I slurped the viscous porridge in my ceramic spoon, stopping only to blow it to cool it down. The waiter was chatting with other workers in the corner. I was getting a little fed up though. Whether or not he was talking about me, I was piecing together that I was letting people make me feel guilty.
At a family dinner one night, my mom said, “Bonn could speak so well when he was a toddler. You, you don’t even try.”
“It’s not my fault, I was just a kid!” I said it loudly to defend myself, to circumvent the inevitable criticism accompanied by turning her face away from me as if in disgust. Instead, my mom’s eyes widened and she fell silent. By saying the word fault, I implied it was hers. She didn’t say anything else to shame me for the rest of the evening.
She was full of hot air in the English sense of the phrase. It was nonsensical to expect a positive result from repeated critical jabs. It was counterintuitive to the culture I grew up in. I was Americanized by my schooling and social interactions there. In grade school, I got stickers on my homework and praise from teachers. I was far from China where teachers were allowed to physically punish their students with a ruler. It was acceptable to admonish your children in front of other people, to call them lazy. Criticism was meant to humble them. The goal was an obedient child. Granted, my parents did the best that they could under the circumstances within the island that they had created for us away from the Chinese people mom wanted to avoid. They didn’t beat us but condoned the verbal abuse. In a twisted way, it was how they showed love. For example, a mother was doing her child a disservice by not telling her she was fat. No one else would tell the ugly truth and it often came out as brutally honest ridicule.
Somehow in the space between our family dinners, it dawned on mom that it hurt me immensely to be solely to blame for my sparse language skills. The next time I came over for dinner, she managed to weave into conversation, “We wanted you to learn English, because it’s better for you. That’s why we speak English to you.” This seemed like a 180 degree turn from “What a disgrace you can’t speak your own language.” Somehow wrapped in this confession was an apology. It was not an admission of guilt although I felt it. It was an acknowledgement that my ability to speak English would serve me well.
As much as I longed to connect to my Chinese roots, there was little chance I would live in China. My interests were here in California. I didn’t want to abandon learning Chinese, but I wasn’t going to place emphasis on it either. I had a language—English. I was the product of two worlds crossing—Chinese and American cultures. If the L.A. basin were a wok, I was down with being stir-fried with the rest of my SoCal natives, because that’s where I called home. That’s where I spoke my mother tongue.