Saturday, November 06, 2004

Count: 7,332

The linguistic shift is slow, but I do not lose my Asian, as my brother does. I still nod, and can respond, though we both roll our eyes into the backs of our heads when our mother brings out the writing pad and the carefully preserved Asian primers for their own childhoods, and we are drilled, bribed, cajoled, threatened, and ambushed daily with these studies which are supposed to help us maintain our Asianness in the face of all these new demands. My brother is increasingly lost, and he and I soon babble to each other in English, especially when there is some secret we want to keep from our parents. Our English is the standardized American English of television at first, and then my English of the classroom, so different from my mother’s, which is rooted in the same television as ours but through a thicker veil and an older tongue, and a different set of priorities and uses. Because my brother is still at home, she stays at home too, though as my brother goes to school more and more, she returns to her career as a schoolteacher, though she must make babysteps as she is only now mastering the language, and is still uncomfortable in her own skin.
All throughout my elementary school years, four years all told, there are no other Asians of any sort in my school, except for my brother, with the exception of the visiting Asian girl when I was in the fifth grade. I remember meeting her because I was in class on that first day, doing my best not to be noticed more than I had to while trying to size up this new teacher of mine, when the assistant principal, a sockless beloafered and mustachioed dandy of a man, walks in and says to my teacher, “Hello, do you mind if I borrow Dallas for a while?” And in the hallway he is very clear, “Hello, Dallas, how are you? I was wondering if you had a minute to come help me out a little bit. We have a student who just arrived to this country from Asia. I was hoping you could help us translate a little bit.” I nod, gravely, too young to feel anything but proud at being so helpful, useful, and unique. We walk the rest of the way in silence, as he has run out of things to say to me, and I am also too young to fully wonder how it is that they got a hold of my records, though I suppose it would not be very difficult. I have a reputation already of being very polite and very accomplished at mathematics, and it is difficult to know now looking back if that reputation is mostly because I was so relatively skilled at the time, or whether it is just because they are in awe of my Asianness. I have already become an ambassador and an interpreter all-in-one.
We enter the third grade class and the teacher is there, brightly dressed and addressing the class, which seems to my young eyes degenerate even from my time two years ago, if not picking noses then on each other. The Asian girl in question is in the corner. She is dressed, surprisingly, not in some peasant braided-knot-in-lieu-of-button garb, but rather the somewhat cheap and certainly pastely-checked ginghamy frock/smocks of Asian youth marooned in America. She is sitting in the corner with a dazed confused look, as if she wishes she could withdraw completely into herself, her lips slightly open, and her crooked teeth a little showing, eyes vacant and staring at a wall. The teacher pauses, theatrically, and gives the class some minor task to accomplish while I am led over to the corner with the assistant principal and the Asian girl. The Asian girl perks up slightly, but is still too shy to speak. The teacher begins, speaking to me slowly, “I hope that you will be able to translate for us, in both directions,” gesturing left and right with her hands. “OK, I’d like to ask you to welcome her to our class, and to let her know that she is most welcome. Can you say that?” I am somewhat offended that the teacher would not think that I could do so simple a task, and turn to the girl, who seems just the least bit curious about me. Teacher welcome you class. The girl regards me strangely, cocking her head slightly before responding, How strange it is you talk! Whence thou thy Asian learnt?
I am understandably taken aback, so much so that even the assistant principal and the teacher notice. The assistant principal concernedly asks, “Oh, does she speak a different dialect of Asian?” I am embarrassed. I mutter in English, Yes, but I think we can understand each other. I feel hamfisted, a bumpkin or buffoon next to her, but need to hide my embarrassment well enough at least to maintain face in the faces of the adults there. I realize that I still have not answered her question. I turn to her, I in this country little more three year. “Ah, but thy family from Asia stemmed? Well it be you still your Asian speak!” I pretend that this is just some pleasantry not some sideways compliment and turn to the teacher again, “Please also tell her that she is most welcome, and if she has any questions she should just ask.” She say you have question you ask. The girl smiles at me while glancing at the two adults who are so expectantly watching her: “Didst these grown-adults also for thee when thou camest this special treatment provide?” No, not many Asians here. “And doth this school to you much pleasure give?” School okay.
I look at the adults confusedly, unsure what else it is that I can accomplish here—am I to accompany her and translate all throughout? Did they have any important messages for me to convey? For if not that, it is unclear to me even then what I could accomplish beyond chit-chat. But I am patient, and so I wait for further prompts. The assistant principal: “Please tell her we understand that it must very difficult for her, having come so recently to this country with so little English, but that as long as she always tries her best and is patient and determined in learning English and her other subjects, she will do just fine.” I take a breath, he say so hard you come this nation-home, speaking so little English, but you try best and keep try and no give up then you learn English and every any thing, you so fine. “Thank you. And finally, we would like to ask you to be her special friend. We know it wasn’t easy for you to come to our school right away, but now that you have adjusted, maybe you can help her make a smoother transition into this school and this country.” He want me help you when have question, I say, though it is news to me that I have adjusted. I smile at the girl once more and the teacher says, “One last thing. How exactly am I to pronounce her name?” Before I even get to ask this question, the girl proudly proclaims, “Cindy!”
I leave the room escorted by the again-silent assistant principal, who thanks me once again as I arrive back to my classroom. It is difficult for me the rest of the day to completely follow what the teacher is saying, as she already tends to be the hysterical excitable sort, full of hand-waving energy and enthusiasm for gluing together tongue depressors. Cindy, I think to myself, that’s a nice name. And already in my preprepubescence I have developed a crush for her. It is hard to know why, as the gap between our levels of communication is indeed still vast, but looking back I think it is because I instinctively feel that I can actually protect her, shield her from the stares and daily misunderstandings of life as perpetual foreigner, staying with her manage somehow to speak and not be understood by anyone else to have my secrets in Asian for once, rather than the English confidences I share with my brother, conspiratorial in our crypto-utterances. But I think that for once I have found a friend acceptable to my parents, a girl that I could one day bring home, and I am curious about her as a result. I feel the weight of expectation—that we could and should and ought to be friends, somehow—as well, and it is not long before the others in my class, having discovered my connection with this girl, begin to chant, “Dallas likes Cindy!” “Dallas has a girlfriend!” “Dallas wants to take Cindy to the Asian opera!” Publicly, I act outraged and deny this allegation heatedly, which has the desired effect of just intensifying the speculation.
Strangely enough, I seldom see her, as we have different recesses and I tend to be walked to school by my mother still, on her way to her school. Only once in a while if I linger at the school entrance for a while do I see her when she is walking out with her class, already with some other friends who share her love of Hello Kitty and with whom she giggles a little uncomprehendingly but still out of good and genuine fun. On these occasions when I see her, I clam up again, and sometimes I even walk up to her and say hello. If she smiles or pauses to say, “Hello, Dallas,” I wait for her to walk by before running all the way home in energetic glee and anticipation. I begin to imagine whole conversations with her, in both Asian, and in the English I will teach her patiently, in the way no one has bothered to teach me.

A month later, I meet her parents. It turns out that they are visiting artists who have been on tour with an Asian arts company, but now that company is going out of business and so they will have to leave the country for Asia again, having lost their work visas. They have come to the school to take her away, but also to provide her class with a farewell lesson in the Asian arts.


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