“Why are you afraid to speak English? I am not afraid to speak English! I sang Chinese opera when I was a girl in Shanghai.”
Ming’s fellow classmates lean towards her from both sides of the long rectangle, pushed-together tables draped with red plastic covers; party food laid out on one end. She’s sat herself next to me, as usual, in the center.
No one talks. They seem to mime the idiom to “hang on every word.”
I break in. “Remember your first day of class, Ming?”
“Yes, Teacher. I talked to Manny. He said: ‘My name is Manny,’ and I said: ‘Money! I love money!’ Ha ha…”
Chinese opera? Now Ming’s effusiveness makes sense. Her flamboyant gestures. The way her unremarkable features project an intensity of expression.
Fifty-five and teaching on my own for the first time, I now regret that I prevented her from telling us more.
Ming joined our English conversation course, already in progress, when she first came to New York City. Twenty adult English language learners and me, their U.S. born teacher.
Once a week, for several months on Fridays, Ming dazzled us. She has since returned to Tokyo where she makes a living simultaneously interpreting Japanese to / from Chinese.
Hai, from South Vietnam, usually speaks only when called upon. She has just opened up about an incident at a cash machine.
“Money was taken twice from my account. My husband has to come. My English is no good. I am too afraid to speak to bank teller.”
“Why are you afraid to speak English? I am not afraid to speak English! I sang…”
Chinese opera! We will never see Ming again. She has kept this astonishing detail to herself until now.
In a clumsy attempt to bring the course to some sort of closure, I cut Ming off and co-opt Hai’s moment.
Hai, whose homemade dish – shimmery rice noodles and ample beef, scented with lemongrass – reveals a feeling of inclusion that she’s been too shy to verbalize.
“Money. I love money.”
It’s a running joke and the class is in on it. They know how hard it can be to understand what someone is saying and to make themselves understood. The students’ often talk about how their fears hold them back.
My aim all along has been to inspire their self-confidence. By pointing out that Ming laughs at her mistakes, did I mortify Hai?
You won’t hear any more about Hai. I will try to make it up to her later on. Understated Hai acts as a writer’s prompt.
Chinese opera?! Ming’s a show off. You’d think she would have told us earlier.
Ming’s first class, the students mingle, wearing peel-and-stick badges onto which they’ve written their “Name and Country”; clutching one-page handouts, they break the ice.
“Find someone who…”
…Has never changed a diaper.
“Find someone who…”
…Has taken a long flight.
Ming doesn’t join in. I sit down next to her. I wish I could say that I asked her about China. No. I assume she’s an immigrant who needs to adapt. I start with the basics.
“Where do you live, Ming?”
“I live in Manhattan! Where in Manhattan?”
“I take the subway.”
“What’s your address?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know your address?”
I hand Ming a blank piece of paper and a Flair marker.
She draws a couple of lines; writes some words and numbers that don’t form an exact address.
Granted, she found her way from Manhattan to school in Queens. She knows the subway stops but can’t name the nearby avenues.
Maybe Ming has a kinesthetic learning style and navigates without words. Maybe she can barely read or write the English alphabet; the latter only occurs to me after multiple drafts.
I’m ashamed to say that I still have no idea.
Ming’s first class and I’ve used up my bag of techniques.
I pair Ming with Manny from Ecuador. He’s a top student. He’ll know what to do. I leave them on their own. I don’t hear one word of what they say to each other. Exit Manny.
What does Ming bring to the party? I can’t recall.
I contribute a 32-ounce bottle of Snapple — originated in New York and “Made from the Best Stuff on Earth.”
Starting with a banana early on, Ming often plunks down food in front of me.
“I love Teacher! Teacher is so fashion!”
“Fashionable, Ming,” my tone deadpan.
A compliment coming from someone who dresses in a mish-mash of prints, colors, fabrics and lengths, tying the look together with a silk floral headband, spiking up her short dark hair?
Ming, in her mid-sixties, shops every day at the Times Square H&M and Forever 21 – snapping up deals and clucking over how little she’s paid – $10 leather-look sandals that squeeze her pinky toes, a loose knit faux cotton beige thigh-length open cardigan. Everything made in China.
My style, if you can call it a style, is basic black. Neck wattle grazing a cashmere turtleneck. Ponte knit slim leggings. Suede wedge boots. Tall and wearing my long hair the same way since I was a teenager, dyed a convincing, natural brown.
Teacher is so Fashion.
I go to the white board and give a mini-lesson on how adjectives, specifics instead of generalities, enhance conversation. Then I come up with the idea of going around the table, each student describes someone without saying that person’s name, and the class has to guess who it is.
Ming’s second class.
“So, Ming, what’s your address?”
“I don’t know.”
“OK, Ming. What did you do last week?”
“I went to TriBeCa Film Festival.”
How is that possible? Ming’s been here for less than a month and she’s managed to attend a major cultural event. Her pronunciation is clear but I insist that she show me the ticket stub.
The Audience Awards Ceremony! I’ve been a New Yorker for over thirty years. I’ve never seen a film at the Festival let alone attend an Awards Ceremony.
I poll the class and only a few have heard of the Festival. I hit upon the idea of projecting Google Images onto the Smart Board; a technique I will apply throughout the course.
I question Ming and translate her replies into pictures and keywords. Together, we are able to explain what the Festival is.
Writing this now, I think of the Chinese proverb about teaching people to fish. I imagine coaxing the words out of Ming’s mouth like minnows, bait to catch the curiosity of the other students. It hooks me that she’s interested in cinema. She’s worldly.
Notice how snobbishly I say cinema and not “movies”? Savvy about cinema is a criterion for worldliness?
Who’s the yokel?
Provincial, at best; patronizing, at bottom; how can I facilitate the students’ needs if I impose my “big C, Cultural biases”?
“Why English?” I ask.
The students call out and I write their replies on the whiteboard.
Get a better job.
Make more money.
Help children with their homework.
Communicate with others.
Have a better life.
Being a native speaker makes me qualified to help people improve their lives? I hardly represent the “American” perspective – not that a single one exists.
I remind myself that English is the students’ second language. I should be an emissary not a missionary.
“Your country is in your heart,” I spiel.
Armenia. Bangladesh. China. Colombia. Dominican Republic. Ecuador. Egypt. Guinea. Haiti. Indonesia. Lebanon. Mexico. Moldova. Nepal. Poland. Puerto Rico. South Korea. South Vietnam. Thailand. Yemen.
We travel to their worlds via Google Images, explore the similarities and differences in our ways of life.
Ming, however, has been close-mouthed about China. English, for her, is a foreign language. She came to New York specifically to immerse herself.
I invent her past.
Ming was a prodigy. She grew up before the Cultural Revolution. Before traditional Chinese opera was banned as too bourgeois; the form re-tooled to transmit Communist ideology.
Living in Communist China, what did Ming imagine about American popular culture?
Because it was forbidden, is her conviction to master English a subversive act?
Her final act is taking the name Cristina. She’s written Cristina on her badge. Why Cristina?
Practicing Christianity was outlawed but she’s never mentioned God or religion. If anything, she worships the “big C, Capitalism”.
Cristina, a name I associate with the Andrew Wyeth painting “Christina’s World,” known to me from childhood trips to the Museum of Modern Art.
A young woman in a drab pink dress,
sprawled crookedly on a field,
propped up on her arms,
her back to us.
Turned towards a farmhouse,
she will have to crawl to reach it,
dragging her useless legs behind her.
I can’t make the shift to calling Ming, Cristina.
Ming is far from helpless.
She tells me she’s been liberated by English. I can’t recall the exact words she used. I was intent on listening – thrilled every time she described her feelings.
She liked to eat in restaurants by herself. She liked to be alone – she used the word “alone” but meant “independent”.
Growing up in the 1960s, my exposure to China was eating spare ribs, egg rolls and Moo Goo Gai Pan at Jimmy Lius, our local Chinese restaurant – the only Chinese restaurant – in Long Branch, New Jersey, on the shore.
A loner, reading was the way I took part in conversation. I listened to the characters talk and felt included in their faraway worlds, a one-sided pen pal.
Ming is someone I might have gotten to know, like Wan-Fu,10,000 Happinesses, while eating a pot of scorched rice that I’d cooked for my after school snack.
Wan-Fu, a crippled Chinese beggar girl; her leg deformed by a pot of scalding water; her destiny is overturned by a kindly Westerner who pays for the surgery that restores her ability to walk – a missionary? A teacher?
The book is out of print. I choose to remember that schooling was her salvation.
“Teacher is so beautiful. So kind. I love you. You taught me about American culture. I will always remember you.”
Towards the end of the course, we learn that Ming is married. She has one daughter, an artist who lives in Paris with Ming’s American son-in-law.
“My daughter is a lazy bum. My husband is a lazy bum. My daughter wants me to wash, cook, clean house. She wants me to be a housemother. I make up the word housemother. My husband wants me to be a housewife. But I want to be single. I am success.”
I’ll admit it. Ming inspired me.
The virtuoso who sang Chinese opera as a girl helped to shape my development as a teacher.
Subduing my own tendency to theatrics. Playing off of her.
She blurted it out.
Was she setting me up? She couldn’t have known exactly what I would say … but she must have known how I felt.
Imagine young Ming wearing a jade green satin robe – the auspicious color of money. She lifts wide-sleeved arms and articulates the notes with a pure passion that will burst forth fifty years later while she’s speaking English in New York City.
She just needed to find her voice.
In the spirit of “Firsts”, Debra started drafting “Cristina’s World” just prior to the inaugural HippoCamp. Inspired by the conference to continue writing, the essay was “chaos in progress” when this issue’s theme was announced. She kicked ass to complete it by the deadline. Debra tweets at @twededer.