“Why doesn’t your mom just come here to pick you up?”
By May Hathaway
I. Ducks in a Row
My mother’s English is like a duckling—not fully fledged, like an almost-mature juvenile from which we expect very little. In another time and place we might have called it a lame duckling, but in our time and place, “lame” is used for things like the Sophomore Caucus bake sale, not the way my mother presses her lips together in defiant silence each time my father corrects her pronunciation with an edge in his voice.
My Chinese, however, is a cracked plate; it was once whole but has now been shattered by years of carelessness and neglect. No matter how I try to glue the pieces back together, no matter how many Chinese dramas I watch with subtitles, no matter how many times I try to navigate the pinyin keyboard on my phone, there are always missing fragments that have already been crushed to a fine dust.
And yet, when I think of ducklings, what comes to mind isn’t my mother’s linguistic abilities (or lack thereof) but the rare afternoons my mother was willing to go on a walk with me to the nearby duck pond, where we stood on the spongy grass and stared at the glassy surface of the water. “Ta men hui fei ma?” I once asked. Can they fly? or, Will they fly? My mother paused for a second and then said, “I think they’re happy like this.”
I attended my first and last pool party when I was seven. I laid on my magenta towel next to my best friend and we gossiped about our crushes, passing a plate of goldfish back and forth while our classmates shrieked in the chilly water. Our bathing suits were varying shades of orange and yellow and pink; from a distance, we must have looked like lollipops. The early summer air was restless—we were all desperate to finish first grade and move on to more exciting prospects like Fourth of July barbeques and sleepaway camp. The adults were chatty as always, but the sound of splashing water drowned them out. I licked the salt off my fingers, which were still shriveled from hours spent in the pool.
Near the end of the pool party, I kept asking Mrs. Schneider, my best friend’s mom, what time it was. I was terrified that I would somehow miss my mother’s strict 5 o’clock pick-up and that she would leave without me. “Why doesn’t your mom just come here to pick you up?” Mrs. Schneider asked after the third or fourth time.
“She says that it’s really hard to find parking,” I said in a mousy voice, trying not to make eye contact. I was still at the age when lying to adults was difficult. I didn’t want to tell her the somewhat humiliating truth: that my mother wouldn’t come in because she was afraid of misspeaking.
My mother pronounces “towel” as “tower.” Though she prides herself on figuring out the proper way to use pronouns and limits her vocabulary because she doesn’t want to misuse it, she has never quite perfected this distinction. Her clunky mispronunciation used to mortify me (“When my friends are around, can you please just not talk?”), but I developed a sort of defensive anger when I saw my blond neighbors snicker at her as she struggled during brief mailbox conversations. Still, I couldn’t help but think that everything would be easier if my dad were the one picking me up. He would come to the backyard with a wide smile and make small talk with everyone. He would walk with me back to the car instead of making me search for it on my own.
When my mother came to pick me up after the pool party, I gathered my belongings in my arms and dumped them in the backseat. Too used to my habits, my mother ran through her checklist: “Goggles?” “Yes.” “Bathing suit?” “Mm-hmm.” “Snacks?” “Yeah.” “Tower?” “Oh.”
The slick grass stuck to my ankles as I ran toward the backyard. “Has anyone seen my tower?” I asked, too out of breath to properly filter my speech. I realized my mistake too late as I was met with a sea of confused faces.
“Honey, do you mean ‘towel’?” Mrs. Schneider asked, and my cheeks flushed. “Um, yeah.” My classmates who had been so lively earlier were suddenly quiet, and I thought I heard one of them giggle. My hair fell into my eyes as I bent down to pick up my magenta towel, and I ran faster this time, not caring about the grass or the wind, just wanting to get inside and away. When I finally reached the car door, I clung to my towel and cried into it on the way home. I told my mom it was just the chlorine.
In New York, summer makes the city move faster. We stand, cramped, on sticky subway floors, stray hairs clinging to our foreheads and necks. We sip lemonade and beat the soles of our shoes into the concrete sidewalk. Trips to the beach are a temporary respite that pass by too quickly: we come home with too much sand in our flip flops and slight sunburns on our noses.
The opposite is true on the far side of the world. I spend every other summer in Shanghai, where I inhabit a new body and the heat stretches time out like taffy. Shanghai is the only place where my mother really exists. She jokes with her cousins in rapid-fire Mandarin while I stare at tables stacked high with plates of soup dumplings and glasses of soy milk. Here, she is no longer confined to awkward English syllables that don’t fit in her mouth. She smiles regularly, her volatile emotions suddenly easy to track.
My father doesn’t exist when my mother and I are in China. Or, actually, only his disembodied face exists, maybe a little more washed-out than usual. He calls us occasionally over Skype, but we rarely pick up. In the beginning of each summer, I am no more than my father’s daughter, slightly too quiet and far too pale-skinned. I push myself to adapt anyway, driven by my mother’s rare and infectious happiness. I read English picture books to my younger cousins and watch my aunt make scallion pancakes, oil sizzling in the shallow pan. I watch Chinese television shows and talk about plot twists over dinner, chopsticks still shaky in my hand. And then, just as I begin to perfect my Shanghainese pronunciations and memorize the layout of the neighborhood, the summer ends.
Shanghai summers feel like forever to me, but they must pass by like New York summers for my mother. When we arrive at JFK every other September, her lips seal once again and mine open as we switch motherlands. Even so, there’s a moment on the flight back, our heads tilted towards each other as we fall asleep, when all the versions of my mother exist at once. We don’t need to speak to understand it.
May Hathaway is a College sophomore from New York City. This essay was adapted from a piece that originally appeared inSine Theta Magazine.