Why Won’t You Learn Chinese?



122 Henry St, New York, NY 10002

Neighborhood: Chinatown

For a few months while I was writing my graduate thesis, I was a classroom instructor at an after-school program at P.S. 2, on the northeastern edge of Chinatown. From my apartment on the lower East side, I would walk south on Essex Street to go to work. It was a walk through New York’s immigrant cultures and palimpsestic history–an overlay of peoples coming from different places, for different reasons, at different times. The weather-beaten, photocopied signs on a lamppost read: “psychic readings, first two minutes free” (the last of Joseph Mitchell’s gypsy kings?); “antique judaica, rare books and records, bat mitzvah sets, torahs and menorahs;” and in careful Chinese characters, “job opportunities – no experience necessary – for students and housewives.”

Every day, I walked past Guss’s Pickles, where huge plastic barrels of pickled cucumbers, tomatoes, and onions were lined up on the sidewalk. Behind and around these barrels there were always two or three men (and the same teenage Asian boy) in dirtied, white aprons, their hands covered with latex gloves. Sometimes, I saw people a few blocks before Guss’s, holding opened Chinese-takeout containers stuffed with stubby, moss green pickles swimming in pickling juice, their thumbs and index fingers stretched out like tongs, fishing around for a pickle to snack on. I passed shops selling skull caps and yarmulkes, and Seward Park High School across the street, where I could see teenage boys (black, Latino, Asian) playing basketball and girls wearing hoodies with extra long sleeves covering the base of their palms, hitting small, rubber blue handballs against the walls. And then I walked past that one door, between Grand and Hester, the door from which I could always hear the familiar sound of mah-jong tiles clacking against one another as they were being shuffled on the table surface–four pairs of hands with outstretched fingers flat on the tiles, moving around in circles, one player’s hand missing, perhaps, in order to light another cigarette.

To me, this door was the exact point on Essex Street where Chinatown officially began. On this metal door were old Chinese New Year cardboard cutouts of a boy and girl dressed in colorful (though now faded and washed out) hats and scarves, holding two sides of a rolled out scroll that read, “cai shen dao,” inviting the money god to visit this household. After 9/11, a small American flag cut out from a newspaper went up on the door, covering parts of the girl and boy’s dome-shaped hats. I could tell by the sounds and the palpable excitement through the door, that there was probably more than one game going on in there. I could tell because growing up, my father and his friends would have a big mah-jong tournament every year–as big as eight tables at a time (they designed their own scoreboards and everything). The tournament started at nine in the morning–small break for lunch–and continued on past midnight, until there was one sole winner. I walked by that door on Essex, wondering who was playing, what was at stake. After this door, there were fewer and fewer signs of other cultures. Outside the corner store at Canal was a stack of ten-pound bags of rice, at the F train East Broadway stop was an old Chinese man and his dog who sold knit caps, batteries, toy cell phones, and I love NY t-shirts, and then there was the Golden Carriage bakery, where I often bought a sweet bun and a rectangular carton of soy milk for $1.10. I made a right on Henry Street and there was P.S. 2.

The after-school program at P.S. 2 was run by Immigrant Social Services, a non-profit organization begun in the 1960s to help alleviate any difficulties new immigrants in the area might be experiencing. I taught a class of 25 fourth graders–all but two of whom were Chinese (Esteban was Mexican and N’kosi was black). The program ran from three to six, during which time I led the class doing different activities–arts and crafts, spelling bees, whiffle ball out in the yard or dodge ball in the gym, Mandarin lessons twice a week. My most important task, however, was to help the students with their homework because most of their parents couldn’t–they worked in factories and in Chinese restaurants and lived in Chinatown where there was never a need to learn English, but their children–well!–they are the dream! They were the reason for coming here. Some of my students had literally just arrived in the United States (Lin Yi a month ago and He Ting six months ago) and spoke not a word of English; most of them couldn’t even communicate with each other in the Chinese they were used to speaking at home because everyone had come from different provinces in China and spoke different dialects. The newcomers pushed their homework assignments into my hands–“list as many words as possible ending in -ar”–with a bewildered look on their small, round faces. How could I explain a few examples and leave them to finish on their own? How would they know the difference between a word that exists (car) and one that doesn’t (lar)? They loved doing math homework–numbers (spoke to them, made sense to them and because the math level here was elementary compared to what they were taught in China, they rushed through the problems quickly, sitting back with a rare moment of satisfaction when an assignment was completed. A few times, I caught Lin Yi doing math homework for his classmates who had been in New York longer in exchange for one of his reading comprehension assignments.

Every afternoon started with snack in the cafeteria. There was a rotating menu of Chinese dishes and non-Chinese dishes cooked with a Chinese flair: beef with broccoli, chicken cubes sautéed with corn, fried chicken with orange-colored “Spanish” rice, Chinese egg noodles with red, spaghetti meat sauce. After a few weeks, I could tell what we were going to have just by the smell in the hallway as I led my zig-zagging class–the only class that couldn’t line up single file–from the yard where I gathered them after the three o’clock bell and into the school cafeteria. My students filled up two long tables and I watched as they ate among the piles of multi-colored puffy jackets and backpacks, now taking one bite of food, then getting up to ask me whether we had yard time today, taking another bite of food standing up, then leaning over to observe the Pokémon card game going on at the end of the table. And then they started walking towards the cafeteria monitors for seconds as they shoveled the last bit of rice into their mouths. These kids ate a lot. They ate like their parents, I could tell. When we had fried chicken, the kids would clean the meat clear off the bones and begin sucking out the sweet marrow.

One weekend, I met a friend for lunch at the Excellent Pork Chop House on Doyers Street–a Taiwanese joint famous for its pork chop rice, chicken leg rice, and shaved ice. As we were eating and talking, I suddenly heard a little voice say timidly, incredulously, “Miss Lin?” I looked over at the table next to ours and saw Scott, one of my students–a tubby boy with a crew cut and small, half-open eyes–sitting next to his older sister, both of them exact replicas of their father, who sat across from them. I said hello to his father and asked Scott what he’d ordered and whether he and his family came to the Excellent Pork Chop House often. He was shy–not at all the way he was at school, boisterous and easily incited to giggles–and could barely answer my questions. I introduced him to my friend, calling her “Miss Chen,” suddenly conscious that I was Scott’s teacher and that it was probably very strange for him to see me outside of the school context. After a while, we returned to the goings-on at each of our tables–my friend and I returned to our animated conversation and Scott and his family to bowing their heads over their bowls and eating without talking. On Monday, while going around the classroom helping my students with their homework, I felt a light tap on my elbow and heard Scott’s voice say in a slightly uncertain tone, “Um, Brenda?” He had heard my friend call me by my first name and now he was trying it out. When I turned around, I found him walking away, nodding and smiling smugly, as if he had just cracked some kind of code.

During orientation before school started, the classroom instructors were told to have the students refer to us as Mr. this or Miss that–more authority, the administrators told us, less chance for waywardness, students thinking they can bend the rules. I didn’t correct Scott–not only because he stopped calling me Brenda after two or three tries, but because inside, I had a desperate desire to be liked by these kids. That made me a very bad teacher, I think. Every afternoon Andy, a small boy who always had a circleof raw, red skin around his mouth after snack, would ask me whether he could finish his homework at home and play Pokémon cards now. I always denied him his wishes, which made him narrow his eyes at me and make his mouth small and tight and then he would burst out, “I HATE YOU!” I would leave him alone and walk around the room to check on other students and whenever I passed by his desk, he would look up from his homework and shout again, “I HATE YOU!” For some reason, that really hurt my feelings and I would cave and review his list of homework assignments and choose one to let him finish at home. Sometimes, when the students were especially loud, I would draw a thermometer-like apparatus on the board and label it, “the noise meter.” Instead of rising temperature levels, I marked to the side, “very quiet,” “quiet,” “loud,” and “too loud” and as the noise level went up in the classroom, I would take a colored chalk and make the “mercury” inside the noise meter go up. If it reached the too-loud-level, then the whole class got fifteen minutes deducted from their yard time. Or so I threatened. Whenever yard time came, I let every one of them run around even if my colored chalk had reached the top of the noise meter. I was a sucker; they all knew it.

But it was only because I genuinely loved watching my kids being kids during recess (plus, I knew that they would be quieter when we returned to the classroom after they had expended some of their pent-up energy from already having been at school for seven hours). The boys usually chased balls, or just ran around, not chasing anything, and when they ran past me, standing off to the side so that I could keep an eye on everyone, they always smiled and waved and there were no hard feelings. The girls played Chinese jump rope, which involved two girls standing about eight feet apart with a long elastic looped around their ankles. The third and fourth girls would then take turns doing a series of complicated jumps in and out of the thin ellipse. If they didn’t make a mistake, then the elastic would move higher up the first two girls’ legs, making the jumps harder, but if the jumping girls did make a mistake, then they switched places with the holding girls. Often, the girls invited me to jump rope with them, but I could never get the steps right and always ended up being the one who held the elastic around my legs.

On rainy days, they played dodge ball in the gym. The girls would shriek wildly whenever they got hit, their yells echoing off the high ceilings in the gym, and then come running to where I sat on the bleachers, grabbing my arm with two hands, laughing and panting and wanting to be back in the game again. Sometimes, the two Michelles– Michelle Lam and Michelle Liu–would come and gossip with me, telling me who they didn’t like (Judy) and which boys liked them (Solomon and a boy in the fifth grade whose name I’ve forgotten) and funny, unreserved observations about certain of their classmates (the funniest, which made all three of us explode into peals of girlish giggles, was when Michelle Lam covered her mouth and pointed to Jian jogging towards us in the green sweat suit he wore every day in the winter, and whispered loudly, “Miss Lin! Miss Lin! Look at Jian’s dick!” because we could clearly see it bobbing up and down underneath the material of his pants as he ran).

During recess, the kids always broke out into Chinese and the yard or the gym would be filled with a mixture of Chinese dialects. They loved when I asked them how to say this or that in their dialect. They loved the momentary role reversal when I was their student and they my teacher. But I wondered how long it would take for them to forget their native tongue. When, twice a week, Miss Pai, a graduate student from Taiwan, would come to teach the class Mandarin, all of the students protested vehemently. Vincent, who was actually good at writing characters when I could make him do it, always led the class in yelling, “I HATE Chinese! I HATE Chinese!” Miss Pai–Betty, to me– hated coming to my class. My students were relentless in their refusal to learn Chinese; I let them get away with too much. Betty spoke English with a thick Taiwanese accent and intonation more melodious than English should be) and the kids made fun of her, not (realizing that their imitations were inflected with their own brand of accents–a mixture of Cantonese, Fukienese, and Chinatown gangster talk.

Once, I noticed that Jessica, the smallest girl in the class whose thin, light brown hair fell in wisps around her pale face and droopy eyes, had her head bowed and her chin tucked tightly into her chest. I walked over and knelt by her chair and asked her what was wrong. Two tiny little tears dropped from her eyes when she blinked and landed onto her desk. “I don’t want to do Chinese,” she whispered. I told her all the benefits of learning the language, and how the class would only last 45 minutes; there would still be plenty of time to do her other homework and work on our other projects. She repeated, “But I don’t want to do Chinese,” and then slid low in her chair and onto the floor until she was sitting on the floor under her desk. She remained there, crouched into a tiny ball, while I coaxed her to come back up.

“Why don’t you want to learn Chinese?” I asked her.

“My mom said that I should concentrate on English. She said that I don’t have to learn Chinese.”

And there it was–the classic immigrant story of how a native language was lost because of a desperate desire to assimilate, to transform the first-generation into something new, something with few or no ties to the place their parents had risked everything to leave behind. But Chinatown was a funny place for these aspirations. While immigrant parents pushed their children to become real Americans, this environment held fiercely to all the everyday things that represented a part of their lives back home. My assistant Chee had grown up in an apartment right across the street from P.S. 2. When he was young, his parents had also sent him to the Immigrant Social Services after-school program. He had graduated from Stuyvesant High School and was now a freshman at NYU; aside from a few curse words and greetings, he could no longer speak any Cantonese, his family’s native language. I asked him how he liked NYU and he said, “I like it, but when I got there, I was like,” and here he opened up his eyes really big so that they bulged out of their sockets, “Whoa! Because there were so many white people there!”

“Didn’t you grow up in New York?” I asked.

“No,” he said, “I grew up in Chinatown.”

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