Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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The first time I saw Bak Hoo, she was peeing into a big Del Monte pineapple can in the basement. I froze on the cellar steps at the sight. Bak Hoo was my great-grandma. My grandma, whom I called Mamah, lightly held Bak Hoo’s elbow as Bak Hoo’s bare bottom hovered over the can. The two women looked exactly alike, except Bak Hoo’s hair was gray, and Mamah’s was jet-black. They even shared the same hairstyle: parted on the side, held back with a bobby pin, and bone straight except where it curled behind their ears.
Seeing me spying from the steps, Mamah impatiently waved me away. I backed up the stairs, never taking my eyes from Bak Hoo.
I was six years old in the summer of 1975 when Bak Hoo came to live with us. My family had been in the U.S. for four years, and we had recently moved into our first house on Luray Street in northeast Philadelphia, having saved enough to leave the one-bedroom apartment we’d been renting in Germantown. When I saw the three-bedroom row house, it seemed so big I thought it couldn’t all be ours. It was a mansion compared to that apartment.
Luray Street was one-way and packed on both sides with identical-looking blue-collar houses built in the 1930s. Each had a covered porch and a small yard in front. On warm summer evenings the neighbors treated their terraces like coveted balcony seats at the theater and watched the kids play on the blacktop. The parked cars served as bases in Wiffle-ball games and marked the goal lines for Nerf football.
My parents took the biggest bedroom in our new home. I had to share a full-sized bed in the back bedroom with my grandma Mamah and my little sister, Moy Moy. The three of us slept crosswise with Mamah in the middle, her feet hanging over the side. On the second night after we moved in, Moy Moy wet the bed, and Mamah switched positions with her so she could be dry while Mamah lay in the damp spot.
The middle bedroom was used for storage, and Bak Hoo slept in the unheated garage. We all shared the one bathroom except for Bak Hoo, who used the pineapple can. I never saw my great-grandma in any part of the house except the basement and the garage. She had her own rice bowl and her own chopsticks: sleek ivory yellowed with use. I was sure to address her respectfully, calling her by her title of Bak Hoo, which means “mother of paternal grandmother.” My sister and I were scolded for rudeness if we used the wrong form of address. There were specific titles for each relative. If someone referred to their mamah, I didn’t have to wonder which grandma they meant. I knew it was their father’s mother. In Chinese there is no word that simply means “uncle.” There is a specific name for your father’s brother, or your mother’s, or even an uncle by marriage. My father and mother were Baba and Mama. (The many different tones in Cantonese made mama sound very different to our ears than mamah — grandma — but our English-speaking neighbors must’ve been baffled by it.)
Even though I addressed Bak Hoo properly and asked nicely if I could play with her, I was told she was too old and tired to play. If Moy Moy and I came near Bak Hoo, Mamah always shooed us away. I didn’t understand until years later that Bak Hoo was ill and dying, and Mamah kept Bak Hoo secluded from the rest of the family because she worried we would catch our great-grandmother’s illness. Mamah had grown up in China’s countryside in the early 1900s. As the only girl in a peasant family with three boys, she was never given any formal education, and Mamah believed in many superstitions: If it rained on our birthday, that was proof that we had misbehaved that year. If we sat down before the seat cooled after someone got up, that person would hate us forever. She warned us never to leave our schoolbooks strewn on the floor because if someone stepped over them, we would be struck dumb.
After school one day, while my parents were still at work, Mamah prepared snacks for Moy Moy and me. My sister and I were squatting on the front porch, watching an ant carry a bread crumb twice its size, when two policemen walked up our front steps. We cried for Mamah to come out. She rushed from the kitchen, and the officers led her around to the back of the house and pointed to the garage. Neighbors had gathered there, some peeking through the garage door’s square windows at Bak Hoo, asleep on a cot in the corner. The neighbors glared at us, whispered, and shook their heads. I couldn’t figure out what we had done wrong. I felt the way I did at school when kids teased me about my last name. “Chow-chow-chow,” they taunted, imitating the jingle from the Purina Cat Chow commercial. One boy blocked my path and did the same shuffle walk the cat did on TV.
Mamah couldn’t speak English, so she ran across the street to get her friend to translate. She knocked and knocked, but her friend wasn’t home. She knew only one other Chinese family, who lived several blocks away. Almost all our other neighbors were white. All my friends at school were white. Everyone in books I read was white. I sometimes forgot what I looked like and was startled by my foreign-looking reflection.
Mamah tried to indicate to the officers that she would be back. Then she took Moy Moy’s hand and mine and rushed to her last resort, leaving the cops standing with their arms folded across their chests. I kept turning to check behind us, thinking they would follow, but they didn’t.
I could hardly keep up with Mamah. She was sweating, talking quickly, and cursing the nosy neighbors, one of whom must have called the police on us. My sister and I bounced like buoys at her sides. My grandma was a strong woman. She had pulled a plow like an ox in China, though she stood barely five feet tall.
We’d gone two blocks when Moy Moy screamed, “Stop, Mamah!” Blood smeared her flip-flops. She’d cut her foot on broken glass in the dirty Philly streets. Mamah sat my sister down on the curb and wiped the blood off with leaves. Moy Moy looked scared but quietly watched Mamah work. My grandma put pressure on the cut until the bleeding stopped. Then she pulled us along again.
When we reached her friend’s house, Mamah rang the doorbell, but no one answered. She cursed and began frantically banging on the door.
Finally the teenage son appeared and told us his mother was at work. Mamah explained that the police had come to our house, and she pleaded with him to return with us and translate. I heard cheering from a ball game on the television behind him. He didn’t seem to want to leave. Mamah begged. He sighed and shut off the TV.
When we arrived back at our house, the teenager spoke to the police. The rapid, lyrical sounds the police made sounded to me like “Lalalalalalala. Lalalala. Lala.” I remembered the first time I’d heard my kindergarten teacher speak English: I had thought she spoke terrible Chinese. As the cop talked, I imagined the looping, squiggly lines I was learning in school forming in front of his face. “Lalala. Lalalalala,” he said.
The teen translated to Mamah that someone had reported a dead body in the garage.
Mamah exclaimed in Cantonese.
“She says no way,” the teenager told the police.
Mamah opened the garage, and the neighbors moved in for a closer look. Bak Hoo, now awake, tried to sit up, puzzled at the curious crowd. Mamah rushed over to help her mother.
The officers mumbled to each other. One of them said something into his radio. With no dead body, their job was done, and they climbed back into their patrol car.
The neighbors lingered a bit before moving back to their houses, chuckling to themselves and shaking their heads. For the first time I noticed the physical differences between us. They looked strange to me. Their features seemed exaggerated, emphasizing that they were not like us, and we were not like them. It would take months before the people who had stared at us accusingly became just my neighbors again.
Mamah helped Bak Hoo back onto the cot, whispering for her not to worry. The teenage boy waved goodbye and darted off. Mamah yelled after him, thanking him for his help, but he had already disappeared around the corner.
I wanted him to come back and stay to help us. We desperately needed an interpreter. Then the harsh awareness came: the interpreter would have to be me.
After that day, I was aware that I lived in two different worlds: Inside my house I was in China. When I stepped out my front door, I was in America. Inside I spoke fluent Cantonese with my family, who struggled to learn English and the curious American customs. Outside my house I heard the lalalalala sounds from the mouths of people who didn’t look like me, and I pictured the squiggly lines hovering nearby like cartoon speech bubbles. Inside my house I ate from a porcelain bowl with wooden chopsticks, gobbling down my grandma’s white rice, bok-choy greens, and fish steamed whole in scallion and soy sauce, with skin, head, eyeballs, and all. Outside my front door I ate peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, Oreo cookies, and Sunkist orange soda from my red Charlie Brown lunch box.
My father was born in a small village in the Guangdong province in southeast China, near Hong Kong. His grandfather worked as a laborer in Canada and sent home money, which Mamah used to send my father to a boarding school several villages away. On weekends he often hiked six hours home with classmates who lived in his village. Other times Mamah walked alone to visit him and bring him food. When he was in ninth grade, my father received acceptance to a prestigious high school that trained teachers, but the Communist movement had reached his village by then, threatening his future. So at sixteen he made his way to Hong Kong, where he got a job at a garment factory and slept at night on a makeshift bed made of several chairs pushed together.
Mamah joined him in Hong Kong, and the two of them worked ironing shirts, sewing on buttons, cutting threads — whatever jobs they could find. For the next fifteen years they saved all they could. Then my father married my mother, and I arrived, followed by Moy Moy. My family got authorization to immigrate to the U.S. in the early 1970s. I was only two and Moy Moy a year old at the time. We settled in Philadelphia, and after five years my parents had two more children.
My father and mother were too busy to learn English. My father worked ten hours a day, six days a week, cooking chicken chow mein and pork fried rice at a restaurant, missing every holiday, both Chinese and American, since the restaurant was always open. I would be asleep by the time my father got home from work at night, and he would be asleep when I left for school in the morning.
My mother spent her days sewing women’s dresses in dusty garment factories, where rows and rows of sewing machines hummed nonstop. She took in extra work on the weekends, sewing clothes in our basement. She positioned her Singer sewing machine under the single window in the dark cellar, and it droned from six in the morning until nine at night. Mamah was the one who fed, bathed, and played board games with my three siblings and me. She got us up in the mornings for school, watched over us as we did our homework in the afternoons, and soothed any middle-of-the-night tummy aches or fears about monsters under the bed. She calmed our cries and sternly righted us on the rare occasions that we misbehaved.
My grandma’s assistance with childcare allowed my parents to work full-time, which in turn allowed us kids to worry about nothing but being good students. Work hard in school — our parents drilled that mantra into us. That was our role in the family.
I was proud of my increasing ability to speak English, though there were still moments when I didn’t know what the teacher had said and I would frantically look around at my classmates to figure out what I was supposed to do. I hated being ridiculed when I did the wrong thing because I had misunderstood my teacher’s instructions. But that happened less and less. I stopped addressing my father as Baba and began calling him Daddy, but with a slight Cantonese accent — an elongated ah at the end. I did the same with my mother, who became Mommy-ah. Similarly I stopped calling my little sister Moy Moy — the title for younger sister — and started using her American name, Betty.
As the family translator, I interpreted everything for my parents. I impersonated my mother on the phone to the plumber. I forged sick notes to teachers for my siblings and myself. I sat with the life-insurance salesman, slowly deciphering the details of whole versus term life. And I translated my parents’ mail and wrote their checks.
As I went through each envelope, my parents would watch intently, waiting for me to tell them what needed to be done. Sometimes there would be a charge on a bill or a letter from the bank that I didn’t understand, and we would have to speak to someone in person. Those errands would be saved for Mondays, my dad’s only day off from the restaurant. Every Monday he would wait for me after school in his orange Chevy Nova and then drive me to some customer-service place or maybe to the doctor’s office to translate.
One Monday he brought me to the bank. I was maybe eight at the time. I loved going to the bank with my dad because, at the end of each visit, the pretty teller would let me pick out a lollipop from a large jar of yellow, green, red, and orange candies. I followed my father into the winding line that curved around maroon velvet roping, debating whether I wanted a red or a green lollipop that day. When we reached the window, Daddy-ah said, “Tell her we want to take out one mun dollars.”
I didn’t know exactly how much one mun was, but I knew it was a huge number, and I knew of a similarly big number in English. I lifted myself up on my toes, head barely above the counter, and spoke loudly so the teller could hear me from behind the plastic window. “We want one million dollars,” I declared.
The woman turned to her fellow tellers, and they all began to laugh. My legs felt like jelly. I wanted to disappear. I knew I’d said the wrong thing, but million sounded a little like mun, so I thought it was the same. I turned to Daddy-ah, who stood there helpless, not understanding what had happened. I was livid with him for putting me in this position. I wanted him to make them stop laughing and fix everything.
The teller finally caught her breath and asked, “You” — emphasizing the word cruelly — “want a million dollars, honey?” Suddenly I was acutely aware of having on a dress I’d outgrown, made from scraps Mommy-ah had salvaged from the garment factory. I tugged at the hem, which was too high, barely reaching midthigh. I ran my hand self-consciously over the bodice, a patchwork of white and blue strips of fabric. Then the teller’s ice-cold blue eyes rolled over to my father, dressed in a sweat- and grease-stained work shirt he’d brought with him from Hong Kong six years earlier.
My stomach cramped, and I thought I might be sick or, worse, cry in front of everyone in the bank. This was more awful than the kids on the playground teasing me. I wished I could snap a finger and shrink and not be seen, like a character in a cartoon. But I was stuck there, all eyes bearing down on me. My face burned red with both embarrassment and anger.
I turned to Daddy-ah and whispered so the mean teller would not hear me speak Chinese: “Write down the number.”
Daddy-ah wrote out one mun — ten thousand — and I shoved the paper under the plastic window to the teller, who continued to chuckle to herself and wipe her eyes as she prepared the cashier’s check.
We left so fast that the woman forgot to let me pick a lollipop from the candy jar. I’d decided I was going to choose a red one that day.
I would remain the sole family translator until I went away to college. At that point my younger siblings picked up the daily responsibilities, but I would still come home during breaks to a pile of mail my parents had saved for me. There was no escape. They trusted only me to be their designated mail reader. Sometimes the correspondence would be outdated, and deadlines would have been missed, but they preferred to wait until I came home to read their mail.
I also still wrote all their checks, being extra careful to copy the account number from the invoice to the memo line. I would verify that I had spelled the payee’s name correctly and had ripped off the right portion of the invoice to return with our payment. Maybe it’s because I was so conscientious about this responsibility that it became exclusively mine. Even when something appeared to be junk mail, I still read the letter thoroughly before I determined it could be trashed. I was always worried I might make a mistake and throw away something critical. The weight of it all felt onerous, and I grew to hate reading their mail.
After I graduated from college, my first job took me hundreds of miles from Philly. In the decades that followed, I continued to accept engineering positions at companies located hours away in other states, in part because that’s where the jobs were, but also because those particular jobs distanced me from home and its demands. Trips to see my parents were limited mostly to special occasions and holidays, including many Chinese ones. But a few years ago, in my early forties, I moved back to the Philly area and resumed my role as family interpreter. Nothing has changed. Every visit begins with my parents handing me a stack of mail. I barely have time to take my coat off.
My other ongoing duty is to accompany my parents on doctor visits. I always keep my eyes fixed on the floor, a practice I adopted during the numerous medical appointments I sat in on as a girl. A doctor visit cries out for privacy, and yet there I was, a child, shifting uncomfortably in my chair as I listened to the doctor conduct his exam. I’m sure my parents were even more embarrassed than I was. It must’ve been especially painful for my extremely modest mother to have my snarky teenage self in the room.
I recall once staring at my mother’s breasts, which peeked out from a gap in the paper gown. I was in eighth grade and had never seen my mom naked. I hadn’t even seen her in her underwear. When I was small and she and I would squeeze into a public-bathroom stall together, she would make me turn around and face the door before she would pee. My new best friend, Mia, had told me that a woman’s boobs drop to her knees after she has a baby. We’d both just turned thirteen, and Mia was obsessed with boobs and whether they were too small, too big, too bouncy, too droopy. Mommy-ah’s, I saw, were still at attention, and she’d had four babies. Mia would be relieved when I told her this.
Mommy-ah caught me staring at her breasts and frowned. I quickly turned my eyes to the linoleum floor.
My mother came from a large family. She was the oldest of seven, and her youngest sibling was only three years older than I was. My mother had dropped out of school early to help support her family and then married at eighteen. My father was eleven years her senior and has always been overly protective of her, coddling her almost as if she were a child instead of a spouse.
The exam room was tiny with no windows. Mommy-ah fingered a spot on her left breast and spoke to me in Chinese. The doctor, a soft-spoken man in his sixties, turned to me, and I — in my perfect American English, complete with Philly accent — said, “My mom says she feels something in her left boob — I mean breast — right where she’s pointing.”
He asked when my mother had discovered the lump.
I repeated the doctor’s question in Chinese to my mother, barely above a whisper. I hated speaking Chinese in front of other people. At school the kids still taunted me. “Ching-chong, ching-chong,” they sneered, pulling the corners of their eyes back into a slant.
My mother answered, and I told the gray-haired doctor, “She says she found it in the shower last month.”
“Ask her if it hurts when I press down like this.”
As he pushed down on her breast, I asked my mom his question. Though I made no eye contact with her, I saw her shake her head. “No,” I said.
The physician began searching through the cabinets along the wall. “I think it’s just some fluid. I’m going to drain it,” he said.
I asked how he would do that.
Opening drawers, he pulled out a large syringe. “I’m going to insert this into the lump and extract the fluid. It will be a little uncomfortable, but it shouldn’t hurt too much.”
My eyes widened. “You’re gonna put that thing in her chest?”
He nodded and waited as I translated his plan to my mom.
As the doctor approached my mother with the big needle, I looked directly at her for the first time since she’d caught me staring. I didn’t even notice her breasts, just the concerned look on her face. I wanted to say something comforting to reassure her, but I was speechless — in Chinese and English.
For the next few moments, as the doctor did the procedure on Mommy-ah, I squeezed my hands together and stared down, trying to block out her slight murmurs of discomfort.
After he was done and Mommy-ah had closed the gown, I realized I had been holding my breath.
The doctor showed us the cloudy liquid in the syringe. To me, he explained, “Your mother tends to have small amounts of fluid collect in her breasts. They’re benign cysts.”
“They’re not harmful,” he explained.
I nodded. I didn’t know what cysts were either, but I was too frazzled to ask.
“She should be fine now,” he said. “If she finds any more, have her come in, and we’ll check them out.”
I thanked the doctor, and he left. As Mommy-ah got dressed, I looked away. Her face was pale when we joined my dad outside in the waiting area.
In the car I tried my best to explain what the doctor had said, but I didn’t know the Chinese word for cyst. “The doctor says not to worry,” I told them. “He says they are . . .” I didn’t know the Chinese word for benign either, so I used the English word. My parents looked puzzled. “They are not bad,” I said.
At home we tried looking up benign and cyst in my mom’s pocket-sized Chinese-English dictionary, but the words weren’t there. My mother’s face darkened.
“Don’t worry, Mommy-ah,” I said. “The doctor told me you were fine.”
“He said I’m OK?” she asked.
“Yes,” I assured her.
Mommy-ah relaxed and even braved a small smile.
The next day at school I impressed Mia with my stories about firm boobs after babies, “benign cysts,” and having fluids sucked out with huge syringes.
Recently I went with my father to see his urologist. After the exam the doctor said we would have to get the lab results to know if there were any prostate issues. “Everything else looks fine,” he said. “He’s in overall good health.”
I’d read about my father’s symptoms online, and I asked the doctor a few more questions. We discussed potential causes and prevention and treatment options.
“Are you in the medical field?” he asked after all my inquiries.
“No,” I said. “Why?”
“Well, it’s just your questions . . .”
“Sorry, I’m an engineer. I ask lots of questions about everything,” I said.
He nodded and smiled. “OK, we’ll be in touch with the test results.”
At home I told my father what the doctor had said, and also what I’d learned online. I struggled to find the Chinese words, so I opened the Google Translate app on my phone. By now I even dream in English, while my Chinese remains at a sixth-grade level.
I watched as Daddy-ah deciphered the Chinese characters on my screen, saying out loud the words that were foreign to me. This was so much better than before, when I would have to try to define words with my rudimentary Cantonese, or simply use English and hope my father would get the gist of it by context.
I watched my father’s expression as he read the translation on the app, and a smile of understanding came across his face.
“I’ve got to get going,” I said. It was the middle of the afternoon, and I hoped to beat the evening rush hour.
“Are you sure you can’t stay for dinner?” Daddy-ah asked. “Your mother should be home soon.”
I had already taken the day off from work. No, I told him. I needed to get home and work some more on a presentation I had to make the next day.
“OK. I cooked your favorite for you yesterday. I’ll pack it up so you can take it home.”
I watched my father carefully place into plastic containers the flank steak and potatoes that had been marinated in four different sauces — hoisin, chee hou, bean, and oyster — then slow cooked with ginger, garlic, scallion, aniseed, and orange peel. It’s a popular Cantonese dish that I cannot find on the menu at my neighborhood Chinese restaurant.
I took the water bill from the mail I’d read for him earlier. “I’ll let you know what they say about the charge,” I said and tucked the bill into my purse. Then I headed out the door with my homemade Chinese takeout.
The Sun gets me thinking about one of the best gifts of storytelling, which is to hear your story told by another. When I read Judy Chow’s “The Interpreter” [September 2021], I realized it had been a long time since I’d read something that directly relates to my immigrant experience. Though there are many immigrant stories, and many shades of any given immigrant story, Chow’s essay brought me comfort.