HOW TO SPEAK OF SILENCE
Ann-Hua Chinese School began at 9 am every Sunday. Classes could be anything from Chinese language lessons K through 9th Grade, Chinese AP (for the 10th-12th graders), various drawing classes, martial arts, or even ACT/SAT preparatory classes. When I woke up today at 8:45 am, none of the Chinese parents representing the school association board had answered my email sent two days ago asking to visit.
At 9:50 am, I decide to call an Uber and go anyway.
The building hallways look vaguely decrepit, and just outside the doorway where I walk onto the second floor, two lone Chinese parents sit in classroom desks. Squished into rickety chairs much too small for their adult frames, they look oddly out of place, yellowing wrinkles and white-streaked hairlines and all. The man is cradling a worn book of Mandarin characters vertically printed in the traditional style, instead of horizontal. The lady is fiddling with her phone. But by my childhood memory, they look just like a home.
I don’t have a true home.
My mother culture is that of Shanghai, China. My entire family, immediate and extended back for the last three generations originates from there. Shanghainese people have just as much pride in being from Shanghai, if not more, than even Beijing people, who at least had the stated privilege of calling their city the capital. Shanghainese people have a strong sense of distinction between insider and outsider, between their business and that of others’.
To this culture I am an outsider by all rights, overstaying my welcome under someone else’s roof. Each time I visit those aunts, uncles, grandparents, great-aunts and great-uncles, I know my “not-actually-Chinese” brand is all but stamped on my forehead from the way they tiptoe around and over me with delicate care, lest I get confused and lost.
My birthplace is Windsor, Canada. After 3 years or so of marriage in China, my parents immigrated to Canada and then I was born there. We lived so close to the Detroit River that on the days between July 1st and July 4th, Canada and the US’s national holidays, I used to watch the fireworks by the bridge with my 阿公 (āgōng), my maternal grandpa.
But other than that, I could not tell you the first thing about Canada. Other than what my professional career in business dictates, I have zero awareness of the country’s on-goings, and zero interest to learn. There is nothing of Canada to my name save for a birth certificate and a dual citizenship.
My “hometown”, the place I physically grew up in, is Troy, Michigan. We moved from Canada to Michigan for good when I was about four or five for my dad’s job. Troy has an abnormally high population of Asian-Americans - in other words, a city of scions who wore the same faces of Asian blood but spoke an unsteady mash-up of American and Asian culture.
Being a bilingual household, my house was not meant to have a single background by design. My parents encouraged me to practice Mandarin, because they said that was the language that would benefit me the most professionally. Not only would I not carry the burden of immigrant language barriers like they did, I’d rise above with an advantage of being bilingual in two of the most powerful languages used in the world today.
They didn’t realize – and neither did I until years later – that what I absorbed weren’t the Chinese ideals they expected. Instead of speaking to me in the stilted, heavily enunciated formalness of Mandarin, they spent more time trading words with each other in their natural Shanghainese accent, a rhythm that ended as lilts that sounded like questions and slurred words at every end. They played on their lips excessive repetition of the simplest connecting words in every sentence, in the Shanghai way of trying to speak as fast as humanly possible. To me, this was a cadence more natural than any Mandarin recording would bring, and I would carry this music forward forever in my tongue.
These memories of mismatched Chinese childhood lurk in the shadows of my mind as I continue to scout out the building. The first place I seek is the administrative staff room, because in my recollection there always was one. I was correct on that assumption; inside is full of scattered adults. One is sitting at the front desk, clicking away at a laptop. Two others are discussing something in front of a whiteboard. There are three poring over papers and folders. One of the people at the whiteboard, an old man with peppery-silver hair, notices my hesitantly standing in the doorway. He makes a gesturing motion with his head, a casual “oi, look”, at the guy at the front desk. Front desk guy looks up.
I explain myself in my slurred Shanghainese-Mandarin mix that I was a student at the University of Michigan, had gone to Chinese school in my hometown Troy before, and wanted to sit in a classroom here at the Ann Arbor Ann-Hua Chinese School to see what it was like again. He accepts this readily and asked which class I wanted to go to.
“什么都可以啊。” (Anything will do.) I end on an upward note, as per the usual Shanghainese accent.
The guy takes me to the nearest classroom, opening the door to a teacher and five students who look up at me curiously. “哦， 你进这个， 这个班级没那么忙。” (Okay go to this one. It’s not very busy.)
“谢谢叔叔啊！” (Thank you, uncle!) I say as he leaves me at the doorway. In Chinese, the words for uncle, shūshu, and aunt, āyí, are used not only for blood relations, but also for formalities to anyone in the immediate elder generation. He closes the door behind him.
The teacher and the five students are still staring at me. I explain rapidly, “啊，你好， 我是密歇根大学的大四学生。 我在写一个文章， 关于我以前上过中文学校。我可以不可以今天观察一下？” (Ah, hello, I am a senior at the University of Michigan. I am writing an article, and it pertains to Chinese school. Could I observe for today?)
“哦， 可以啊。” The teacher acquiesces easily. I am pleasantly surprised, like I was by the earlier adult who led me here. I wonder why I expected otherwise.
Mentally, I catch myself. I know why. I had assumed they’d view me as a stranger.
I barely sit down in the back seat when one of the students, a girl in a bright neon green school sweatshirt, suddenly jumps up. “Do you want a mooncake?!” The teacher makes an oh sound, and then “Yes!” The girl shimmies through the aisle from her seat to me. “Here! It’s the mooncake, I was gonna bring it to my brother, but you can have it.” The mooncake is white, slightly translucent, and vaguely shapeless.
“Oh, let me reshape it. It’s made of mochi, so it’s not that solid. We just made them, here, just…” The teacher fits a square-shaped cutter tool around the drooping mochi mooncake. “It has red bean paste in it too.”
I smile faintly. “谢谢啊。” (Thank you.) With that, the teacher returns to the front of the classroom, and continues the lesson. While the children return to their papers and folders, I flip open my journal with my right hand. With my left, I pick up the mooncake, and take a bite. It is moist and chewy, and when I try setting it down on the paper plate, my fingertips come away sticky with beads of flour.