It felt like I was in that scene from “The Da Vinci Code” when Tom Hanks’ character finds a secret code near the “Mona Lisa.” Except in my case, the painting was our fridge and the code was Mom’s little yellow Post-it reminder, written in Chinese, of what she had to make for Lunar New Year.
The words “new year” were at the top, followed by a list of dishes like fish, mixed vegetables, and lotus root with pork. And for the first time in my life, I could actually read it. A year ago, the note may as well have been random scratches like the ones you make when testing if a pen still has ink. Two weeks ago, I was getting something from the freezer when I started reading her note without thinking, the way your mind registers store signs as you walk down the street. My eyes widened with excitement when I realized I recognized the words, these dishes that I’ve eaten dozens of times and talk and write about passionately but couldn’t write their actual names, or pick them out from a menu.
“Did you want to make the lotus root this year?” Mom asked, after I double-checked with her that what I read was correct. “Of course, you’d have to make it the day before because the two of us aren’t sharing a kitchen.” (Like her, I also don’t want other people in the kitchen when I’m cooking a large meal.)
She has never asked me to contribute to the Lunar New Year dinner. Thanksgiving and Christmas have been my duty for the last decade because, according to her, I “cook like a westerner.”
I’m sure she didn’t see her suggestion as being that big a deal; it was more of a way to get me to stop pestering her if I could help. But combined with the little fireworks that set off in my eyes when I realized I could truly read and absorb parts of her note, it all felt like I was celebrating Lunar New Year for the first time.
As a by-product of the pandemic, since last March I’ve been learning to read and write Chinese, the next step in my ongoing quest to reconnect with my Chinese heritage. I mean, what else was I going to do when I live with my parents and no longer had to spend three hours commuting five days a week?
I can speak Cantonese fine, but that can only get you so far, especially when reading menus is a big part of the job and there are words that don’t translate directly into English. So I figured I might as well become fluent.
I switch to Cantonese whenever I’m talking to someone who can also speak it, whether it’s family, friends or a restaurant server. I learned how to score big in mah-jong (I promised my parents I’m doing this for the culture and not getting mixed up with a triad-run gambling hall). And I cooked a few dishes under Mom’s direction, including the aforementioned braised pork and lotus root with fermented bean curd that Grandma made when she was still with us.
Last spring, Dad discovered the out-of-print, but never opened, preschool- and kindergarten-level language books he brought over when we immigrated from Hong Kong, in the event my sister or I would use them some day. I asked him why he and Mom didn’t force me into Chinese school so that I wouldn’t be starting from scratch decades later. “You didn’t even like Chinese food back then,” he said. “Did you think you’d retain anything they’d teach you?” Fair point.
I bought 20 pads of grid paper in downtown Chinatown to practice writing Chinese characters. Every evening after dinner, Dad would pick out a few phrases from one of the books and show me how to read and write them.
At first I felt as if I was drawing more than writing, because I wasn’t yet seeing the characters as words. Looking at my earlier worksheets, I can see the hesitation in the strokes and lines, and the proportions that were a bit off, like I was playing connect the dots or tracing an image.
But over the next 11 months, I kept at it. Dad would repeatedly tell me to get over my embarrassment and read the words out loud as I wrote them, to drill them into memory and help me get the pronunciation right. At dim sum I’d treat the menu like one of my language books, looking up the Chinese descriptions. What, in English, is simply labelled “siu mai,” becomes, in Chinese, a “yellow-robed prince siu mai emperor.” I’ve been missing out!
Slowly, my drawings were forming into words. The strokes flowed more naturally, and I could write without pausing. Recognizing words became easier as I retained rules; for instance, characters that are related to water, like “ocean,” “sand” and “river,” have three little strokes on the left (two strokes if the characters represent coldness, like “ice” or “breezy”).
For Christmas, I wrote out (to the best of my ability, anyway) my grocery list in Chinese to go beyond the one-hour nightly writing sessions and incorporate the work into my daily life.
But as with learning any skill, it’s not always an upward trajectory.
A week ago, I left the house for some fresh air while my parents were out for dinner. I left a note written in Chinese that said, “Out for a walk.” At least, I thought that’s what it said. My mom had a good chuckle when she read it. The character for “out” was missing a few strokes, so I ended up writing “mountain” instead.
Polyglot blunders aside, when the time comes and I’m really good at writing Chinese, I want to swap out the pen and worksheets for an ink brush and scroll, so I can compose prosperous greetings and well wishes on fai chun, traditional decorative signs that adorn doors and walls during Lunar New Year.
But it’s still a ways before I can graduate from pen to brush. Right now, I’m writing out my little grocery lists in Chinese and tagging along with Mom to the supermarket to read all the signs. Come say hi if you see a short Asian man enthusiastically blurting out “pea shoots!” “apple!” and “pumpkin!” in the produce section.
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