It’s rare, but every now and then I’ll be confronted by how many mistakes I learned through my mother.
Last week at a party, I discovered what a pomelo was. This green-peeled citrus fruit is something I am familiar with, having eaten it throughout my childhood. I always recognized the pomelo as a grapefruit, because they are sometimes known as “Chinese grapefruits” just like those “Asian pears.” I was bothered by this name because I always thought highly of my English-based knowledge of what-is-called-what. In the last six years, I learned that ‘phlegm’ was not pronounced ‘flan,’ that ‘school toy stores’ are more commonly recognized as ‘educational supply stores,’ and that ‘concert’ is not always interchangeable with ‘recital’. These are obviously very minor things, but that is precisely why they get to me. They fly freely under the eye of my linguistically dominant, English-speaking mind, and pop up some years later when I see something written or hear something said.
I can speak Chinese. I know that it’s Mandarin based, but whatever the hell it is that I speak is a very sheltered, modified Mandarin-Taiwanese mutt of a language. It does not surprise me that I have difficulty expressing myself fully to other Chinese speakers. My Chinese-speaking ability is limited to the sort of things that my family openly speaks about, Dinner Table talk. I have four indestructible phrases which I can pull out of my back pocket without any thought: “I know,” “I don’t care,” “why?” and a kind of annoyed drawl which equivocates the effect of “oh my god.” Growing up, I learned a lot of English words from my mother, filtered through a Chinese-ified conception or pronunciation.
I hated being Chinese when I was younger. Once in gymnastics, a girl asked me if the Asian woman waving to me in the bleachers was my mother, I said yes, you could say that about the woman who adopted me. I avoided having friends over because my mother, with her accent, would list all of the things available for their consumption, only to have them turn to me and say that they could not understand her. I was stupidly ashamed, and I was ashamed of this shame because I thought my mother was the nicest woman in the world, she just “couldn’t help it.”
Most kids are not so eager to present their parents to the world, and I am sure that many American kids of Asian descent feel a certain estrangement and secret shame with regard to their heritage. I couldn’t ignore my heritage, because I actively participated in it through language and living. But, it was all too easy to hide once I stepped outside my home. My mother is Chinese and my father is Italian. I don’t look very Chinese. I felt different because I was something which I did not look like, but not looking Chinese, allowed me to hide that I was.
I am always surprised whenever I come across a “mistake,” language-wise or other, which I realize is distinctly of my mother’s molding. I don’t know why, but it makes me happy to think that there are many more things forgotten in me which have been left untouched by the stifling effects of shame and social conditioning. I hope that I will never know of them, that they will never come out, that they may stay in me a little longer and let me be a little more like her.
Note: The themes of this piece, as well as the title, are distinctly similar to a poem I am familiar with, Persimmons by Li-Young Lee. These similarities were not consciously intentional; it sparked my notice when ending with choosing a title. I note this to share the poem, and the similar insights which a fruit bears on two writers – of language, identity, memory, and love.