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Hathaway, May, Mother Tongue


May Hathaway
Age: 16, Grade: 11

School Name: Stuyvesant High School, New York, NY
Educator: Amara Thomas

Category: Personal Essay & Memoir

Mother Tongue

I. Immigrant Narrative

My mother is my mother is my mother. I say this on lonely days, when it feels like my mother has all but slipped away from me, when it feels like I have all but disappeared from her mind (and, for that matter, her line of sight). On lonely days, my mother is just not there. She stands in the living room, staring at nothing or humming to herself. She gets absorbed in her work or a phone call or a really good blog post, and no one can break through to her. My father once joked, “Maybe if we text her, she’ll respond.” It didn’t work. 

On angry days, I alter my mantra: My mother is not my mother is not my mother. My mother is not my mother when she screams at me for spilling water and points an accusing finger at the blooming stain across her cotton placemat. My sharp, shrunken mother who hovers in my doorway while I’m doing homework just to glare at me is not the same mother who played Mozart tapes in the car while I was in the womb because she had heard that it would help fetal brain development. My lovely, gentle mother who brews me extra strong green tea while I study for tests and leaves me encouraging notes under my pillow for me to read each morning is not the same one who once locked me out of our apartment because my voice was too much to deal with.

My mother read me Gertrude Stein when I was far too young to understand any sort of poetry. On one of her in-between days, at the dinner table, my mother asked me, “Do you remember which poet I read to you when you were little?” 
I stared at her, skeptical, and pushed my food around on my plate. 
“I have no idea. Shel Silverstein?” She clucked in disapproval.
“No. Gertrude Stein.” 
“Are you serious? That was you?” 
I always thought that my father did it. All of my bedtime story memories feature my father and a mother-shaped indent on my bed after she had finished tucking me in. I stared at her at her in disbelief, but she didn’t look up.
“Just eat your food,” she sighed. 

“How come you never told me you read Gertrude Stein to me when I was younger?” I demanded the next day. My mother was cooking pea shoots in garlic, and it was hard to hear her response over the crackling of oil in the wok. 
“What do you mean? I always read you good books.” When my mother is on the verge of arguing, her voice often takes on a beautiful lilt. 
“Yes, but Gertrude Stein! ‘A rose is a rose is a rose.’ You read me poetry as bedtime stories? When I was five? That’s hilarious.” 
“I was studying.” 

She said this last word with a sort of fury, and her voice was smaller, muffled by the sound of stir-fried vegetables. It’s at times like these that I remember that she learned American culture through textbooks. She watched “Friends” for homework and dissected all the jokes, confused as to why Americans found any of it funny. I once borrowed her copy of The Old Man and the Sea for a school assignment and found the margins filled with her loopy handwriting. She praised Hemingway at dinner that night: “I like him. He’s so direct. Gets right to the point.”

On days like these, I want to ask her, did you like Gertrude Stein? Did you like reading to me? Which you were you when you read me stories?

Sometimes, I think that my lonely days are my mother’s happy days. Yes, her physical body may be here at home, but her mind is somewhere else, in her real home. Maybe my angry days are her lonely days. Maybe she misses her real home, where all of her angry days and lonely days and happy days could blend together into just regular days, months, and years. 

II. Ducks in a Row

My mother’s English is not, contrary to popular belief, broken, because how can something be broken when it has never been whole? It remains still not fully fledged, a duckling that has remained sedentary for years, a duckling from which we expect very little. In another time and place, perhaps, we would have called it a lame duckling, but in our time and place, “lame” is used for things like the Sophomore Caucus bake sale, not the shame I feel whenever my mother misuses the present perfect subjunctive and the subsequent shame I feel for even knowing what the present perfect subjunctive is, and who would say that about their own mother? 

My Chinese is, on the other hand, broken. It is a china plate that was once whole but has now been shattered by years of carelessness and neglect. No matter how I try to glue the pieces back together, there are always missing fragments that have already been crushed to a fine dust. 

And yet, when I think of ducklings, I am not dreaming of my mother’s linguistic abilities (or lack thereof) but rather of the walks I used to take with my father to our nearby duck pond, and how he disinvited my mother after a while because he kept correcting her English with an edge in his voice while I dangled my legs over the edge of the pier and threw pieces of stale bread into the pond, my sneakers almost in the water, trying to make my Chinese tongue work with my American lips.

On one of the rare weekdays my mother was willing to take a walk with me, we went to the duck pond, though we forgot the bread. For a while, we stood on the spongy grass and stared at the surface of the pond. “Ta men hui fei ma?” I asked. Can they fly? or, also, Will they fly? My mother paused for a second and then said, “I think they’re happy like this.”

III. Babble

I attended my first and last pool party when I was seven. I laid on my magenta towel next to my best friend and we gossiped about our crushes while passing a plate of Goldfish back and forth while our classmates shrieked in the chilly water. Our bathing suits were varying shades of orange and yellow and pink; from a distance, we must have looked like lollipops. The early summer air was restless–we were all desperate to finish first grade and move on to more exciting prospects like 4th of July barbeques and sleepaway camp. The adults were chatty as always, but the sound of splashing water drowned them out. I licked the salt off my fingers, which were still shriveled from hours spent in the pool.

Near the end of the pool party, I kept asking Mrs. Schneider, my best friend’s mom, what time it was. I was terrified that I would somehow miss my mother’s strict 5 o’clock appointment and that she would drive home without me. “Why doesn’t your mom just come here to pick you up?” she asked after the third or fourth time.

“She says that it’s really hard to find parking,” I said in a mousy voice, trying not to make eye contact. I was still at the age where it was difficult to lie to adults. I didn’t want to tell her the somewhat humiliating truth: that my mother wouldn’t come in because she was afraid of misspeaking.

My mother pronounces “towel” as “tower.” Though she prides herself on figuring out the proper way to use pronouns and limits her vocabulary because she doesn’t want to misuse it, she has never quite perfected this distinction. Her clunky mispronunciation used to mortify me (“When my friends are around, can you please just not talk?”), but I developed a sort of defensive anger when I saw my blond neighbors snicker at her as she struggled during brief mailbox conversations.

When my mother came to pick me up after my best friend’s pool party, I gathered my belongings in my arms and dumped them in the backseat. Too used to my habits, my mother ran through her checklist: “Goggles?” “Yes.” “Bathing suit?” “Mm-hmm.” “Snacks?” “Yeah.” “Tower?” “Oh.”

The slick grass stuck to my ankles as I ran towards the pool party. “Has anyone seen my tower?” I asked, too out of breath to properly filter my speech. I realized my mistake too late as I was met with a sea of confused faces.

“Honey, do you mean ‘towel’?” Mrs. Schneider asked, and my cheeks flushed. “Um, yeah.” My classmates who had been so lively earlier were suddenly quiet, and I heard one of them giggle. My hair fell into my eyes as I bent down to pick up my magenta towel, and I ran faster this time, not caring about the grass or the wind, just wanting to get inside and away. When I mercifully reached the car door, I clung onto my towel and cried into it on the way home (I told my mom it was just the chlorine).

IV. Motherland

In New York, summer makes the city move faster. We stand, cramped, on sticky subway floors, stray hairs clinging to our foreheads and necks. We sip lemonade and beat the soles of our shoes into the concrete sidewalk. Trips to the beach are a temporary respite that pass by too quickly: all we do is come home with too much sand in our flip flops and slight sunburns on our noses. 

The opposite is true on the other side of the world. I spend every other summer in Shanghai, where I inhabit a new body. In Shanghai, the heat makes time stretch out like taffy. We stare at each other across breakfast tables stacked high with plates of soup dumplings and drink soy milk without breaking eye contact, eager to catch up but uncertain about where to start.
My father doesn’t exist when my mother and I are in China. Or, actually, only his disembodied face exists, maybe a little paler than usual. He calls us occasionally over Skype, but we rarely pick up. 

The motherland is the only place where my mother really exists. I remember being shocked at how normal she seemed around her family. Her emotions, which had always been so volatile, were suddenly easy to track. Her mood was causational. 

In the motherland, my mother is no longer confined to awkward English syllables that don’t fit in her mouth. Instead, she chats with her family in rapid-fire Mandarin and peppers in Shanghainese from time to time. In Shanghai, my mother smiles regularly. She slows down when she speaks to me but refuses to translate. 

Shanghai summers feel like forever to me, but they must pass by like New York summers for my mother. For every other September, we fly back to JFK, and her lips seal once again.