And Words Are All I Have

Buddhism is the easiest religion in the world.
You just don’t hate anybody.

An MRI technician from Nepal.

girl with lanterns

Learning Chinese

Growing up in a small northern town shaped me in ways untold.

As a little girl my family lived in an apartment above a hardware store on our small town’s main street. I still remember that downtown like the back of my hand: It was my playground. While my friends climbed trees and played badminton in their leafy backyards, I roller skated down the steep roads that led to the bay, swam off the dock, and ran my mother’s errands at stores up and down the street. On Sunday nights I marched through town behind the Salvation Army Band, singing along to their fervent songs.

I knew all the shopkeepers by name and they knew me. One in particular stands out to this day: Her name was Ming-huá. She was the young Chinese woman who ran the restaurant next to our building downstairs. It was renowned for its great food. It also had the best price on my parent's brand of cigarettes those days, and thus I became well acquainted with the exotic proprietor. How often I sat at the counter watching her and reveling in the constant stir of activity surrounding her.

I remember the wonderfully pungent aroma of the food drifting up on warm days to the second floor, wafting garlic and ginger into our windows, spices we never used. I see the noodles set onto huge metal trays on the roof to dry in the sunshine. But it is Ming-huá I remember most of all.

She had come from mainland China with her two small children. How she made her way there I can only guess; they were probably merchants who had escaped Mao’s communist terror. I don’t remember a husband. There was an older gentleman. Perhaps her father? He was rather glum, said little, and sat at the end of the lunch counter every day, reading a series of small leather-bound Chinese books. Ming-huá’s two children, a boy and a girl, were impeccably mannered but painfully shy. Whenever I spoke to them they would automatically lower their heads and look down. I got in the habit of reaching out and gently lifting their chins up in turn.

“Look up,” I’d say, playfully. “Look at me: I’m smiling at you!”

Ming Hua

I picture Ming-huá at the cash register, her slender frame, her reserved yet warm manner, and her vivid red lipstick. I never saw her without it: bright crimson and perfectly applied. And it never seemed to smudge. I wonder now what her trick was.

Her clothing was particular to her, honoring her origins. She dressed in a series of colorful silk kimonos even in deep winter and on Chinese holidays and family celebrations would break out more elaborately embellished gowns in saturated jewel tones. Our own clothing seemed so utterly uninspired in comparison. I couldn’t wait to run downstairs and see what she had chosen to wear that day.

I began helping her in the restaurant occasionally, after school and on weekends, clearing tables, sweeping, and cleaning the lunch counter. Now and then I occupied her children by teaching them games and reading them stories. In return, Ming-huá paid me in coins, which she placed upright into the slotted rubber grid that sat beside the cash register. As a wonderful bonus she treated me to ice cream sodas I can taste even now.

When business was slow I helped Ming-huá with her English, and she taught me traditional Chinese. I remember very little of it now, but some.

Nín hǎo Hello. Zàijiàn Goodbye.

We exchanged this one often. Wǒ xǐhuān nǐ. It means I like you in English.

One phrase I used more than any other: Qǐng shuō dé màn yīdiǎn. English translation: Please speak more slowly.

I learned how to copy some of the intricate evasive Chinese characters from among the many thousands, writing out my name, Patricia — tirelessly — in the intricate script:
帕特里夏 And then would come Ming-huá’s... 銘華 It was painstaking work but to me delicious, and I discovered an affinity for the precision it demanded, an exercise that sparked my lifelong passion for lettering and penmanship. As a young woman I studied calligraphy and transformed my once awkward left-handed script into, if I may be so bold, a veritable thing of beauty.

Our pronunciation of one another’s language often sent us into fits of giggles. We both struggled over certain sounds and neither of us took it too seriously. But Ming-huá was fierce in her determination to learn English; she kept a reference book handy that she referred to regularly when customers spoke to her. I saw how she leaned across the counter to study them. Over time I saw how quickly she was adopting her new tongue and how she delighted in surprising me with English phrases as she mastered them.

“A lovely day, Patricia,” was one carefully articulated greeting she met me with one morning, utterly beaming with pride at her accomplishment. I didn’t have the heart to point outside to the snowstorm that was raging. Ming-huá made me appreciate my own language in a way I hadn’t, as it pushed me to choose my phrasing and grammar thoughtfully when speaking with her. I felt a distinct responsibility to be the best instructor for her I could be. I remember teaching her a joke in English and I laugh thinking about that now. I think it was a knock knock joke, not sure of that, but I do recall explaining to her the delicate timing involved in landing an effective punch line.

My family bought a house when I was a teenager, our first since coming to Canada from Scotland, and after we moved from downtown I saw Ming-huá only a few times. When I appeared at the restaurant she would smile her greeting and immediately take down a soda glass to make me one of her frothy concoctions. I perched on my favorite stool at the counter and told her my news; it still felt somehow like a second home.

When I returned to that town years later the main street had been largely transformed. Ming Hua's restaurant was no more; a retail store stood in its place. I asked some of the shop owners in the vicinity about Ming-huá and her family but none of them had heard of her. Granted, it had been a very long time.

I wonder about Ming-huá ’s life after we lost touch. Did she move to the city? Find a partner? Master English? Did her children gain the confidence they needed? Did she ever think of me as I did her and what we taught one another?

If I was to see Ming-huá again, I would tell her that seeing me at such a tender age and taking me seriously was a tremendous gift. To feel someone is listening to us is to feel respected. I would thank her for her patience with a skinny, hyper little girl who asked too many questions. And that my strongest memory of her was her graciousness.

Oh, and I would tell her one more thing: that I remember when she told me, so proudly, that in Chinese her name meant tomorrow’s flower.

Some things are ordinary but perfect:
drinking coffee on summer mornings
with you as the cats laze about, fed,
on you or on me or curled together
in the bay window on a sunny pillow.
Outside the weeping beech stirs
in the wind, leaves hanging down
like just washed long tresses.
We talk softly of the pending day.
This is all I would need of heaven
that I don’t believe in, but this
I believe.

Marge Piercy
I am here, listening. Share your own stories with me, gentle reader.
pencil drawing red heart
For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted,
and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard.
There isn't any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got
in all this darkness.

Civil rights activist James Baldwin

I have the talented Polly Chandler to thank for her ethereally beautiful photo atop of the girl flanked by lanterns.

tricia handwritten signature

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