(A personal essay about my early days in America)
In pain, you know only your native language.
The fetal monitor beside me showed a running curve, no pause between contractions. I was screaming in Chinese, my American husband told me later, but the language of pain did not need translation: the midwife hurried over to offer a painkiller. I refused; I did not want to risk my baby to any drug, no matter how safe they said it was.
When the baby finally emerged, wet and squalling, the midwife encouraged my husband to cut her umbilical cord. He did it with shaking hands while, with one glance at the new life I had created, I fell into the deep sleep of exhaustion. Hours later I opened my eyes to find myself still on the delivery bed; Bob sat to the side watching me, and our tiny new baby cradled in his big arms. I wanted to see whom the baby looked like, her American father or Chinese mother, but her closed eyes and the little reddened face gave no clue. Only her rhythmic hiccups expounded the commonness among humans.
Early the next morning, a nurse came to my hospital bed asking if I had urinated. "I did a lot," I told her, trying to be complete, but my Southern Chinese tongue, which did not distinguish "l" from "n," twisted the sound of "lot" to "not." "You did, or you did not?" The nurse asked again, her face twisted in confusion. I repeated the answer. She repeated the question. Several repetitions later, the frustrated nurse left without a sure answer. I only hoped that information was not important.
Giving birth was not the only hard thing for me in the new land.
Bob and I were married in China, and I had come to America with him for only a few months. Shortly after my arrival, one afternoon a delivery truck brought to our door a new refrigerator Bob had just purchased. The driver, a big muscular man in a white T-shirt, demanded a $30 delivery fee. I wanted to tell him my husband had paid the fee at the store, besides I did not have the cash at hand. However I could not form a proper English sentence. I made repeated "Ah, ah" sounds, like a mute person trying to talk, and they infuriated the man. He shouted, flailing his arms, "You don't wanna pay? Heh? Heh?" I understood his Boston-accented English, but I could not make him understand me. I feared he was not trusting of my Chinese face. Our landlord, an American man at his fifties, ran downstairs and said, "Easy, easy. She's new here, she doesn't speak English. It’s only 30 bucks." He took out money from his own pocket and handed to the driver, who climbed up the truck with our landlord's money, and uttered some incomprehensible apologetic words.
Before our baby's birth, Bob persuaded me to attend an exercise class for expectant mothers. The first time the exercise instructor said "hold," I did not know what to do. I looked around to see what others did, but found no apparent movements. The instructor smiled at my puzzlement, "Like you were going to pee, but not," she explained. A slight laughter ensued from my classmates, all American women.
When I returned to the class for postpartum exercise, the secretary asked for my baby's picture and my comments on the experience of giving birth for the first time. The wall facing her desk was full of pictures of cute infants, all looked the same with closed-eyes, and their mothers' exhilarating notes. I told her, "It was painful." The smile disappeared from the middle-aged woman's face. After a moment she said, "Well, I'm not going to write that down."
A fellow mother beside me said, "You'll forget the pain, believe me. Then you'll want another baby!"
I went to Boston University's summer English school when my baby was three months old. I couldn't wait. I pumped my own milk (a very difficult and painful affair) each evening, and stored it in the new fridge. I nursed my baby in the morning, pushed her stroller with my pumped milk to the babysitter, and rode an hour on my bicycle from Belmont to BU. The bike ride was an idea of one arrow for two eagles: to save the subway fair and to lose the weight from my pregnancy. I bought the bike from a yard sale, and it cost only $15.
My class contained mostly young Japanese women, a decade younger than me perhaps. On the first day's introduction, I thought it funny that we had two Miki's. The second time I heard the name Miki, I chuckled, "Ah, Miki too!"
"My name is Miki! No Miki one, no Miki two!" the young woman yelled at me in an unexpected anger. "I said 'too,'" I tried to explain, "t-o-o," but it only made her angrier. What created me an unintended enemy the first day, my bad pronunciation, or the universality of lack-of-understanding, I was not sure.
Not a good start.
Katherine, the thirty-something teacher, chewed gum and gave us an assignment to make sentences from our new vocabulary. I was stuck at the word "ample." My baby did not take the pumped milk yesterday, the babysitter had told me. Should I quit the English school and stay home with her? Was she sick? I should check the color of her poop more carefully tonight.
I wrote: "A baby has ample poop."
Katherine read my sentence to the class and said it was wrong, but I did not understand why.
After class, the other Miki, the friendly one, asked me what "poop" meant. "The thing you do in bathroom," I told her. Her cheeks flushed, but she was persistent: "Which one? Big one or little one?"
The evening I asked my American husband what was wrong with my sentence. He laughed and laughed. "It's so cute! It's so cute!" He cooed to the baby, "Let's check your ample poop." He made me laugh too, but I suspected his love had handicapped his ability to teach me proper English. He enjoyed my Chinglish too much.
My baby cried the whole night and I did not finish my English homework. In the morning, during my hour-long bike ride to BU, it showered. I looked like a drenched chicken when I showed up at the classroom door and I was late. "Don't come in yet," Katherine frowned at me, then she turned to ask the other women students, "Who has extra clothes?"
The friendly Miki took me to her dorm in BU and made me change to her dry clothes. The shirt and the pants were a bit too short for me, but her generosity was not. We returned to the classroom twenty minutes later, and Katherine's expression softened.
Katherine paired off the students to check each other's homework, and she assigned the unfriendly Miki to me. I hesitated before saying, "I'm sorry, I did not get the time to do my homework." Miki wasted no time looking for more explanation. She shouted, in a victorious voice, to the teacher across the classroom, "She did not do the homework! She did not do the homework!" Katherine's face dropped. The entire class went quiet, and 12 pairs of eyes stared at me. I had not known this was such a big crime.
I told Katherine, and the class, about my crying baby, and my words sounded like a bad excuse. The quiet stares continued. None of the young students were married. I wasn't sure about Katherine's marital status, but I knew she was not a mother. The other day, during the lunch break, when I was looking for a store to buy a more effective milk pump, she had directed me to a bicycle shop.
Now she said, "Perhaps you should just stay home and be a good mother." Then she ordered me to leave.
I rode my bike home, crying all the way. I had always been a top student in China, from elementary to graduate school, and now I was kicked out of a class for a stupid piece of English homework.
The afternoon, Bob took off from work and drove to BU's administration office. The administrator responded to his protest by telling him that Katherine was an ambitious teacher, one of their best, and her aggressive approach was quite understandable.
I told Bob I was quitting the English school.
That weekend, in a Chinese friend's party, my baby sat on the floor playing with her rosy bear. She was four months old. Suddenly I heard a sound, a sound so clear, so melodious, like a pearl falling into a silver plate. It took me a moment to realize it was laughter, my baby's first laughter. I held her up, laughing too, turning around to meet Bob's equally amused eyes. The room was full of noises from the host and the guests, and no one else had noticed the most amazing, most rewarding sound in the world.
I rode my bike to BU again on Monday, my baby's first laughter following me all the way like sunshine. It made me realize that my English vocabulary would grow with her. One day—I promised myself—I would get revenge on Katherine with my first published story written in English.
(First published in MotherVerse, 2006)