Mr. Zhou woke sluggishly, slowly becoming aware of his cold feet and skipping pulse. He sat up mechanically and, after a moment, stuck his feet into blue plastic slippers. Rubbing his face and yawning, he retrieved his glasses and slipped them on as he shuffled into the bathroom to complete his morning routine.
He emerged a half hour later, sitting down to a breakfast of rice porridge and salted duck eggs. When he was done, Mr. Zhou rinsed his dishes and put them in the dishwasher. On the kitchen counter was a post-it note from his wife. It told him, in hastily scrawled Chinese, to Please go to the grocery store and pick up soymilk. Beside it was another note, in hastily scrawled English.It was meant for Mr. Zhou’s son, and Mr. Zhou could not read it.
He sighed and put his shortcomings out of his mind. He decided that he would go out for groceries after watching a little TV, since it was currently primetime on the Chinese satellite channels. He settled on the couch and fiddled with the remote until he found the news. First he watched a half hour of Chinese news, then a half hour of international news. The first talked about President Hu Jintao, the second about Presidents Nicolas Sarkozy and Barack Obama. He knew about government censoring in China, so of course he wasn’t getting the whole picture. But at least he could understand the language. When he watched the American news channels at night, he saw the pictures but couldn’t comprehend the storyline. It was useless trying to learn about current events that way.
After the news was a game show, but Mr. Zhou didn’t care for it and turned the TV off. He found his cell phone and called a friend, asking if he could be driven to GrandMart, an Asian grocery store. Mr. Zhou knew how to drive. He’d even maneuvered the streets of China, which were full of jaywalkers, bicycles and angry drivers like Americans could never imagine. There was a car in the garage that was his, but he and his wife were probably going to give that to his son when he got his license. That would be pretty soon, Mr. Zhou realized. David was 17.
Mr. Zhou puttered around, gathering his keys and wallet as his friend drove over to pick him up. When the doorbell rang, Mr. Zhou switched his slippers for shoes and was ready to go. Sorry for the inconvenience, he said humbly in Chinese. I know that you are busy.
Don’t worry! boomed out the voice of his friend, Mrs. Jia. I am happy to assist you any way I can!
As Mr. Zhou got in, he wished for a pair of earplugs. Mrs. Jia knew that he could only understand Chinese and thought that he was lonely in the English-speaking United States. Well, he was, but not enough to hear her chatter. She was nice, just…loud. Very loud. This was why he didn’t call her often.
Oh, Mr. Zhou, how are you getting on? Do you get out enough? The air is very good here. My Mary always loves the outdoors, and I tell her everyday what a blessing it is because in China, the sky is covered with smog! And your son, David is it? He’s a dear. Good grades, and very talented at playing the violin and piano. I always thought it was a shame you and Katherine never had more kids. The government doesn’t enforce a birth law here, and I know your other kids would have been exceptional as well. But it’s such a shame that your son doesn’t know Chinese! Especially after your stroke…such a shame.
After that comment, even Mrs. Jia felt the awkwardness of the situation. She ventured off the topic hastily, talking about the good weather and her expectations for the new school year. Mr. Zhou nodded and made sounds of acknowledgment when they seemed appropriate, but his mind had wandered from the conversation.
It had been two years since the stroke, since Mr. Zhou had lost all ability to speak and comprehend English. He’d lived in this country for ten years before then, contributing to his community and proud to be a Chinese-American. But then had come the language loss, and once again, he was a stranger in a foreign land. At first, he couldn’t speak at all. His tongue was slow and his speech was slurred like a drunk’s, muddying up his mother language until it became incomprehensible. His mind screamed. His mouth garbled like a baby. When he had mastered Chinese again, he had also tried to regain his bilingualism—unsuccessfully. With Chinese, he had only needed to reclaim his mouth muscles. With English, it started again with ABC. Except this time around, his brain always forgot about A by the time he got to Z. Nothing stuck. Mr. Zhou bought CDs, hired a tutor, read children’s books and listened to English songs. Everything was water through a sieve. Finally, he had resigned himself to Chinese, with a smattering of badly pronounced English phrases like “Hello,” “Goodbye,” “Thank You.” He had accepted the fact that he was never going to speak to his son again.
David was a good boy. He’d done everything right – like Mrs. Jia said, he got good grades, played the violin well and the piano brilliantly. So when David had said that he wanted to quit Chinese school on the weekends to focus more on piano competitions, his parents had let him. But now David had only an elementary grasp on Chinese, and Mr. Zhou had a nonexistent grasp on English. They lived in the same house and never talked. Katherine tried to translate, but she couldn’t do everything. And there were some things that were just lost in translation.
Mr. Zhou came out of his thoughts as the car rolled into the GrandMart parking lot. Thank you for your assistance, he said. Should I call you again after I’m done?
Of course! answered Mrs. Jia. I’ll be doing some shopping myself, in another store that’s nearby. Take your time.
Mr. Zhou picked out celery and apples, soymilk and tofu. He placed in the shopping cart a box of dried seaweed he knew David liked to chew on as a snack, along with a packet of coat hangers that Katherine always seemed to run out of. He paid for the purchases with a credit card and signed on the screen in Chinese – he doubted anybody minded, and he always forgot what his English name was (Peter?).
Mrs. Jia came to pick him up promptly, and Mr. Zhou stuck his bags of groceries in the trunk, next to her bags of clothes. The drive back was relatively peaceful, overlaid with classical music and the quiet sigh of air conditioning. Mrs. Jia dropped him off at his house, and he waved goodbye until she turned the corner. Then Mr. Zhou unpacked the groceries, made himself a quick lunch (leftovers from dinner, microwaved till steaming) and ate it at the dining room table while flipping through the Chinese newspapers he’d picked up in the grocery store.
After lunch, he took a nap. He fell asleep easily and woke up after 45 minutes, right before his alarm clock went off. As he lay in bed and waited for the alarm to ring, Mr. Zhou thought about what he could do with his life. Right now, every moment felt like this one – waiting for something to happen, watching life leap forward without him. But he had other options. He could return to China. He had gone to medical school there; he could still go back to being a doctor. Perhaps he wouldn’t make such a good salary as he did before, but neither would he be this weight on his family. David was going to college soon. Katherine shouldn’t have to bear that burden alone.
The thought of leaving his family pained him, in a sentimental way that mattered more than it should have. He had been born in China and he wanted to die there—retire there, he amended. Then he’d be able to understand everything around him, to go into any shop he wanted and to communicate on a day-to-day basis. He’d miss many parts of America, like the clean air and the efficient roads. But China was in his blood, and more importantly, his neurons.
The alarm clock rang, forcing Mr. Zhou to get up. He gave a big sigh (he could still live like this a while, a stranger in limbo) and put on his trousers. Time to start making dinner.
David came back from school in the middle of the afternoon. They nodded at each other, and Mr. Zhou pointed at the post-it on the kitchen counter. David read it and nodded again, then trooped up to his room with his backpack.
Katherine came home later, around 5:30, and they talked warmly, discussing their respective days as they put dishes on the table. When they ate dinner, Mr. Zhou sat on one side of the table, David on the other, Katherine in between the two. Mr. Zhou was filled in on David’s day—Biology, Calculus, Back-to-School-Night was next week—and in return, he shared the fact that the seaweed was in the cabinet.
After the dishes were cleared away, Katherine turned the TV on to watch sitcoms but muted the volume so they could hear David practicing piano. Mr. Zhou ignored the TV entirely, focusing on the music drifting in from the other room. Over the years, he’d heard Bach and Beethoven, Mozart and Handel, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff. They usually bought David’s sheet music in China, because it was cheap, and Mr. Zhou had memorized every composer’s name in both Chinese and English just so he could identify the pieces. Today, after the warm-up of scales, it was Chopin.
Mr. Zhou let the music wash over him and took deep breaths, relaxing into the couch cushions. Worries about the future faded into the background, and Mr. Zhou just listened. Even if he couldn’t speak to his son and be understood, even if David never learned Chinese in college or beyond, this was ok. This was why he stayed in America, with his wife and son, even if their family was unorthodox. He smiled at the thought— what an understatement. But at least he and Katherine didn’t argue, and David liked piano and video games rather than drugs and alcohol. As long as they had these moments of intimacy, with three languages flowing through their house—Chinese, English, music—life was good.
Xinyi (Cindy) Sui lives in Gaithersburg and graduated in 2010 from Montgomery Blair High School, where she was the editor of the literary magazine, Silver Quill. She is attendingThe University of Chicago and plans to study biology and creative writing.