Second Prize Short Story 2006
Lost and Found in Translation by Mike, China/California, Age 15
Our tan minivan pulled into a parking lot facing the miniature church, and as I crawled out, I shot my mom a last, pitiful look that would perhaps invoke her sympathy. We made eye contact, but she turned away and latched onto my little sister in the back of the van. I was too late. My mother would not be moved by arguments, no matter how competent my little sister and I were at whining.
"Time to get out, Fei Fei! You'll meet so many new friends here," my mother cooed at my sister.
"Mom! I don't want to go to Chinese school!" She writhed nimbly out of mother's arms and huddled in the far corner of the back seat.
"Yeah! Why do we even have to go?" I echoed indignantly.
Mother was caught between our pathetic arguments. She gazed at me with a stone face. It seemed that all the muscles in her face had suddenly died, so stern was the glare that she shot me. "We've been over this, Zhuang Zhuang. I thought that you were old enough to understand how important learning Chinese is," she whispered. "And you, Fei Fei. You said that you were brave and willing to try new things."
A guilty silence punctuated our resentful cries. Of course, deplore me for how immature I'm acting, how pathetic I am. I'm supposed to be the wise, elder brother.
We trudged towards the entrance of church. A woman stood in the path of the threshold, her hair tied in a menacing bun, her eyes always squinting. "Hello! It's your first time here?" she asked in Chinese. The lady looked at me and smiled a toothy smile as if she expected me to respond in fluid Chinese. My heart thumped in my chest.
"Yes. Where do we go?" my mother exchanged in Chinese. She pushed me forward.
I glared at her, feeling as though she was offering me to some beast. The woman directed my sister and I to our classes. My teacher was a young lady. Clipboard in hand, she began to pass out books while taking role. "Chen Zhuang Zhuang. Mike?" She looked around the room. My hand slithered up slowly. "Hello! Here's your book."
I sighed in relief. At least she could speak English. Once she had taken role, she instructed everyone to come up to the board and write their Chinese name. After eleven people went, all of whom seemed proficient in Chinese, it was my turn. The teacher motioned me up, and I waddled nervously towards the whiteboard. She brandished an Expo marker and handed it to me. My throat stuck. I felt pinpricks of sweat tickle my ear.
The teacher queried in Chinese, "Do you know how to write your name?"
I felt the focus of everybody's gaze burrow into my neck. I froze. The teacher asked the same thing again in English. I nodded slowly and raised the pen to the board. I drew a box and brought a long vertical line down through it. Next to it, I wrote two characters that each looked like a pair of wings. I stood back, unsatisfied, and returned to my seat. At least I had written what I thought was my name.
The teacher stared at the board and frowned. Slowly, she took the marker and corrected the characters. "Chen Zhuang Zhuang," she said slowly, like I was a preschooler, and wrote my name again on the board so that I would learn it. I blushed, endured the next horrific two hours of class, and came home humiliated.
Every Friday, I was forced to return to Chinese school. I vehemently refused to go, and yet, I somehow succumbed to the will of my determined parents for the next five years. Later, once I was in high school, some Caucasian friends of mine started taking Chinese lessons offered at local community college, just for fun. At first I was perplexed, but the summer vacation following that year enlightened me.
We went to China. "These are your roots," my father said. "Open your eyes. Both your mom and I came from here."
I opened my eyes. Beijing, capital of China, was an exotic place. That summer I breathed in a lush culture around me: parades at the huge Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City's rich history, and the stench of fried scorpion at the Donghuamen market. I loved my new experience. It wasn't until after we arrived home that I fathomed that I'd been able to read and understand, almost flawlessly, every Chinese word spoken or inscribed in that city on the other side of the world.
Mike on life between cultures: The hardest thing about balancing two cultures is living up to expectations those two cultures place upon you. Because I am Chinese in heritage, my culture drives me to strive in school and achieve academically, yet in an American environment, other things are expected out of me, such as enjoying sports and attending social rituals. A balance must be achieved, but at a certain loss to each side; sometimes I try to identify too much with one culture without realizing that I am sacrificing my identity: I am one-half Chinese and one-half American, not one-third Chinese and two-thirds American or vice a versa. The best thing about being an immigrant, however, is this very issue: being able to identify with two different worlds. Therefore, my mind is more open to other cultures because I am a person of two.