My mother came to America from Taiwan in the early seventies. Her only impression of people in the west was derived from a single source: Jesus. Representations of Jesus were everywhere in Taiwan. As statues, in pamphlets, on hand-painted wood amulets that the devout wore around their necks. Upon arrival in Berkeley, California, her expectations were met with great delight. All the men indeed looked like Jesus. Long hair parted in the middle, beards, flowing robe-like shirts, sandals. Even the women looked like Jesus, though without beards.
No English, was the only English she spoke. This was a useful phrase, one that she utilized as greeting, response, explanation, excuse, and exclamation. She taught the two words to my sister, who was then eight years old, in the months preceding their departure from Taiwan. This was before my time.
Yet during their first week in America, neither my mother nor sister had the opportunity to speak these words, the language of their new land. My mother’s first husband, a man who was not my father, was a louse. He did nothing to provide for his family. The only food in the apartment was single loaf of bread that a neighbor had given him as a welcome gift. He sat in front of the television all day and refused to leave the apartment. For a week, my mother and sister sat in the apartment with him, not knowing what to do. Where did they begin? They needed food. They needed jobs. They needed to go to school. They needed to learn English. And that was only the beginning.
Too ashamed to admit to her eldest brother who called nightly to check in, my mother lied to save face. Everything’s great, she proclaimed. The city is so big and beautiful. The food is not as flavorful as Chinese food, but what can we do? We must eat it anyway. Had she ridden the trolley? Why yes, it was fabulous. Had she seen the Golden Gate Bridge? Yes, of course. Had she seen the hippies on Telegraph Avenue? Most definitely. Her eldest brother was the one who had brought them all to America: parents, siblings, their children and spouses. He picked up my mother and sister from the airport in San Francisco, but had to travel straightaway to New York on business for two weeks.
The money he had given her husband for food and clothes—where had it gone? On the way to their new apartment from the airport, my mother’s eldest brother had mentioned this money. Yet no evidence of it was present at the apartment, which contained only a little black and white television the previous tenant had left behind.
Hearing my mother’s narrative of this account when I was a child, I asked her why she didn’t speak up, why she didn’t ask about the money or tell her eldest brother what was really happening.
I was shy, she said. I was stupid. I didn’t want to throw my face away.
After a week of subsisting on bread, watching sitcoms and news reports in a language that she didn’t understand, my mother was desperate. She had to do something. When her husband was sleeping, she felt his pockets and found a small handful of change. In the morning, she took my sister and walked down the alley past the 76 gas station. My sister had to go to school. They had to learn English. My mother had to get a job. Buses were everywhere in the streets; only she didn’t have any idea about which one to take. She had no idea about anything, actually. No idea about where the school was, how she would learn English, or what job she could possibly obtain when she wasn’t able to speak the language and had a small child to care for.
She saw a bus stop at the end of the block. Running over, she boarded the first bus that opened its doors to her. In one hand, she held out the handful of coins. In the other, she held out a map that her eldest brother had given her. The bus driver asked her a question, which she did not understand. Finally she was able to use the only language she had. “No English,” she said. She pointed to various buildings on the map that resembled schools. The bus driver shrugged. She pointed to my sister and then to the map. She spread her hands, the sides of her palms hinging open, miming a book. She scribbled on one palm with an invisible pen. Again she pointed to my sister and the map. The bus driver looked at my sister. No English. He took a few coins from my mother’s hand and pointed at her. He took a few more coins and pointed at my sister. Then he pointed to two seats directly behind him.
Ten minutes later, the bus driver stopped and waved at my mother. He gave her two slips of paper and pointed to another bus across the street. From my mother’s hand, he took the map that she had been clutching, scrutinized it, drew a circle on it, and handed it back. He pointed at the bus across the street. Hesitantly, she stepped out of the bus, into the street, and looked back at the bus driver. He nodded. At the bus across the street, she repeated the same actions, this time holding out the slips of paper along with the coins and the map. No English. This bus driver took only the slips of paper and the map. My mother pointed to the circle. The driver nodded and pointed to two seats across the aisle.
They passed many streets full of cars and Jesuses. The driver indicated that they would be getting off at the next stop. At a street corner, he pointed to a building where children could be seen inside the windows of a room facing a playground. My mother and sister clapped, overjoyed that they had arrived.
On the other side of the school’s fence, a woman approached them. My mother smiled. No English. She pointed at my sister. The woman seemed to understand, and led them to an office. Japan? the woman asked. My mother shrugged. No English. China? the woman asked. My mother bobbed her head. Yes! The woman raised her hand and paused before going into another room. When she returned, my mother was surprised to see a Chinese woman with her.
Now, language overflowed from my mother’s mouth. My daughter needs to go to school. She needs to learn English. I too need to learn English. Do you think I can find a job? Where do I look for a job?
The woman explained that first, the school my sister would attend was determined by where they lived. Where did they live? My mother scratched her cheek. By the 76. Right behind the orange ball. The woman bit her lip. But there are many 76 gas stations. Which one do you live behind? Shame flooded my mother’s cheeks. She didn’t know. How will you get home? the woman asked. My mother pulled a piece of paper from her pocket. The woman called the telephone number written on it.
Fortunately, my mother’s husband answered. Unfortunately, he didn’t know their address either. The woman told him to go out in the street and copy the letters of the street signs.
He could not read English but he knew the alphabet. A few minutes later, he recited the letters he had copied, and in this way he relayed the cross streets where their apartment was situated.
The woman drove my mother and sister to the right school. She showed my mother which buses to take. Breakfast and lunch are provided for free, she said. And you can eat breakfast at the school too, to begin the day with a full stomach. But isn’t that embarrassing, to eat the children’s food? my mother asked. You are allowed, the woman replied.
After breakfast (which my mother knew she’d never eat no matter how hungry she was) you will take another bus to the adult school, the woman instructed my mother. There, she would learn the basic skills needed to live in America, such as: how to take public transportation, how to speak English, and about customs, holidays, and traditions.
Can you believe what the Chinese woman did next? my mother asked me.
She called the police to take your husband away, I guessed.
No, my mother said. The woman drove us to the adult school, translated, helped me enroll, and then drove us home. In the span of one day I experienced kindness from so many people. Are you listening?
Good. Because this is an important story about how you can come to a new country, full of Jesuses in the streets, with a wooden head and a stinky egg of a husband and somehow find your way.