ESSAY Mother Tongue Don’t judge a book by its cover or someone’s intelligence by her English. By Amy Tan • Art by Gabe Leonard I am not a scholar of English or literature. I cannot give you much more than personal opinions on the English language and its variations in this country or others. I am a writer. And by that definition, I am someone who has always loved language. I am fascinated by language in daily life. I spend a great deal of my time thinking about the power of language—the way it can evoke an emotion, a visual image, a complex idea, or a simple truth. Language is the tool of my trade. And 1 use them all—all the Englishes 1 grew up with. Recently, I was made keenly aware of the different Englishes I do use. I was giving a talk to a large group of people, the same talk I had already given to half a dozen other groups. The talk was about my writing, my life, and my book The Joy Luck Club, and it was going along well enough, until I remembered one major difference that made the whole talk sound wrong. My mother was in the room. And it was perhaps the first time she had heard me give a lengthy speech, using the kind of English I have never used vn\h her. I was saying things like “the intersection of memory and imagi20 READ October 6. 2006 nation” and “There is an aspect of my Fiction that relates to thus-and-thus”—a speech filled with carefully wrought grammatical phrases, burdened, it suddenly seemed to me, with nominalized forms, past perfect tenses, conditional phrases, forms of standard English that I had learned in school and through books, the forms of English I did not use at home with my mother. Just last week, as 1 was walking dovm the street with her, I again found myself conscious of the English I was using, the English 1 do use with her We were talking about the price of new and used furniture, and I heard myself saying this: “Not waste money that way.” My husband was with us as well, and he didn’t notice any switch in my English. And then I realized why. It’s because over the twenty years we’ve been together I’ve often used the same kind of English with him, and sometimes he even uses it with me. It has become our language of intimacy, a different sort of English that relates to family talk, the language I grew up with. vccah KEENLY: sharply WROUGHT: put together, created LANGUAG E BARRIER S You shoul d kno w tha t my mother’ s expressiv e comman d o f Englis h belie s ho w muc h sh e actuall y understands . Sh e read s th e Forbes report , listen s t o Wall Street Week, converse s daily with he r stockbroker , read s Shirle y MacLaine’ s book s with ease—al l kind s o f thing s I can’ t begi n t o under – stand . Yet som e o f my friend s tel l m e the y understan d fifty percen t o f wha t my mothe r says . Som e say the y understan d eighty t o ninety percent . Som e say the y understan d non e o f it , a s if sh e wer e speakin g pur e Chinese , But t o me , my mother’ s Englis h i s perfectl y clear , perfectl y natural . It’ s m y mothe r tongue . He r language , a s I hea r it , i s vivid , direct , full o f obser – vatio n an d imagery . Tha t wa s th e languag e tha t helpe d shap e th e way I saw things , expresse d things , mad e sens e o f th e world . Latel y I’v e bee n givin g mor e though t t o th e kin d o f Englis h my mothe r speaks . Like others , I hav e describe d it t o peopl e a s “broken ” o r “fractured ” English . But I winc e whe n I say that . It ha s alway s bothere d m e tha t I ca n think o f n o way t o describ e it othe r tha n “broken, ” a s if i t wer e damage d an d neede d t o b e fixed , a s if it lacke d a certai n wholenes s an d soundness . I’v e hear d othe r term s used , “limite d English, ” for example . But the y see m jus t a s bad , a s if everythin g i s limited , includin g people’ s perception s o f th e limited – Englis h speaker . I kno w thi s for a fact , becaus e whe n I wa s growin g up , my mother’ s “limited ” Englis h limite d my percep – tio n o f her . 1 wa s ashame d o f he r English . I believe d tha t he r Englis h reflecte d th e quality o f wha t sh e ha d t o say . Tha t is , becaus e sh e expresse d the m imperfectly , he r thought s wer e REA D 2 1 imperfect. And I had plenty of empirical evidence to support me: the fact that people in department stores, at banks, and in restaurants did not take her seriously, did not give her good service, pretended not to understand her, or even acted as if they did not hear her. My mother has long realized the limitations of her English as well. When I was a teenager, she used to have me call people on the phone and pretend I was she. In this guise, I was forced to ask for information or even to complain and yell at people who had been rude to her. One time it was a call to her stockbroker in New York. She had cashed out her small portfolio, and it just so happened we were going to New York the next week, our first trip outside California. I had to get on the phone and say in an adolescent voice that was not very convincing, “This is Mrs. Tan.” My mother was standing in the back whispering loudly, “Why he don’t send me check, already two weeks late. So mad he lie to me, losing me money.” And then I said in perfect English on the phone, “Yes, I’m getting rather concerned. You had agreed to send the check two weeks ago, but it hasn’t arrived.” Then she began to talk more loudly. “What he want. I come to New York tell him fiont of his boss, you cheating me?” And I was trying to calm her down, make her be quiet, while telling the stockbroker. “I can’t tolerate any more excuses. If I don’t receive the check immediately, I am going to have to speak to your manager when I’m in New York next week.” And sure enough, the following week. Amy Tan walking with her mother. there we were in front of this astonished stockbroker, and I was sitting there red-faced and quiet, and my mother, the real Mrs. Tan, was shouting at his boss in her impeccable broken English. BLENDINB DLD AND NEW Lately I’ve been asked, as a writer, why there are not more Asian-Americans represented in American literature. Why are there few Asian-Americans enrolled in creative writing programs? Why do so many Chinese students go into engineering? Well, these are broad sociological questions 1 can’t begin to answer. But I have noticed in surveys—in fact, just last week—that Asian-American students, as a whole, do significantly better on math achievement tests than on English tests. And this makes me think that there are other Asian-American students whose English spoken in the home might also be described as “broken” or “limited.” And perhaps I began to write stories using all the Englishes I grew up with. they also have teachers who are steering them away from writing and into math and science, which is what happened to me. Fortunately, I happen to be rebellious and enjoy the challenge of disproving assumptions made about me. 1 became an English major my first year in college, after being enrolled as pre-med. I started writing nonfiction as a freelancer the week after I was told by my boss at the time that writing was my worst skill and I should hone my talents tovrard account management. But it wasn’t until 1985 that I began to vmte fiction. At first I wrote what I thought to be wittily crafted sentences, sentences that would finally prove I had mastery over the English language. Here’s an example from the first draft of a story that later made its way into The Joy Luck Club, but without this line: “That was my mental quandary in its nascent state.” A terrible line, which I can barely pronounce. Fortunately, for reasons I won’t get into here, I later decided I should envision a reader for the stories I would write. And the reader I decided on was my mother, because these were stories about mothers. So with this reader in mind—and in fact she did read my early drafts—I began to write stories using all the Englishes 1 grew up with: the English I spoke to my mother, which for lack of a better term might be described as “simple”; the English she used with me, which for lack of a better term might be described as “broken”; my translation of her Chinese, which could certainly be described as “watered down”; and what I imagined to be her translation of her Chinese if she could speak in perfect English, her intemal language, and for that 1 sought to preserve the essence, but neither an English nor a Chinese structure. I wanted to capture what language ability tests could never reveal: her intent, her passion, her imagery, the rhythms of her speech and the nature of her thoughts. Apart from what any critic had to say about my writing. I knew I had succeeded where it counted when my mother finished reading my book and gave me her verdict: “So easy to read” • From The Opposite of Fate, by Amy Tan. Copyright © 2003 by Amy Tan. Used by permission. ABOUT THE AUTHOR I vccah EMPIRICAL; based on observation QUANDARY: a state of perplexity or doubt Amy Tan was born in Oakland, Calif., in 1952. Her parents moved to the United States from China a few years before her arrival. Tan has observed the culture clash between the two countries of her heritage for most of her life, and her writing often reflects it. Tan’s first novel. The Joy Luck Club, explores relationships between Chinese mothers and their American daughters. In “Mother Tongue,” she relates her patient and complex love for her mother. October 6, 2006 READ 23
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