bububooks

Helping children develop their American and native cultural identities together.

“Perfect American English”

Posted by bububooks on July 5, 2009

From The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan:

Cover of the first edition

Cover of the first edition

          “The old woman remembered a swan she had bought many years ago in Shanghai for a foolish sum.  This bird, boasted the market vendor, was once a duck that stretched its neck in hopes of becoming a goose, and now look!—it is too beautiful to eat.

            Then the woman and the swan sailed across an ocean many thousands of li wide, stretching their necks toward America.  On her journey she cooed the swan: ‘In America I will have a daughter just like me.  But over there nobody will say her worth is measured by the loudness of her husband’s belch.  Over there nobody will look down on her, because I will make her speak only perfect American English.  And over there she will always be too full to swallow any sorrow!  She will know my meaning, because I will give her this swan—a creature that became more than what was hoped for.’

            But when she arrived in the new country, the immigration officials pulled her swan away from her, leaving the woman fluttering her arms and with only one swan feather for a memory.  And then she had to fill out so many forms she forgot why she had come and what she had left behind.

            Now the woman was old.  And she had a daughter who grew up speaking only English and swallowing more Coca-Cola than sorrow.  For a long time now the woman had wanted to give her daughter the single swan feather and tell her, ‘This feather may look worthless, but it comes from afar and carries with it all my good intentions.’  And she waited, year after year, for the day she could tell her daughter this in perfect American English.”

 

This story moves me every time.  The woman gave her daughter a better life in America than she could in China, yet something was also lost.  When would the daughter be able to understand her mother’s intentions or even her mother’s story? 

Last week, I met up with a friend from undergrad.  She and I are both half Korean, half white.  We shared stories about our mothers’ backgrounds in Korea, how our parents met, the paths they traveled to get to the U.S., our mothers’ antics as well as when we finally began to understand some of those antics.  I enjoyed our conversation and, of course, learned more about myself and my mother in the process.      

I am proud to be an American.  I’m also proud to be an American of mixed heritage.  I enjoy my life here and know I could not have had it any better in Korea.  Sometimes, though, I wish I could speak to my mom’s family.  I wish I could better understand where my mom is coming from, her point of view, her intentions.  I know that will probably never happen.  And I know that my future children will lose a lot of their Korean heritage as well.  

But what we can salvage will be worth it.  Happy Fourth of July America!

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