Pablo and Birdy: Immigrant Story #2

pablo-and-birdy-9781481470261_hrI’m thinking of Cheng right now. He was a skinny, small kid with huge black glasses who always wore a plaid shirt and big tie shoes, a student of mine long ago when I first moved to Minneapolis and took a job teaching Mandarin at a big urban high school. Cheng sat in the front of the class. His voice cracked frequently. He was full of a nervous energy and he had a nervous laugh to go with it. He had one friend, a near-silent boy with dark, dark eyes. Cheng’s parents had a tiny Asian restaurant and they worked nearly around the clock in it. Cheng’s time outside school was spent on homework and washing dishes at the restaurant.

Chinese was an elective, meaning that no one was forced to take it, which translated into a classroom full of students from all walks of life. Some were focused on futures which included college, others on vocational schools, others on high school graduation.

Many were first-generation immigrant students who, as a result of the Secret War in southeast Asia (which preceded the official Vietnam war),  had grown up in refugee camps in Thailand. Their families were originally from Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia. Most of them spoke English with a strong accent and unconventional grammar, and they studied Chinese because it was an Asian language, closer to their own than German or French or Spanish.

At parent-teacher conferences, if the parents of my immigrant students came, their children came with them to translate. Many of their parents, who had lived powerful lives in their native countries and had been forced to flee because of direct threats to their lives, were either unable to find work in this country or worked intensely hard shifts at minimum wage, barely able to support their families. My students constantly navigated a delicate balance between dutiful child and not-quite-adult interpreter of all things American for their parents. 

I used to have a potluck party at my house every June, to celebrate the end of the year. We set up badminton on my tiny city front lawn and set out food on the dining table inside. All my students were invited.

Cheng was more nervous than usual in the weeks preceding the party.

“When is it?” he would ask. “Where is your house again? What should I bring? What time does it start? Is everyone invited?”

On the day of the party, I was outside welcoming students and directing them where to put their potluck offerings. A big, old, rattly car pulled up to the curb. It was stuffed full of adults and children, Cheng among them. They all poked their heads out the window, chattering in a language I couldn’t understand. Cheng emerged, clutching a big brown take-out bag. He ran up the walk toward me, then turned around and ran back to the car, which was belching exhaust at the curb. The people inside urged him on and he came back to where I was waiting on the steps.

“Mai Laoshi (my teacher name), here you go!”

He pushed the heavy bag into my hands and crouched down to untie those big lace shoes. He placed them carefully on the steps (it’s customary in Asia to remove your shoes before entering a home) and made his way into the house.

I looked in the bag. Six heavy take-out containers full of stir-fried shrimp. No rice, just shrimp. Jumbo prawns. I knew that all that shrimp had come from his family’s restaurant. How much had it cost them? I looked down the walk at that big family car, still lingering at the curb, dark heads still poking out the window, watching me. I smiled and waved, and so did they. Eventually they pulled away from the curb, still looking back at me. Cheng’s mother put her hands together and bowed her head. 

When I went into the house, Cheng was leaning up against the kitchen counter. He looked so unsure of himself. His plaid shirt was tucked into his black pants. His sock-clad feet looked even bigger than usual. 

“Cheng, stir-fried prawns are my favorite dish,” I said. “Thank you so much for bringing all these shrimp.”

He looked up. He was about to cry.

“Mai Laoshi,” he said. “This is my first party. I don’t know what to do.”

* * * 


My new children’s novel, Pablo and Birdy, is about a boy named Pablo and his beloved parrot, Birdy. Pablo doesn’t know where he came from – he floated in to shore in the southernmost town of Isla one morning after a wild storm, tied into an inflatable raft.

Why was Pablo set adrift on the ocean, alone, with no one but a silent, fierce parrot to watch over him? Who was his first family, and why had they let him go? Had he done something wrong, screamed too much, been somehow unlovable? 

There’s a legend in Isla, of a remarkable bird called the Seafaring Parrot, who holds within herself all the sounds ever made in the world, and who –under special circumstances– can reproduce them. If Pablo could just find a Seafaring Parrot, maybe he would learn something, anything, about his origins?

At heart, Pablo and Birdy grew out of my experiences as an adoptive mother and as someone who has worked with refugees and immigrant students my entire adult life. As Pablo’s adoptive father tells him, “There are many others in this world who had to leave their homes, for various reasons, and their journeys are long and hard.” Over the next week, I’ll be posting a few more immigrant stories, in hopes that our elected employees don’t forget that they too –every last one of them, so far as I know, and please correct me if I’m wrong– are descended from immigrants.

"Ni hao" (on teaching, another in a series)

You’ve always loved this drawing. One of your students gave it to you long ago, when you quit your teaching job at South High School. It was his parting gift to you. His name was Binh, which means “peace” in Vietnamese, and he had emigrated to the U.S. when he was a baby.

Binh was a quiet person and he carried himself with deep confidence. You remember the first time you ever saw him, in your Chinese I classroom. He sat in the middle of the rows of desks, his black hair falling sharply over one eye. I bet he’s a dancer, you remember thinking. That was the grace with which he carried himself.

He’s one of many students that you remember from those days, faces that occasionally surface in your mind. You wonder where he is, if he went on to art school. When you think of Binh, you always picture him living on the California coast, in a beach town like Venice, Santa Monica even. It wouldn’t surprise you at all if he were a famous artist now.

The drawing Binh made for you has moved with you everywhere you’ve moved since those long-ago teaching days. It was one of the few things you took with you during a stage of great upheaval over a decade ago. You’ve pounded nails into, let’s see, four walls in four different apartments and houses in the intervening years, in order to hang the drawing so your eyes could fall on it every day.

You think of it as your little Chinese girl.

“Go take a photo of my little Chinese girl, will you?” you said the other day to your youthful companion, pointing to your broken leg. She obligingly trudged upstairs and took the photo.

Your little Chinese girl hangs right now on an upstairs living room wall, just above a desk that you bought at a garage sale and painted orange. On the desk sits a lamp, also bought at a garage sale, and in front of the desk sits an office chair on wheels, which you found on the curb and rolled three blocks to your house. Whenever you walk into that room you look over and say nihao to the little Chinese girl.

She’s looking up at her teacher. She’s wearing a puffy padded Chinese jacket. You imagine it’s winter where she is, and her school is unheated. Her teacher, whose arm and hand are all that’s visible of her, stands in front of the little girl’s desk. She too is wearing a quilted jacket. Their breath plumes into the cold air of the schoolroom.

You feel simultaneously cold and warm every time you look at the little Chinese girl, and every time you look at her, you think of Binh. You picture him as he was in your classroom, how perfect his written Chinese characters were, as perfectly formed as the letters he wrote in English, all in capitals, darkly pencilled on sheets of lined notebook paper.

Other gifts from students can be seen in every room of your house. There’s a heavy brass oversize Chinese fortune cookie on a shelf in the kitchen. A Hmong tapestry over the back of a chair. A handmade black choker with little silver beads hanging from it. A bracelet of small, painted circles that looks, to your eye, like an art gallery taken down from its walls, miniaturized, and strung on elastic.

When you wear that bracelet, people remark on it. They reach out to touch it, turn and twist the tiny paintings. It’s an irresistibly touchable bracelet.

You weren’t much older than your oldest students when you first got that job at South High. (You would later learn that you were only a couple of years older than the very oldest, those who didn’t have a birth certificate and who had stated their ages as young enough, when they emigrated, so that they could go to school. So that they could learn English, learn to read, get an education. Get the tools they needed to get a job.)

Because you hadn’t ever intended to teach, you had never taken education classes or done any sort of student teaching. All you had to go on, by way of teaching, was the teaching that you yourself had experienced, and at that point in your life, two teachers from your past stood out.

One was your high school English teacher, Mrs. Watson, who had eaten a zinnia during your senior year Great Books class during a discussion of the five senses and their importance in literature.

You and your friends had all watched in stupefied fascination as she put the zinnia in her mouth and chewed it up and swallowed it. It was as if you could feel that zinnia going down your own throat, taste the sun and summer air and green livingness of it.

The other teacher was your college Chinese teacher, Bai Laoshi. He was the reason you declared your major to be East Asian Studies/Chinese. He was a magnetic teacher whose presence filled any room he walked into. You still remember the first day of Chinese 101, freshman year in college, sitting around a big table with 15 or so other students. A man with a big nose strode into the room and looked each of you in the eye.

Nimen hao!” he barked.

In your memory, you all sat straight up, frozen with attention, and the class progressed from there. Chinese 101 met every single morning from 8-9 and every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon from 2-4:30. Next day, the second day of class, seven students remained.

You had many other good teachers and lots of mediocre ones, but those two –Mrs. Watson and Bai Laoshi— were the ones who were burned into your brain. It made sense to try to be like them, didn’t it?

But you couldn’t. Right from the start, you knew that. This was long before you understood the now-tired definitions of an extrovert as someone who’s energized by a party and an introvert as someone who’s drained by one, but instinctively you knew that you were no Bao Laoshi, nor were you going to eat a zinnia.

Over the years you’ve thought a lot about teaching. It seems to you that at heart there are two kinds of teachers, those who hold the students, every student, to their own standard and personality, and those who have an unspoken, intuitive give-and-take with each individual student.

The first kind of teacher is like the big circle in geometry that holds all the subsets within; this teacher’s personality and standards and beliefs are unbending, and students rise (or don’t rise) to meet them. The teacher does not change her teaching style; the students conform to it.

The second kind of teacher is a line, a force, that connects many different, contained subsets. She is always attuned to the individual forces –forces comprised of all the facets of an individual student’s personality, home life, work life, and physical being– at work in the classroom. She responds instinctively to these forces, subtly, almost imperceptibly, altering her teaching style for each student.

(It just occurred to you that maybe this is a better definition of extroversion and introversion than the party-effect definition.)

These teaching types translate to personality type. There’s no right or wrong, there’s just the way it is.

You are the second type of personality; you are the instinctive, intuitive, alterative teacher and person. Sometimes, as you go through your days, it feels as if your hands are full of many invisible strands of thread, and you’re weaving, weaving, weaving, invisibly weaving everything together.

This kind of person, the intuitive teacher, has to learn how to handle the on-on-on-ness of teaching. You are a person who hates being still, but your first few months of teaching at South High, you would come home after school and lie on the couch, unable to move. Every cell in your body would tremble invisibly under the on-on-on-ness of what those days were like.

“Five classes a day, five days a week,” is the mantra you chant now, whenever you’re talking with a high school teacher, or with someone who used to teach high school. “Hardest job I ever had.”

(Constitutionally, you’re much better suited to college teaching, which is what you do now, part-time in the fall. Classes that meet once or twice a week for looooong stretches of time, four hours in a single block, suit your personality.)

After you lay (laid? had lain?) on the couch you would haul yourself up and out the door, to tromp around Lake Calhoun until your muscles and heart and mind had been hypnotized into calm. Sometimes you walked around the lake once, twice, three times before that happened.

Next morning you would get up at 4:30 to write your stories before heading to school at 6:30 and do it all over again. Sitting here, typing this out, you once again feel the familiar rush of admiration and disbelief at the job that high school teachers, middle school teachers, elementary school teachers do day after day, month after month, year after year. They are astonishing human beings.

Back to Binh, and the other students in those classes: Chinese I. Chinese II. Chinese III-IV.

It didn’t take too long before you figured out that you, being you, could power-teach only three days a week. Power-teaching meant standing up in front of the class, writing on the board, turning and explaining words and phrases and grammar to the students. Laughing, chatting, making sure that they were all focused, as much as you possibly could.

Your close friend at South, another teacher, loved that phrase.

“Power teaching!” he used to say. “I power taught today.”

He would be proud of himself for power teaching. But the reality was that this particular man was capable of power teaching every day, and he did. He had the ability just to keep going without feeling his battery drain and drain and drain. He did not go home and lie on the couch trembling, then haul himself around the lake like a robot.

On one of the two days that you couldn’t power-teach you quizzed the students or had them perform plays or presentations that they created.

The other day, Friday, you either showed a movie that was in Chinese or had something to do with China –social policy, rural life, Chinese cooking, music, opera, taijichuan— or read aloud to the students.

Reading aloud to them was your favorite time of the week. You sat on your desk and they stretched out in their chairs or on the floor, on the big corduroy pillows you kept in a big heap in the corner of the room. All the garage-sale lamps were on and the overhead fluorescence was off.

Something you loved about teaching Chinese was that no one had to take it, which meant that each class could have anyone in it, any sort of student from any one of the many programs offered at the school. Fridays, when you looked up from the book and out at the class, hockey players and honor society members and swimmers and kids who held down full-time jobs after school and at night were all together, quiet and listening.

In the lamplight, all their faces were so young. So beautiful. You see them all now, in your memory. Where are you now, Binh and Sally and Ravi and Brian?

Iron and Silk, by Mark Salzman, was your favorite read-aloud. This is a book about Salzman’s two years living in Changsha and teaching English there, told in vignettes, lovely little three- and four-page snippets of life, each one funny and soulful and charming. The students loved it, and so did you.

Sometimes, even years later, you would see some of them in the hall, carrying their own copies of that book.

Sort of like right now, when you look around your house and see all those gifts, treasured over many years.

“We never know which lives we influence, or when, or why.” (On teaching, the first in a series.)

The classroom was square and windowless, with white cinder block walls and overhead fluorescent lighting. Six rows of six chairs each filled most of the space, with my gray, regulation-size desk facing them. Behind my desk was a tall filing cabinet. A blackboard covered the wall next to me, a real blackboard with real chalk.

This was a long time ago.

I remember it perfectly. I can still feel what it felt like to walk in there every morning at 6:30 a.m., what it felt like to prop my legs up on the desk, what the buzzer that ripped through our eardrums at the end of every hour sounded like.

I had just moved to Minneapolis from Boston, where I had made enough money to support my life as a writer –meaning enough money to pay the rent on my one-small-room apartment, buy a pumpkin muffin every morning from the market down the street and go to matinee double features at the Harvard Square Cinema– by typing papers for Harvard and MIT students.

Charles Street Typing. $1/page. Quick turnaround. One block from the Charles St. T stop.

This was in many ways a great way to make a living if you were trying to be a writer. Make your own schedule. Get up early, write your own stories, then type other people’s papers. Get paid in cash and checks. I made so little money that I didn’t even have to file income taxes.

When I moved to Minneapolis, all this went away. There was no paper-typing market in Minneapolis, there were no lucrative temp jobs. How was I going to support my writing? I answered an ad in the paper for a part-time community liaison job at South High School. I didn’t get the job, no surprise, seeing as I had no idea what a community liaison did, nor did I know anything about either South High School or Minneapolis in general. I had moved there a few weeks earlier; it took me half the morning just to find the place, given its strange all-numbers address, so typical of Minneapolis.

But the school must have read my quickly-thrown-together resume, which listed my college major as East Asian Studies/Chinese, because they called me a few weeks later to offer me a two-week job substituting for the Chinese teacher, who was going to be out of town.

I accepted. Why not?

Those two weeks are a blur. I don’t remember anything specific about them; I had geared myself up for ten straight days teaching Chinese according to the regular teacher’s lesson plans, and then: Goodbye. Or, as we say in Chinese, zaijian.

But  it turned out that the regular teacher was actually moving to California, and the two-week substitute-teaching job was actually a full-time regular teaching job, and did I want it? This was an odd turn of events and I still, after all these years, don’t fully understand how it came about. The best explanation I can come up with is that the regular teacher loved her job and her students so much that she couldn’t face the fact that she would not be returning.

This makes sense to me, because it took only a month or so in that interior, windowless, cinder-block classroom for me to love those students too. I stayed for four years in that job, a job that was handed to me unexpectedly and that I never would have applied for.

Writer. That was the only thing I ever wanted to be, and it still is. Ask me what I am, what I do, and the only answer you’ll get is “I’m a writer.” It still and always takes me a while to remember that I also teach.

(Teaching is not an “also,” though. Teaching is a more important job, for the good of the world, than writing. It might be the most important job there is. This is something I know in my gut. Knowing it doesn’t make me less of a writer or more of a teacher; it’s a fact that I hold in my hands and heart.)

South High School, back then and still, was a cross-section of the big city of Minneapolis. Some kids who lived in the neighborhood went there because it was their community school. Some went because they were part of an “Open” program (it was easy to tell who the Open students were because of the happiness they took in questioning authority). Some went to South because they had babies and toddlers and they were part of the MICE (Mothers and Infants Childhood Education) program. Others were there because South had a Partnership program, designed to keep kids in serious danger of dropping out, kids with serious family difficulties, kids who often had serious difficulties with the law, in school and on track to graduate. Other students were there for the Arts & Humanities magnet program.

The student body was, and is to this day, representative of all races, economic classes, family backgrounds. Any and all of these children could, and did, take Mandarin; Chinese I, II, and III-IV were electives, part of an international language program that at the time included German, French, Spanish, Latin and Chinese.

Many of my students were first- or second-generation immigrants from Southeast Asia: Hmong, Vietnamese or Laotian, for the most part, with a few Chinese kids who spoke Cantonese (as opposed to Mandarin, which I taught) at home.

This was my first experience with Hmong culture and history. I had no idea until then that the U.S. hired Hmong men in the mountains of Laos as guerrilla fighters before and during the Vietnam war. I had no idea that after the U.S. withdrew from Vietnam, these men and their families were in danger of their lives. I had no idea that, when offered asylum in the U.S., they ended up in Minnesota and California because that was where churches sponsored them.

All this was new to me. But everything was new to me: Minneapolis, teaching, and especially teaching Chinese. I was teaching myself how to teach as much as I was teaching the students Chinese.

Three images come shimmering up every time I think back to that classroom.

Lighting. The windowless room had overhead caged fluorescent tubes that buzzed and cast that eerie pallor over everyone’s face. Fluorescent lighting is horrible for many reasons, including its ugliness and the eyestrain it causes, so the first thing I did, when I got that job, was buy lots of lamps at garage sales and plug them in with extension cords (probably breaking fire code). We turned the lamps on and the overhead off, and the room was lit with soft, warm incandescence.

Pillows. The floor of our classroom was covered with thin, tough, ugly industrial tan carpet. I had an old green sewing machine that I found at a thrift shop, the one that I still sew on, come to think of it, and I made a bunch of big pillows out of corduroy in brown and red and ochre and orange. They were heaped in a pile in a corner and the students were free to haul them out and sit or lean on them when they worked on projects or assignments.

Dark brown eyes. These are the eyes of my students, the immigrant students who wanted to take Chinese because it was closest to the languages spoken in their homes. Vue* and May and Thuyen and Phuc and Hai, dark brown eyes and dark brown hair. After a while, some of them began to come in to the classroom during lunch, or after school, and stand in front of the desk or sit in the chair I kept next to it, and talk. Their stories are with me still.

That high school classroom was my teaching crucible. What I learned in it, about teaching, about observing, about connection, about being a human being, has stayed with me my entire life.

(To be continued. *All names and identifying characteristics have been and will be changed.)