Like other bookish types, I ended up an English major in college. Many of my fellow English majors wanted to teach, but that didn’t appeal to me at all; the thought of speaking in front of large groups of people terrified me. I’d picked English purely because I enjoyed reading novels, and if I could get a degree out of it, all the better. That said, the practical side of me had potential careers in mind; although teaching was out, since I loved books and language, I thought I might become a book translator. I could make use of the foreign language requirement, a mandatory two years for English majors.
I struggled. The language requirement proved to be the toughest obstacle of my undergrad years. The strange thing, however, was that my struggle had nothing to do with difficulties encountered with the coursework. Quite the opposite, in fact. I seemed to have a knack for quickly picking up the fundamentals of any language I came across. Each class was fun, something to flirt with. But once a class began to get serious and demand commitment, I would start to get nervous. The night before the drop date I would sit up in bed, completely soaked in a sweaty panic, like a groom having second thoughts before the wedding. Did I really feel connected to this language? Enough to study it for the years to come? Invariably, the answer was No, and I’d bail. This happened time and time again, causing me to abandon one class for another, until I’d sampled almost every tongue in the catalogue.
Eventually I was able to meet the foreign language requirement, though it certainly wasn’t based on any perseverance on my part. While I had somehow managed to earn a year’s worth of credit in both German and Japanese, it was the English department chair who had the compassion (and the authority) to accept this in lieu of the standard two years in a single language. Ultimately, his signature enabled me to graduate. To this day, I have an asterisk on my transcripts noting the exception.
Although it’s been some time since I’ve received my diploma, my friends are aware of my history. So it stands to reason that they should be astonished to see me lugging my Indonesian language books around today. Some merely raise an eyebrow while others laugh outright. I can’t say that I blame them, as I’m not blind to the irony myself. Basically, it’s a big joke that I should be attempting another language now. I find it difficult to tell them that things have changed, that I have changed, especially when they’re laughing so hard.
If I had the chance to explain, this is what I’d tell them:
My Ah-ma died in September 2002, one year and three months after I graduated from high school. I remember I had just started to attend community college part-time, and was up early for a class the morning of her death. I was on my way to the kitchen when my mom pulled me into her room to tell me “something important.” Besides being perpetually cranky in the mornings, I was annoyed because I figured whatever it was she had to say, she could tell me as I prepared my bowl of cereal.
My mom wore an expression I’d never seen before, not quite angry or disappointed, but negative just the same, so I guessed that I was in trouble. I tried to remember what I’d done when she led me past the bedroom and into the master bathroom. The rays of the morning sun entered the room from the skylight and reflected off the large mirrors above the sinks, bathing us in a white light.
My mom gently grabbed my arm above the elbow and looked me in the eyes. I found the situation impossible corny. When she told me that her mother—my Ah-ma—had passed away while visiting family in Jakarta, I didn’t feel sad about it at all. Worse, seeing my mom’s pained expression and hearing the choke in her voice, I felt pressured to mimic her grief. I looked away and improvised an anguished sound. I followed that up with “Oh my god . . . Oh no . . . That’s terrible.”
Then, afraid my mom wasn’t buying my act, I hugged her so that she couldn’t see my face. She rubbed my back and I patted hers. Wanting to hide, I excused myself for the toilet. Before I shut the door, my mom gave me a weary smile and said, “We have to be strong.” I nodded, hoped my eyes looked sufficiently wet. “I’ll go tell Albert,” she said, and left for my brother’s room.
Sitting on the toilet lid, I grew ashamed at my lack of genuine emotion. It was the only time I actually wished to be sad, to be able to show it physically. I closed my eyes and was able to visualize Ah-ma, my thoughts going immediately to her dark, cloud-like hair, always seeming to hover in the background. But beyond this—nothing. I shook this off, chalked it up to not being fully awake yet. Of course I was sad, I told myself. Ah-ma was my grandmother. I loved her. Didn’t I?
I never had the chance to really dwell on my feelings for Ah-ma in the days following her death. I hadn’t seen her for many years, hadn’t lived with her since my family left California for Nevada in 1997. With the exception of a few brief visits, anything to do with Ah-ma I’d get through my mom, from news of her health to the yearly red envelopes filled with Chinese New Year money. So, when my mom left for Indonesia to attend the funeral, it was like I had no way to relate to Ah-ma’s death. My life continued as usual, with work five days a week and classes on my days off.
My mom ended up extending her stay in Indonesia. One week became two weeks. Two weeks turned into two months. When she finally came back, Ah-ma wasn’t anywhere on my family’s list of topics. At the airport, my father, brother and I met my mother at baggage claim. She looked radiant, happy to see us. It was all hugs, smiles and three thousand questions.
How did we eat, she asked.
Fine, we said, fat on fast food.
Where did she get that blouse, we asked.
In a Jakarta department store, she said.
We commented on her haircut, which was shorter than usual. Looks good, we said, though I personally didn’t like it.
At home, my mom went through her suitcases and presented us with gifts from relatives. My brother and I received Bali shirts that were much too small. We laughed. The last time our Indonesian relatives saw us was when we were five years old, and we figured they must have just guestimated from there. My father, whom most of them have never met, had received a pair of batik pants much too large. We practically howled when he held them up to his waist. An American, they believed him to be much bigger than his actual 5’9” frame. There were other things unpacked that proved more useful, however, such as Srikaya (a coconut/sugar jam), Tjing Tjau Balsem (like Tiger Balm, but a lot stronger), and Kopiko (coffee-flavored candy).
As soon as the suitcases were emptied and put away in the garage, things seemed to return to normal except for the few times my mom would start talking to us in Indonesian or Hakka, the Chinese dialect her family spoke. When this happened, my father, brother and I would stare at her with dumb looks on our faces until she realized what she was doing. “I forget I’m not in Indonesia anymore,” she’d say, and we’d all get a good laugh. For all the joviality, it was easy not to think about Ah-ma. It was like my mom left for Indonesia and did all the grieving and healing for us.
Sometime later my mom had a tree planted in the park across the street from our house. At its base was a plaque to memorialize Ah-ma. The tree looked more like an overgrown twig, and had to have a two-by-four tied to it so it wouldn’t blow over in the desert wind. Being just shy of twenty at the time, I was only interested in things concerning myself, so when my mom called me over to admire the new plaque I went begrudgingly. Once there, my mom didn’t say a word. The plaque was supposed to say it all in its magnificence. Knowing this, I was annoyed. I barely glanced at the plaque and told my mom it was “nice” so I could go back inside.
I thought nothing of the plaque until a few days later when I noticed a few people stopping their SUVs at the curb to get out and look at it. That’s when I began to think “What the hell are people doing reading my plaque?” Of course, this is exactly what plaques are for—to be mused over—but suddenly it was my plaque and I worried that people might desecrate it. From then on I kept my eye on the memorial, more as property than what it was supposed to represent.
Soon the word was out, and like anything new in the neighborhood, the neighbors all had to come inspect it. On the pretense of checking the mailbox, I’d go out so that I could overhear their comments.
“Nobody I ever heard of.”
“This sort of thing doesn’t belong in a public park.”
“I think it’s nice. Wonder what one costs.”
“Is this all? Dan made it sound more interesting.”
It seemed most neighbors were okay or otherwise indifferent to the plaque. A few actively expressed disdain. I thought that was fine as long as people didn’t touch it. But they would, of course. Tracing a fingertip across its surface, one man said, “Cheap” and, satisfied, walked away.
Worse were the neighborhood kids. The tree is situated not twenty feet from the school bus stop. Children are often cruel. “Tjhaimoidjin?” they’d say. “What kind of name is that? It sounds stupid!” They would poke at the plaque with sticks and shake the tree’s flimsy, newborn branches. This made me very angry. Once, I went out to the street and demanded of the few parents there: “Keep your damn kids away from that plaque!”
The next day a pile of dry dog turds lay on the plaque. That was the worst of things to happen, though. As it turned out, the plaque was well-made and would not be easily scratched or stained. Eventually, the memorial lost its novelty and people grew bored of it. Even the children left it alone. It became just another thing in the park, and was soon forgotten.
The years passed. I walked out on my job, stopped fooling around with cars and girls. I enrolled full-time at University of Nevada Las Vegas and eventually landed part-time work at the campus Writing Center. After graduating in December 2008, I couldn’t find a job. The economy was in recession and, having majored in English, employers weren’t exactly banging down my door in need of my services.
Since my tutoring job at the writing center ceased upon my graduation, I found myself out of school and unemployed, a position I’d never been in. Sure, occasionally I’d hit stretches where I’d either be out of school or out of a job, but never both at the same time. With my family members having jobs to go to, for the first time I was staying home more than anyone else. I began to look for things to do, and by February 2009, I had settled into a routine. I made sure to give my mom a ride to work everyday, and afterwards I would buy groceries or run errands. I made sure our dog, Bruce, was fed and his water-bowl was full. I took him out in the evenings and then I would pick my mom up from work. Other than these few things, I didn’t have many responsibilities and continued to spend much of the day doing the same things I did in college. That is, I passed the hours bullshitting in coffee shops with friends. As fun as that can be, I soon found myself wanting something more substantial to do with my time. It was so odd not to be busy! No more homework or papers to write, no more work at the writing center. I felt useless.
Then one night in March, I went to take Bruce out as usual. He dragged me across the street and up the curb. As soon as his paws touched down on the grass he lifted his leg and fired. I’d never seen a dog more happy and relieved as Bruce was in that moment. He must have consumed a lot of water that day because he was balanced on three legs for some time. Waiting for him to finish, I wandered over to a small tree with beautiful burgundy leaves, much different from the taller green trees in the park. It was Ah-ma’s memorial tree. I bent down to the plaque, a dark slate grey with white lettering, set into a large red stone. I realized I’d never really looked at it before.
In Loving Memory Of
Marsia Tjhaimoidjin Santoso
May 22, 1927
September 8, 2002
Beloved Wife, Mother
My tears turned the plaque into a blur. The memorial reminded me of a tombstone, and it filled me with a sorrow six and a half years too late. My dog tugged at the leash and we began to walk. Wiping my eyes with my shirtsleeves, I managed to compose myself but was flooded with memories of my Ah-ma:
How, in my earliest years in San Francisco, she would take the bus from the apartment she shared with my aunt to our place on 32nd Avenue just to see my brother and me. She would gaze at us, smiling with a grandparent’s love, something I didn’t understand at the time. “Mommy, Ah-ma’s staring at me,” I’d complain.
How she always pronounced my name as “Suh-co-tee” (Scottie) and my brother’s name as “Ah-bet” (Albert). When I was in the third grade, she would show up as school let out to accompany us home on the public bus. I was embarrassed by the fact that she didn’t understand English. Once my friend asked “Who’s that old Chinese lady?” and I had said she was my family’s maid.
How, later, when my family moved in with her and my Aunt to a house in the East Bay, she was quick to do the little things for me, such as appearing out of nowhere with a plate of sliced apples and peeled oranges as I went about my schoolwork. She never hesitated to fry up a quick meal of chopped hotdogs over rice—a simple mix of American and Asian food that was my favorite at the time. Ah-ma would present the plate to me and say “makan,” and I would correct her by using the English word “eat” instead of saying thanks.
How, when I didn’t feel like taking off my shoes, I would run across the carpet to get what I needed before going out. Ah-ma would yell at me and throw a slipper. “Sorry!” I’d say, and she’d mock me, repeating “Sah-wee! Sah-wee!” Later, I learned to crawl on my hands and knees when I didn’t want to take off my shoes. Ah-ma would still throw a slipper, but this time she had to laugh at my ingenuity.
How she’d watch “The Price is Right” every morning. She would imitate the English words she heard. “Come on down,” Ah-ma would say. “Spin the wheel!” She’d chuckle when I caught her doing it. Sometimes I would sing Indonesian or Chinese karaoke just to hear her laugh. I would follow the Romanized phonetics glowing at the bottom of the screen. She found my American pronunciation and tone to be hilarious.
How, when I was in junior high, Ah-ma decided to take classes to learn English so she could speak to her grandchildren. I was too busy with my own things to practice conversation with her, too impatient to deal with that level of English. When she went for her exam to become an American citizen, I didn’t think she’d pass. She did pass, but shortly afterwards my family moved away to Nevada, and she never got the chance to put the language to use.
Walking the park’s perimeter with Bruce, I was shocked that most of my memories consisted of our lack of common language. Worse, I was reminded of how inconsiderate I had been towards her. I was young, I told myself. I tried to use youth as an excuse for my conduct, but I couldn’t escape the fact that, young or not, I had wrongly equated Ah-ma’s lack of English to a lack of intelligence. Basically, I treated her as dumb, someone incapable of communicating. It never occurred to me that perhaps I could have made efforts to learn her language—that my inability to speak Indonesian or Hakka was just as frustrating to her as her lack of English was to me. Ultimately, I had taken her for granted, and this revelation ate away at me. I immediately felt the need to do something to make up for my past behavior. But what could I do for Ah-ma? She was dead.
Lost in thought, I had followed Bruce back to our original location by Ah-ma’s memorial. After all these years, my mom still kept it clean. No dirt, rocks or leaves obscured the plaque. The tree had grown considerably and it was nicely trimmed. My mom worked hard to keep up its appearance, whereas I couldn’t have told you what was written on the plaque before that day. For a moment I thought that I could take over my mother’s duties. But a plaque could be wiped down in seconds and the tree was already nice and strong, having come a long way since its days needing a two-by-four as a crutch.
It wasn’t until I picked my mom up from work that I realized what I would do. She was waiting for me outside, engaged in a conversation on her cell phone. I pulled up next to her but she didn’t see me. When I rolled down my window I noticed she was speaking Indonesian. Instead of alerting her that I was there, I listened. Immediately I thought back to the days in the East Bay when hearing Indonesian was a daily occurrence. I remembered always having to be translated for, getting an abbreviated, watered down version of what was being said. But now, hearing my mom speak to my Aunt, I found that despite my ignorance I was able to understand a few words. And suddenly, I knew that I would learn Indonesian. Deep down I had always felt a twinge of sadness at not being able to fully communicate with my family. I finally realized that I had never been able to commit to any other language in school because Indonesian had to come first. It may not be as pretty or as popular as some languages, but it was always there, waiting for me to acknowledge it.
Well, now I have. And I think Ah-ma would approve.
An image from my past comes to mind: My family gathers in the house for a party, a house full of Chinese Indonesians eating, laughing, and speaking together. I feel like an outsider. I sit dolefully on the couch furthest from the festivities and try to convince myself I’d rather be elsewhere—playing basketball with friends, perhaps. Then Ah-ma looks up from her conversation and searches for me. She sees me separated from the family and beckons me to join in.
Scott Barahti is a recent graduate of the Black Mountain Institute’s MFA Program at UNLV. His work has appeared in Poetry Flash, and now, in Entropy. He is currently an assistant editor at Witness and lives in Las Vegas.
If writing defies “common sense,” if it seems to go against traditional modes of thought, norms, and histories, the idea of that common sense no longer makes sense, or might make sense if we’re allowed to reinvent ourselves. That’s what I’m looking at with the literacy narrative, the coming-into-language story. I want to hear yours: when you first “clicked” with a language, whatever it is; why you questioned the modes of your Englishes; how you wrote “poetry,” but looked at it again and called it “lyric essay.” I want to see your literacy narrative in its scholarly, creative, and hybrid forms. Send your literacy narratives to Sylvia Chan at email@example.com. Stay tuned for more literacy narratives from yours truly and others.