“Hands Chopping Air: Teaching ESL in Manhattan’s Chinatown,” by Rachel Aydt.
In New York’s Chinatown, fire escapes crawling up the façades of the brick walkups are laced with laundry hanging from clotheslines, and terracotta planter gardens abound and bloom, showing the residents making the place a home.
It’s not a stretch to imagine such a neighborhood as it might have been in the mid-nineteenth century, after the first large wave of Chinese immigrated to the American West. While some came willingly for the “Golden Mountain” promised in California, a far larger number of men were conscripted to work on the railroads, and the women were mostly forced into prostitution. All of them, probably, still dreaming of the storied Gold Rush. Those new arrivals — whether here by choice or by force — were thrown into a new land of English speakers, construction, and isolation. The right (or the necessity) to assimilate came later.
Cross Madison Street today, and the tenements fall into the shadows of the even more monolithic housing projects near my son’s Chinese American public school, P.S. 184, also known as the Shuang Wen School. Here, education has become the new gold of a vastly different generation of immigrant families, as this part of Chinatown crosses over into Lower East Side neighborhoods mostly populated by relatively recent arrivals from Eastern Europe.
Below the crowds and bright colors, the projects’ monotonous façades appear stark, relics of an America perhaps best dated to the Cold War. In winter, the ubiquitous American elm trees are bare and the anemic playgrounds of these projects are empty, the concrete of the buildings appears heavy against the gray skies.
And yet, in these cold public spaces, the neighborhood rises into life each day as my son, Jamie, and I make our way to school. The Chinese community comes out for morning communal exercise. The people bring their transistor radios and line up for tai chi, or fan dancing, or sword dancing, or dancing, period. They shake their hands and energy pulses from body to body. There is an unattainable communal joy that they find during their daily practice.
I’m envious, or perhaps wistful, in the same way that I feel when I spot Chinese funeral parades crawling down the street, piles of fresh flowers atop the hearses. At many of the funerals, colorful ghost money, or joss paper, made from bamboo or rice paper, will be burned to guarantee everlasting wealth.
At these moments, the Chinese community seems so insular and yet so connected that I feel a stab of loneliness. I’ve considered asking to join them in their tai chi, but the closest I’ve come is to exercising alone at the outdoor gym under the FDR Highway along the East River where the larger groups convene. I use the industrial gym machines that the City Parks and Recreation Department have bolted into the concrete, but from my perch I can take up my space alongside the others to snap my imaginary red fan with theirs, or slice the air with my adorned plastic sword.
The tai chi practitioners don’t reach for props; instead focus their energies on balancing upon one foot, their hands tracing the air, each mirroring the one next to them. Their precision and control astound me and seem as foreign to my life as their native tongue. The salty smell of the brackish river rises, reminding us all of the nature beneath our urban grind.
On Wednesday mornings, I engage with the Chinese immigrant community in a different way. I drop Jamie off at the Shuang Wen School, sign in with the school’s security guard, and then head to the second floor.
This is the day I’ve volunteered to teach English to the Chinese caretakers of the school’s children: parents and grandparents, mostly. There are always new students dropping in and out, so we all have to introduce ourselves each week. Every week, I begin by asking Lou, my volunteer translator, to explain that I hope to create a space where everyone can feel comfortable enough to practice speaking.
Sometimes I’m the one uncomfortable with language. I struggle to remember the new students’ Chinese names, a fact that shames me. I can barely even recall those who chose to use American names once they came here (like all those immigrants whose names were changed at Ellis Island).
There is Joanne. There is Angela. There are three Zhengs and two Zhangs. A few Lis.
As for me, Rachel, I never shake the feeling that I’m a fraud among these students. I teach literature and journalism classes at New School University, but I’ve never studied the pedagogy for English as a Second Language, and the two skillsets don’t equate. In my Intro to Journalism classes, the first lesson included remembering to include the five W’s (Who, What, Where, When, Why — and also How) into reported stories. Here, the first lessons are even more simplistic: Before you learn what the W’s are, you need to learn how to say “W” in the first place.
In the classroom, I make do with a workbook the school principal has given me, one that was published in the 1980s. It looks like a coloring book. Inside, there are rough sketches of members of a multicultural diaspora as they embark on typical daily activities such as shopping for produce, navigating medical events, or cooking meals as pets and children yap at their feet. These coloring-book people have extravagant facial hair and wear bell-bottoms, and the phones they speak into are still connected to the wall with curly cords. For lessons, I pass out Xeroxed copies of these pictures, along with copies of the English alphabet.
I remember the very first January class of spring semester 2016, my first stab at taking on the volunteer teaching position. Back then, a grandmother, whose short black hair exposed a long beautiful face, was scared to open her mouth; instead, she laughed every time it was her turn to speak, and she held the piece of paper with the English alphabet over the lower part of her face. She seemed ashamed of her starting place; the very beginning, further behind in her study of the alphabet than her grandchildren in kindergarten. We were going over how to make the sounds of the alphabet, and when we got to the stereotypical “stuck place” for Chinese speakers, the R sound, I coaxed her to say red.
“R-E-D,” I said, drawing out each letter.
“Whesh,” she whispered back, behind the paper.
“Red,” I said.
“Whesh,” she repeated.
This exchange went on, with me repeating “Red,” and the grandmother saying “Whesh” from behind the piece of paper; and then saying “Whesh,” without the paper in front of her face. And then “Whesh” became “Whed.” And then “Whed” became “Wred,” the grandmother’s lips curling awkwardly around the sound of the W that she couldn’t seem to part with. Finally, “Red.”
In 1998, when I first moved in with my husband on East Fourth Street, I noticed that our elderly neighbor Chin Lee carried a yoke in the mornings with a plastic bag tied to each side. In the earliest hours she hit the streets, filling the bags with recyclables that she’d gather from blocks and blocks of trashcans. The bags would grow larger and larger until she reached her limit, at which point she’d stand in line at our neighborhood Key Food, queued up for the recycling machine. I don’t know how much money she eked out of this self-employment, but I do know she supplemented it by visiting a food pantry. She did this for years.
When we brought our infant son home from the hospital in 2003, Chin Lee took a new interest in our little family. One food pantry day, she knocked on my door, offering me the pasta she hadn’t finished and some cans of applesauce that looked like they’d been designed in the 1940s — pastel drawings of a beautiful sun-kissed apple taking up the majority of the label’s space, like hopeful propaganda. The label read, “U.S. Agriculture. Not available for resale.”
I always took the groceries and thanked her, and we would have conversations in a sign language of our own creation. Sometimes she pointed at baby Jamie in his Pak ’n Play, and then chopped the air at her knee to indicate that he’d grown.
Moments like this may have ultimately led me to my volunteer gig with the school. I wanted to be able truly to speak with someone who was becoming a friend.
Sometimes I try to communicate to the caretakers I’m teaching at Shuang Wen with gestures, but I end up looking like part of an over-exaggerated comedy routine.
As always, we follow the workbook’s theme. This week, the theme is shopping. Shopping is an easy, universal subject to tackle. I mime a shopping trip with ridiculous gestures, pointing and picking up the imaginary piece of fruit and handing over the imaginary money to Lou, the translator. I pretend to hold a cantaloupe up to my nose, like I’m sniffing it to make sure it’s ripe. Next, I fill an imaginary plastic bag with lichee fruit. How many pounds of lichees have I filled the bag with? Lichees are expensive! At ten dollars a pound, this two-pound bag will cost me twenty dollars.
I pull my empty pockets out from my corduroys and the class laughs. They recognize the universal sign for, “Oops, I don’t have enough money!”
American-Name-Francis sits next to American-Name-Joanne, who moved to New York from China with her family two months earlier. Through the translator, Joanne explains that she has two children in the school, one in Pre-K and one in fourth grade.
Through this exercise, eventually, we learn that Francis and Joanne like to eat vegetables.
Jamie is now a towering 6’1” thirteen-year-old eighth grader. He and Chin Lee, our neighbor with the recycling yoke, have watched one another grow older. When she first met him, she used to tap his tiny face with her fingers in a way that seemed too rough to me, but it made him laugh from his belly. They already had an understanding that required no words.
When he began to get so huge that he outgrew his stroller, she laughed and pointed to his feet as they dragged along the ground. Pointing at him, she would mime to me, When will he walk by himself?
I understood, and I responded to her concern by pretending to run in place, shouting, “Jamie! Stop! Stay on the sidewalk!”
She laughed, knowing that he was a wild child and I needed all the restraining help I could get.
Eventually, I gave up the stroller, and she stopped carrying the yoke and began to use a walker. Her daughter would take her for morning strolls down the block, and the four of us would have the same conversation again and again, but each time her hand would reach higher into the sky.
Yes, he is getting so big, so fast, I’d respond. Yes, I’m proud of him, I’d gesture. I would kiss her graying head and she would beam, and whatever wasn’t said in words wasn’t needed.
In the next English class, having mastered the shopping topic the previous week, we sit in a circle, taking turns speaking about the children in our lives. The most obvious commonality shared by the students is that they’re here because they bring little people — children or grandchildren — to this school. While I can’t understand the snippets spoken to their charges at drop-off, the invisible filament of love is universal.
In these moments, lunchboxes are handed off, kisses bestowed on heads, and arms raise in hurried half-waves as the older kids make their way through the front. These are the gestures and the language of caretaking.
When we come to the shy grandmother, the one who once held the paper over the lower half of her face as we practiced “Red,” I instigate a game of charades so she can tell me about her family. I chop the air, mimicking what Chin Lee taught me to do so many years ago. First at knee height, meaning, in this case, “my youngest granddaughter.” Above my head I chop the air, which means “my oldest grandson.”
We’ve made progress. She whispers, “I am a grandmother at Shuang Wen School. My youngest granddaughter is four years old. My middle grandson is eight years old. My oldest grandson is nine years old.”
With each sentence, her voice grows stronger, ultimately rising into ownership of the facts in the sentences. As I watch her I feel a lump forming in my throat, and before long, tears spill down my face.
I’ve never cried in front the Chinese English class before and I feel silly now, but I see that other eyes of mothers and fathers and grandmothers and grandfathers all further along in their English than this grandmother are also teary.
At the end of her sentence, everyone claps. I hug her and cry, and now I let the tears fall. I figure that if I can show emotion in this very self-controlled culture of tai-chi and red fans, maybe they will let loose and speak a bit more freely.
When the weather turns warmer and the delicate cherry blossoms begin to emerge, I think I’ll see Chin Lee with her daughter on the street, but I don’t. I miss her, and I worry.
When our neighbors die, the management of our group of buildings hangs up fliers in our foyers with photographs, short obituaries, and visiting hours at the funeral home. I haven’t seen anything about Chin Lee yet.
Usually, my neighbors are laid out at the Ortiz Funeral Home around the corner, but I imagine that Chin Lee would have been laid to rest by the Ng Fook or Wah Wing Sang funeral homes on Mulberry Street, directly across the street from the Baxter Street playground where she and I went every weekend when Jamie was much smaller. I suppose I could simply go and knock on her door, but a part of me is afraid of what I might discover. For the time being, I go on hoping I’ll see her on the block with her daughter when the weather warms up.
Today, other members of the community have also come to the park. They sit in clusters playing Mahjong or singing traditional Chinese opera off-key into portable karaoke machines. In the spring, people will bring bird cages outside and hang them from the trees for fresh air.
It is here that Jamie and I watched our first traditional Chinese funeral procession, and we’ve seen them countless times since then: the hearses that make their way down the narrow streets, bearing flowers, ghost money, and propped-up photos of the dead. They file by slowly, colliding with the spirited gatherings for tai chi and fan ceremonies.
Somewhere, the family members of the deceased burn this ghost money in order to ensure the safe passage and prosperity of their loved one into the afterlife. Sometimes, for all I know, the relatives burning the money are American-Name-Joanne or American-Name-Alice.
And the lost loved one might be Chin Lee. It seems I’ll never know.
It’s mid-May, the last scheduled English class of the semester. The cherry blossoms have fallen from the trees to make way for the greenery of summer. Today the desks have been arranged in a U shape and there are nineteen people waiting to begin. In the corner a special breakfast has been laid out by American-Name-Alice: two urns, one with hot water and one with coffee; a silver tray with ice and a couple of half pints of milk for coffee. Two cake boxes are filled with Chinese breakfast buns, and Alice stands in the corner.
“Take, take, take. Thank you for your hard work,” she says to me.
She has her camera and asks all of us to pose on one side of the classroom. “Say English!” she jokes, and everyone smiles.
There are so many new faces — why now, at the last minute? — that I decide today, even though the class term is officially over, we will all introduce ourselves yet again. I will hear some say their American names, and some say their Chinese names, and even though I won’t remember each name, I’ll remember the gestures we make toward each other.
When I pull a new grandfather to the middle of the room in order to introduce him to American-Name-Joanne, the mother who’s now been in America for ten weeks, they both laugh before they put out their hands.
“My name is Yu Ten, it’s nice to meet you,” the grandfather says. He looks at me to see if he said it right. I smile and nod my head.
“My name is Joanne,” Joanne says. “It is nice to meet you.”
The class applauds again.
At the end of the hour the grandmother who’s chopped the air to show me the height of her grandchildren presents me with a red envelope.
“This is from the class,” she says.
Inside, twenty-one single dollar bills have been gathered from the students. They tell me the money is for luck, in this Year of the Monkey.
I can’t help wondering: How many recyclables would it have taken for Chin Lee to earn this?
I know from watching Chin Lee how hard won these dollars are for most of my students. I also know that long after her yoke has been retired, her own ghost money will be burned, perhaps by her devoted daughter, as she makes her own passage to the afterlife.
I decide to spend these dollars in Chinatown, as close as possible to where they came from. Maybe I’ll even cross paths with Chin Lee.
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Rachel Aydt’s essays have appeared in The New York Times’s Motherlode blog, The New York Observer, The New York Post, and numerous other periodicals. In addition to her ESL work, she teaches writing at the New School University.