When she was in 6th grade, my mother became best friends with a new girl in her class. An army brat from Hawaii, she spoke fluent English, and was, according to mom, fun-loving, confident, a breath of fresh air. Only months after she arrived, the new best friend moved away again.
Though their friendship was brief, my mother credits Hawaii girl for inspiring her to dream of building a life in America one day.
When she was only ten years old, my mother lost her father to tuberculosis. He had been ill for some time. One morning, he projectile vomited enough blood to fill a bucket. That was the last time she saw her father.
To avoid the social stigma of being called fatherless, which was a real thing in the 1960s in Hong Kong, my mother chose to tell her classmates that her father was a sailor deployed to faraway lands.
Not long after, she met Hawaii girl, an American born child of a sailor. It's no surprise at all that she glamorized her new best friend. The prospect of making a new friend with no history attached must have appealed to a grieving 10 year old girl. Moreover, my mother always loved languages. English was one of her favorite subjects in school. She could practice her English with her new best friend.
Unfortunately, due to economic circumstance, my mother dropped out of high school to work full time to help support the fatherless family.
So, when her children were born, she was determined to give us opportunities she did not have. She was only 20 years old, but she had a plan. What began as a childhood dream now drove her decisions on how to parent us.
Thus, she enrolled us in an English-speaking nursery school run by British missionaries. The school was conveniently attached to a church, and on Sundays, she dropped me and my brother off for Bible school. Through Jonah and the whale and Joseph and the multi-color coat, we learned English. We were Buddhists with a mom who believed that we should learn English, because one day she intended for us to live in America.
I cried every day for several months. At home we spoke Cantonese, so when I was suddenly plunked into a preschool where I did not understand the language, I was scared and retreated into silence. Eventually, though, I began to sing the songs along with the other children. Music equalized the scary world of English for me, and to this day, I remember relaxing a little when the teacher played the piano and we sat on the rug around her singing nursery school rhymes.
On weekends, my mother took us to the local YMCA for swim lessons. Afterward, we ate at the restaurant attached to the club, where she insisted that my brother and I place our orders in English (the Y was a favorite of ex-pats in Hong Kong, so waiters were invariably bilingual). She rewarded our efforts with books that we were allowed to choose from the English language bookstore next to the YMCA. She hired a tutor who helped us practice reading aloud from our English storybooks.
That I can still recall the details of my earliest memories of learning English is a testament to my mother's creativity and fierce determination. What began as a a childhood dream for her as she mourned her father paved the path of our journey to America.