I can hear the snickers as I walk down the crowded sidewalk of Chinatown. The gossip at the vegetable stand. The grin of the fish man. The chatter from the seafood restaurants. Laughter is everywhere, like a dragon’s tail winding throughout the streets.
I grew up speaking English, not Chinese, the language of my ancestors. The first word out of my mouth was mommy, not mah mah. When I was 3, my parents flashed cards with Chinese characters at my face, but I pushed aside. My mom assured herself, “He will learn when he is ready.” But the time never came.
A decade later, I would regret that decision.
February 7, 1997, Chinese New Year: My relatives and I gather in my grandmother’s three-room Mott Street apartment around the round kitchen table, half –hidden under boxes of don tot, cha siu bao and othere Chinese delicacies from the local dim sum parlor. My Uncle Alex rapidly mutters something to me in Chinese, but all I can do is stare at him quizzically and scratch my head. “ Still can’t speak Chinese?” he teases me, now in English. “ How old are you? 13? And you still can’t talk to your grandmother, can’t even buy a fish in Chinatown. What are you waiting for?”
“Hey this is America, not China,” I reply. “ You want fish for dinner? I will get some right now-with or without Chinese.” I turn to mom for permission, who reluctantly hands over a crisp $20 bill. “Remember to ask for fresh fish, sun seen yu,” she says. “You know how fussy your grandmother is with her fish.” I repeat the words to my mother, who nods in approval, then dart down the two flights of dark narrow stairs into the bright, crowded streets of Chinatown.
Following the foreign sounds and the smell of the ocean around the corner of Mott Street, I find the fish stand, submerged in a sea of customers. There are salmon and croaker and flounder and sea bass, fish with big eyes, fish with shinny scales, and fish that I’ve never seen before. “ I did like to...