My mother immigrated from Hong Kong to America during her high school years, and continued to live here for college, through early adulthood, till now. She stays close to her roots, and tries her hardest for her children to stick close to their roots as well: through stories, through food, through traveling. A few nights ago she found an old journal of hers filled with notes from the last century, the 1990s. It brimmed with recipes from her childhood old housemaid back in Hong Kong. With this old “artifact,” my mother began to tell my sister and me about this unknown lady, Hing Ze, whom she had vivid memories of. But Hing Ze is more than a housemaid. Rather, she is a teacher, a friend, and a link for my mother to her homeland.
(*To provide context, every time the text is italicized, it is being spoken in Cantonese. Every time there are parentheses, it is either my sister or me speaking.)
“She retired 1995. So she worked for us since the 1970s or, oh my god. It’s pretty amazing. When she decided to retire, it’s like, we were freaking out. So actually, she was in Hong Kong for 40 something years. (Who are we talking about? Ping ze?) It’s Hing Ze. She came to Hong Kong in the 40s. That is the 1-9-4-0’s. Before the Communist Chinese took over. And she didn’t know how to cook. But, she learned from asking. Like, she was like shopping for, you know, her employees’ families, and she would ask the, uh, grocers, and the people that work at the dried seafood places, and she would ask, ‘How do you make this? How do you make this? How do you make this?’ and she learned. (Who’s Ping Ze?) It’s Hing Ze... Hing Ze was one of the… ayi’s (housemaid)... Dried fish. Wonton noodles. See, here I drew pictures of how to make them. How to wrap. And this, how to cut, how to cut the rib, but not all the way… Soy sauce chicken. My handwriting was nice! Steamed eel. It says that when it’s cooked, it’s gonna like, be like *rrrrgh* irregular shape. This pork we haven’t cooked yet. Steamed meat patty. Sweet and sour pork. Shredded pork noodles. Like noodles with shredded pork. (What’s shredded pork?) Shredded pork! It’s because Gong Gong (grandpa) likes it, so Hing Ze she said, ‘you have to learn this ‘cause your dad likes this.’ Curry chicken. Fried chicken. Braised pork… Pork chop with rice, chicken rice… Oh, then that’s the one that I don’t make here, but Po po (grandma) and her household still makes it, it’s like the tofu patty. Steamed pork ribs. Steamed fish. Those were good… I haven’t made a lot of these things. ‘Cause they’re very, like, stuff that I grew up… And then soups. Oh! And then fried, like you know, the sesame balls… That’s all I managed to write down… Wow, it’s pretty neat. That’s that. Okay girls...tonight what time will you go to sleep? Will you finish your homework then go to sleep?”
I never truly noticed how much my mom weaves in words in Cantonese until I transcribed all of it down. It just comes so naturally that when I hear it, it isn’t even as if it is in another language. As she was flipping through the pages, reading the names of the dishes in its original language, I think it brings her back to her roots, as well as mine. However, I always respond in English, not knowing how to respond in the same language. A certain barrier, reminding me of my American roots.
When she talks about her past, specifically her childhood in Hong Kong, she dictates her words like a story, quoting what my grandpa said, what her housemaid said. It reminds me of how she had an entirely different life that I never experienced. She has vivid memories of it, though. Whenever the page flips, and her eye catches the words of a certain dish, she chimes in on the remembrance she has, how her dad likes it, how we have never tried the dish. Her full passion and excitement for her childhood comes through as she points at specific points, “look at this, and look at that!”
My mother has lived in the United States for more than half her lifetime, so I never heard her speak when she first learned English, back when she was my current age. I can’t imagine coming to a new country and having to speak in a foreign language. I don’t recall any specific stories from when she first immigrated, but I am sure her English was not perceived as fluent by her peers. Overtime, her English became more Americanized, she blended in more in public. But at home, talking about her past, she can go back to her roots, trying hard to link us back to our roots as well, through her version of English.
And thanks to Hing Ze, the hardworking, self-taught and admirable friend whom we never met, we all feel a little bit closer to home.
Posted in response to the challenge Heroes.