“Welcome,” my mother said to the unwelcome guest. Her black eyes assessed the make-up, hair-sprayed brown curls, the round features of a young woman of perhaps twenty five.
“What a nice house,” the guest said. She turned her big blue American eyes on my very Chinese mother and slowed her words down to one syllable at a time. “I was say-ing, you have a nice house, a nice home. Ver-y nice.”
Her voice cranked up. I could almost see her thinking if she talked louder, she might communicate better. She put spaces between her words. My mother gave a polite nod and sat down, taking up her knitting.
“The min-ute I came in, I felt, this is a Chris-tian house. It is so im-por-tant. To be Chris-tian. You are Chris-tian too, I am sure. I hear many Chi-nese have be-come Chris-tian.”
She smiled, bent down a little to peer at my mother before she, too, took a seat. Perched herself on the edge of the davenport as though she was aware to her core of an extraordinary opportunity.
I didn’t know what to do. I’d barely turned sixteen and was just as awkward as any of us remember being. I wanted some hint. Should I feel angry? Should I correct this guest? She’d come in with my cousin, so I didn’t have to feel responsible for her, did I? I looked at my mother for guidance, but, her gaze cast demurely down, she moved her knitting needles with smooth efficiency.
“I hear you are Chin-ese,” the guest said, louder yet. “You come from Chi-na?”
My mother nodded, flicking the strand of yarn up and over. Was she smiling? No, surely not.
“You know En-glish? You un-der-stand me?”
My mother nodded, clicked the needles.
“Oh yes,” Mother said. “Indeed I do.”
“Have you been here long? In the U-ni-ted States? Of Am-er-i-ca?”
“Thirty years,” my mother said.
“Wow. That is won-der-ful. That is so ex-ci-ting. You real-ly un-der-stand me?”
“Oh yes,” my mother said. She nodded.
“I am so ex-ci-ted. I am so hap-py to meet you. This is such a nice house.”
She stilled a moment, her hands folding nervously in her lap. She glanced at me and then away. I probably looked unfriendly. She stared at my mother calmly knitting. Where was my cousin? How soon would he rescue us from this absurd situation?
“I love New En-gland,” the guest said. “Oh, you pro-bab-ly don’t know what that is.”
“I do,” my mother said, but the guest didn’t hear, she was too busy explaining.
“We call these states New En-gland,” she said, and proceeded to name them off in her loud one-syllable fashion.
I was right, my mother was trying with all her might not to smile. Her mouth corners were tucked with fierce control deep in to hold laughter back. She nodded a lot and her fingers flew through the motions of knitting. What was she knitting? I thought it was supposed to be a sleeve for my sister’s new sweater, but it looked long.
“I am so pleas-ed to have met you,” the guest said. She began to look a little tired and I caught her glance going to the parlor door as though she too, wondered where my cousin was. “Chi-na is so far a-way. Do you speak Chi-nese? You must speak ver-y good Chi-nese.”
My mother did not nod.
“Did you ever go to school? In Chi-na?”
My mother nodded. Knitted.
I could not bring myself to leave. I must not laugh, I tried to slow down my breathing.
“Oh that is so neat. You pro-bab-ly would have liked to go to coll-ege.”
“I did,” my mother said.
“Wow! What did you stu-dy?”
Even the guest could not come up with a comment on that so my mother went quietly on.
“But in graduate school I focused on Shakespeare.”