But first we have to finish coaching in Chinatown. This time last year we were teaching the Memoir Project class in Chinatown. We never did the one-on-one coaching because just teaching the class was complicated enough. We had to have a Cantonese translator, which is hard to find because Cantonese isn't really taught much anymore. Newer immigrants speak Mandarin instead.
We were also told flat out by people who work as advocates for these elders, many of whom are themselves children of Chinese immigrants, that the participants would be unlikely to open up to us. "You can try, but they aren't going to tell you anything," one said with confidence.
So, it was with some trepidation that I stood in front of a class of nine participants last February, none of whom spoke English (or would admit it, anyway) and laid out my opening lecture one sentence at a time. After each sentence I waited for Kwan, our translator, to turn it into Cantonese. When a participant spoke, asked a question or told a story, he or she had to parse it out a few sentences at a time and then wait for Kwan to translate it for me. My remarks and responses had to then be translated back. The class had a kind of glacial pace in this way, and I always felt wrung out at the end. Kwan was even more exhausted. By the third or fourth week, it became clear that we needed two translators working in tandem, so then Douglas appeared and they took turns.
The naysayers had it all wrong. On the very first day, one woman burst into tears while telling the story of how she had come to the United States, and the people who had taken advantage of her. One man shared his poems with us. He wrote them in an ancient form, five characters per line, four lines per stanza. He wrote about Chinatown wearing a new dress, about dragons under the ground and in the sky, by which he meant the refurbished buildings, the T underground and the jets overhead. Participants talked about their arranged marriages, about village life, about starvation during the war with Japan and the great famine that followed in the late 1960s. They described fathers and grandfathers who left for England and America and never returned. They just sent money when they could. In short, they did what all participants do in this program. They shared stories with each other, with their peers, that they would be unlikely to share with their families.
At one point, a woman opened her notebook to show me that she had written out the lyrics to a song. Kwan said she remembered it, as it was
a popular song during China's war with Japan. The woman began to sing, and two other women joined her. Pretty soon they were standing and singing, while all the other participants in class joined in. They banged on the tabletops and raised their fists in the air. It was at the very end of class, when the next class was coming in for their English immersion. Some of them were singing, too. When it was over, I turned to Kwan to say, "wow" or somesuch, and I saw her eyes were shining.