It was a Friday evening, but because of the cold and the snow, it was already pitch black outside. Several of the students and volunteer teachers had already gathered around four smaller tables pushed together. Many of them were much older than myself, older than most of the volunteers, in fact. This was an irregularly shaped classroom on the top floor of the Sun Yat-sen Middle School in Manhattan’s Chinatown, named after the historical figure who was not only the founder of the Republic of China and therefore the “Father of the Nation,” but also a man who loomed large in the history of overseas Chinese; sent to Hawaii from China, he learned English so quickly that he was given a prize by King Kalakaua. It was a fitting name for the setting of an ESL class focused on conversation.
It was about ten minutes into the class and we had just begun with introductions when a small framed bespectacled woman tip toed in through the primary-colored door. She paused for a moment when she saw the group and her eyebrows raised into a question. The head volunteer, Sally, saw her and cheerfully called her over, saying, “Come in! Don’t be shy. Have a seat. We’re about to put people into groups.” The woman walked towards the table and pulled up a chair.
“Let’s go around and introduce ourselves. What is your name?” Sally turned to the person on her right. We went around the circle, introducing ourselves. When the circle was complete, the volunteers began to pair us up. I was paired up with the woman who had come in late. I stood up and we both moved to a nearby table. She introduced herself to me as Melanie.
“What class is this?” she asked me, with only a trace of an accent.
“It’s an ESL conversation class,” I replied. She laughed.
“Oh, I suppose I could stay,” she said. “Actually, I wasn’t supposed to be here.” She laughed, “I was waiting to meet up with a friend but she didn’t show, so I decided to visit my old school. But it’s okay, I’ll stay, it’s fun talking to you.”
She looked around the classroom. “I graduated from here, you know. In ‘89. I graduated from high school here.” This was picked up on by Sally and some of the other volunteers. “We have an alumni here!” said Sally, smiling at us before moving on to the next table.
Melanie is a CPA, working as a government employee in Queens. I asked her how she came to that job. “Well, it’s just something that I chose to do because it paid pretty well. It’s a job that I got right when I finished college, so I took it. Next thing you know, I’ve been working in that job for twenty years. But it’s a good job. I earn more than my husband. He is a technician.”
“Where did you go to school?” I asked her.
“Baruch College. When my parents first moved here from Guangdong, we lived in Chinatown. I went to school here, I think I was maybe 10. It was really very hard. We had teachers who knew both Cantonese and English, but I didn’t know either. I speak my own dialect – both my parents speak their this dialect. It’s hard when you have to learn two languages.” I asked her if she knew how to speak Cantonese. “No.
“So me and my sister, we both went to school here, but my parents worked very long hours and we were home by ourselves a lot. It was very dangerous in New York at that time. Chinatown was so dangerous. There were a lot of parking lots, none of the new buildings you see now. There were a lot of gangsters. We always walked the same way to school, because there were some streets you just didn’t walk down. It’s because of this my parents decided to move to Brooklyn. It was much better. Most of our neighbors were Jewish, so we didn’t really live with other Chinese.
“I had to commute to school. And later when I went to Baruch, I commuted from there to home. And now, I live in Queens with my sons and husband, so I commute to work. But somehow I always end up back in Chinatown.”
I asked her about her children. “My sons, they don’t speak Chinese, they speak English. It’s hard because I speak one dialect, my husband speaks another, and now the common dialect is Mandarin. So even my parents just speak English to them. I always say, hey, why don’t you speak Chinese? I want them to speak my dialect.”