Child Sense by Elvin | CC BY-NC 2.0
Children as Enemies
OUR GRANDCHILDREN HATE US. The boy and the girl, ages eleven and nine, are just a pair of selfish, sloppy brats and have no respect for old people. Their animosity toward us originated at the moment their names were changed, about three months ago.
One evening the boy complained that his schoolmates couldn’t pronounce his name, so he must change it. “Lots of them call me `Chicken,’ he said. “I want a regular name like anyone else.” His name was Qigan Xi, pronounced “cheegan hsee,” which could be difficult for non-Chinese to manage.
“I wanna change mine, too,” his sister, Hua, jumped in. “Nobody can say it right and some call me ‘Wow.’” She bunched her lips, her face puffed with baby fat.
Before their parents could respond, my wife put in, “You should teach them how to pronounce your names.”
“They always laugh about my silly name, Qigan,” the boy said. “If I didn’t come from China, I’d say `Chicken’ too.”
I told both kids, “You ought to be careful about changing your names. We decided on them only after consulting a reputable fortune-teller.”
“Phew, who believes in that crap?” the boy muttered.
Our son intervened, saying to his children, “Let me think about this, okay?”
Our daughter-in-law, thin-eyed Mandi, broke in. “They should have American names. Down the road there’ll be lots of trouble if their names remain unpronounceable. We should’ve changed them long ago.”
Gubin, our son, seemed to agree, though he wouldn’t say it in our presence.
My wife and I were unhappy about that, but we didn’t make a serious effort to stop them, so Mandi and Gubin went about looking for suitable names for the children. It was easy in the girl’s case. They picked “Flora” for her, since her name, Hua, means “flower.” But it was not easy to find a name for the boy. English names are simple in meaning, mostly already empty of their original senses. Qigan means “amazing bravery.” Where can you find an English name that combines the import and the resonance of that? When I pointed out the difficulty, the boy blustered, “I don’t want a weird and complicated name. I just need a regular name, like Charlie or Larry or Johnny.”
That I wouldn’t allow. Names are a matter of fortune and fate–that’s why fortune-tellers can divine the vicissitudes of people’s lives by reading the orders and numbers of the strokes in the characters of their names. No one should change his name randomly.
Mandi went to the public library and checked out a book on baby names. She perused the small volume and came up with “Matty” as a choice. She explained, “‘Matty’ is short for ‘Mathilde,’ which is from old German and means `powerful in battle,’ very close to Qigan in meaning. Besides, the sound echoes ‘mighty’ in English.”
“It doesn’t sound right,” I said. In the back of my mind I couldn’t reconcile “Matty” with “Xi,” our family name.
“I like it,” the boy crowed.
He seemed determined to contradict me, so I said no more. I wished my son had rejected the choice, but Gubin didn’t make a peep, just sitting in the rocking chair and drinking iced tea. The matter was settled. The boy went to school and told his teacher he had a new name–Matty.
For a week he seemed happy, but his satisfaction was short-lived. One evening he told his parents, “Matty is a girl’s name, my friend Carl told me.”
“Impossible,” his mother said.
“Of course it’s true. I asked around, and people all said it sounded girlish.”
My wife, drying her hands on her apron, suggested to our son, “Why don’t you look it up?”
The book on baby names was not returned yet, so Gubin looked it up and saw “f. or m.” behind the name. Evidently Mandi hadn’t seen that it could be both female and male. Her negligence or ignorance outraged the boy all the more.
What should we do? The eleven-year-old turned tearful, blaming his mother for giving him a name with an ambiguous gender.
Finally my son slapped his knee and said, “I have an idea. ‘Matty’ can also come from ‘Matt.’ Why not drop the letter ‘y’ and call yourself Matt?”
The boy brightened up and said he liked that, but I objected. “Look, this book says ‘Matt’ is a diminutive of ‘Matthew.’ It’s nowhere close to the sense of ‘amazing bravery.’”
“Who gives a damn about that!” the boy spat out. “I’m gonna call myself Matt.”
Wordless, I felt my face tightening. I got up and went out to smoke a pipe on the balcony. My wife followed me out, saying, “My old man, don’t take to heart what our grandson said. He’s just confused and desperate. Come back in and eat.”
“After this pipe,” I said.
“Don’t be long.” She stepped back into the apartment, her small shoulders more stooped than before.
Below me, automobiles were gliding past on the wet street like colored whales. If only we hadn’t sold everything in Dalian City and come here to join our son’s family. Gubin is our only child, so we’d thought it would be good to stay with him. Now I wished we hadn’t moved. At our ages--my wife is sixty-three and I’m sixty-seven--and at this time it’s hard to adjust to life here. In America it feels as if the older you are, the more inferior you grow.
BOTH my wife and I understood we shouldn’t meddle with our grandchildren’s lives, but sometimes I simply couldn’t help offering them a bit of advice. She believed it was our daughter-in-law who had spoiled the kids and made them despise us. I don’t think Mandi is that mean, though beyond question she is an indulgent mother. Flora and Matt look down on everything Chinese except for some food they like. They hated to go to the weekend school to learn to read and write the characters. Matt announced, “I’ve no need for that crap.”
I would have to force down my temper whenever I heard him say that. Their parents managed to make them attend the weekend school, though Matt and Flora had quit inscribing the characters. They went there only to learn how to paint with a brush, taking lessons from an old artist from Taiwan. The girl, sensitive by nature and delicate in health, might have had some talent for arts, but the boy was good at nothing but daydreaming. I just couldn’t help imagining that he might end up a guttersnipe. He wouldn’t draw bamboos or goldfish or landscapes with a brush; instead, he produced merely bands and lines of ink on paper, calling them abstract paintings. He experimented with the shades of the ink as if it were watercolors. Sometimes he did that at home too. Seeing his chubby face and narrow eyes as he worked in dead earnest, I wanted to laugh. He once showed a piece with some vertical lines of ink on it to an art teacher at his school. To my horror, the woman praised it, saying the lines suggested a rainfall or waterfall, and that if you observed them horizontally, they would bring to mind layers of clouds or some sort of landscape.
What a crock was that! I complained to Gubin in private and urged him to pressure the children to study serious subjects, such as science, classics, geography, history, grammar, and penmanship. If Matt really couldn’t handle those, in the future he should consider learning how to repair cars and machines or how to cook like a chef. Auto mechanics make good money here–I know a fellow at a garage who can’t speak any English but pulls in twenty-four dollars an hour, plus a generous bonus at the end of the year. I made it clear to my son that a few tricks in “art” would never get his kids anywhere in life, so they’d better stop dabbling with a brush. Gubin said Matt and Flora were still young and we shouldn’t push him too hard, but he agreed to talk to them. Unlike Gubin, Mandi aligned herself with the children, saying we ought to let them develop freely as individuals, not straitjacket them as they would in China. My wife and I were unhappy about our daughter-in-law’s position. Whenever we criticized her, our grandchildren would mock or yell at us in defense of their mother.
I have serious reservations about elementary education in the United States. Teachers don’t force their pupils to work as hard as they can. Matt had learned both multiplication and division in the third grade, but two months ago I asked him to calculate how much seventy-four percent of $1,586 was, and he had no clue how to do it. I handed him a calculator and said, “Use this.” Even so, he didn’t know he could just multiply the amount by 0.74.
“Didn’t you learn multiplication and division?” I asked him.
“I did, but that was last year.”
“Still, you should know how to do it.”
“We haven’t practiced division and multiplication this year, so I’m not familiar with them anymore.” He offered that as an excuse. There was no way I could make him understand that once you learned something, you were supposed to master it and make it part of yourself. That’s why we say knowledge is wealth. You can get richer and richer by accumulating it within.
The teachers here don’t assign the pupils any real homework. Instead they give them a lot of projects, some of which seem no more than woolgathering and tend to inflate the kids’ egos. My son had to help his children with the projects, which were more like homework for the parents. Some of the topics were impossible even for adults to tackle, such as “What is culture and how is it created?” “Make your argument for or against the Iraq War,” “How does the color line divide U.S. society?” and “Do you think global trade is necessary? Why?” My son had to do research online and in the public library to get the information needed for discussing those topics. Admittedly, they could broaden the pupils’ minds and give them more confidence, but at their tender age they are not supposed to think like a politician or a scholar. They should be made to follow rules; that is, to become responsible citizens first.
Whenever I asked Flora how she was ranked in her class, she’d shrug and say, “I dunno.”
“What do you mean you don’t know?” I suspected she must be well below the average, though she couldn’t be lower than her brother.
“Ms. Gillen doesn’t rank us is all,” came her answer.
If that was true, I was even more disappointed with the schools. How could they make their students competitive in this global economy if they didn’t instill in them the sense of getting ahead of others and becoming the very best. No wonder many Asian parents viewed the public schools in Flushing unfavorably. In my honest opinion, elementary education here tends to lead children astray.
FIVE weeks ago, Matt declared at dinner that he must change his last name, because a substitute teacher that morning had mispronounced “Xi” as “Eleven.” That put the whole class in stitches, and some students even made fun of the boy afterward, calling him “Matt Eleven.” Flora chimed in, “Yeah, I want a different last name too. My friend Reta just had her family name changed to Wu. Some people couldn’t pronounce “Ng” and called her `Reta No Good.’”
Their parents broke out laughing, but I couldn’t see why that was funny. My wife said to the girl, “You’ll have your husband’s last name when you grow up and get married.”
“I don’t want no man!” the girl shot back.
“We both must have a new last name,” the boy insisted.
I burst out, “You can’t do that. Your last name belongs to the family, and you can’t cut yourselves off from your ancestors.”
“Baloney!” The boy squished up his face.
“You mustn’t speak to your granddad like that,” his grandmother butted in.
Mandi and my son exchanged glances. I knew they saw this matter differently from us. Maybe they had been planning to change their children’s last name all along. Enraged, I dropped my bowl on the dining table and pointed my finger at Mandi. “You’ve tried your best to spoil them. Now you’re happy to let them break away from the family tree. What kind of daughter-in-law are you? I wish I hadn’t allowed you to join our family.”
“Please don’t blow up like this, Dad,” my son said.
Mandi didn’t talk back. Instead she began sobbing, wrinkling her gourd-shaped nose. The kids got angry and blamed me for hurting their mother’s feelings. The more they blabbered, the more furious I became. Finally unable to hold it back anymore, I shouted, “If you two change your last name, you leave, get out of here. You cannot remain in this household while using a different last name.”
“Who are you?” Matt said calmly. “This isn’t your home.”
“You’re just our guests,” added Flora.
That drove both my wife and me mad. She yelled at our granddaughter, “So we sold everything in China, our apartment and candy store, just to be your guests here, huh? Heartless. Who told you this isn’t our home?”
That shut the girl up, though she kept glaring at her grandma. Their father begged no one in particular, “Please, let us finish dinner peacefully.” He went on chewing a fried shrimp with his mouth closed.
I wanted to yell at him that he was just a rice barrel thinking of nothing but food, but I controlled my anger. How could we have raised such a spineless son?
To be fair, he’s quite accomplished in his profession, a bridge engineer pulling in almost six figures a year, but he’s henpecked and indulgent with the kids, and got worse and worse after he came to America, as if he had become a man without temper or opinions. How often I wanted to tell him point-blank that he must live like a man, at least more like his former self. Between his mother and myself, we often wondered if he was inadequate in bed; otherwise, how could he always listen to Mandi?
After that quarrel, we decided to move out. Gubin and Mandi helped us fill out an application for housing offered to the elderly by the city, which we’ll have to wait a long time to get. If we were not so old and in poor health, we’d live far away from them, completely on our own, but they are the only family we have in this country, so we could move only to a nearby place. For the time being we’ve settled down in a one-bedroom apartment on Fifty-fourth Avenue, rented for us by Gubin. Sometimes he comes over to see if we’re all right or need anything. We’ve never asked him what last name our grandkids use now. I guess they must have some American name. How sad it is when you see your grandchildren’s names on paper but can no longer recognize them, as though your family line has faded and disappeared among the multitudes. Whenever I think about this, it stings my heart. If only I’d had second thoughts about leaving China. It’s impossible to go back anymore, and we’ll have to spend our remaining years in this place where even your grandchildren can act like your enemies.
Matt and Flora usually shun us. If we ran into them on the street, they would warn us not to “torture” their mother again. They even threatened to call the police if we entered their home without permission. We don’t have to be warned. We’ve never set foot in their home since we moved out. I’ve told my son that we won’t accept the kids as part of the family as long as they use a different last name.
Gubin has never brought up that topic again, though I’m still waiting for an answer from him. That’s how the matter stands now. The other day, exasperated, my wife wanted to go to Mandi’s fortune cookie factory and raise a placard to announce: My Daughter-in-Law Mandi Cheng Is the Most Unfilial Person on Earth! But I dissuaded my old better half. What’s the good of that? For sure Mandi’s company won’t fire her just because she can’t make her parents-in-law happy. This is America, where we must learn self-reliance and mind our own business.
Originally published in A GOOD FALL: STORIES (Vintage International), October 2010.
Ha Jin is a Chinese-American writer. He was born in 1956 in Liaoning, China. He left China in 1985 to attend Brandeis University in the US, where he obtained a Ph.D. The Tiananmen Square incident occurred in 1989 during his time there, and he decided to remain in the US, and started writing poems in English. His first collection of poetry "Between Silences" was published in 1990 in the US. His works include seven poetry books, four short story collections, eight novels, a biography (Li Bai), and an essay. He is a recipient of the National Book Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award, the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction, the PEN/Hemingway Award, the Asian American Literary Award, amongst others. And his novel "War Trash" captured the PEN/Faulkner Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize (2017).