The Lady who Lost her Mother Tongue

I met Ms Haim in a chance encounter in the air. I had just finished a trip in Cuba, and boarded a flight leaving Havana. My exhaustion from the trip took effect the moment I stepped into the cabin. Slumped in my seat, I entered into a deep trance, my head bobbing. I tried to hold my head steady, but my energy level was too low to take control of my body.

In the dreamy consciousness that barely remained in me, I felt embarrassed for my lack of manners, dozing off like that; I was also conscious of the presence of an elegant old lady and a young man, probably her son, sitting next to me. They talked in Spanish in a low voice. They must have wondered what had happened to this strange woman who literally collapsed in her seat.

The sleeping potion suddenly lost its spell. I woke up, and was alarmed that I had not the slightest idea where I would be going when the flight landed Mexico City. I hastily fished out some information printed in English and Chinese that I gathered before the trip, and started pondering what options I could have – I might find a place to stay in the City, or I might take a bus right out to the town of Puebla. It was hard to decide.

Ms Haim must have glimpsed what I was reading, for she started to talk to me in English. ‘Are you going to Puebla? It is a lovely place. You should go,’ she told me.

I was stunned. I had never heard any local speaking English so fluently while I was in Mexico, let alone a person speaking it so flawlessly without a hint of Spanish accent.

Discreetly I observed her face. Her complexion was as dark as any other Mexicans, but her features were not typical of Mexican people. Most apparent of all, she had blue eyes. Her short hair, curls set so neatly and attentively, showed no clue of her descent though, for it had turned all silvery white.

She looked at the papers in my hand. ‘Are you Chinese?’, she asked suddenly, her blue eyes looking at me so intently as if it were an important question.

‘I was born in Shanghai in 1934. Until twelve my home was in the French quarter,’ she said. ‘When the war ended in 1946, my family boarded an American military fleet, taking nine days to cross the Pacific. We disembarked in San Francisco, and from there we traversed further down to Mexico City.’ She seemed like she was carried away by her own thoughts as she narrated her story. As if to convince me of its authenticity, she showed me the bio page of her passport – ‘Place of Birth: Shanghai, China’.

‘My father is Spanish, my mother French; but I always feel that I am Chinese’, she said. When she heard people talk about things Chinese, she felt goosebumps on her skin. But she had been keeping this to herself for years, not telling anyone. She thought no one would understand, until this day, when she met me – a person who shared the same root with her. I was a stranger, but it did not matter. I would understand because we had the connection, she said.

She was right. I felt for her in a strangely intuitive way. I immediately realised that this chance encounter was probably a much delayed reunion of herself and a China that quietly lives in her memories for decades. It just happened that I was the agent. At long last, she bumped into someone whom she could divulge her long-time secret. I felt glad for her.

She scribbled her address and telephone on my paper, and told me to visit her the next time I come to Mexico. She lives with her housemaids, and I would be welcomed to stay with her. Her trust and generosity to a complete new acquaintance surprised me.

The plane landed. I said goodbye to Ms Haim. I decided not to go anywhere, and I spent a few more days in Mexico City.

On the last day of my time in the City, I happened to wander around the area not far from the neighborhood where Ms Haim lived. I rang her, and asked if she had time to meet up for a cup of tea. She invited me warmly to join her in her home.

The neighborhood she lived was called Polanco, a residential area made up of beautiful houses and low-rise apartments. The concierge seemed to know that I would come, and pointed to the park opposite the condo. Right on the other side of the street, the old lady, her maid and her little dog were sitting on a bench under the tree expecting me. The old lady waved at me with a warm smile, her silvery white hair shimmering in the sunlight.

There was nothing fanciful in Ms Haim’s place, but it was a comfortable home, unpretentiously elegant and tasteful. Pieces of interesting handicrafts collected from different parts of Mexico were scattered around the living room side by side with a few pieces of old European furniture. It might be hard to imagine the two styles, so diverse culturally, could coexist in a living space. But in Ms Haim’s home, one distinctive style did not disagree with the other. They complemented harmoniously and even elevated each other. The same applied to Ms Haim, herself an embodiment of both the best of Mexican and European influences.

As a girl of twelve, Ms Haim lost her lustre in life after her painful and forced departure from her beloved home country . It was only until the family put an end to their traversing journey in the new continent, and finally settled in Mexico, that Ms Haim reclaimed her joy of life. She was pleasantly surprised to find out bit by bit about Mexico, the many ways that its cultures and social values resonate so tremendously with those of the home country she lived all her life. She was satisfied, and she happily accepted Mexico as her new home country. She grew to have a fondness of all things Mexican, in particular the handicrafts representative of the rich and colourful heritage from different parts of the country, and had an assortment of these art pieces to keep her company.

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She was equally affectionate of her old European furniture, the memorabilia left by her mother. A plain silver trophy stood importantly in the centre of the big mahogany dining table. Ms Haim took it carefully in her hands, and showed me the engraved letters at the back: ‘To Mr J Haim. From Koo, Wong and Hou.’ It was the only thing that had not been lost when the family fled China, and the engraving on the trophy signified the sterling friendship of her father with the Chinese people.   

A framed photo was displayed on the bookshelf. It was little Ms Haim being held lovingly on her Amah’s lap. While Ms Haim’s mother was a socialite enjoying bridge games and cocktail parties, little Ms Haim was put under Amah’s care since she was three months’ old, until the day when she left Shanghai. ‘Amah and I were much more like mother and daughter’, she said. Apart from Amah, she also remembered Ah Lung – the rickshaw driver who took her to school every day. Another thing among her remaining remembrances about China belonged to the bamboo cages that the servants hung on the front gate of the house, crows and crickets chirping in the cages all day long. A small thing flashed in my memory when she mentioned this trivia – Ms Haim was carrying a straw hat when I met her on the flight. Attached on the hat was an extraordinary straw-woven cricket – a symbol of her buried memory.

When I casually asked if she remembered a few words of Chinese, the old lady suddenly plunged into a mood of forlornness, quite out of my surprise. ‘Don’t ever lose your mother tongue, dear girl. I lost my mother tongue after leaving China, as leaving there was too painful. Now I lose it forever and can never pick it up again.’ Ms Haim can master a few languages – English, French and Spanish, but she is a person who has lost her mother tongue. ‘Sometimes I am able to utter a few broken phrases in Chinese in my dreams. But when I wake up the next day, I cannot remember a single word.’ A trace of anguish lingered in her voice.

We spent the whole afternoon chatting, sharing about each other’s lives. She asked about me, what I had gone through and what was in the now. She looked at my situation objectively, and her advice was insightful. She was a lady of wisdom, a woman of the world. We talked as if we had known each other well for years, and I wondered if it might be owed to the root that we shared. A few generations apart, we were amazingly alike on our views on many things, from politics and society, to life and humanity. In Shanghai, she was brought up in an environment where diverse cultures come together and blended in smoothly. She hung out with playmates from a wide range of nationalities. The exposure in her formative years made her a strong believer of equality for all creatures in the world, and she tends to be a liberal thinker. We observed Cuba with our own eyes through our respective experiences. What we saw and thought were so similar with each other, but also so different from most of the other tourists flocking into the country then. She had a general dislike of the States; but ironically her children had all moved there, and had all changed to become too conservative in her eyes. The only family member whom she felt connected in thoughts was her 30-year-old granddaughter. Now, she said, she felt that she was talking to a newly-adopted granddaughter, a Chinese one.

We hugged for a long while until we had to part. She knew we would meet again – another reunion with her Chinese granddaughter and the China in her memories. She was sure of that.

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