Amy Tan is a gifted storyteller whose first novel, The Joy Luck Club (1989), met with critical acclaim and huge success. The relationships it details between immigrant Chinese mothers and their Chinese American daughters came from Tan’s firsthand experience. She was born in 1952 in Oakland, California, the daughter of immigrants who had fled China’s civil war in the late 1940s. She majored in English and linguistics at San José State University, where she received a BA in 1973 and an MA in 1974. After two more years of graduate work, Tan became a consultant in language development for disabled children and then a freelancer writing reports and speeches for business corporations. Bored with such work, Tan began writing fiction to explore her ethnic ambivalence and to find her voice. Since The Joy Luck Club, she has published several more novels — most recently The Valley of Amazement (2013) — as well as children’s books and The Opposite of Fate (2003), a collection of autobiographical essays. She is also a founding member of the Rock Bottom Remainders, a “literary garage band” made up of popular writers.
In Tan’s novel The Bonesetter’s Daughter (2001), one of the characters says, “Good manners are not enough. … They are not the same as a good heart.” Much of Tan’s writing explores those tensions between keeping up appearances and having true intentions. In the brief narrative that follows, the author deftly portrays the contradictory feelings of a girl with feet in different cultures. The essay first appeared in Seventeen, a magazine for teenage girls and young women, in 1987.
For another entertaining story about a cultural misunderstanding, read the next essay, Naomi Shihab Nye’s “Museum.”
I fell in love with the minister’s son the winter I turned fourteen. 1 He was not Chinese, but as white as Mary in the manger. For Christmas I prayed for this blond-haired boy, Robert, and a slim new American nose.
When I found out that my parents had invited the minister’s 2 family over for Christmas Eve dinner, I cried. What would Robert think of our shabby Chinese Christmas? What would he think of our noisy Chinese relatives who lacked proper American manners? What terrible disappointment would he feel upon seeing not a roasted turkey and sweet potatoes but Chinese food?
On Christmas Eve I saw that my mother had outdone herself 3 in creating a strange menu. She was pulling black veins out of the backs of fleshy prawns. The kitchen was littered with appalling mounds of raw food: A slimy rock cod with bulging eyes that pleaded not to be thrown into a pan of hot oil. Tofu, which looked like stacked wedges of rubbery white sponges. A bowl soaking dried fungus back to life. A plate of squid, their backs crisscrossed with knife markings so they resembled bicycle tires.
And then they arrived — the minister’s family and all my relatives 4 in a clamor of doorbells and rumpled Christmas packages. Robert grunted hello, and I pretended he was not worthy of existence.
Dinner threw me deeper into despair. My relatives licked the ends 5 of their chopsticks and reached across the table, dipping them into the dozen or so plates of food. Robert and his family waited patiently for platters to be passed to them. My relatives murmured with pleasure when my mother brought out the whole steamed fish. Robert grimaced. Then my father poked his chopsticks just below the fish eye and plucked out the soft meat. “Amy, your favorite,” he said, offering me the tender fish cheek. I wanted to disappear.
At the end of the meal my father leaned back and belched 6 loudly, thanking my mother for her fine cooking. “It’s a polite Chinese custom to show you are satisfied,” explained my father to our astonished guests. Robert was looking down at his plate with a reddened face. The minister managed to muster up a quiet burp. I was stunned into silence for the rest of the night.
After everyone had gone, my mother said to me, “You want to 7 be the same as American girls on the outside.” She handed me an early gift. It was a miniskirt in beige tweed. “But inside you must always be Chinese. You must be proud you are different. Your only shame is to have shame.”
And even though I didn’t agree with her then, I knew that 8 she understood how much I had suffered during the evening’s dinner. It wasn’t until many years later — long after I had gotten over my crush on Robert — that I was able to fully appreciate her lesson and the true purpose behind our particular menu. For Christmas Eve that year, she had chosen all my favorite foods.
NAOMI SHIHAB NYE
Naomi Shihab Nye is an accomplished writer of poetry, fiction, and prose for young readers and adults alike. Born in 1952 in St. Louis, Missouri, she earned a BA in English and world religions from Trinity University in 1974 and teaches as a visiting writer at schools and colleges across the country. Growing up, Nye was enchanted by the lyricism of her father’s Palestinian folktales and her mother’s American lullabies; she published her first poem in a children’s magazine when she was seven years old. Since then, Nye’s entranced and entrancing writing has appeared regularly in The Horn Book, The Texas Observer, World Literature Today, and other magazines and in her wide-ranging books, including Habibi (1997), a young-adult novel based on Nye’s own time living in Jerusalem as a teenager; Sitti’s Secrets (1994) and Benito’s Dream Bottle (1995), picture books for children; and Honeybee (2008), poems and essays for adults. She has also compiled or translated several anthologies of world and student poetry, among them This Same Sky (1992) and Salting the Ocean (2000). In 2010 Nye was elected a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. She lives in San Antonio, Texas, and enjoys singing.
Themes of human connection and cultural exchange run throughout Nye’s work. In this story from Honeybee, she leads us fleeing giddily from an honest mistake. Like all of her writing, this romp shows Nye’s unparalleled exuberance for everyday life and her skill at expressing it.
The preceding essay, Amy Tan’s “Fish Cheeks,” also tells a tale of embarrassment.
I was 17, and my family had just moved to San Antonio. A 1 local magazine featured an alluring article about a museum called the McNay, an old mansion once the home of an eccentric many-times-married watercolorist named Marian Koogler McNay. She had deeded it to the community to become a museum upon her death. I asked my friend Sally, who drove a cute little convertible and had moved to Texas a year before we did, if she wanted to go there. Sally said, “Sure.” She was a good friend that way. We had made up a few words in our own language and could dissolve into laughter just by saying them. Our mothers thought we were a bit odd. On a sunny Saturday afternoon, we drove over to Broadway. Sally asked, “Do you have the address of this place?” “No,” I said, “just drive very slowly and I’ll recognize it, there was a picture in the magazine.” I peered in both directions and pointed, saying, “There, there it is, pull in!” The parking lot under some palm trees was pretty empty. We entered, excited. The museum was free. Right away, the spirit of the arched doorways, carved window frames, and elegant artwork overtook us. Sally went left; I went right. A group of people seated in some chairs in the lobby stopped talking and stared at us.
“May I help you?” a man said. “No,” I said. “We’re fine.” I didn’t 2 like to talk to people in museums. Tours and docents got on my nerves. What if they talked a long time about a painting you weren’t that interested in? I took a deep breath, and moved on to another painting — fireworks over a patio in Mexico, maybe? There weren’t very good tags in this museum. In fact, there weren’t any. I stood back and gazed. Sally had gone upstairs. The people in the lobby had stopped chatting. They seemed very nosy, keeping their eyes on me with irritating curiosity. What was their problem? I turned down a hallway. Bougainvilleas and azaleas pressed up right against the windows. Maybe we should have brought a picnic. Where was the Moorish courtyard? I saw some nice sculptures in another room, and a small couch. This would be a great place for reading. Above the couch hung a radiant print by Paul Klee,1 my favorite artist, blues and pinks merging softly in his own wonderful way. I stepped closer. Suddenly I became aware of a man from the lobby standing behind me in the doorway.
“Where do you think you are?” he asked. I turned sharply. 3 “The McNay Art Museum!” He smiled then, and shook his head. “Sorry to tell you. The McNay is three blocks over, on New Braunfels Street. Take a right when you go out of our driveway, then another right.” “What is this place?” I asked, still confused. He said, “Well, we thought it was our home.” My heart jolted. I raced past him to the bottom of the staircase and called out, “Sally! Come down immediately! Urgent!” I remember being tempted to shout something in our private language, but we didn’t have a word for this. Sally came to the top of the stairs smiling happily and said, “You have to come up here, there’s some really good stuff! And there are old beds too!” “No, Sally, no,” I said, as if she were a dog, or a baby. “Get down here. Speed it up. This is an emergency.” She stepped elegantly down the stairs as if in a museum trance, looking puzzled. I just couldn’t tell her out loud in front of those people what we had done. I actually pushed her toward the front door, waving my hand at the family in the chairs, saying, “Sorry, ohmygod, please forgive us, you have a really nice place.” Sally stared at me in the parking lot. When I told her, she covered her mouth and doubled over with laughter, shaking. We were still in their yard. I imagined them inside looking out the windows at us. She couldn’t believe how long they let us look around without saying anything, either. “That was really friendly of them!” “Get in the car,” I said sternly. “This is mortifying.”
The real McNay was fabulous, splendid, but we felt a little 4 nervous the whole time we were there. Van Gogh, Picasso, Tamayo.2 This time, there were tags. This time, we stayed together, in case anything else weird happened.
We never 5 told anyone.
Thirty years later, a nice-looking woman approached me in a 6 public place. “Excuse me,” she said. “I need to ask a strange question. Did you ever, by any chance, enter a residence, long ago, thinking it was the McNay Museum?”
Thirty years later, my cheeks still burned. “Yes. But how do 7 you know? I never told anyone.”
“That was my home. I was a teenager sitting with my family talking 8 in the living room. Before you came over, I never realized what a beautiful place I lived in. I never felt lucky before. You thought it was a museum. My feelings changed about my parents after that too. They had good taste. I have always wanted to thank you.”