Do you remember learning to read?
My own experience was a very special one. In order to share it with you, I will have to take you back to my own beginnings.
I was born in Pasadena, California, to an actress mother and an actor father. They were both Asian, and Hollywood wasn’t exactly filled with choice roles for Asians. It didn’t bother my mother at all; acting was something her father had pushed her to do and she had never enjoyed it.
My father, though, had come to America with dreams of making it big. He took to drinking to deal with things. And as it turned out, he was a violent drunk.
Before I turned one, my mother knew she had to leave him. So she and I returned back to her father’s home in Hong Kong. Her father had disinherited her when she married my father, but she was permitted to return home as long as it was without him.
My grandfather was a wealthy man. In Hong Kong we lived in a mansion of a house, with several floors and a rooftop deck. There were house servants, cooks, chauffeurs, and of course, the a-mahs, or nannies, who helped my mother look after me. I remember sitting with my mother in the back of one of our many big black cars, laughing at things the driver would tell me; I remember afternoon teas with my mother at fancy hotels; I remember my mother buying me gigantic lollipops with colorful swirly patterns.
When I was four, my mother remarried. She could have stayed in my grandfather’s good graces by marrying one of the several men he’d picked out for her, men who didn’t mind that she was a divorcée with a child. She could have chosen a life of luxury by marrying a wealthy rancher from Arizona, a suitor who had been quite persistent. Instead, she chose to marry my stepfather, a penniless student from a poor family who was ten years her junior.
She was, once again, disinherited.
The three of us emigrated to Canada. We spent some time moving around, staying with different people while waiting for our immigration papers to be granted. But my mother was pregnant with my sister, and we needed a home. Without immigrant status, there were very few jobs available to my stepfather.
Eventually we all ended up on a migrant farm in rural British Columbia. The other farm laborers, all of them Chinese, lived in a bunk house where they each had a room. Because my stepfather had a family – by this time, my little sister had been born – we got to live in a large, draughty cold barn that had been converted into almost livable conditions.
Another problem was rearing its ugly head, though. I had turned five, and would soon have to enter school. Without landed immigrant status, I couldn’t enrol in the public school system. Not only did we not have the money to pay for a private school, there wasn’t one within driving distance of the farm where we lived.
So the decision was made to send me to rural Indiana, where my aunt lived with her American husband. Because I was a U.S. citizen, I would be able to attend school there.
My mother and stepfather scraped together enough for my plane fare. I was five when I took my first airplane ride on my own.
Looking back now, from the perspective of an adult, I know that my aunt was lonely and unhappy. She was still very young, barely out of childhood herself, and she had left behind a life of privilege and fun, a city lifestyle, to marry the man that she loved and live in a small Indiana town. How like a stranger in a strange land she must have felt.
But to me, she was just this very stern person, the person who insisted on cutting my hair to a short boy-style cut because she found it too hard to detangle after washing; the one who told me, when I stepped off the plane, that while I was there, I was not permitted to speak Chinese, as I had to learn to always speak English; the one who told me not to be silly when I expressed fear of the little dog she and my uncle had brought in the car with them.
My uncle was a blonde giant of a man who smiled and laughed a lot. He was gentle and kind. I remember helping him wash his car while he sang along to the rock music blaring from the car radio, sitting on his shoulders for the Fourth of July parade, opening presents at Christmas with him beside me.
One time, I watched something on television that scared me, and I woke up in the middle of the night, terrified. It was my uncle who came out and comforted me. He stayed with me until I was able to drift back to sleep.
And all the while, I was a five-year-old child who missed her mother terribly.
Before I had left Canada, my mother had given me a gift: a thick, hardcover Disney book with a shiny red cover that was filled with lots of short stories.
Because I had arrived in the summer, before school started, for the first little while I was more or less left to my own devices. I pored over that book every day. When I held it in my hands, and turned its pages, it was almost like I could feel my mother’s presence. By some mysterious motherly magic, she had imbued that book with her love, and I knew it.
Day after day, I turned those pages, looking at the big chunks of text, marveling at the colorful pictures. Feeling my mother beside me the whole time.
And then one day, I was reading. I don’t know how I got from not reading to reading; all I know is, one day I looked at the text, and it wasn’t just funny squiggles anymore. All those letters had come together, and together, they were telling me a story.
I don’t think I realized how significant a moment it was. I never told anyone. I suspect my aunt and uncle probably thought I was already a reader, since I spent all my time with that big red book.
I guess it’s no wonder I love books so much. Not only did that big red book make me feel closer to my mother, it also took me into a magical world where, for as long as the text continued, I was somewhere else, and not a sad little girl who missed her mother so much.
I don’t have that big red book anymore. Eventually, my mother and stepfather did get our immigration papers, and I was able to go back home to them. But we were still poor, and we moved many, many times. The book was lost during one of those moves.
But it really doesn’t matter. Sometimes, the intangible can be far more valuable than the tangible. I may not be able to physically hold that big red book in my hands anymore, but it will always be there for me, in my heart.