Communicating Joy Wordlessly


'Auntie,'' as she was called, spoke no English. I spoke no Chinese. She was a rarity in my neighborhood of Indianapolis. The ethnic community in this city is not large, but it's growing.

She was the housekeeper for a family of four and had come to the United States only a year earlier from her native Hong Kong. I was the part-time nanny for the family's children, nine-year-old Brian and 11-year-old Laura, and it was my job to see that they got their dinner on time.

Brian and Laura's mother was a stockbroker who often worked late; their father, a college professor who had classes in the evening. I saw to it that the children did their homework, watched only a little TV, took baths, and got into bed at a decent time. Auntie was primarily responsible for dinner and cleaning up.

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Auntie was small of stature and had frizzy hair that she liked to style herself occasionally. She would wind her hair around tiny silver rods and then sit under a huge dome hair dryer that she wheeled into the kitchen. It was her one luxury in life - to break the weekly routine of cooking and cleaning.

Auntie knew a few words of English. She could say ''hi,'' ''bye,'' and ''thank you.''

She always had dinner on the table at 6:30 p.m. sharp. But you never knew what she would prepare. Sometimes it was Chinese, sometimes American. I learned to eat some wildly different food. For instance, one night we had highly seasoned fried anchovies with the ever-present bowl of rice. Another night we had delicious steamed pork with onions and shitake mushrooms - a real feast for my uninitiated American tastes.

Auntie and I had to communicate with gestures and hand signals. Brian and Laura had an understanding of Auntie as only children do. I would point to one dish and say, ''Good,'' and flash a winning smile, and Auntie would understand that I liked it.

Later on, we would both share in a joke by laughing at Brian because he would cram his mouth so full of food he would have a hard time chewing. Sometimes Auntie would feed Brian, gently teasing him by saying, ''Ba-be.''

What impressed me most about Auntie was her ready smile. She had indefatigable joy, and when I would thank her for dinner she would grin from ear to ear.

Auntie liked to sew, and after the dinner dishes were done, she would sit down with a quilt and stitch contentedly. She would proudly show me the creative designs she made out of colorful fabrics. They were beautiful, and every stitch was perfect.

One night I brought my needlepoint along to sew after dinner. Auntie spied me working on it and asked, by pointing at the needlepoint and at herself, if she could try it. I handed her the canvas.

The light of the lamp from the table beside the chair shone on her sweet face. I showed her a few stitches, then she tried. Ever so artfully, she blended the stitches inside and out, back and forth, one after the other. The needle glistened in the light, casting a glow over her tiny hand. Every stitch was perfect, in fact, even more so than those I had done. She was so proud of her handiwork.

I spent only a semester, several times a week, at Brian and Laura's, but that time with Auntie sparked in me a new curiosity about Chinese culture.

I had grown to love her gentleness, her extreme politeness, and to understand a little how she must have felt not being able to communicate with me, although she tried.

Auntie and I had gained a mutual appreciation of each other in our short time together. She respected my handling of the children; I respected the way she so artfully cared for the home.

I stopped taking care of the children at Christmas, but I gave Auntie a Christmas gift as well as the children: a very intricate needlepoint kit. I never heard whether she finished it, but it doesn't matter; my real gift to her and her gift to me was in the sharing of two different backgrounds and worlds.

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