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.
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.