Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Truly the Mother Tongue

I taught my roommate two new words last night.

I was standing in the kitchen, heating up some leftover stir-fry in the microwave, when J___, one of my two roommates, came up to me and held out a small black plastic tube.

“You want this?” she asked me. I took it and squinted at the tiny gold writing on it.

“What is it?”

“It is . . . for your eye . . . .” She made a motion toward her eyes with her finger, and at that moment, I found the product label: mascara.

“Oh! Well sure! You don’t want it?”

“No, no. I have many. I don’t need them.”

“Well thanks. Mine’s pretty old anyway, so this is great.”

At this moment, my other roommate, L___, emerged from her room.

“How do you call that?” She motioned to the tube in my hand.

I held it up. “What, mascara?”

She squeezed her eyes, contorting her face in effort. “Mass-sceeeerrrrr—a.”

“Yeah, mas-CARE-a. Like . . . ,” I stopped to think, “like ‘scare.’ Like the word ‘scare?’ Scarey? Ma-SCARE-a.”

She tried pronouncing it again. “And what is the other one?”

“The other one?” I ran through my limited knowledge of beauty products: eyeliner, eye shadow, blush…. I could see her struggling to spit it out as I tried to think of what she could be imagining.

“It’s when everyone get killed.”

“Oh! You mean ‘massacre.’”

She looked at me a expectantly, so I repeated it.

“Massacre. MASS-a-cer. Like . . . with the word ‘mass.’ You know? Like a weight? Mass? MASS-a-cer.”

“Mass-cer,” she tried repeating it. “And what was the other one?”


“Right. Mascara.” She appeared to be concentrating very deeply. Then she looked up and laughed. “I just don’t want to go to makeup store and ask for . . . for . . . mass-cer.”

“A massacre!” I laughed along with her. “Well, you can remember it . . . I guess if you put too much mascara on, it would look scary. Ma-SCARE-a.”

It was in that moment that I realized: I sounded just like my mother. This was how we had always studied everything, with her offering goofy pneumonics for bits of information I had trouble memorizing. “Mighty mitochondria.” (Their job in the cell was to provide energy.) “Eating too much Pb-and-j would make you leaden.” Such silly ideas, and yet they worked. And here I was offering the exact same sort of thing to my ESL roommate.

Incredible, how much our parents can influence us. And even more incredible, how little instances like this make me wonder if I truly am supposed to be a teacher.

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