ENG122 Dvc Diablo Valley College Tongue Tied by Maxine Hong Kingston Paper Reading: “Tongue-Tied,” Maxine Hong Kingston ; “Mother Tongue,” Amy Tan; “Aria,”

ENG122 Dvc Diablo Valley College Tongue Tied by Maxine Hong Kingston Paper Reading: “Tongue-Tied,” Maxine Hong Kingston ; “Mother Tongue,” Amy Tan; “Aria,” Richard Rodriguez -Write: Compare/contrast each author’s perspective on language. Use quotes to support your claims. 400 words minimum Tongue-Tied
Maxine Hong Kingston
Long ago in China, knot-makers tied string into buttons and
frogs, and rope into bell pulls. There was one knot so complicated
that it blinded the knot-maker. Finally an emperor outlawed this
cruel knot, and the nobles could not order it anymore. If I had
lived in china, I would have been an outlaw knot-maker.
Maybe that’s why my mother cut my tongue. She pushed my
tongue up and sliced the frenum. Or maybe she snipped it with a
pair of nail scissors. I don’t remember her doing it, only her telling
me about it, but all during childhood I felt sorry for the baby whose
mother waited with scissors or knife in hand for it to cry—and
then, when its mouth was wide open like a baby bird’s, cut. The
Chinese say “a ready tongue I an evil.”
I used to curl up my tongue in front of the mirror and tauten
my frenum into a white line, itself as thin as a razor blade. I saw
no scars in my mouth. I thought perhaps I had had two frena, and
she had cut one. I made other children open their mouths so I
could compare theirs to mine. I saw perfect pink membranes
stretching into precise edges that looked easy enough to cut.
Sometimes I felt very proud that my mother committed such a
powerful act upon me. At other times I was terrified—the first
thing my mother did when she saw me was to cut my tongue.
“Why did you do that to me, Mother?”
“I told you.”
“Tell me again.”
“I cut it so that you would not be tongue-tied. Your tongue
would be able to move in any language. You’ll be able to speak
languages that are completely different from one another. You’ll
be able to pronounce anything. Your frenum looked too tight to do
those things, so I cut it.”
“But isn’t ‘a ready tongue an evil’?”
“Things are different in this ghost country.”
“Did it hurt me? Did I cry and bleed?”
“I don’t remember. Probably.”
She didn’t cut the other children’s. When I asked cousins and
other Chinese children whether their mothers had cut their tongues
loose, they said, “What?”
“Why didn’t you cut my brothers’ and sisters’ tongues?”
“They didn’t need it.”
“Why not? Were theirs longer than mine?”
“Why don’t you quit blabbering and get to work?”
If my mother was not lying she should have cut more, scraped
away the rest of the frenum skin, because I have a terrible time
talking. Or she should not have cut at all, tampering with my
speech. When I went to kindergarten and had to speak English for
the first time, I became silent. A dumbness—a shame—still cracks
my voice in two, even when I want to say “hello” casually, or ask
an easy question in front of the check-out counter, or ask directions
of a bus driver. I stand frozen, or I hold up the line with the
complete, grammatical sentence that comes squeaking out at
impossible length. “What did you say?” says the cab driver, or
“Speak up,” so I have to perform again, only weaker the second
time. A telephone call makes my throat bleed and takes up that
day’s courage. It spoils my day with self-disgust when I hear my
broken voice come skittering out into the open. It makes people
wince to hear it. I’m getting better, though. Recently I asked the
postman for special-issue stamps; I’ve waited since childhood for
postmen to give me some of their own accord. I am making
progress, a little every day.
My silence was thickest—total—during the three years
that I covered my school paintings with black paint. I painted
layers of black over houses and flower and suns, and when I
drew on the blackboard, I put a layer of chalk on top. I was
making a stage curtain, and it was the moment before the
curtain parted or rose. The teachers called my parents to
school, and I saw they had been saving my pictures, curling
and crackling, all alike and black. The teacher pointed to the
pictures and looked serious, talked seriously too, but my
parents did not understand English. (“The parents and
teachers of criminals were executed,” said my father.) My
parents took the pictures home. I spread them out (so black
and full of possibilities) and pretended the curtains were
swinging open, flying up, one after another, sunlight
underneath, mighty operas.
During the first silent year I spoke to no one at school,
did not ask before going to the lavatory, and flunked
kindergarten. My sister also said nothing for three years,
silent in the playground and silent at lunch. There were other
quiet Chinese girls not of our family, but most of them got
over it sooner than we did. I enjoyed the silence. At first it
did not occur to me I was supposed to talk or to pass
kindergarten. I talked at home and to one or two of the
Chinese kids in class. I made motions and even made some
jokes. I drank out of a toy saucer when the water spilled out
of the cup, and everybody laughed, pointing to me, so I did it
some more. I didn’t know that Americans don’t drink out of
I liked the Negro students (Black Ghosts) best because
they laughed the loudest and talked to me as if I were a
daring talker too. One of the Negro girls had her mother coil
braids over her ears Shanghai-style like mine; we were
Shanghai twins except that she was covered with black like
my paintings. Two Negro kids enrolled in Chinese school,
and the teachers gave them Chinese names. Some Negro kids
walked me to school and home, protecting me from the
Japanese kids, who hit me and chased and stuck gum in my
ears. The Japanese kids were noisy and tough. They
appeared one day in kindergarten, released from
concentration camp, which was a tic-tac-toe mark, like
barbed wire, on the map.
It was when I found out I had to talk that school became
a misery, that the silence became a misery. I did not speak
and felt bad each time that I did not speak. I read aloud in
first grade, though, and heard the barest whisper with little
squeaks come out of my throat. “Louder,” said the teacher,
who scared the voice away again. The other Chinese girls did
not talk either, so I knew the silence had to do with being a
Chinese girl.
Reading out loud was easier than speaking because we
did not have to make up what to say, but I stopped often, and
the teacher would think I’d gone quiet again. I could not
understand “I.”
The Chinese “I” had seven strokes,
intricacies. How could the American “I,” assuredly wearing
a hat like the Chinese, have only three strokes, the middle so
straight? Was it out of politeness that this writer left off
strokes the way a Chinese has to write her own name small
and crooked? No, it was not politeness; “I” is a capital and
“you” is a lower-case. I stared at that middle line and waited
so long for its black center to resolve into tight strokes and dots
that I forgot to pronounce it. The other troublesome word was
“here,” no strong consonant to hang on to, and so flat, when “here”
is two mountainous ideographs. The teacher, who had already told
me every day how to read “I” and “here,” put me in the low corner
under the stairs again, where the noisy boys usually sat.
When my second grade class did a play, the whole class went
to the auditorium except the Chinese girls. The teacher, lovely and
Hawaiian, should have understood about us, but instead left us
behind in the classroom. Our voices were too soft or nonexistent,
and our parents never signed the permission slips anyway. They
never signed anything unnecessary. We opened the door a crack
and peeked out, but closed it again quickly. One of us (not me)
won every spelling bee, though.
I remember telling the Hawaiian teacher, “We Chinese can’t
sing ‘land where our fathers died.’” She argued with me about
politics, while I meant because of curses. But how can I have that
memory when I couldn’t talk? My mother says that we, like the
ghosts, have no memories.
After American school, we picked up our cigar boxes, in
which we had arranged books, brushes, and an inkbox neatly, and
went to Chinese school, from 5:00 to 7:30 p.m. There we chanted
together, voices rising and falling, loud and soft, some boys
shouting, everybody reading together, reciting together, reciting
together and not alone with one voice. When we had a
memorization test, the teacher let each of us come to his desk and
say the lesson to him privately, while the rest of the class practiced
copying or tracing. Most of the teachers were men. The boys
who were so well behaved in the American school played tricks on
them and talked back to them. The girls were not mute. They
screamed and yelled during recess, when there were no rules; they
had fistfights. Nobody was afraid of children hurting themselves
or of children hurting school property. The glass doors to the red
and green balconies with the gold joy symbols were left wide open
so that we could run out and climb the fire escapes. We played
capture-the-flag in the auditorium, where Sun Yat-sen and Chiang
Kai-shek’s pictures hung at the back of the stage, the Chinese flag
on their left and the American flag on their right. We climbed the
teak ceremonial chairs and made flying leaps off the stage. One
flag headquarters was behind the glass door and the other on stage
right. Our feet drummed on the hollow stage. During recess the
teachers locked themselves up in their office with the shelves of
books, copybooks, inks from China. They drank tea and warmed
their hands at a stove. There was no play supervision. At recess
we had the school to ourselves, and also we could roam as far as
we could go—downtown, Chinatown stores, home—as long as we
returned before the bell rang.
At exactly 7:30 the teacher again picked up the brass bell that
sat on his desk and swung it over our heads, while we charged
down the stairs, our cheering magnified in the stairwell. Nobody
had to line up.
Not all of the children who were silent at American school
found voice at Chinese school. One new teacher said each of us
had to get up and recite in front of the class, who was to listen. My
sister and I had memorized the lesson perfectly. We said it to each
other at home, one chanting, one listening. The teacher called on
my sister to recite first. It was the first time a teacher had called on
the second-born to go first. My sister was scared. She glanced at
me and looked away; I looked down at my desk. I hoped that she
could do it because if she could, then I wouldn’t have to. She
opened her mouth and a voice came out that wasn’t a whisper, but
it wasn’t a proper voice either. I hoped that she would not cry, fear
breaking up her voice like twigs underfoot. She sounded as if
she were trying to sing through weeping and strangling. She
did not pause or stop to end the embarrassment. She kept
going until she said the last word, and then she sat down.
When it was my turn, the same voice came out, a crippled
animal running on broken legs. You could hear splinters in
my voice, bones rubbing jagged against one another. I was
loud, though. I was glad I didn’t whisper. There was one
little girl who whispered.
Mother Tongue, by Amy Tan
I am not a scholar of English or literature. I cannot give you much more than personal opinions on the
English language and its variations in this country or others.
I am a writer. And by that definition, I am someone who has always loved language. I am fascinated by
language in daily life. I spend a great deal of my time thinking about the power of language — the way it
can evoke an emotion, a visual image, a complex idea, or a simple truth. Language is the tool of my trade.
And I use them all — all the Englishes I grew up with.
Recently, I was made keenly aware of the different Englishes I do use. I was giving a talk to a large group
of people, the same talk I had already given to half a dozen other groups. The nature of the talk was about
my writing, my life, and my book, The Joy Luck Club. The talk was going along well enough, until I
remembered one major difference that made the whole talk sound wrong. My mother was in the room. And
it was perhaps the first time she had heard me give a lengthy speech, using the kind of English I have never
used with her. I was saying things like, “The intersection of memory upon imagination” and “There is an
aspect of my fiction that relates to thus-and-thus’–a speech filled with carefully wrought grammatical
phrases, burdened, it suddenly seemed to me, with nominalized forms, past perfect tenses, conditional
phrases, all the forms of standard English that I had learned in school and through books, the forms of
English I did not use at home with my mother.
Just last week, I was walking down the street with my mother, and I again found myself conscious of the
English I was using, the English I do use with her. We were talking about the price of new and used
furniture and I heard myself saying this: “Not waste money that way.” My husband was with us as well, and
he didn’t notice any switch in my English. And then I realized why. It’s because over the twenty years we’ve
been together I’ve often used that same kind of English with him, and sometimes he even uses it with me. It
has become our language of intimacy, a different sort of English that relates to family talk, the language I
grew up with.
So you’ll have some idea of what this family talk I heard sounds like, I’11 quote what my mother said
during a recent conversation which I videotaped and then transcribed. During this conversation, my mother
was talking about a political gangster in Shanghai who had the same last name as her family’s, Du, and how
the gangster in his early years wanted to be adopted by her family, which was rich by comparison. Later,
the gangster became more powerful, far richer than my mother’s family, and one day showed up at my
mother’s wedding to pay his respects. Here’s what she said in part: “Du Yusong having business like fruit
stand. Like off the street kind. He is Du like Du Zong — but not Tsung-ming Island people. The local people
call putong, the river east side, he belong to that side local people. That man want to ask Du Zong father
take him in like become own family. Du Zong father wasn’t look down on him, but didn’t take seriously,
until that man big like become a mafia. Now important person, very hard to inviting him. Chinese way,
came only to show respect, don’t stay for dinner. Respect for making big celebration, he shows up. Mean
gives lots of respect. Chinese custom. Chinese social life that way. If too important won’t have to stay too
long. He come to my wedding. I didn’t see, I heard it. I gone to boy’s side, they have YMCA dinner.
Chinese age I was nineteen.”
You should know that my mother’s expressive command of English belies how much she actually
understands. She reads the Forbes report, listens to Wall Street Week, converses daily with her stockbroker,
reads all of Shirley MacLaine’s books with ease–all kinds of things I can’t begin to understand. Yet some of
my friends tell me they understand 50 percent of what my mother says. Some say they understand 80 to 90
percent. Some say they understand none of it, as if she were speaking pure Chinese. But to me, my mother’s
English is perfectly clear, perfectly natural. It’s my mother tongue. Her language, as I hear it, is vivid,
direct, full of observation and imagery. That was the language that helped shape the way I saw things,
expressed things, made sense of the world.
Lately, I’ve been giving more thought to the kind of English my mother speaks. Like others, I have
described it to people as ‘broken” or “fractured” English. But I wince when I say that. It has always
bothered me that I can think of no way to describe it other than “broken,” as if it were damaged and needed
to be fixed, as if it lacked a certain wholeness and soundness. I’ve heard other terms used, “limited
English,” for example. But they seem just as bad, as if everything is limited, including people’s perceptions
of the limited English speaker.
I know this for a fact, because when I was growing up, my mother’s “limited” English limited my
perception of her. I was ashamed of her English. I believed that her English reflected the quality of what
she had to say That is, because she expressed them imperfectly her thoughts were imperfect. And I had
plenty of empirical evidence to support me: the fact that people in department stores, at banks, and at
restaurants did not take her seriously, did not give her good service, pretended not to understand her, or
even acted as if they did not hear her.
My mother has long realized the limitations of her English as well. When I was fifteen, she used to have me
call people on the phone to pretend I was she. In this guise, I was forced to ask for information or even to
complain and yell at people who had been rude to her. One time it was a call to her stockbroker in New
York. She had cashed out her small portfolio and it just so happened we were going to go to New York the
next week, our very first trip outside California. I had to get on the phone and say in an adolescent voice
that was not very convincing, “This is Mrs. Tan.”
And my mother was standing in the back whispering loudly, “Why he don’t send me check, already two
weeks late. So mad he lie to me, losing me money.
And then I said in perfect English, “Yes, I’m getting rather concerned. You had agreed to send the check
two weeks ago, but it hasn’t arrived.”
Then she began to talk more loudly. “What he want, I come to New York tell him front of his boss, you
cheating me?” And I was trying to calm her down, make her be quiet, while telling the stockbroker, “I can’t
tolerate any more excuses. If I don’t receive the check immediately, I am going to have to speak to your
manager when I’m in New York next week.” And sure enough, the following week there we were in front of
this astonished stockbroker, and I was sitting there red-faced and quiet, and my mother, the real Mrs. Tan,
was shouting at his boss in her impeccable broken English.
We used a similar routine just five days ago, for a situation that was far less humorous. My mother had
gone to the hospital for an appointment, to find out about a benign brain tumor a CAT scan had revealed a
month ago. She said she had spoken very good English, her best English, no mistakes. Still, she said, the
hospital did not apologize when they said they had lost the CAT scan and she had come for nothing. She
said they did not seem to have any sympathy when she told them she was anxious to know the exact
diagnosis, since her husband and son had both died of brain tumors. She said they would not give her any
more information until the next time and she would have to make another appointment for that. So she said
she would not leave until the doctor called her daughter. She wouldn’t budge. And when the doctor finally
called her daughter, me, who spoke in perfect English — lo and behold — we had assurances the CAT scan
would be found, promises that a conference call on Monday would be held, and apologies for any suffering
my mother had gone through for a most regrettable mistake.
I think my mother’s English almost had an effect on limiting my possibilities in life as well. Sociologists
and linguists probably will tell you that a person’s developing language skills are more influenced by peers.
But I do think that the language spoken in the family, especially in immigrant families which are more
insular, plays a large role in shaping the language of the child. And I believe that it affected my results on
achievement tests, I.Q. tests, and the SAT. While my English skills were never judged as poor, compared to
math, English could not be considered my strong suit. In grade school I did moderately well, getting
perhaps B’s, sometimes B-pluses, in English and scoring perhaps in the sixtieth or seventieth percentile on
achievement tests. But those scores were not good enough to override the opinion that my true abilities lay
in math and science, beca…
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