​​         Chinese Stories in English   

Mom Tours England
by Little Wooden Boat

     She's my mom. She sent me to Europe to go to school five years ago; five years later I was graduating. I was in England and she wanted to come see me. When I picked her up she was wearing a mountaineering jacket and a small backpack, and was pulling a carry-on bag. In Heathrow Airport, she looked a bit provincial.
     Like lots of mothers, coming to England she faced a lot of things she wasn't accustomed to. And her being unaccustomed to things made me unsure what to do.
     For example, when she tried on clothing in a store, she'd bellow at the clerks in Chinese about how the clothes were this or that, too big or too small, or how she used to have such a great figure, and so on. I'd have to stand there picking out the important parts and translating as fast as I could, and end up telling the clerk that we'd like to look around in some other stores.
     I took her out for Chinese food and she wasn't happy about it: "Why did you bring me here to eat this? You can get it for half the price in China." So I found some reasonably priced western restaurants on the net, but when we'd go she couldn't read the menu. I'd translate the whole thing for her, beginning to end, and usually by the time I got to the end she'd forgotten the beginning. She'd end up ordering any old thing, and before you knew it she'd be complaining that I took her places I didn't know anything about, and Western food isn't any good anyway. 
     She's never been a tightfisted person, but she'd gotten into the habit of adding a zero onto the end of the price of everything to convert it into Chinese currency, and then mumbling, "It's so expensive." She deplored the inefficiency of foreign people, saying it took forever for a waiter to bring the bill, and she was always after me to hurry them up.
     She really liked the kids. When she'd see "foreign dolls" she liked to play with them in the Chinese fashion.
     She likes photography, and she'd strike a variety of poses anytime, anywhere. She was also very demanding about the quality of the pictures; the size of the person and the height of the scenery all had to be perfect. She wouldn't hesitate to spend a lot of time to get the photo right.
     Sometimes I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. She can't speak English, so she was quite willing to start chatting with the Chinese people she ran into on the street, especially exchange students. After the students had been chitchatting with her for a while, they always asked me if they could show her around town, they were so jealous of us. If it was a girl asking this, she'd always brag to me later, "See, everyone envies you!" as though she'd helped me score some points with the girl.
     Sometimes she made me feel helpless. In China she's used to shopping with a clerk following her around, and she couldn't understand why English clerks stand to one side and let you look around for yourself. She was always picking up something she thought was interesting and wanting me to find out the ingredients and the place and date of manufacture from the package. My everyday English is OK, but that's a whole different matter. If I called call a clerk over to ask questions regarding cosmetics, for example, I often got answers to questions I hadn't asked.
     Sometimes she made me feel frustrated. Even though she'd never been to England before, and didn't have a map in her hand, she was always expressing doubts about the route I'd chosen. If I was talking to someone, like asking for directions, buying tickets or paying a check, she incessantly reminded me to count the change, don't get cheated, make sure the bill is clear, keep the receipt, et cetera, et cetera. While I was speaking English, I also had to keep one ear cocked to listen to her babble on and on in Chinese.
     One time when I was doing my taxes, I couldn't concentrate and we ended up having a little spat. Later I took her down to Hyde Park and found a bench to sit on. She said she was tired and wanted to sit for a while. She knew I wasn't happy, but she took her own sweet time. She sat on one end of the bench and pulled out her copy of Lonely Planet – England and started to read it. That's a really thick and heavy book, but it was the only Chinese book she had with her on the trip, and she'd already looked through it several times.
     After a while she nudged me softly and said to me, like a small child, "I want to go to the bathroom." I sighed and led her to a public restroom nearby, put in a coin for her and watched her go inside. I waited there until she came out, and then led her back to the bench. She didn't say anything for quite a while.
     "I'm thinking about your father," she said suddenly.
      I realized right away what a frightening thing I'd done. Five years of living on my own had made me forget the panic I'd felt when I first set foot in this place. I'd naturally believed, whatever I knew, everyone else would know, too. She couldn't say hardly anything in English except "English, no", and could understand even less, so I was the only thing connecting her with the outside world. Aside from me, all she had was that book England.
     I vaguely remembered when I'd first set foot in Europe: When I'd been too loud in a restaurant and the people at the next table kept casting sidelong glances in my direction; how I couldn't get used to eating steak dripping with blood, or drinking the overly bitter coffee; how I'd calculate all the prices using the exchange rate and then spend money over-cautiously; how I'd look lovingly at the "foreign dolls" and have the parents give me kindly smiles in return; and how I carried my camera around and took souvenir photos while other people looked at me funny.
     The East and West are such different environments, how could have I expected her to get in a few short days the things that it took me several years to figure out? She had dared to buy an airplane ticket and leave her familiar world for far-away England, and the only reason was me. Having me there gave her confidence.
     She truly wanted to chat with the Chinese people she met, but it was usually opportunistic. Lots of people even exchanged mailing addresses with her and arranged to get in touch when they returned to China. She really liked asking foreigners all kinds of questions through me, and when she'd come up with viewpoints deeper than mine it amazed the foreigners. We even met a professor who treated us to an expensive dinner just so he could listen to my mom talk about China. She really did act very carefully, but that's her normal way of doing things, and because I kept receipts after paying the bills, I reaped big benefits regarding something that happened a little later. Although she couldn't speak English, she'd given me the shirt off her back so I could get the best education.
     I stood up, took her hand and said, "Let's go."
     "Go where?"
     "Buckingham Palace."
     "What's that?"
     "It's where the Queen of England lives."
     She opened her pack and took out her copy of England to read the overview of Buckingham Palace. I took the book from her and turned to the right page, and started to read it to her as we walked. "Buckingham Palace is located in the borough of Westminster…."
     It seemed she wasn't really listening as I read. She was gazing off into the distance.
     "Are you listening?"
     "What are you looking at?"
     She pointed toward the horizon. "Look how low the sky is over there," she said to me. "It looks like you could just reach out and your hand would be in the clouds."
     Early autumn in London is a bit humid, and the fallen leaves baking in the warm sun smelled of decay. I looked over her head in the direction she was pointing and realized that we hadn't gone walking shoulder-to-shoulder for these five years; she'd gotten quite a bit shorter.
     Two months have passed since I toured with her in England. We've returned to China and she's back in a familiar environment. As always, she keeps busy rushing around going to classes. She's satisfied with the speed of the servers in restaurants, and with the clerks following her around when she goes shopping, so she can ask them anything she wants any time she wants. It's like that month touring England never happened. But occasionally after dinner she'll tell me and dad that she sometimes daydreams about how awesome it felt, walking along behind me in England, holding onto my coattail, not having to worry about anything….
     I remember that feeling, too, from when I was four years old.

青年文摘 Youth Literature Digest, March 2013, 2nd Semimonthly Issue, p. 22
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