My International Kids: Lily and Mariko

 

My International Kids: Lily and Mariko [1]

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

 

Photo credit: https://c.tadst.com/gfx/750×500/hamburger-day.jpg?1

Hosting international students during the time my mother – who had lived with me for the last ten years — was cared for at a nursing home filled my own home with life, with young people who had dreams for the future. On occasion, some of the students visited the nursing home with me; they offered smiling faces and gentle words to my blind mother.

There was Lily (not her real name), a spunky, “poor little rich girl” from Taiwan who had spent most of her growing up years in boarding schools, and the best thing about her stay in Canada, she announced, was me. “I brought myself up,” she would say.

But her eyes sparkled. She was filled with curiosity about life in North America and wanted to see and know everything. The students all shared comments about their respective hosts, and Lily’s reports about me were so glowing that several of her fellow Taiwanese students made their house my meeting place on many evenings. The language school encouraged its host “families” to act like parents, even held meetings where we could get to know one another and share helpful observations, and so here I was – a surrogate Mom, whose own children were, at that point, living in other cities, making their way in the world. When one of my own daughters visited while Lily was living with me, she was surprised to hear Lily (and sometimes Lily’s friends) calling me “Mom.”

My daughter was also amazed that her new Taiwanese “siblings” always asked for “North American food.” Hot dogs and hamburgers were their preference, so they were very easy to please in the epicurean department. Most of them had lived their young lives in luxurious circumstances, catered to by housekeepers and maids, and had never learned to cook for themselves. They delighted in helping me clear the table and put the dishes in the dishwasher. Sometimes I helped them with their homework.

When they arrived in Toronto, all the Taiwanese girls spoke a precise, formal English, fluent in varying degrees, but they were anxious to talk like “native speakers.” I was really upset that their elite language school was teaching them “American-style” English, so that they would “fit in”: to say (and write!) things like “gonna” and “wanna” and “coulda” and “ya” instead of “going to,” “want to,” “could have,” and “you.”

Lily was fascinated by the new idioms she was absorbing on a daily basis. One evening she graphically demonstrated her latest idiomatic acquisition to me. Opening her mouth wide, she repeatedly moved her fingers back and forth inside this moist cavity, as if she were vomiting.

“Do you know what that means?” she cried excitedly.

“Tell me,” I said faintly.

“It sucks!” she pronounced proudly.

“They’re ruining your English,” I wailed.

She was not as impressed by the rooms of my home, though, as she was by her acquisition of English idioms. Although Lily was amazed at the spacious lawns that surrounded many of the homes in my Toronto neighborhood – in Taiwan, such exterior space is limited – she considered her bedroom at my home “small” in comparison to the spacious room she enjoyed in her parents’ grand apartment in Taiwan.

The holiday greeting card she sent to me when she returned home bore a triumphant “Joy!” on its cover. Inside was this message in carefully inscribed block letters:

 

“WISH YOU ALL THE BEST ON THE SPECIAL SEASON! SINCE WE MET ON LAST SUMMER, YOU’VE BEEN AN IMPORTANT PERSON IN MY LIFE. TO ME, YOU’RE A THOUGHTFUL MOMMY, A LOVELY FRIEND, A WISEFUL TEACHER. YOU’RE EVERYTHING!!! PLEASE REMEMBER ME, THE GIRL WHO ADMIRE YOU SO MUCH.

LILY.”

I still cry every time I come across her message. Dear Lily, I wish I could have given you a bigger room.

I learned, however, that perception of space is culturally conditioned when Mariko (not her real name) followed Lily as the next student I hosted. She found the room that Lily had occupied huge. Mariko was from a middle class family in Japan, where interior space is compact. In fact, she had never before called a room her own. At night, her family unrolled their tatamis, spread them on the floor, and slept in the same multi-purpose room together. In the morning, they simply rolled them up again. At home, she kept her few belongings in a small chest. At my home, she had a big closet with not much in it.

Unlike Lily, Mariko was an amazing chef and could slice cucumbers, tomatoes, and a variety of vegetables paper thin or into beautiful shapes with an alarmingly big knife in the blink of an eye. She took pride in creating some of the most beautifully crafted salads I have ever seen. But she purchased ready-made, packaged Miso soup at the supermarket. After she returned to Japan, a friend of her family hand-delivered a handsome, electric rice maker as a gift to me and bowed his many thanks on her behalf. And once she was back home, Mariko got a job (ready or not!) teaching first-level English at a Japanese language school.

 

 

©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2017. All rights reserved. Adapted from Corinne Heather Copnick, Cryokid: Drawing a New Map. (New York: iUniverse, 2008). Finalist in Next Gen Awards of Excellence, 2009. Available on Amazon.com.

 

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