THE MASEFIELDS had been back from Cape Cod for three weeks. Heidi’s children, Nathan and Livia, ages eleven and eight, had been pleased to see Taotao, especially Livia, who adopted a protective attitude toward the younger boy. The girl, who had a wide forehead and large deep-set eyes, was short and scrawny for her age. She had many friends in the neighborhood and often invited them over, but Taotao wouldn’t join them. Neither would he play with Nathan. Most of the time he stayed upstairs in the attic. Whenever Livia found him in the kitchen with his mother, she’d teach him a few English words. “Say ‘Thank you, please’ when you want something,” she told him; or “Say ‘Can I have this, please?’ ” And Taotao would repeat after her. Sometimes she’d hold out her hands with the short fingers raised and ask him, “How many is this?” The boy always answered correctly in English. In every way she treated him like a friend. She seemed eager to please Taotao, who was still timid and quiet. She often said to Pingping and Heidi, “He’s really smart. Why’s he so shy?”
The Wus ate their own meals separately. They’d enter the large kitchen only after the Masefields were finished with dinner. This meant Pingping had to cook two meals in the afternoons. Unlike his parents, Taotao was fond of American food, which made his mother’s cooking easier. Following him, his parents had begun to eat what they wouldn’t touch before-pizza, cheese, spaghetti, macaroni, hot dogs. Cheese tasted like soap to Nan at first, but now he chewed it with relish and could tell if the flavor was sharp. Still, he found that milk would upset his stomach, so his wife gave him ice cream instead.
In the evenings Pingping spent most of the time reading aloud to
Taotao. She also taught him arithmetic, which was easier for him since she explained everything in Chinese. She had been a math teacher at a vocational school back in China, but she had hated teaching, a profession assigned to her by the state. Now she was happy to teach her son with the thick textbooks Nan had bought at a secondhand bookstore in Sudbury, a nearby town. She found that American math books were much better written than the Chinese textbooks, more detailed, more comprehensive, and more suitable for students to teach themselves math. Each book was chock-full of information, at least ten times more than a Chinese schoolbook contained.
With his mother’s help at home, Taotao did decently at school, though he was still in the lowest reading group. Nan had gone to see his son at school a few times and noticed that a freckle-faced girl named Loreen often read to Taotao. He was moved by the sight in which the girl put her finger on a drawing, saying, “This is a jumbo jet heading for Miami,” while his son listened attentively. Nan knew that the girl’s father played basketball for the Celtics, and he had once seen him with Loreen sitting on his knee at a PTA meeting. The man was a giant, but somehow his daughter was weedy and frail. Taotao told his parents that Loreen was good to him and even gave him her milk at lunch. Yet not all the students were kind to him, and a few called him Conehead.
One afternoon in mid-October, Nan and Pingping went to have a conference with Mrs. Gardener, Taotao’s homeroom teacher. The classroom was already empty of students, and the little chairs had all been pushed under the child-size tables. “Take a seat,” the teacher said in a tired voice to Nan and Pingping, smiling kindly. She was in her early forties and had round eyes and a pudgy face.
They sat down in front of Mrs. Gardener, who began talking about Taotao’s progress. Meanwhile, the boy was sitting on his heels in the corridor, waiting for his parents.
“I have just put him into another reading group, one level up,” the teacher said about Taotao.
“Sank you for promoting him.” Nan ‘s eyes brightened.
“We are very happy about that,” Pingping added.
“Mrs. Wu, does Taotao have a bladder problem?”
“Not really. He pee in bed a few times when he’s baby, but that’s okay.”
“In class he goes to the bathroom every ten minutes. The other students are amused. He must feel embarrassed, I gather. I’m worried about that.”
“He may be nervous,” Nan put in.
“He could be. I’ve noticed that in the math class he doesn’t go to the bathroom as often.”
“I work hard with his reading at home,” Pingping said.
“I can tell. He has made a lot of progress. Still, it’s not easy for him to keep up with the rest of the class. That’s why I want to ask you this-would you like to have him placed in a bilingual class? The school is going to start one soon.”
“No!” Nan objected. “We don’t want him to be in a class jahst for foreigners.”
“Yes, he doesn’t need that,” Pingping chimed in. Mrs. Gardener looked perplexed. “Why? That’ll make him more comfortable.”
“He comes here to stahdy, not to be comfortable,” replied Nan.
“I don’t understand, Mr. Wu, although I appreciate your taking his education so seriously.”
“He can catch up wiz zer class, believe me. Please give him a chance,” Nan said.
“Please don’t get rid of him!” Pingping begged. “Taotao said a lotta good thing about you, Mrs. Gardener. He’s unhappy if you take him out.”
The teacher looked at her in astonishment, then was all smiles. “I don’t mean to send him away. Don’t get me wrong. If you insist, we won’t put him in the bilingual class.”
After that meeting, Pingping worked harder to help Taotao with his reading. Every week she borrowed a dozen or so children’s books from the town library and read them together with him. Even when the boy was too tired to continue, she’d go on reading aloud so he could listen while working a jigsaw puzzle or playing with Legos or the toy robots Nathan had lent him. She didn’t always understand what she read. Once, as mother and son were reading a story about
King William and his knights who conquered a fortress, the boy asked, “Mama, what does ‘laid waste’ mean?”
“Poop and pee everywhere.” She then continued loudly, “The king was pleased with the raid and awarded his men…”
Another time they were reading an abridged biography of Queen Elizabeth. When they came to a scene in which Her Majesty was so furious with a courtier that she laid her hands on him, Taotao asked his mother, “What is ‘boxed his ears’?”
“To cover up his earholes so he couldn’t hear anything.”
“It doesn’t sound like that.”
“All right, let’s mark this and ask Daddy when he’s back.”
Among the titles Pingping had checked out of the library, she liked the simplified Black Beauty best. She’d sigh, saying, “I’m like that horse, always moving from place to place and serving others. As long as the harness is on me, I can’t take a run for joy or lie down for weariness. I have to work, work, work, until I die.” Her eyes would fill.
Taotao didn’t fully understand what she meant, but her words upset Nan when he overheard her. He knew her life had been misspent. When Pingping was a child, her mother had prophesied her hard future, saying she had a princess’s body but a maid’s fate. Pingping resented that but never dared to talk back. She always dreamed of becoming a doctor like her parents and often went to her father’s clinic to do voluntary work, giving injections, decocting medicinal herbs, performing acupuncture and cupping, boiling syringes and needles. Everybody praised her, many patients wanted her to treat them, and people believed she had life-nurturing hands and would make an excellent doctor someday. But when she had grown up, she couldn’t even attend nursing school and was assigned to study applied mathematics in a technical school. How she envied those youths in her neighborhood who had gone to college or the army through their parents’ clout. In her mind she had blamed her father for not pulling strings for her, even though she knew that the old man, born into a rich peasant’s family and classified as a reactionary element, dared not, and could not, assert himself. Now she made Taotao study hard, hoping he could go to medical school someday. If that happened, she would spend her last penny helping him.