By Jian Ping
Jim Hahn and me, photo by Dr. Jae Ro
I visited several Rotary Clubs in the greater Chicago area recently, talking about my memoir Mulberry Child and today’s China. Elizabeth, a club member at Barrington, introduced me to Jim at the Korean Club after my appearance at her club.
I exchanged a few emails with Jim and set the date on July 19th. Jim was very detailed oriented and extended his hospitality by picking me up from the Metra Train Station at Arlington Park. We chatted on our way to Woo Lae Oak, a Korean Restaurant where they had their meetings. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that nearly a third of their members were Korean women.
Rotarians at other clubs I had been to were mostly casual. I was amazed to see all the Koreans, men and women, appear in formal attire—men all had a jacket, and some even a tie, in this hot summer day. Each of them came over to make a self introduction as they arrived and addressed me as Ms. Ping. Apparently, they had been well informed of today’s program. I was impressed. I also noticed how extremely polite and friendly they were, not just to me, their guest speaker, but also to one another. One woman, Rose, told me she was not a member, but came specially to hear me talk. We chatted and compared notes on raising children in the U.S.—we certainly had similar experiences.
A Presentation on Mulberry Child
The club meeting started with the ritual of the National Anthem, followed by a pledge, which I always found touching. Then the language changed from English into Korean, beginning with a prayer. I watched Jim take center stage and assumed he was making announcements of their activities. Suddenly, the familiar sound of Jian Ping, Jennifer Hou Kwong, and even Tsingtao Beer caught my attention. I realized he must be introducing me. I smiled. The foreign syllables sounded like music to my ears. I was no stranger to conversations that I couldn’t understand—and they were not even conducted in a foreign language. Over the last decade, my husband and I had spent our Christmas with my in-laws in San Francisco. They spoke Cantonese and Tai Shan dialects, and I spoke Mandarin. Since they knew little English, and my understanding of Cantonese or Tai Shan was next to zero, we smiled and gestured, but couldn’t talk without an interpreter. I learned to fit in without the help of language. The benefit? No conflicts, ever!
At this Korean Club, most of the members knew about the Cultural Revolution or had experienced China firsthand. So I rushed through my talk and left some time for questions. I nodded to the first gentleman who raised his hand. “One, what compelled you to write the book?” he said. “And two, is Tsingtao Beer really started by Germans in China?” Everyone laughed, including me. The two-way dialogue became casual and easy afterward. “Why is it titled Mulberry Child?” “What’s your daughter’s reaction to the book?”…. We carried our conversation over dinner.
I also learned quite a bit about them and their culture. James, who sat next to me, told me about how he learned Chinese characters when he attended school in Korea. “A total of three thousand words,” he said, writing down “天”“heaven” and “地” “earth” in Chinese, but pronounced them in Korean. Brian, who sat across the table asked me the meaning of my name and wrote the correct Chinese characters on a piece of napkin—his handwriting indicated a good training in calligraphy and was much better than mine! Again, I was impressed.
I was honored to sign copies of Mulberry Child for the attendees and found my book bag nearly empty when it was all said and done.
A few members walked me to the door. Rose came over to bid farewell. “I’m so honored to meet you,” she said, her expression genuine and touching. She had asked me to sign a copy of Mulberry Child to her daughter. We shook hands as if we had known each other for a long time. “Send me an email,” I said to her as we parted our way. “I will,” she said, waving.
Jim, thank you and your club members for having me. I really enjoyed the unique experience.
Jian Ping, author of Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China. Visit www.moraquest.com, www.mulberrychild.com