Eight-year-old Martin Wang raced upstairs to the third floor of his apartment building. He pressed the doorbell and waited impatiently.
“Ni hao (How are you)?” his mother greeted him cheerfully when she opened the door.
Martin didn’t answer. His mother continued talking in Mandarin, asking him what he had done in school that day and if he wanted sweet rice in bamboo leaves for a snack.
“No,” answered Martin in English, “I want a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich, like all the other kids have.”
“Haole (All right),” said his mother, still talking in Mandarin. “But sweet rice tastes much better.”
“I don’t care,” said Martin. “I want what all the other kids have.”
That evening at supper, as Martin’s father and mother talked about getting ready for the Chinese New Year, which would begin in a few days, Martin burst out angrily, “Speak English!”
“Martin,” said his father. “Why are you so upset?”
“I want you to speak English like everyone else,” said Martin. “And I don’t want to go to the New Year’s festival anymore. I’m tired of being different.” Martin threw down his napkin and ran to his room, crying.
Martin’s mother followed him. “Did something happen in school today?” she asked, sitting next to Martin on his bed.
“Some of the kids said I have funny eyes,” Martin sobbed.
“They’re not funny,” said his mother. “They’re just different from your classmates’. Chinese people have almond-shaped eyes. Yours are especially handsome because you have an extra fold on each eyelid.”
“I don’t care,” said Martin. “I want to be just like everyone else.”
“No one is just like everyone else,” his mother told him. “Right now it seems hard, but someday you’ll be glad for your Chinese heritage.”
The next day at school Martin’s teacher asked him if his mother could come in and tell the class about the Chinese New Year. Martin blushed with embarrassment. He was afraid that the other kids would tease him even more. But Martin did ask his mother, and she said that she would be happy to talk to his class.
A few days later, when Martin woke up, he groaned, remembering that his mother was to accompany him to school. At breakfast he said, “I have a stomachache.”
“I’m sorry, Martin,” said his mother. “I’ll tell you what; if you still don’t feel well after I’ve told your class about the Chinese New Year, you can come home with me.”
Martin tried to think of another excuse to stay home, but his mother whisked him out the door and into the car before he could think of one.
In his classroom Martin sat with his head down, staring at the floor. He thought that the other children would make fun of his mother’s broken English. Instead, the children watched with great interest as she held up a bright red sheet of paper with gold characters painted on it and explained that the characters meant “Happy New Year.”
Then she showed the children how Chinese written characters are sometimes like pictures. She wrote: (mù), which means “tree.” Then she wrote (lin), which means “forest.” Then she held up some small red envelopes covered with gold characters.
“What do you think these are for?” she asked.
One of the children raised his hand and guessed that they were for sending letters.
“No,” said Martin’s mother with a smile, “but that’s a good guess. These are special envelopes that we put money into and give to the children as New Year’s presents—right Martin?”
Martin nodded his head reluctantly.
Out of a large plastic bag, his mother pulled a scary-looking dragon head with a long colorful sheet attached to it. The children all oohed and aahed.
Martin looked around in surprise. Everyone seemed excited and genuinely interested. And no one, he realized, had snickered at anything that his mom had said.
“This is a Chinese dragon,” said his mother. “We use it for the dragon dance during the New Year’s celebration. The person chosen for the dragon’s head has to practice for many months. If you would like me to, I will show you a little of the dance. Who would like to be part of the dragon today?”
All the children—even Billy, who had teased Martin about his eyes—eagerly waved their hands and begged to be part of the dragon.
After all the children had a chance to try the dragon dance, Martin’s mother said that she had one more thing to show them. “You must be very careful with these,” she continued. “Adults are the ones that usually light them for our celebrations.” From a sack she pulled a long string with small rolls of red paper attached to it.
“Firecrackers!” yelled one of the boys.
Everyone in the class pushed to the front of the room to have a closer look.
“Boy, you guys are lucky!” Billy told Martin. “You get to set off firecrackers for New Year’s.”
Martin looked at him and smiled. Maybe being Chinese wasn’t so bad after all.
When everyone had sat down, Martin’s mother asked him in Mandarin if his stomach still hurt. Without thinking, he answered her in Mandarin.
“You mean that you can speak Chinese, too?” asked Billy.
“Wow!” Billy exclaimed. “Maybe you can teach me some?”
Later, as they lined up together for recess, Martin smiled. “Pengyou,“ he said to Billy as they ran across the blacktop. “That means ‘friend.’”