The Hidden Genius of Amy Tan

I've always loved this passage to help illustrate the beauty (and difficulty) of communicating across cultures.

To begin, I told her my name was Nunumu. She called me Miss Moo. We used to sit in the courtyard and I would teach her the names of things, as if she were a small child. And just like a small child, she learned eagerly, quickly. Her mind wasn't rusted shut to new ideas. She wasn't like the Jesus Worshippers, whose tongues were creaky old wheels following the same grooves. She had an unusual memory, extraordinarily good. Whatever I said, it went in her ear then out her mouth.

I taught her to point to and call out the five elements that make up the physical world: metal, wood, water, fire, earth.

I taught her what makes the world a living place: sunrise and sunset, heat and cold, dust and heat, dust and wind, dust and rain.

I taught her what is worth listening to in this world: wind, thunder, horses galloping in the dust, pebbles falling in water. I taught her what is frightening to hear: fast footsteps at night, soft cloth slowly ripping, dogs barking, the silence of crickets.

I taught her how two things mixed together produce another: water and dirt make mud, heat and water make tea, foreigners and opium make trouble.

I taught her the five tastes that give us the memories of life: sweet, sour, bitter, pungent, and salty.

One day, Miss Banner touched her palm on the front of her body and asked me how to say this in Chinese. After I told her, she said to me in Chinese: "Miss Moo, I wish to know many words for talking about my breasts!" And only then did I realize she wanted to talk about the feelings in her heart. The next day, I took her wandering around the city. We saw people arguing. Anger, I said. We saw a woman placing food on an altar. Respect, I said. We saw a thief with his head locked in a wooden yoke. Shame, I said. We saw a young girl sitting by the river, throwing an old net with holes into the shallow part of the water. Hope, I said.

Later, Miss Banner pointed to a man trying to squeeze a barrel that was too large through a doorway that was too small. "Hope," Miss Banner said. But to me, this was not hope, this was stupidity, rice for brains. And I wondered what Miss Banner had been seeing when I was naming those other feelings for her. I wondered whether foreigners had feelings that were entirely different from those of Chinese people. Did they think all our hopes were stupid?

In time, however, I taught Miss Banner to see the world almost exactly like a Chinese person. Of cicadas, she would say they looked like dead leaves fluttering, felt like paper crackling, sounded like fire roaring, smelled like dust rising, and tasted like the devil frying in oil. She hated them, decided they had no purpose in this world. You see, in five ways she could sense the world like a Chinese person. But it was always this sixth way, her American sense of importance, that later caused troubles between us. Because her senses led to opinions, and her opinions led to conclusions, and sometimes they were different from mine.

From The Hundred Secret Senses