“Stories Yun Told Me” is a series created by Tenement Museum Educators Jason Eisner and Ya Yun Teng exploring themes of language, interpretation, memory, and community through the adventurous eyes of Yun, a fictitious Chinese American immigrant born in the year of the Pig. At twenty-two, Yun immigrates to New York City from her native Taiwan. She loves to share stories about her experiences—stay tuned for further installments!
My friend Mr. Leung invited me to a dinner at Mrs. Dear’s house. They had been good friends for some year, but rarely had engaging conversations. Since I know more English than Mr. Leung, he thought that I might be able to help. Mr. Leung, middle-aged man with wide shoulders and a thick, sturdy back, worked for Mrs. Dear every now and then. He fixed the plumbing system, cleaned the clogged gutters, and fixed the walls.
When he arrived in America thirty years ago, Mr. Leung knew very little English and even less about construction. He learned the trade and enough English to start picking up work. Now he had a client base and needed to hire people to help him. Mrs. Dear was one of his loyal customers, but their conversations were limited to things like tips for maintaining healthy gutters or problems with the old plumbing.
When I arrived at Mrs. Dearʼs house, Maria, the housemaid, was cleaning the refrigerator. It was filled from bottom to top with take-out boxes, and Maria was throwing them away. Although she hadn’t cooked for a long time, Mrs. Dear decided to prepare something special for Mr. Leung. She had pride in her upbringing. I heard her tell and retell stories about how she used to be a good cook and homemaker. Since Mrs. Dearʼs husband passed away five years ago, she had been living alone in this five-story Upper East Side townhouse.
“Will Leung like this?” she inquired whilst leaning on the counter watching the sizzling pan. She wanted my opinion because she believed that I would know better. “What does Mrs. Leung cook at home?” I was beginning to think somehow, she had a little competition with Mrs. Leung.
Although it was hard for her, Mrs. Dear insisted on setting the table for Leung herself.
“Whenever he has a project around here, Leung and the boys stop by for a short visit. They come almost every day,” Mrs. Dear told me while giving me instructions to put down the plates.
“I know Leung comes to visit me like I was his mom.” Mr. Leung left his mother behind when he lit out to begin a new life. When she passed away, he contributed a big portion to the funeral expenses (more than any of his siblings) and so his mother’s grave was the most elaborate in town. He told me once, “When I saw Mrs. Dear sittingin this big house by herself, I could not stop thinking of my mom’s big grave”.
Alone on the dining room mantel, sat a picture of Mrs. Dear in a loose turtleneck and flannel vest, posing with Mr. Leung and his employees outside of her house. The workers wore denim jeans, carried hard hats, and some held coffee mugs in their hands. Peaceful morning sunlight illuminated the workmen’s rough tanned faces and Mrs. Dear’s glowing grey hair.
Mrs. Dear always saved the seat on her right at the head of the table for Leung. I could tell it was an important spot. “You know my son, David… heʼd be mad if he knew I set this place for Leung,” she winked at me when she said so. She and David argued, because he wanted her to take down the picture on the mantel. “But this is not his house!” Mrs. Dear was clear and firm.
Her eyes glittered when she carefully adjusted the cushion for him. A sit-down dinner like this was uncommon, because Leung worked day and night to provide for his family. One day, he realized that his son was almost as tall as he was. “I thought I would pull my family closer by filling their needs, but maybe I was pushing them away”.
The dinner was brief. More office work was awaiting Mr. Leung at his house. As we were leaving we heard the mechanical sounds of the lift, squeaky and grumpy; the steady sound sent Mrs. Dear upstairs, back to her evening routine. Soon the sound of network news filled the dark, still hallway. I could almost see her in her armchair chewing chips.
I watched Leungʼs truck vanish into the shadow of the city, as I stood alone outside of Mrs. Dearʼs house. I looked up at this big house. All the windows were dark, except some blue TV light coming out from Mrs. Dearʼs room. Tonight I was more of a witness than a translator. Mr. Leung and Mrs. Dear already spoke a common language.