Photo credit: Ye Rin Mok
Someone once told me that before a child acquires language for the first time, their world is connected. Prior to that, there is no difference between a mother’s face and her hair, the grass and the dirt, or their own wiggling fingers and the air they wave them through. But once they learn the word for, say, apple, each and every apple is then cut out of the fabric of the universe and can never be put it back into the murk.
I feel this way about about three words in particular: Chuck E. Cheese's.
Like many children of immigrants, I grew up watching a lot of television. After elementary school, where my cousin Derek and I spent half a day not understanding a single word the teacher said, we’d rush home together to turn on the TV and while away the hours until our parents got home.
It was during this time that I discovered the first commercials for something called “Chuck E. Cheese’s.” My seven-year-old self did not yet have the language to puzzle out what those words meant, but I knew that everything about it made me happy. A human-sized cartoon mouse dressed like a train conductor appeared on the screen and routinely beckoned us into what I assumed was a magical dimension. Inside, hoards of delighted children were playing incomprehensible games and eating steaming handfuls of unidentifiable food while high-fiving each other. It took some time, but soon my cousin and I had seen every variation of the commercial, so that we’d start jumping up and down whenever the opening drumbeats of its jingle would come on. By the time our parents got home from work, he and I would be breathlessly yelling, mimicking the exact sounds coming from the children in the commercial. We screamed, “Chuck E Cheese’s! Chuck E. Cheese’s!” helplessly, without agenda.
Then one night out of the blue, our parents surprised us by taking us to the local supermarket. “To get Chuck E. Cheese’s,” they said. They expected us to find it in the cereal aisle, so we spread out and began searching there. After scrutinizing each and every box without any luck, I heard my aunt stop a store clerk and ask for it. Could it be called “Chocolate Cheese?” or maybe it was something cherry or kiwi? Could it be a type of soda?
We screamed, “Chuck E Cheese’s! Chuck E. Cheese’s!” helplessly, without agenda.
Today our families laugh about this particular memory, of a confused woman in accented English trying to buy a children’s pizza franchise inside a supermarket. But I remember watching my aunt trying in earnest to find Chuck E. Cheese’s in the cereal aisle, asking several employees, trying to pronounce it differently, again and again.
I’ve learned many other words in English since then, enough to cut out a second universe outside my parents’, whose edges sometimes blur and blend with memory. When I moved to Beijing in my twenties, these two languages allowed me to take on two national identities, and slide between two distinct sets of concerns and cultural references. I speak Mandarin fluently and look Chinese, so at any moment I could just turn off English and blend in with the crowd. Or if I wanted to break a few rules with impunity, I could ask questions in Mandarin as if I learned it from a book. This shape-shifting got me my first job, made me privy to conversations not meant for me, and allowed me to observe and experience some of the very things I would go on to write stories about.
Still, part of me longs for that short spell before I knew for certain that Chuck E. Cheese’s was a pizza parlor. Because that was the year I wanted so much for my family to be right about something, because I was beginning to see the humiliations they suffered in the process of immigration. I wanted to give them that respect. In those moments I too hoped that Chuck E. Cheese’s could be something my aunt could pick up off the shelf of a brightly lit supermarket and buy for us. If only having it would instantly dissolve the strangeness and loneliness that we felt in this foreign country and suddenly make us happy.
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Xuan Juliana Wang
was born in Heilongjiang, China, and moved to Los Angeles when she was seven years old. She was a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University and received her MFA from Columbia University. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Ploughshares, The Best American Nonrequired Reading
and the Pushcart Prize Anthology
. She lives in California. Home Remedies
is her most recent book.