She may have passed away a long time ago, the elderly lady who taught me how to pronounce “refrigerator” with an American accent. I wonder if she could hear my whispers, the unspoken words.
I left Shanghai for Oslo when I was 16. I can’t recall much of what happened on the first night I touched the Norwegian soil, but one particular scene remains crystal clear.
In the woods not far from our new accommodation, I was on a swing gazing up at the huge dark skies. Thousands of stars were twinkling in distance, as if they were about to tell me something of profound importance.
I studied them for a very long time, breathing in the chilly autumn air and trying to figure out the message the stars were passing to me. I had a feeling that the stars were aware of how the story of my life in this new place was going to unfold. But I couldn’t decode the message. The stars and I were unable to connect. A sense of uneasiness emerged, stayed for a while, and slowly faded into darkness.
Those first years were, how should I put it, a bit harsh for a teenager with a sensitive soul. I kept a diary and wrote down thoughts that found no retreat anywhere else. I started taking part-time jobs at cafés and restaurants soon after I settled down in Oslo. My daily routine was pretty monotonous – school and part-time job.
One year and half later, I moved to a coastal town in southern Norway with my mother and younger brother, while my father remained working in Oslo.
The same routine continued. I studied at high school and worked at a café in the evenings and on weekends.
Signe, a lady in her seventies came to the café I worked at on a Saturday afternoon in November. The layers of soft snow had covered pavements and roofs of the buildings in the streets. Wearing classic round glasses, a cream-white wool cardigan and long skirt in grey, she looked like a character walking straight out from an old film.
Signe was accompanied by a little boy with an Asian look. I took her order. Despite my limited skills in Norwegian, the conversation flowed smoothly and the tone between us was light and pleasant. The nine-year-old boy was her grandson adopted in South Korea, she told me while running her fingers lovingly through the boy’s short hair.
Signe became a regular customer to the café after that. She always came on Saturdays, accompanied by her well-mannered and curious grandson.
We were a team of three or four waitresses working at the café. Signe often gave a signal that she wished I could take her order. Our conversations became more engaging and personal as time passed by. Her kindness and compassion soothed my sensitive and lonely soul.
“I love languages, especially English, but my English isn’t good”, I said casually in one of our conversations.
“Oh really? You know I emigrated to America with my parents when I was a little girl, and I spent most of my life living in the States. I can teach you English!” She said enthusiastically with a sparkle in her eyes.
Signe and I made an arrangement. On a sunny afternoon, we walked to her house, a white wooden building with a rustic charm.
Turning on the radio on the kitchen table, we listened to Blues and drank black tea with honey and milk. All of sudden, she pointed to the refrigerator in the corner and pronounced “refrigerator” with her American accent. She showed me how to move my tongue to make the rhotic R sound in the way she did.
On Sunday the week after Signe took me to the local church. Sitting closely to her on the bench in one of the front rows, I listened to the grey-haired pastor delivering a sermon.
I couldn’t work out the meaning of every sentence he said but I loved the peace and serenity around me. As the Sunday Song floating slowly in the church, tears filled up in the corner of my eyes. Signe turned her head slightly towards me. Her smile encouraging and warm. I felt a gentleness I hadn’t felt for a long time.
Signe kept coming to have lunch at the café on Saturdays. Gradually, it occurred to me that our conversations weren’t particularly appreciated by other waitresses. I was hired to take orders and serve meals to customers. Speed and efficiency were two key skills for a waitress.
The other waitresses began taking Signe’s orders. She must’ve noticed it, that I was becoming reluctant to hold a decent conversation with her. I could feel her eyes following me as I was taking orders from other customers. The sparkle in her eyes was no longer there. She grew quiet, only exchanging a few words with her little grandson. My heart sank.
Eventually, Signe ceased to come. I moved back to Oslo the following summer. I never saw her again.
A large part of our conversations has faded away after all these years, but the way she pronounced “refrigerator” has remained in my memory. Whenever the thought crosses my mind, something sharp touches the emotional string hidden somewhere deep inside me. It hasn’t changed much since I was 18, the year I lost her.
I wonder if she could hear my whispers, the unspoken words.