There were eight of us, sitting on the ferry back from Fire Island. We occupied two long benches on the top deck.
We were little drunk because of the sun and the sea water and wine for dinner. Ferry ride at late night was pleasant with the sea wind blowing and a star-lighted sky above. We were leaving the parties of Ocean Beach but I was happy for going home. I was silent and was enjoying the moment for myself for a while after a fun and long day.
Then some one point at the sky and sighed "So many stars...how beautiful!" We know not all of them are stars but that is the one word we first-generation-non-native speakers know as the most common in referring them verbally. That is what we call a limit of vocabulary.
It does not matter that there are five languages (Chinese Mandarin, Chinese Chao Zhou Dialect (it is literarily a different language), English, Malaysian and Korean) being utilized among the eight of us with each one commonly use at least two. Many claim two and half since some can speak but not read Chinese while others can read but not speak Chinese besides their own languages.
Everyone were now looking up and admiring the sky. "See", I pointed to a bright star in what I think is the north, "that must be the Polar star". I sounded exciting, if not smart.
"No, I think that is Venus". Song Yeong said firmly. I don't know exactly where Venus should be tonight according to the calendar and its track of traveling. There has to be some tool or system with numbers that help us locate her exact location relative to Earth. But she sounded authoritative and is called astrologist and is a lovely and calm Korean girl whom I find dearing, I did not dispute. I do not care what it is so long it is up there, shining.
"So which planet is the closest to Sun?" Some one asked. Suddenly we are not talking about the stars anymore but the Solar system and the orbiting planets. OK, as smart Asians who are good at astronomy that should be a no-brainer. We will list them all easy.
"I know Earth is the third one" I said, starting with the safest, behaving like the smart-Ass type of jerk I hate during meetings.
Many heads nodded, "But what is the first one?" I kept silent since I am not sure. I know Venus is closer to Sun than Earth but what is the other one? There are two which are closer. I can not remember the English or the Chinese name of the other one. Memory drew blank.
"What is the "Fire Star" called in English?" Someone asked in English.
"The Mars". Someone answered in English.
Huo Xing, or Fire Star, is how Mars' being called in Chinese.
"Yes, Huo Xing is the fourth one in distance" Someone said in Chinese.
(If you can visualize and audio-rize this conversation, you are as smart as Asian)
"The Watery Star", the Korean girl Song Yeong asked me: Is that Venus? "Yes", I said, "You know like that is why they say women are Venus while men are Mars. We are more “watery” than men (as in shedding more tears?)" (As it is being said in the Dream of Red Chamber, I took a mental note to myself). **
So what is the other star that is closer?
"I know it in Korean, Jing Sing." Song Yeong murmured. I am struggling to find a piece of data from my knowledge base based on this clue. After 2 minutes, I was all smiles. "Yes, you mean, Jin Xing, the Gold Star". "Yeh, yeh, the Gold one, Jin....Sing...." Song Yeong was excited too, speaking English and mix of Korean Chinese. We were all overjoyed. Although whether it is Venus or Gold star that is closer is yet to be determined. **
During all this time, the talkative, vivacious and smart investment banker girl was all excited and was racing to identify the rest of the 4 or 5 stars, or no, planets. "Before we order them, let's at least name all of them". Everyone seems to be on board with this strategy.
"Wood Star after the Fire Star". Both me and Song Yeong confidently stated. "And that is Jupiter". Chih the tall and funny guy confirmed the English name.
"And what about the Soil Star"? Several of us including me asked loudly and simultaneously in Chinese. I was English major for undergraduate. The only comfort I could possibly get is if I know Shakespeare better than English names of the planets. Since I don't feel comforted, in reality it means that I do not know much on either subject. Shame on me!
"Saturn". The pretty Shin Ying calmly suggested. OK. Doing well! So what are the stars after the Soil One which is the one with the beautiful ring.
"Heaven..." Song Yeong again demonstrated she is called astrologist for a reason. "Yes, I know what you mean." I semi cut her short and said loudly and proudly in Chinese" These three stars are Tian Wang Xing, Hai Wang Xing, Ming Wang Xing. (They meant Heaven King Star, Sea King Star, Underworld King Star, in Chinese).
Yes, it is true. Everyone agreed but there was silence and hint of embarrassment. Nobody seemed satisfied with my answer. It suddenly came to me that we were not only striving to order and name the planets in the solar system. We had to name them in English. The reasons are simple: English is the one language shared by us all, including the non-native nature of it. And we are on a ferry traveling between two spots of the greatest English speaking city in the world and we feel obligated subconsciously.
So the tasks are really (not feasible in that order during execution):
-Identify all planets in Solar System in any languages
-To match correct English name for the stars we remember in Chinese or Korean if not in English
-To correctly set the order of planets once identified according to their orbiting distance to the Sun in any languages at first but ultimately in English
The challenges are:
-Not everyone knows all the names of the planets in all languages (For example, I forgot about the name of Gold Star in English)
-Everyone knows the name of some of the planets in multiple languages
-The fact that names of some of the planets but not all are remembered by multiple people in multiple languages caused confusion and disagreement in terms of the order of the planets in any single language including English.
This now sounds like a sophisticated mathematical logic problem to me.
Investment banker girl jumped in, after discussing with the couple who sat beside her. The guy was wearing a huge jade stone and obviously knows something about rocks and stones and maybe logically planets also.
"The English name for the last two stars are Pluto and Neptune. And the name Pluto, as the name of the dog in Mickey Mouse movie”.
There were cheers. Catching on the excitement, the same guy instantly offered another precious name: Uranus.
Here is the initial trial of the order by someone after a good 20 minutes of discussion and excitement: Venus, Uranus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune and Pluto.
Not only we were missing one in total and after Saturn we know there are three more planets. In the above order we have only two.
“Maybe actually Uranus should go after Saturn”. Stone-wearing guy finally suggested. But we were still missing one. We know it is the gold star that is missing a name in English. And we still don't know whether the Gold star is closer or Venus.
Ferry docked. We were heading to the train station. We could not leave the question hang and let it go down history as eight smart Asians not being able to figure out the order of nine planets.
Investment banker girl decided to consult her blackberry. I almost pulled mine too but stopped realizing hers is colored and a much newer model. Yes, Vanity is the root of all evil.
“Answer is here, it is MERCURY and it is the closest!!!!”
But of course, at least we should remember the Ford car model if not the planet. But again most of us don't drive and I never own an American car. We headed to the train station satisfied, tired and quiet.
Among the eight of us, at least 7 are professionals, 1 investment banker, 2 architect, 1 Marketing Analytic Director(that would be me) and 1 engineer, 1 CPA, 1 Graphic Designer.
It took us a good 25 minutes and a search via blackberry to figure this one out.
We know we used to know them all. Maybe learning more languages have confused us. We think we are smart and people perceived us to be smart. But that does not mean we know everything as a fact.
Maybe by living here, we are more like Americans. They know the statistics of seasonal football or baseball but they don't know geography or astronomy as well as we do. Or is that so.
Perception goes that Asian must be smart like we think Jewish must be smart because of the ratio of Nobel prize winners among them. In reality, not every Asian is perceived to be smart and not everyone is as smart as his or her parents believe he or she is. Let's not keep our superior feeling of being expert in Astronomy when naming the orbiting distance of the nine planets proves to be a challenge.
Next time let's admit we don't know everything in this language or about this country and live peacefully with it. And it is OK to be an Asian that does not know much about numbers or astronomy or Algebra. Life is more than that and I would rather be a happy Asian than just a smart one or perceived to be a smart one.
Notes from author: I want to write a funny story, thus the dramatization of the situation. But it was really a lovely night and lovely companies. I enjoyed the company of people who could be amazed by stars and can over-joy like children when finally the problems were solved.
Actually another game was played during the train ride by us. When you pull any 4 poke cards, use math formula you can always get 24. Now that is smart game played by smart people and people who prefer not to talk much.
I like that.
** Refer to We Are Smart Asians II. for more infomration.