Journeying with Luran

 Agnes and Jackson He

January 2005, Long Island, NY

Lu-ran: In the manner of a road or journey.

Songs in Exile:  (Qu Yuan, ca. 300 BC)

The road meanders long and far, illusively,
And I shall search up and down, ceaselessly.

Every child is special.  And our Luran is very much so. At about 4, he asked: “Mommy, will you travel the whole wide world with me?” And what a journey he is taking us!

Now he is 8.  If you see a child who smiles for no apparent reason, is willing to forgo his meal for cracking a puzzle, or thinks so logically and honestly as to find incomprehensible social niceties such as white lies and excuses, you see him. This is a child who not only had a blast at the Splash Mountain in Disney World, but also reveled in the opportunity to see the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope (the world’s largest); who dreads to take a shower, but is eager to find out what happens if you take a photograph while traveling faster than light; who has a fair idea of what “neutron,” “non-Euclidean geometry” and “pangea” are, but not what “contentedly” or “leisurely” means; who plays Mozart, Bach, and Kabalevsky from memory, but forgets his backpack when leaving for school; who can’t wait to play video games on weekends, but also begs for more and harder math problems during the week.  When Dr. Carolyn Porco (leader of the Cassini spacecraft’s imaging team) gave a talk at Stony Brook, he asked “when the Huygens probe touches down on Titan, how will we know if it landed in liquid [rather than on solid]”. Unfortunately the Q&A session ended before he could ask another question, so daddy volunteered to give it a shot. It turned out to be: “Are all Saturn’s rings circular or are some of them elliptical?” Wow, that’s some question! So daddy took him to Dr. Porco directly during the reception.

In the words of his teacher, “Luran is a superb student who excels across all subject areas.  It is well known amongst his peers (who admire his intellect) that astronomy is his favorite subject! … Luran finds humor in and makes friends with peers from all walks of life, never limiting himself to individuals who are just like him. That would be impossible, because Luran is so unique!

Laughing All the Way

If Luran smiles while playing Hannon, a generally uninspiring set of piano exercises, his mind has wandered off.  He may be thinking of a funny story in Junie B. Jones, the only fictional stories he likes to read besides Charlotte’s Web.  Or it could be some silly thing his friends did at school.

He was born happy.  We were taken by surprise at his hearty and resounding laughter when he was only a few months old, when daddy flipped a funny face rattle or when mommy performed a silly stunt acting out a nursery rhyme.  Nowadays he would laugh all the way to the floor whenever he finds a joke, and was once, about a year ago, sent by his teacher to the Principal’s office for not being able to stop doing that.

In life, Luran has the amazing ability to focus on the positive and the pleasant.  When things go wrong — e.g., when he knocked over the second glass of milk during one meal, or when he repeatedly mixed up subtraction and addition, or when he tumbled in bed with such force that his sister Yiran was bumped onto the floor, or when he could not decipher the very same Chinese character for the fifth time on the same page — he is earnestly remorseful for a minute and then gets on with life, joyfully.  He and Yiran enjoy laughing so much that they have formed a “joke club” and invited daddy to join. (The only rule he made for the club is that the winner is the one who makes everyone laugh. Daddy never won — he never made himself laugh.) 

At his young age, he recognizes the difference between his own cheerful disposition and mommy’s careful and sometimes critical predilection.  About a month ago they talked about mommy’s raising her voices at times.  Mommy asked, “If you are doing something inappropriate and you don’t listen to me, what should I do?”  Luran thought for a moment and said, “Just smile at us, like what Henry Ford’s mother did.  Henry Ford got into a lot of trouble when he was a kid and his mother just smiled.”  Then he wrote mommy this note:  “Dear Mom, Don’t raise your voice when you’re mad at me (even if you want to kill me).  Speak to me nicely and smile at me for the rest of the day.  From, Luran.”  

Learning and Logic

A professor in Arizona had hundreds of children’s books, and she told us that one of them was in astronomy. That was the book we found Luran reading.

What satisfies Luran in a deep and enduring way is knowledge in science, towards which he naturally and irrecusably gravitates.  He put in his Writer’s Notebook, “Every single fact and theory in science is exciting…”  His life in science began when, at about 4 months old, he looked at mommy in the mirror, turned around to look at the real mommy, repeated the process a few times, and smiled big smiles.  From then on, he has “studied” tricycles, trains, cars, rockets, space shuttles, Mars rovers, guns, doorknobs, locks and latches (opening drawers at friends’ houses to our horror).  As Luran explained to an adult lately: “When I was young I was very interested in paleontology. But now I am interested in astronomy, even though I still read dinosaur stuff.” 

Reading has become his most important way of learning.  If he is lost on his way from the piano room to the dinning table, most likely he’s on the living room floor, reading.  He reads independently about an hour a day in astronomy and various other science subjects, biographies as well as history, geography and humor.  He also puts his readings into test.  He replicated Galileo’s experiment at the Leaning Tower of Pisa by dropping items of different weights from the second floor to the first floor, and wondered what the results would be if the experiment were conducted in space.  He attempted to build a lens using a plastic bottle filled with water, but failed to get an upside-down image of his sister.

His reading is very selective, however.  It’s very difficult to interest him in contents he does not seek out.  He may comprehend very complicated information about space and physics; he may also miss seemingly straightforward questions based on materials he is not keen about.  In second grade, Luran had some difficulty doing his in-class “reader’s response” writing.  About stories such as “The Tenth Good Thing about Barney” or “The Mitten”, he had nothing to say and gave blank responses.  And to the fiction “The Birth of the Moon”, his written response was, “If I were the auther [sic], I would make this book a non-fiction book (because I love space).”  His teacher’s comment, “I know you do!!

As far as we are able to observe, Luran is logical, but not fast.  Everything he does has to make sense.  And he takes his time — sometimes a very long time — to think.  Math Luran started learning quite early.  Yeye (paternal grandpa) taught him the multiplication table in Chinese (9×9) by age 6. When he was 6 ½, he calculated 83×4 mentally, using 320+12.  Around his 8th birthday, he divided 152 by 8 mentally by performing 20−1. 

However, compared with the rapid growth of his body of knowledge in science, his math abilities seem to be improving rather slowly.  Although he remains relatively advanced in math today (working on long divisions, fractions, etc.), speed and accuracy are not among his strong points.  We suspect that while science makes sense, fluency in math requires more practice than reasoning.

Luran tries to make sense of everyday life as well.  One day, mommy bragged about the macaroni and cheese she was making: “This is going to be the best dinner in the whole world!”  Luran, “Mommy, it is not possible that you have made the best dinner in the whole world.  You have not tried all the dinners in the world.  And you haven’t even finished cooking!”  More recently, we have been discussing literal meaning versus exaggeration, metaphor and simile.  So when Luran is not sure, he would sometimes double check, “What you said is just a metaphor, right?” 

Magic of Music

In a way both marvelous and mysterious, music joins hands with science in Luran. Luran started learning to play the piano when he was four and half.  Since a year and half ago, when he started to study with a highly accomplished pianist and a very effective teacher, he has been progressing by leaps and bounds.  In May 2004, he passed the National Guild Exam at the Intermediate-A level.  Then in July, he participated in a piano recital for the first time.  Now he practices for about an hour a day.  (Some of his music can be heard here.)

Music learning has afforded Luran structure, discipline, challenge, and, above all, the sheer joy of making something beautiful.  Sometimes when he plays the piano, it looks as if he has instantly transformed into a grown-up, with subtlety and sublimity… Practice still requires encouragement; indeed he would often want to play with his toy machine gun first.  But now he is at a stage where he genuinely enjoys learning and he is happy on the piano bench.  He feels especially validated to learn that many scientists are accomplished musicians too — Albert Einstein played the violin; William Herschel, the discoverer of Uranus, was a music teacher; Zu Chongzhi, a 5th century Chinese mathematician and astronomer who found that 3.1415926 < π < 3.1415927, was also a musician!

Playing piano has now become a family affair, and everyone plays something, more or less.  So when Yiran turned about 4 ½, for her to start piano lessons simply seemed natural.  Waipo (maternal grandma) is now, remotely in Spain, competing with Luran on learning new pieces.  Whatever music Luran learns, she learns.  Presently Luran is mid-way through Mozart’s “Theme and Twelve Variations”, and Waipo has finished it.  Mommy struggles to read his increasingly complicated music, in order to help Luran practice.

Music connects Luran and daddy in a very special way.  While his teacher shows him standards of good playing, daddy tries to help him get there.  He learns every piece that Luran plays, experiencing the nuances and challenges firsthand, in order to guide Luran note-by-note and moment-by-moment.  There is another tacit dimension to daddy’s influence.  Daddy works as an engineer, was trained as a scientist, loves music and enjoys making music — like father, like son.  Three years ago, he wrote a memo titled “On Harmonic Division”, illustrating how the concept “harmonic division” is used in music theory, geometry, general physics and optics.  Perhaps concepts like “harmonic division” are clues to the mysterious connections between science and music, mind and soul, and father and son.

Lessons in Language

While Luran is remarkably self-motivated and independent, in one area he needs considerable assistance — learning Chinese.  Before Luran went to daycare at 21 months, most of what he heard was Chinese.  We told his daycare teachers that if he called out “! (Nai)”, he wanted milk.  Very soon his daycare friends (all non-Chinese speaking) were using “Nai” to ask for milk!  By 2-3, he was speaking Chinese naturally and just as comfortably as English.  When he was 3 years old, mommy needed to be away for a few days.  The night before mommy’s departure, Luran said the following, “妈妈你要走, 我就拉住你的手, 可是我不走, 我也不松手.”  (Mama if you go, I’ll just hold your hand.  But I won’t go, and I won’t let go your hand. — In Chinese, “hand” and “go” rhyme.)

We formally started teaching him how to read in Chinese a few days before his 4th birthday.  Mommy summoned all the resources of a discourse linguist and a language teacher and shared them with daddy.  [Article in Chinese can be found here.]  In the beginning, the progress was heartening.  By age 7, Luran had learned about 1,000 characters and was reading roughly at second grade level in Chinese.  But then, things began to change.

Just before Luran turned 7, one day he decided not to do his daily Chinese reading and even proclaimed that he did not want to speak Chinese at home.  Mommy was stunned and saddened.  After a long silence, mommy heard herself say to Luran in an uncharacteristically calm voice, “It is your choice if you decide not to learn Chinese anymore and not to speak Chinese anymore.  But you see, you are my child.  And I feel and think and speak and write in both Chinese and English.  If you don’t speak and read in Chinese, you cannot get all the love that I have for you.”  It was silence again, which must have lasted only a few seconds but which felt like eternity.  Then Luran broke down in tears, first sobbing, then wailing.  Mommy held him tight and cried too.  The power of language had never been felt so deeply before.

The issue of whether or not Chinese learning should continue has not returned since then.  Presently, on average, Luran spends 10–15 minutes each day reading in Chinese.  He has learned pinyin, the phonetic representation of characters that uses the Latin alphabet, and occasionally uses pinyin to input Chinese into computer and write emails to grandparents in China and Spain.  Given the enormous influx of information in English and the variety of activities he is engaged in, it is a formidable task to merely keep the characters he has learned, let alone acquiring new ones.

As parents, there is no greater joy than watching our children grow.  Luran is big and tall now, almost up to mommy’s shoulder, and eats meals the sizes of which are second only to daddy’s.  His mind is also flying to corners other than astronomy and music.  At dinner table and bedtime, he is asking why the U.S. has to have a war with Iraq, why Ralph Nader could not possibly win the election, why countries with long civilized histories are poor today, why scientists could not predict the Indian Ocean tsunami and save all the lives taken by it, why we immigrated to the U.S., why some people believe in God, why women have not been treated equally… 

Blessed are the children who do not know that they are blessed. At Luran’s age, his daddy was living in a village with no electricity, running water, or motor of any kind, and away from his parents; his mommy was learning to live with her parents and sister for the first time. Luran can afford to let his mind wander, and his imagination soar.

May all your dreams come true,
May life be good to you,
May happiness follow you your life through,
May all your dreams come true.