Chi­nese leg­end and lore mix with science for young minds

China Daily (USA) - - ACROSS AMERICA - Chris Davis Con­tact the writer at chris­davis@ chi­nadai­

Songju Ma Daemicke was born in Jilin, one of China’s north­east­ern prov­inces, and came to the United States in 1996 to ad­vance her ed­u­ca­tion, even­tu­ally earn­ing a mas­ter’s in com­puter science. She mar­ried and moved to the north­ern Chicago sub­urb of Glen­view, work­ing as a soft­ware en­gi­neer for Mo­torola un­til her twin daugh­ters were born.

One sum­mer day in 2010 she and her fam­ily were walk­ing through town when they no­ticed an amus­ing sign in the win­dow of a Jimmy John’s sand­wich shop. It read: “Free Smells” and they all had a laugh.

But the sign re­minded Songju of a story her grand­fa­ther used to tell her back in China when she was a child.

There once was a greedy old man who hired chefs to cook up de­li­cious food, al­low­ing the tan­ta­liz­ing aro­mas to waft through­out the neigh­bor­hood. He then tried to charge all of his neigh­bors for en­joy­ing the de­li­cious smells — go­ing so far as to take them be­fore a judge to col­lect what he thought they owed him.

The judge was wise and or­dered the man to be re­paid for the smell of his food with the jin­gling sound of the neigh­bors’ coins. Sound for smell.

Grow­ing up, Songju had en­joyed read­ing Chi­nese tales, but never had the op­por­tu­nity to read many Western works un­til she came to col­lege in Amer­ica, where she fell in love with clas­sics like Les Mis­er­ables and Jane Eyre.

Ever since her twins had been born and she be­came a stay-at-home mom, she had been read­ing aloud to the girls ev­ery day, dis­cov­er­ing great chil­dren’s books mas­ters like Dr Seuss and oth­ers.

The “Free Smells” sign and mem­ory of her grand­fa­ther’s story piqued her cu­rios­ity. It had to have been an old Chi­nese folk tale, she de­cided, and went on a quest to find it, por­ing through books of Chi­nese and Asian lore in Chi­nese and trans­la­tion at the li­brary.

She could find it nowhere, noth­ing even sim­i­lar, in any lan­guage.

“So I de­cided to write it my­self,” she said.

She was tak­ing a writ­ing class at the time, and one of the as­sign­ments was to write about some­thing that comes from your home­land. So she took the ba­sic con­cept — greedy man try­ing to charge neigh­bors for the de­li­cious smells com­ing from his kitchen — and fleshed it out with con­tem­po­rary props, set­tings and de­tails. She read the draft to the class.

“I was sur­prised that every­one loved it,” she said. “That was very en­cour­ag­ing.”

Over the years, like all par­ents, Songju had al­ways tried to an­swer the in­evitable ques­tions that come from young minds. How do fish sleep in the wa­ter? Why is the sky blue? How is it we can see peo­ple on TV? And she dili­gently did re­search to get re­spon­si­ble an­swers when she couldn’t come with one on the spot.

“I of­ten wished there was a book se­ries that di­rectly ex­plained some of these gen­eral science concepts,” she said. Her hus­band Dale, an at­tor­ney in Chicago, sug­gested that she write the se­ries her­self. She de­cided she would, and call it The Cu­ri­ous Mind. Her aroma-for-sound tale could be crafted into a les­son in two of our five senses — smell and hear­ing.

Re­search­ing the pub­lish­ing in­dus­try, she came across a chil­dren’s book se­ries called For Cre­ative Minds that did just what she in­tended to do and more. She sent them her story about the greedy old man and a sec­ond one, based on a 2,000-year-old Chi­nese story that is sup­pos­edly true.

In it, an em­peror re­ceives an ex­otic gift from a far off land — an ele­phant. The em­peror in­sists on know­ing ex­actly how much the mon­strous beast weighs, but none of the scales in the realm are large enough to han­dle some­thing so big.

A 7-year-old boy, Cao Chong, steps for­ward with a so­lu­tion. Put the ele­phant on a barge on the wa­ter. Mark the wa­ter­line. Take the ele­phant out and put in stones un­til the mark is reached again. Then weigh the stones one by one.

Tech­ni­cally speak­ing, it’s prob­a­bly one of the first recorded uses of Archimedes’ buoy­ancy prin­ci­ple from 250 BC.

But as Songju puts it, it’s just an­other ex­am­ple of chil­dren’s won­der­ful abil­ity to think out­side the box.

Ar­bor­dale Pub­lish­ing took both of Songju’s books for their Cre­ative Minds se­ries. A Case of Sense will have a for­mal launch on Satur­day at the Glen­view Pub­lic Li­brary in Glen­view, Illi­nois. Her sec­ond book, Cao Chong Weighs an Ele­phant, comes out in the fall of 2017.

Both should help young minds get out of that box.


Songju Ma Daemicke with her new book.

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