That Certain Familiarity

Last night my cousin and I paid a visit to the Chengs, family friends with whom we’ve grown up and whose kids now have kids. Mr. and Mrs. Chengs are an exceptional older Asian couple, meaning they openly show their affection for one another, as though it were the most normal and obvious thing to do. We sat around their dining table, the lazy susan upon which had still not been cleared of their abundant dinner – fried prawns and fish and new year’s cake, all of which seemed to have hardly been touched- and discussed their upcoming trip to Japan. There were eight of us in all, including Geoff – the Cheng’s eldest son, his wife Jenny, her parents and sister, and my cousin and I. Geoff’s one year old baby daughter played with tattered red envelope from some generous relative. A few 1000NTD bills lay about her high chair. We talked about the rising cost of airplane tickets (though the Chengs, having made a sizable fortune from window treatments, could hardly be discouraged from traveling even if tickets were absurdly expensive – though “absurdly” is also relative).

Geoff sat to my right, slouched down low in his chair with his belly stuck out. I tried hard to remember him as a teenager, a shrimpy, scowly boy with a terrible temper. He had softened both emotionally and physically as he grew older and now at thirty-two was a father, married to Jenny, a beautiful petite young woman from the south who, when people first met her and knew that she was engaged to Geoff, made them scratch their heads, “How the hell did he get her?”

She was just a year older than I and had a soft, pleasant smile, a sweet, tuneful voice, and powdery pale skin with the slightest touch of pink – a complexion comparable, I thought, to her baby daughter’s. All of this was emphasized by her dark eyes and thick brows. Her corners of her small, rosebud mouth seemed always to be turned up, so that a soft smile constantly played on her face. On top of this she was well-educated, polite, exceedingly agreeable and fertile; in short, every (Asian) mother’s dream daughter-in-law. She met Geoff shortly after turning twenty-five and put up history’s weakest struggle – after all, Geoff was neither a looker nor very charming – until she gave in to the package that men like Geoff are lucky enough to be borne into and that makes them attractive rather than atrocious marriage prospects: despite his outwardly prickly demeanor, Geoff was a good guy with a steady job working in sales at his father’s company. He came from a tight-knit and wealthy family helmed by pleasant, generous parents.

“Still,” I said, when I saw photos of the happy couple, “The ten is marrying a…five. (I factored in Geoff’s unsightly weight gain which could not be evenly distributed across his small frame) Or a four.”

My aunt said that in Chinese, this was called, “A flower stuck on a pile of horse shit.”

Within a year of their engagement she was pregnant and I was now sitting across from her and her one-year old baby girl. I looked at Geoff and then back at his young wife – Goeff seemed disgruntled, perhaps he was too full – but then again, he always seemed like that. Jenny played happily with her daughter as though all her childhood dreams had been fulfilled.

Geoff’s sister in law was a year older than his wife but, judging by the fact that she’d just returned from a trip with just her mother and now sat in the Cheng’s dining room fussing with the baby, I gathered she was still years away from the life her younger sister lived now. I can’t explain it. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I was exercising my single girl radar – like gaydar but equipped with more assumptions, more judgement – and gathered that she was single and struggling to find a husband like most plain-faced, big-boned girls my age in Taipei and in big cities across Asia where small frames, small faces, and perfect skin tend to be physical requisites for wifely material.

The young woman had a plain name and pimples, to which Geoff’s mother-in-law deemed fit to turn the conversation.

“I just don’t know what to do about her face anymore,” she said, and the girl looked awkwardly down on her plate and shrugged.

“What do you use?” Mrs. Cheng asked. Ten minutes before Mrs. Cheng had come downstairs in a tangerine colored silk vest – not designed exactly to hide her round figure, but certainly made her appear the wealthy and well-fed matriarch of such a clan. My aunt often reminds me that in her youth, Mrs. Cheng was a very great beauty, so much so that when Mr. Cheng first set eyes on her he said to himself, “Now there, she will be my wife.”

Mrs. Cheng was no longer beautiful, but one could hardly call her ugly. She had blown up, for lack of a better phrase, from the nutrients of too many shark’s fin soups, abalone congees and swallow’s nests desserts, but her eyes were bright and her skin shiny and supple. For all the years I’ve known her, she maintained the same haircut – a blunt helmet-like bob, with a row of short, heavy bangs, beneath which  her face grew rounder with each passing year. Mrs. Cheng’s sister had always been her harshest critic and said years ago, when the weight began to creep on, that Mrs. Cheng’s hair was like a bowl and her pale face like white rice that was beginning to overflow. Regardless, Mrs. Cheng carried herself with an enviable grace and confidence and never seemed to stop glowing with the pride borne from having a good husband and from knowing that they had built a good life together.

Geoff’s sister in law pursed her lips. She was thinking of reasons as to why her skin was so bad. “I don’t use many products at all,” she said, “I used to try and cover it up all the time, but it seemed to just make the problem worse. So now I just try to keep it clean and use a little bit of moisturizer.”

“It just takes time,” Mrs. Cheng said assuringly, though one could tell that Mrs. Cheng had never had a bad skin day in her life.

As though reading my thoughts, Mr. Cheng chimed in.

“Mrs. Cheng’s skin has always been perfect,” he said, “She doesn’t use anything. She has always had wonderful skin.”

To emphasize his wonderful opinion of his glowing wife, he reached up to stroke the back of her head. I gave a sidelong glance to my cousin Karen. We both thought, “Hm.”

“It’s true,” Mrs. Cheng said, “I don’t use much. Just this cheap pharmacy brand from Japan,” (here Karen and I exchanged glances again – we knew the brand and it was cheap and we were about to be very impressed until Mrs. Cheng continued), “And one drop of that gold bottle from Chanel. You know that bottle? Just one drop. That’s it!” Later, my aunt would say that the gold bottle cost three hundred dollars and Mrs. Cheng had given her a bottle, claiming that one drop performed skin miracles.

And did it?

“I need about five or six drops,” my aunt had said wryly.

Mr. Cheng leaned forward and nodded at us nodding along to his wife’s words, and I did not know whether to laugh or keep nodding. It was a small thing, this talk about skincare, but this little motion of his, and his affirmation of his wife’s beauty which to him had faded not a whit, was marvelous to me in an anthropological sense.

Later, I asked Mr. Cheng if he planned on retiring anytime soon.

“From the company, yes,” he said, “but not from my charities. My charities still require a lot of work.”

Mr. Cheng’s charities – a hospital, childcare center, senior citizen center and a civic education center, to name but a few – are funded by the alms donated by hundreds of thousands of devout Buddhist Taiwanese citizens to three popular and venerated temples established by Mr. Cheng’s late father in the 1970’s.

“But these centers,” Mr. Cheng said, “were not my father’s vision but my wife’s vision. Everything is her vision. She has so many ideas, so many great and wonderful ideas on how to benefit society, and I, I,” he tapped the brochures he had run upstairs like a young man to retrieve and show me, “I make it my work. I love this work. I cannot stop, not quite yet.”

He looked at the brochures in his hands as I turned to look at his wife. She was plump and happy as the granddaughter she held now in her lap. The baby clapped and smiled. So did she, so full of life and humor. I had secretly accused her senses of being dulled by money and an easy life, but having heard enough stories of her impoverished childhood from my aunt and now attaching these stories to what appeared to be Mr. Cheng’s motivation for adding such legacies to his existing charities, I saw my accusations were unfounded. Mr. Cheng was a devout Buddhist and in his wife he had found his personal Bodhisattva – a woman full of light and who, in her own right, had made the right choice as well.

Every evening they strolled in the park across from their sprawling Taipei home, and every evening Mr. Cheng smiled adoringly at Mrs. Cheng regardless of how bright the lamplights shone. Once, their group of friends asked the men for whom they made so much money and one after another the men answered, “For my children, for my children,” until the question fell upon Mr. Cheng who replied without pause, “For my wife. All for my wife.”

Pal Szinyei Merse Lovers  (1845-1930). Oil on Canvas  

Later that night, Karen and I readied for bed like an old lesbian couple.

“I don’t know if I’m the type of woman to strike a man like that,” I said, “Actually, I know I’m not the type. That just seems so strange to me. The one arrow to the heart sort of thing.”

“Me neither,” Karen said, “It’s written in some people’s lives, but perhaps not ours.” It seemed very one-sided to us, and feeling slightly slighted by fate and/or genetics, we fell asleep, dreaming of one-sided love stories. The kind we seemed to know best.

But in the morning as we relayed the night’s events to my aunt, my aunt shook her head at me. The best and most sustainable romances are not those where the man chases tirelessly, blindly after a beautiful woman who cannot be made happy because she does not see in the man what he sees in her.

“Mrs. Cheng truly was stunning,” my aunt said, “She truly did have her pick of suitors, some of whom were much more handsome and much wealthier than Mr. Cheng.”

“Then why did she settle for Mr. Cheng?” I think even before my aunt replied I knew the answer and that to use the word “settle” (even though there is no true Chinese equivalent for it, “settle” was implied by my tone) was incorrect.

“She did not settle,” my aunt said, “she felt a certain familiarity. They had never met, not ever, but there was something comforting about him as though they’d met before, like they were old friends.”

I thought of that Rihanna song, and that Michael Buble song, and that old lady Fate, who ran in circles from that life to this one and will sprint on to the next and the next. I thought of the people who are destined, one way or other, to meet. When they do, the feeling is just how Mrs. Cheng described: like meeting an old friend, or rereading a favorite tattered book. Like coming home.

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