Monday Night Blather: Large Chinese Family Edition

Lately, I don’t feel like writing much. I also don’t feel like reading much, and this may or may not have something to do with the fact that this trip to Taipei, I’m living on the 7th floor instead of the 6th, where my aunt, uncle, and cousins live. My aunt has a key so she comes in whenever, often when I’m in the middle of doing yoga (in the morning) or on the computer (in the evening), and I go down to the 6th floor for my meals when I don’t eat out.

Anyway. I was afraid of this (but I doubt it can be remedied now), the brain drain I lamented in the States shortly before coming here. Two years ago I stayed in Taipei and stood at some sort of existential crossroads. I was waiting for a Fulbright and rationalized that I could dick around for a while before the die was cast. I mean, I wasn’t going to go through the hassle of finding a job and then have to quit just in case I got the Fulbright, right?

Well, it’s kind of similar this time, except I harbor a (not so secret anymore) fear that God’s like, “Dude, you’re having way too much fun because you think you’ll get into grad school.”

“Well God,” I say back, “Won’t I?”

He shrugs, “Perhaps.”

I try to write every day, to be productive by my productivity standards, which are already low by any means. Please don’t compare your life with mine because you can bet your butt I don’t compare my anything with yours – yeah, you there, with the job, the doting boyfriend/fiance, the master’s or imminent doctorate. I’m keeping my eyes and ears open and trying to remember everything I’m seeing and hearing and thinking, but there’s a lot going on – almost too much, in fact, in and around my family and my internal organs (mostly my brain). That kind of means I should be writing all of it down, but instead I sit in front of the computer or my diary and am frozen.

I don’t want to do anything but look at pretty pictures on other people’s consistently updated blogs, or read fluffy articles in the NYTimes (yes, they have fluffy articles). Oddly, I love reading about longevity and how to achieve it, even though my life is looking pretty murky right now. What’s the point of living as long as my grandfather did if sometimes all I want to do is watch “Transformers 3” again? It is without a doubt that Shia LaBeouf and his shiny robot friends will save earth yet again, though I’m not too sure what I’ll feel like at the end of the week. I’m not talking about the doubt that comes with thirteen grad school applications in a field that is more subjective than your take on Damien Hirst’s latest piece, but the doubt that seems to plague my generation (and probably future generations as well – but not my kids, hell no) in general.

Like… what….am….I…..doing? Not just today, but tomorrow and the day after and the day after that?

Well.

I’ll tell you a little story that may have colored my worldview today. Who knows – tomorrow I may write something entirely different and say, “Wow! Look at the colors of the sky! Look at the rain! How fresh and fragrant! The banyan trees lining DunHua South Road – so romantic, those aging silvan soldiers!”

My aunt caught up with me today as I was heading home from a long walk in the XinYi district. She had rushed to the organic produce store around the corner to get two little plastic trays of basil and cilantro – she was going to stir fry some clams for dinner, and the herbs complete the dish.

“Do you remember your San Gu Gu’s husband?”

I nodded. San Gu Gu is Third Aunt, my dad’s half-sister from my grandfather’s second marriage. She is about seventy-seven or so. We saw her and her family about every three or four years as she lived in Shanghai. I do not like San Gu Gu – she seems fake and has a reputation for asking my dad and uncles for money one too many times, even though she’s done quite well for herself as a doctor in Shanghai. I do however, like her husband very much. He’s a simple guy with simple tastes. He and his highly educated wife had three rather spoiled, lackluster children, one of who is slow and has stayed home all his life, and two others who went to expensive colleges in Japan (it was apparently the “vogue” thing to do for upper class Shanghai folks back in the 80’s) before moving to the States, where the daughter quickly married a lackluster guy and their son, Cheng, had his own spoiled, lackluster son named Jimmy with his wife, whom he met and married in Japan. They usually come over for Christmas and everyone shakes their head at Jimmy’s stunted emotional development and limited palate and widening girth – apparently Jimmy is a picky eater who really, according to his mother, “can only eat MacDonald’s so what can I do?” Well, don’t bring it to his room on a silver platter so that he can stuff his face without interrupting his video games, for one… but then again, he’s not my kid.

They didn’t come to Christmas this year because Jimmy’s mom, my cousin-in-law, I guess, if we’re going to get technical with family terms, was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer and is now dying in a hospital in Downtown LA. Cheng put his job as a LA Area Chinese tour guide on hold to take care of his wife and Jimmy dropped out of school. I can’t imagine what Jimmy’s going through right now, but my impression of that kid is so poor I think he’s relieved to be able to sleep in this semester. It’s a terrible way to think because god knows I’d drop out of school ten times over if anything happened to my parents, so I shouldn’t judge a thirteen year old kid, but god he was spoiled. I can’t even begin to fathom how Cheng is doing.

“San Gu Zhang, your cousin Cheng’s dad, passed away last night at midnight,” my aunt said, “He had a stroke a few months ago and then I guess he just didn’t make it.”

My aunt opened the fridge to take out the clams. I noticed in the sink that she had broccoli stalks soaking in a large plastic bowl. My aunt was pretty paranoid about pesticides (as most people who cook for their families should be, I suppose), and always insisted on soaking and resoaking and rinsing the vegetables thoroughly.

“Was anyone there with him?” I asked.

I asked because Cheng, his wife and kid were all in the States, and San Gu Gu had fallen last month on her way home from the hospital. A particularly harsh cold front hit Shanghai just as her husband was hospitalized, and she had slipped on the ice that’d formed on the hospital steps. She broke her hip and was herself hospitalized and then confined to bedrest, far too incapacitated to visit her husband everyday as she’d hoped.

“No,” my aunt replied, “he died alone. The hospital called San Gu Gu who had to arrange a nurse friend of hers to take their youngest son, the slow one, to the hospital to see his dad one last time. Your San Gu Gu arranged to have her husband’s body donated to science.”

I thought about how sad it is to die alone in a cold hospital room, especially during a Shanghai winter. I hoped his room at a window at least.

“The strange thing is, your San Gu Gu knew she would never see him again after she fell.”

A few weeks earlier, when she’d first fallen, she had called my aunt, “My blasted hip,” she said, “I don’t think my husband and I have the karma to be together when either of us departs this earth. Of course, he will probably leave first – I don’t think I will ever see him again.”

This she said in a bed less than a few miles from her husband’s.

“It was such a cold cold thing to say,” my aunt said, slicing the broccoli. A small pot of water was boiling and I could smell the ginger and wine my aunt had tossed in with the clams, “But in the end, she was right. She knew it, somehow.”

I watched my aunt assemble the night’s dinner in silence. The clams simmered and slowly opened. The ginger puffed up with water and the small chili pepper my aunt sliced in cut through fragrant steam emanating from the wok. The broccoli bubbled and turned over and over – my aunt fished each stalk out with chopsticks. The rice steamer clicked. I set the table – just three spots tonight: me, my aunt and my uncle – all in relative good health. My cousins stayed late at work.

My aunt sighed as she carried out the last dish, a spicy minced pork. A Thai dish that she’d bought ready made at a gourmet grocery store in the basement of our favorite department store. My aunt is all about trying new things.

“Your cousin Cheng is probably having the worst year of his life. And it’s only February. First his dad, and now his wife…”

I nodded, but wondered if Cheng had the strength to tell himself that things could only get better from this point, well, some future point, not too far off. His wife is still here, not exactly fighting the cancer but not exactly giving up. I did not know her that well, but she wide-eyed and kind. The kind of person you describe blandly as, “wouldn’t hurt a fly,” and “simple-minded” who ended up being a bad mother because she was only trying to be the best mother possible, never saying no to her kid.

When my parents went to visit her at the hospital, I did not go. I didn’t want to.

The last bit I heard about her: her lungs too, like my grandmother’s, are filling with water. She was so skeletal my mother had a hard time staying in the room, because all she wanted to do was cry with pity.

“Pity is useless,” my father says, but even he was oddly quiet after he returned from the hospital.

At the dinner table my aunt and uncle shook their heads, thinking about all the older relatives we’ve lost these past few years. They rattled off their names like lottery numbers, and I was startled to realize that there had been so many deaths. I knew them all, varying degrees of vagueness. They touched my face at some point, told me I looked like my mother or my father, held my soft young hands in their old papery ones and said, each of them I’m sure, “How good it is to be young!”

“Tell your mother not to work so hard anymore,” my aunt said suddenly, chopsticks pointing at me.

“Why?”

“Life is so short, you see? She needs to enjoy it now, while she can. Go to the places she wants to go. Spend time with the people she wants to spend time with.”

I nodded, but inside, was shaking my head. When you’re a twenty-six year old kid like me, your parents are still the same parents who used to spank you and make you practice piano for an hour each day. They age, sure, but it’s like a flash. You go away somewhere for a little bit, and come back a few months later and notice that while your room is exactly the same and the sun still lands in the same spots on the carpet, your father has a lot of grey hair and your mom moves at a glacial pace. She’s always moved at a glacial pace, but Jesus now she’s really slow. Her back used to be so straight and now she’s slightly hunched. You wonder about your dad’s blood pressure.

“Mom enjoys teaching,” I say, “But I know what you mean.”

My uncle, ever the optimist, pushes back his plate – filled with empty clam shells – and smiles at me. Life is short, the eyes say, handle what you can handle.

“Me?” he asks, as though I’ve asked him, though I guess my look is searching. He gets up to get fruit from the fridge and brings it back with a flourish, “I’d like to live forever.”

“Don’t we all.” My aunt rolls her eyes, motioning with her chopsticks for me and her to finish off the last four clams.

I oblige then take a chunk of honeydew with slightly salty chopsticks. The cold juice floods my mouth and I wince. It’s too sweet for me.

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