Two weeks before my arrival, friends – both POI’s and mine – asked, “You ready to meet the parents? You nervous?”
“Yes and no.”
I don’t let myself get nervous because when I do, I freeze. But I’ll get to that. Instead, I was excited to do what came easily because my mother had made me perfect it through years of practice: make a good impression.
That Friday, I left work early and walked to Penn Station, carrying a backpack heavy with a bottle of Chianti for POI’s mother and two books he’d brought back from England for his parents but had forgotten to bring.
I hauled these items along with a mixed bag of Murray’s Bagels and at 4PM, boarded the train behind a podiatrist who held the skeleton of a human foot and a slew of young professionals who seemed younger and more professional than I. They typed away on laptops, describing marketing plans on fancy power points until it got old and they realized they were on a train and their boss was probably not watching. As though in unison, a handful of them began to watch “Orange Is the New Black,” except for the anemic-looking woman who sat in front of me. She watched “You’ve Got Mail” while chewing at a bland sandwich that didn’t seem to have much iron.
I slept for an hour and spent the rest of the ride looking between the magazine on my lap and the view out the window.
“The east coast is very lush,” I noted.
“People in Delaware seem very poor. At least by the train tracks.”
“People who get off in Baltimore look rather dejected.”
The train was an hour delayed but I was communicating with POI, who instructed me to text by the time I got to Baltimore. He’d leave his place around then.
Baltimore slid by. I texted. Before long the train stopped in a drab terminal and I found myself standing in Union Station, setting foot in our nation’s capital for the first time.
“What have I been doing that it’s taken me twenty-eight years to get here?” I wondered. Visiting other capitals, duh.
POI collected me from the large roundabout in front of the station in a little blue station wagon, his father’s old car. We said hello with a tinge of strangeness – he was not home but he was “home,” just as I, writing this from my Upper West Side studio am home but not “home.” His family – parents, brother, brother’s wife, sister, sister’s husband and their baby – were all waiting at home for my arrival so we could eat dinner together. I felt bad that my train had been late, but they couldn’t hold that against me. I wasn’t nervous at all. Not yet.
So, when do I get nervous? And what happens? Like many people, I get nervous when I’m put on the spot. When, say, I’m at dinner with a group of friends and someone asks me to do the math on the bill. (Once my calculation came out to be $100 more than we needed to pay). I got nervous when taking the GRE, when the writing portion came first instead of Verbal or Math, like in the five practice tests I took beforehand. I had not practiced taking the test in this order. I also get nervous when people ask me questions I’m not expecting and, like most people who ask you questions, they expect answers right away. This makes me especially nervous when there are other people around, watching or listening and they too, expect an answer.
I am not one of those hardy individuals whose brain adapts quickly to these situations. I would like to be able to take the restaurant bill home and figure it out at with my dad’s giant accountant’s calculator. I would have loved for the GRE essay portion to come at the end, where I expected it to be. I might have gotten a less embarrassing score of two (out of six), considering I was taking the GRE to apply to writing school. And I would have given anything for POI’s mother to have said, “I’ll give you some time to think about it,” after she asked me, “Why did you say that?” Actually, I would have preferred if she didn’t ask me at all, and understood that it’s just the sort of thing I say from time to time.
The family dinner went well. POI’s father ordered Indian takeout and I assumed they all ate with more gusto considering I had made them wait an hour. After, the family migrated from the dining table to the living room, while I stayed behind in the kitchen chatting with POI’s mother. She asked me the usual things: what I was studying (writing), if I liked my program (sometimes), what was I going to do after the program (Not sure, but probably babysitting and tutoring the SAT’s. Just kidding. Of course I meant writing…), my version of how POI and I met (I patted myself on the back for leaving out the racist bits), our recent travels and plans for the summer. I asked her the usual questions too: how did she meet POI’s father if she was from Australia? While she was studying English Literature in England, he was there too, a young American man in the foreign service. They married, moved to a suburb just outside DC, and had three children. A few years later, when POI was eight, his father’s job took them to Tokyo where they lived for ten years.
“It was a wonderful time,” she said, her eyes sparkling, and I could imagine it. I felt an immediate kinship with this petite skinny woman with countless laugh lines, bright eyes and short, curly red hair. We both loved to read, though judging by the well thumbed books I found all over the house, in every single room, she more than me. She was, from the way she talked about her meeting POI’s father, a bit of a romantic, though with practical leanings, especially now having been married for so many decades to POI’s father who seemed like a very practical man. We moved from the kitchen to the back patio, each holding a glass of wine, and continued talking for another hour or so until we decided that it was probably time to go in and join the rest of the family. Confidences had been exchanged. She liked me, I could tell.
As we walked into the living room POI gave me a wary look – what had I been telling his mother out there on the patio? Or worse, what has she told you? The smug smile I returned said, “None of your business.” I took a seat next to his mother opposite POI and listened as they told me stories about their neighbors. There was the young family next door, who had two ill-behaved little girls who often scared Smoot and screamed and shrieked. POI’s mother did not like them. She was a bigger fan of the friendly, quiet guy who lived upstairs and who had been a bachelor for many years – he was in his early forties – but was getting married tomorrow.
“Congratulations to him!” I said.
She nodded and smiled, “His fiancée’s name is Turquoise.”
Nicky and POI both snorted, “What kind of name is that?”
Nicky pulled out his phone and started scrolling – he lived close to POI’s parents and was apparently friends with the neighbor on Facebook. He found a photo of Turquoise and showed it to POI.
“Is she a bus driver?” POI joked.
“Oh,” I said, arriving at what I thought was an obvious conclusion, “Is she black?”
I remember a sudden outburst of laughter, which then died down almost immediately into an awkward silence. From the corner of my eye I saw POI’s eyes widen as his mother turned to me.
“Why did you say that?”
Defense mechanism one. Pretend you didn’t say it and even if you did say it, convince yourself no one heard.
POI’s mother looked at me with wide eyes sparkling with earnest curiosity. She repeated the question.
“Why did you say that?”
This is when adrenaline is supposed to kick in, when your fight or flight instinct is meant to help you either a.) smoothly redirect the conversation to something more PC (“So why do you guys call him Mr. Chicken?” But I’d already asked this. Or b.) Come up with an elaborate lie beginning with, “Oh what I meant was _(insert the exact opposite of what you meant couched it flowery language and said with a sweet “mean no harm, absolutely no harm” expression)__.”
But my glands don’t work like that. I’m witty, but not quick-witted. I’ll come back at you with a witty comeback or a “quick” save…tomorrow. Or maybe the day after. I am also not- nor have I ever been-a good liar. An on-the-spot liar? Forget it. I’m better at math. And that’s saying something.
In the past, when I’ve been caught red-handed doing something I wasn’t supposed to be doing or carelessly let mean (but often true) things roll off a blunt tongue, I have never been able to successfully backtrack and assuage the situation. Instead, I run through the options (listed above) and my ability to execute those options, which is very low. The inner dialogue goes something like this:
Dammit. I can’t believe I just said it. Dear God, may I please rewind this moment? No? Dammit. Dammit. Dammit.
The entire thought process takes less then two seconds (in some ways I am fast) but in the end the only options are either to apologize for a mistake or own it. In this case, I had to own it. To apologize would lead to too much explaining, which, given the blankness of my present state of mind, would color myself a deeper shade of prejudiced. I was at a crossroads too – back down now and set an expectation of apologizing for all the potentially racist/politically incorrect/and general unkind things that were bound to come out of my mouth. I am just that level of inappropriate. POI knew this. My friends know this. My family, minus my parents who are actually racist in the way most older Chinese people are, know this. And they still love me. Better be up front.
Don’t worry, I’m a little racist. You’ll get used to it.
I turned to POI’s mother, my face wide open with an “I thought it was obvious” expression.
“Well,” I said as matter-of-factly as I could, “POI asked if she was black. A lot of bus drivers are black.” (I wanted to add that naming your daughter Turquoise was also a total black thing to do, but remembered my college roommate named Teal who was one of the whitest people I ever met).
POI’s mother blinked. Her smile seemed a bit strained then, and I sensed her beginning to register some doubt, which she didn’t feel during dinner or in the kitchen or on the patio. Is this girl…right…for my son… but I looked away and didn’t see her finish the thought.
A week after I’d come home, I remembered my old school manners and sent her a letter-press thank you card I’d bought some months ago while wandering through the West Village. It had four trolls on it – the kind we played with as kids, with tall, pointy hair, wide googly eyes that stare blankly at you over frozen smiles (so…just me?). They reminded me of my childhood and I bought them, not sure if anyone would get the train of thought that went through my head. Well, I had to thank his mother for a good time and I had a card with four trolls and the right two words on it.
Two weeks after that a postcard with a frog, painted by Matsumoto Hoji arrived in the mail. It was from POI’s mother – she’s gotten it from the British Museum gift shop and had saved it, I imagine, to send to the rare creature her middle child would final decide to bring home.
“Dear Betty…” She thanked me for my warm words, agreed that my next trip should be longer and that Smoot aka Mr. Chicken sends a “woof.” I smiled when I saw the postscript squeezed in under her signature: “P.S. I see your trolls and raise you a frog.”