An Update From My Mother

Mom playing golf
My mother called today with some urgency in her voice. I braced myself. She has a tendency to begin good and bad news in the same ominous way: “I have something to tell you,” she said. Continue reading “An Update From My Mother”

Advertisements

What is Good Parenting?

Greetings from San Mateo, California, where my brother and sister-in-law live with their newborn baby – my nephew – Dylan and their dog Poochy. Dylan is cute. In all the ways babies ought to be, as though cobbled together from various types of bread: with arms like just-baked dinner rolls, belly like a giant loaf of sourdough, hands and feet like delicate braided pastries and a gleaming, puffy face which, for some reason, reminds me of a doughnut. A glazed donut when he cries. Continue reading “What is Good Parenting?”

Meeting the Parents, Part 1

By this time next week, my parents will have been in New York for one day. They are coming to visit me en route to Canada, where they’ll rendezvous with their retired friends to take in Canada’s fall foliage.

“It’s a good time of year,” I said, when they first proposed the dates, “It won’t be too cold, and there might be a hint of fall colors. And it’s about time you guys met Tom.”

My father grunted, “I don’t need to meet him. I’ve seen his picture.”

“Betty’s right,” my mother said. I could picture her smiling into the receiver. “It’s about time we visited her in New York and met Mr. Tom.”

—-

The last time my mom came to New York was ten years ago, to help me move into NYU. I was eighteen and in New York for the second time ever. My brother and cousin Karen came with and the week before school started, we rented an old but clean two bedroom apartment near Greenwich Village. We bought breakfast foods from the nearby Morton Williams, made toast and fried eggs in the mornings and walked around the city, doing the requisite touristy things – we went to the top of the Empire State Building, saw the Statue of Liberty, took a photo or two in Times Square.

They accompanied me on multiple trips to the first two (or was it three) story Bed Bath and Beyond I’d ever been to, and made sure I had all the necessary dorm room items – scratchy sheets, a too-warm duvet, laundry basket, plastic storage bins, a desk lamp. There was also a shitty, three-cup rice cooker that always produced something closer to congee regardless of how much water I put in. For dinners, because there was no such thing as Yelp! and as I was coming from suburbia and emerging from an age where The Cheesecake Factory was a good restaurant, we ate at restaurants that have surely since been shuttered. There was however one Chinese restaurant we wandered into one evening, and which I continued to frequent after my mom, brother and Karen left. It was called Wok n’ Roll. A quick Yelp! search tells me there are many Chinese restaurants in and around New York with the same name, but the one I, and my roommate too, after I’d taken her there one evening, returned to time and again in Greenwich Village no longer exists. It helped me through some hard times, but the abundance of grease, sugar and MSG in the delicious orange chicken – no doubt it made the hard times harder.

That first week in New York, I ignored the lineup of orientation and welcome activities NYU held for incoming freshman, telling myself my family was in town and my time would be better spent hanging with them. I could, and would make new friends later. This is only partially true.

What happened when they, my familiar cocoon left, is that I cried on the corner of Washington Square Park for a good ten minutes as their taxi drove off. I could see my cousin Karen turning around to look at me from the rearview mirror until my tears blurred her face. They turned left and out of sight. I was alone in New York City.

A few months later, after a tear-ridden telephone conversation with my parents about feeling depressed and directionless, my mother bought a plane ticket and booked a hotel room. She would come to New York, she said, and take me home. Unbeknownst to me, my brother told my mother to calm down. He’d come to New York alone and bring me home. He called me one chilly December evening, as I was trudging home from another mind-numbing astronomy class, and asked what I wanted for dinner. He was at JFK, and would be in Manhattan within an hour.

I screamed, then said I could eat whatever. I was very fat then.

“Steak,” he said, because he always wants steak, “Let’s get a good steak.”

I forget where we ate that night, but I remember smiling across the table from my brother, feeling less anxious and happier than I’d been in a long while. I called my mother that night and told her I was coming home, that I was done with New York. For a while.

“Good,” she said, so was she. For a while.

——
A few days ago my mother called to ask if I needed anything from home.

I was sitting with Tom in his room, deliberating what to read before bed.

“Nope,” I said, thinking about all the unread books I had at home, “I’ve got everything I need right here.”

“Good,” she said.

“I’ve been thinking about your visit though,” I said, “Is there anything in particular you and dad want to see?”

“No, not really.”

“No like…scenic spot you guys really want to see?”

“No museums. And I doubt your dad will want to sit through any shows.”

I smiled. My father’s last trip to New York was some fifteen, twenty years ago, when he’d come with a friend cum business partner, Uncle Xia, and Uncle Xia’s sister. They had had a few steak dinners and attended a concert at Lincoln Center, where both my father and Uncle Xia fell asleep, snoring. Some minutes later an usher tapped my father on the shoulder, politely asking them to leave.

My father was sitting next to my mother, who had me on speakerphone. “I want to see Columbia,” he called out, “And that one park in the middle.”

“Bah. Central Park. It’s called Central Park.”

“I just want to see you and your little apartment,” my mother said, “And I want to meet Mr. Tom!”

“I know,” I cast a sideways glance at Tom, knowing he was anxious about meeting them.

“I’m going to get my hair cut tomorrow,” my mother said brightly, “I don’t want Tom to think, ‘My goodness Betty’s mom is a slob!'”

I laughed, “He wouldn’t think that. And besides, at least you have hair to cut.”

Tom heard my mother’s loud laugh and gave me a look. He hears his name enough amidst flurries of Mandarin to know he is often the topic of conversation.

“Don’t poke fun at him,” my mother said.

“He can handle it.”

We discussed the weather (“I don’t know. It might be cold. It might be really cold. It might not be cold at all. It might rain every day. It might be sunny.”) then said good night and hung up. I turned to Tom.

“Did you hear my mom laugh?”

“I did,” he said, putting down his Kindle.

“She said she was going to get her hair cut for you, because she didn’t want you to think she was a slob.”

He chuckled.

“I told her at least she has hair to cut.”

He rolled his eyes, “Har har.”

“They’re very excited to meet you.”

He groaned, suddenly looking very tired. “It’s going to be awful.”

I shook my head, patted his arm. There, there. I knew my parents and I knew Tom. I knew it would be anything but. 

Meeting His Parents: First Impressions

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.
“Hm?”
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.”

On Relationships: Golf n’ (other) Stuff

Thus far, everything has gone as planned.

I woke up, chatted with POI on the phone, went to the kitchen to have a bowl of Frosted Miniwheats then went to the driving range with my mother. We discovered that the golf club in the neighboring city is quite nice, and not too expensive. We each hit one hundred balls, mine going much further than my mothers’ which prompted her to ask me for tips.

I have had exactly one “lesson” from my brother, who used to play semi-regularly when he lived in California. Bend your knees. Stick your butt out. Keep the left arm straight and your eye on the ball. Swing.

I swung a good twenty, twenty-five times before I ever made contact with the ball.

For golf, I had not beginner’s luck but second timer’s luck.

Two weeks ago I revisited the driving range in New York with POI, who likes the game, preferring to have a beer or two to loosen up. We biked to the waterfront driving range and I watched him play before hitting a few on my own.

“You’re pretty good,” POI noted.

“Hm,” I said. I agreed. But as with most things I do (or eventually give up on) consistency was an issue.

My mother, I observed this afternoon, would like to be able to drive the ball out much further than she currently does. Her range hovers around 100 yards, usually just below.

“I’m terrible,” she kept saying, but her shots were consistently straight. The sound her driver head made upon contacting the ball quite appealing.

I recorded a few of her swings on my iphone, saying things like, “Keep your arm straight,” and “Lift the club higher when you pull back,” in Chinese, but was aware that the entire situation was very blind leading the blind. I wondered if the more experienced people to our left and right were chuckling to themselves.

My first thirty or so shots with the driver were consistent too, until I discovered I was terrible on the irons and much better on the woods. I used the driver to hit the last twenty balls, none of which went as far or straight and flat as the first thirty. Consistency, where’d you go, I muttered to no one. Still, my mother was impressed and said it was a shame I didn’t start earlier.

“I wasn’t interested back then,” I said, shrugging.

She thought my tips were good. I’m pretty sure we both imagined it, but she seemed to be hitting just a few yards further by the end of the bucket.

“Take lessons when you get back to New York,” she said, when we were finished. I nodded. That might not be a bad idea.

We came home and had lunch. My mother fried a fish – scallions, soy sauce, sugar, rice wine – and my father suggested we finish off the coffee ice cream.

“Time to buy more,” he said, “though no one eats it with me when you’re not home.”

Everything as planned, this Saturday afternoon. Then I went to my room, called POI. He picked up and I started to cry.

——

The vestiges of our morning conversation. In POI’s words, I had tried to start a fight because I felt he hadn’t called enough over the past two weeks.

“But we talk every day,” he had said in the morning, though by “talk” he meant “text.”

“It’s not the same,” I said, because it’s not, “And remember. It’s a privilege to talk to me on the phone.”

Eventually we were laughing. We had hung up shortly before I left for the driving range, he feeling as though everything was resolved because there had been nothing wrong to begin with, and I feeling a hairsbreadth better, but mostly needy and uneven.

I spent the last two weeks telling my entire family that I was happy in New York, in my relationship, in school (which hasn’t started).

“This time around it’s very different huh?” my cousins asked, “So different from your first time.”

“Yeah,” I said, “So different and so good.”

It’s true, but I worry about my internal consistency, none of which is documented via the usual channels. What makes me feel happy and steady and at peace one minute and another, say, when I’m packing to leave one home for another, off-kilter and confused? I didn’t want to pull POI into this monologue – the “home” question. The what are we how are we who am I what is the future question. What comes tomorrow and the day after and the month and years and incredible vortex after? I didn’t want to pull him into the one-woman fray, but I had to, because it’s sort of what you sign up for when you date someone with a lot of words.

“I feel strange,” I said to him now.

“How so.”

“I don’t know,” because at that point I didn’t. But we talked and just a few minutes later I knew.

The fact that there were two sets of keys on my dresser, one with a Prius key and another with cards to the New York Public Library and Brooklyn Fare. The fact that I was packing again, taking a few more items of my room with me – things I had thought, when I set them down on whichever particular surface, would stay for many years if not forever. The fact that I spent several days mulling over whether to bring said items – because do they belong at this home or the other? The fact that I’d come back this time, filled with the comforting confidence one has when one returns to a familiar city with familiar, loving faces, only to arrive and feel as though I’d forgotten to bring something important.

I told POI so, though not in those exact words. When I cry the words seem to drip down my face and I often can’t say anything for interminable minutes.

“I think I get it,” he said.

And maybe he does. But more importantly, I got it.