Thom’s Thursday Thoughts on Proposing

Very highbrow engagement

On Sunday March 5th, 2017, Tom proposed.  Continue reading “Thom’s Thursday Thoughts on Proposing”

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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.”

Lovers 
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.

A Short Talk

The girl, expectedly, was not happy.

“I don’t want to move to the beautiful country,” she spat the Chinese name of America, “You can’t just uproot me and move me halfway across the world without talking to me about it.”

“I’m talking to you now,” her mother said as a matter-of-factly, aware of her use of the singular. Even though her husband sat right next to her, he said nothing. Fine with her. Mothers are expected to deliver the bad news that would change their children’s lives for the better.

The girl was nearly speechless with anger, but she saw on her mother’s face the expression she had come to hate: the one of resolute, immovable decision. In it was etched the selfishness and the stubborn pride she had come to associate with her mother and everything wrong in general with old-fashioned, conservative mothers. It was like a disease, that expression. The girl saw it in the parents of some of her friends as well – the flashing but strangely dead eyes that signalled a challenge almost to their offspring. Fight me, the eyes said, but you will lose. In the future, when the girl’s English improved she learned the phrase “my way or the highway,” and often thought of it when she fought with her mother. As afflictions went, the girl felt her mother had an almost terminal case of it. Saving face, saving face – this was what her mother lived by so that it seemed she had only one face, one expression – her mother seemed like a statue to her then, but oddly, the girl did not see the strength of stone, but weak plaster wanting desperately to represent something it was not. Regardless, the die had been cast by her mother’s stiff hand and her father, though far from a pushover, was only slightly more alive and would not do anything to reverse it.

“We will come back during the summers, unless you need summer school,” her mother continued, “some kids who don’t study hard during the school year need to stay and take extra courses during the summer, but,” the woman looked at her daughter, “hopefully you won’t need it.”

“And dad?” the girl turned to her father. She loved him more than she loved her mother, but she felt a growing rift. In her gut she knew he had very little to do with this decision.

The woman looked at her husband. He leaned forward and rubbed his face. He did not know, precisely, what it was he felt at the moment except that his family seemed very far from him even though they were, at present, sitting right in front of him.

“Your father will stay here and work,” the woman said simply, and as though to reinforce her words she rubbed his back, which instinctively stiffened to her touch. Whether the woman felt this he did not know or care. “Your father works very hard, as you know, and his work is here. He can come visit us whenever he wants, and we will come back for all your breaks. Unless you have summer school.”

The man finally spoke.

“Your mother and I discussed this at length. You’re not doing well here. We think you will do better in the American school system. You have more freedom there.”

The girl leaned back. What a robot. She was disgusted, but mostly she was sad. She had not the words to describe this sadness, not at that age when one’s world is small and narrow, but only that whatever family life she had was slowly being chipped away and deemed unimportant.

“We need to think about your future,” the man said, “Education comes first.”

Of course it does. But this freedom her father referred to. Did he know his wife at all?

She was barely fourteen, had not yet begun to develop an appetite for the world but still, she knew a thing or two about freedom and how certain environments could help expand or limit already limited freedom. At least in Taipei she could go out on her own, could walk around the city or hide out in cafes and bookstores. She’d gone to the US before to visit cousins who liked her enough but were clearly different. They spoke such rapid English, for one thing, and didn’t understand half of the words she used in Chinese, but what’s more, they relied on their parents to take them anywhere. This took some getting used to. She had done the requisite visits to Disneyland, Sea World, all fun places but inaccessible without a car. And what of her beloved hiding spots? Would she find new ones in the new world? She could not even begin to imagine life in California and she did not want to.

“Get yourself ready,” her mother said, “tell your friends you will come back and that they can come visit us anytime.”

She would not say anything to her friends, the girl decided. It was much easier to disappear off the face of the earth and let everyone wonder.

The girl did not cry when her mother stood up to go. Her father stayed behind with her on the couch. She was silent and sat staring out the window – the sky had gone dark since they’d first sat down, and it felt like years ago when really, the whole disruption of her present life had taken less than fifteen minutes. She thought it had begun to rain but turned to find that her father had turned the TV on to the weather channel. It was raining elsewhere, not in Taipei. But it didn’t matter. The weather in Taipei would not affect the girl at all, not in a few months, and after a moment her father got up and left too.

A Marriage Begins

She came from a fairly well-to-do family and was used to certain things. With this man she could see that materially, things could only get better. He had drive – her parents often told her this was more important than coming from a wealthy family, from where the children often lacked ambition and direction. The woman pitied the girls who had failed to find themselves husbands and for the first time she did not focus all her energies on her studies or even choir practice. Her grades slipped slightly but it didn’t matter. She quit trying to give weight and shape to the abstract career thoughts; instead, they took another shape altogether, that of the man she loved and the life they would lead together.

She and her beau spent hours discussing their future, strolling down the palm-lined walkways of their prestigious university on warm summer nights. Other young lovers walked the same paths at the same hours, but when she was with him she felt the path was theirs alone. The street lamps shone solely upon them, like spotlights on a stage that every young woman her age longed to be on. She would turn to look at him under the lamps’ soft glow, not saying a word as he talked animatedly with his hands about the businesses he wanted to start – something about computer parts or panels, she didn’t really understand and instead was mesmerized by the sheen of microscopic sweat forming on his brow and temples. The angles of his face glowed with promise. Such straight teeth! Such bright eyes and strong hands! She felt beautiful in his presence because she felt lucky – she was not picky with men and she did not need to be. He had selected her – of all the roses in the school, he had chosen her.

Boating, Edouard Manet, 1874 Oil on Canvas

They graduated, already knowing they were to marry. He made his intentions clear to her parents and they nodded, seeing the same promise their daughter saw. They gave them their blessing and showered the young couple with a borderline lavish ceremony. It was, the woman thought, one of the happiest days of her life. But that night she lay awake next to her toast-drunk husband and thought, “Why happiest?” She was so young. There was so much ahead of them. Things could only get better.

And for a while they did. His career took off with flying colors – he was a shrewd business man, unafraid of hard work and sacrifice. He made it very clear to his wife that it was for both of them. Within the first year his business doubled then tripled and showed no signs of slowing and the woman smiled contentedly, thinking herself his lucky charm. She let him leave her for long hours because in the beginning it was just him and a handful of his partners, none of who were married so they could stay late at the office without worrying about a wife waiting at home while dinner got cold. She understood these things, and anyway it didn’t matter; if he came home late – which was often – she would simply reheat the dinner she had cooked. She gave him no advice, took no role in his business – she had no head for such things – and sang to him when he returned home exhausted from work. Only once, when he couldn’t sleep for one reason or other did he ask her to quiet down. The other times his sleep was so deep he did not hear.

When did things begin to change?

When does any marriage begin to change? 

When the woman could not get pregnant.

Security Blanket

A few days ago my mother came in to say goodnight and saw me hunched over my work phone, typing something out to my boss. I looked up, aware my eyes projected fatigue if anything.

She kept her hand on the door handle, as though deciding whether or not she should come in – it was late. She was constantly reminding me to sleep earlier but at the same time saw so little of me during the day that the evenings, right before bed, were the only time we really got to talk

I look forward to talking to my mother at night. Now, she is busier than my father (though he will never agree to this); after teaching a few hours she comes home to make dinner (unless my father, having left work early as he often does now, comes home to make it first) and then prepares to leave again to play two hours or so of badminton at the local club.

When I was younger and she didn’t play badminton, I often watched her sneak in a short naps here and there. I would come home from school and shout something to my brother who would say, “Shh. Mom’s sleeping.” And she’d be in the living room, stretched out primly on the flowered couch, her knees propped up or feet crossed at the ankles, a slight frown on her face. A light sleeper who stirred at the slightest sound, she was never fully asleep. I pitied her for it because my father’s snores are murderous – meaning you will either die from exhaustion, or kill him in the middle of the night.

Whatever my mother thought of her sleeping situation, she and my father worked it out long ago. She took to retiring earlier than he – to get a head start, I suppose. Her tactic was to enter REM before my father came to bed, and would thus be immune to the noise. But I doubt this. It is one of those sacrifices women make when they marry. My father gives her love, warmth, a family, the financial stability to pursue her non-profit Chinese school dreams – all that and more – in exchange for the restful slumber she had before she met him.

And yet to my surprise I observed that my mother slept poorly when my father was not there. As they grew old together, she came to rely on the rhythm of his breath to put her heart at ease. At the end of the day everything was fine – he was there, alive and well, and together they were whole. Her children may grow and fly the coop (though this has yet to happen with the youngest bird), but at the eleventh hour through the first, her husband was there, sleeping peacefully albeit noisily by her side. 

So perhaps it was not the sleep. Whatever it was, she seemed to be always tired, in the same way I feel now. For a long time we thought it was her liver. My mother is also very gullible – fatigue and gullibility do not mix. Fatigue makes one desperate, even more gullible than usual, and she bounced from one doctor to the next, collecting a docket filled with lies about her physical condition.

She was never known for being fair, yet one doctor said her skin appeared jaundiced, which indicated her liver was failing her. Another doctor pointed to the white hairs along her hairline, saying it was something to do with her blood. Lupus. Cancer. Hypothyroidism. We never really did figure it out, but thank goodness my mother, despite her gullibility, hates western medicine with a passion and refused to take any of the medication. “Why damage my liver further, if my liver is already weak?” she reasoned.

Chinese medicine, with its strange herbs and animals parts were another story – my mother believed in eastern medicine with the same principles with which she adhered to Buddhism. Not strictly, but willingly, out of familiarity. Eastern medicine could be explained in Chinese terms more readily than western medicine and procedures, and was, in general, a more holistic approach, which appealed to my mother’s nature-loving bent. She spent a small fortune on carefully measured packets of horsetail, cordyceps, starfish, feverfew and fenugreek which she dutifully boiled every night with dates and ginger root so that our house smelled not unlike the strange, dim doctor’s offices she visited on Taipei’s outskirts.

As a family we tried to persuade her to take on less. Cut her private tutoring classes. Forget doing the Chinese school – not only was it a non-profit, it bled money. Don’t serve on the advisory board of this Chinese committee and that. Stop editing Chinese textbooks for free. And for Chrissakes stop traveling to China and Taiwan for exhausting two-week long conferences while staying in shitty hotels with bad food.

But my mother is stubborn when she sets her mind to something and she had learned long ago that married or not, a woman must have her work. So she persisted in building her Chinese school, and despite our protests, took on more private tutoring students. For a while I feared she would die of exhaustion. And somewhere in the middle of all this, she began to play badminton, hours at a time, three or four times a week.

I thought, “Oh goodness. She will collapse one day.”

Instead, the opposite began to happen. She became more energetic, more lively, more ambitious. It wasn’t just the exercise but also the growing profile of her tiny Chinese school. The two together: a woman’s work and the care she devotes to her body – is a powerful combination for happiness. Yes, she still comes home exhausted some days, but for the most part I have never seen her look so vibrant. My father noticed too, and rather than continue to persuade her to quit, he now accepts his growing role as Mr. Mom – he cooks more, takes care of more things around the house – not that he didn’t before, but he is home more often than my mother is, and the role of half-house husband suits him well.

From my mother I learn that for a woman – or any person, really, to stick to their work, stick doggedly to it even though no one pushes them to do so, they must really love the work. She has the energy to do it because that is how the mind functions – it provides phantom energy, the most potent and secret kind, to help you accomplish what you most love and need in order to feel whole.

And now my mother, armed with phantom energy, comes into my room each night to ask me about my work.

“Does it make you happy?”

“Is your boss a nice man?”

“Do your coworkers like you?”

Yes, yes and yes, I say, but still, there is a feeling that everything about the job is fleeting, much like every other job I’ve held in the past.

I tried to go in with an open mind, thinking, “Who knows how long I’ll stay?” Maybe I will love it and end up staying three, four, five years. A decade?

I heard a hollow laugh when I posed the possibility to myself. 

I’m too young to think that any position I hold now will be my “career,” but I can’t shake the feeling – both paralyzing and liberating – that I may never have a “career,” not in the conventional sense of the word. What is industry? What industry? How should I categorize myself and where, in the vast career planes and skyscraping corporate verticals, do I belong?

“It was a great comfort to turn from that chap to . . . the battered, twisted, ruined, tin-pot steamboat. . . . I had expended enough hard work on her to make me love her. No influential friend would have served me better. She had given me a chance to come out a bit—to find out what I could do. No, I don’t like work. I had rather laze about and think of all the fine things that can be done. I don’t like work—no man does—but I like what is in the work,—the chance to find yourself. Your own reality—for yourself, not for others—what no other man can ever know.”

Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness