At the park, Tom and I took turns pushing Artie in the swing – his latest obsession – when a little girl wearing a periwinkle blue princess dress and floral sun hat came up to us.Continue reading “Little Angels”
Earlier this evening an old friend of my parents joined us for dinner at Grandpa’s house. My parents told her not to bring any dishes – Grandpa doesn’t each much and they’d cooked enough to ensure leftovers for at least two more meals – but Mrs. R– hopped in ten minutes late carrying a big pot of “lion head” meatballs and a smaller platter of stir-fried cucumber and sliced fish cakes. Continue reading “Little Children”
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?”
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?
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.
“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.
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.
Unexpectedly, a small army of my mother’s badminton friends banded together to buy several lavish flower arrangements for my grandmother’s memorial service and for my mother. A massive pot of stunning purple and violet orchids were delivered to the chapel and a few days later, a young Hispanic man showed up at our door with two smaller but no less gorgeous arrangements for our home. Together, they cost a pretty penny and my mother was grateful.
“I ought to do something for them,” she said, “They really didn’t need to spend so much money and send so many flowers.”
It was decided that to show our thanks, she would buy them little candies and I would bake cookies to put together in pretty gift bags.
I baked an assortment of holiday spiced cookies: molasses gingerbread, cinnamon oatmeal lacies and pumpkin spiced walnut cookies and give each contributor a dozen or so to share with their family. I kept the oven on for what seemed like two days straight to bake enough for seventeen people, and when everything was packaged and wrapped, my mother was delighted in the overall effect.
So were the friends at the badminton club.
She came home on the evening after all the gifts had been delivered and I asked her how it went.
“Oh they were all so happy,” she said, “especially Ju Pei.”
“Who’s Ju Pei?”
“Don’t you remember the woman with the daughter that doesn’t like her?”
I did. I had very nearly written a novella about her.
“She loved the cookies,” my mother said, then her eyes got wide, “and she ate the whole dozen right in front of me.”
I stared at my mother. My cookies are known to be larger than the average sized cookie – whatever that means – and I always end up making ten or so less than the recipe calls for because of this.
“She ate all twelve in one sitting?”
“In less than thirty minutes,” my mother said.
My mother had presented her the gift bag upon her arrival at the club and Ju Pei was there, forty-five minutes earlier than when her lesson was scheduled to start. She often did that, as she disliked being alone in her house and passed most of the afternoon at the badminton club.
“She was so happy when I handed her the bag, and even happier when she saw the cookies. We started talking and she just reached in, eating one after another. By the time her lesson was starting, the bag was empty.”
“Didn’t she feel sick?”
My mother shook her head, her expression as surprised as mine, “No, not at all. She just kept on saying how delicious they were and how lucky I was to have a nice talented daughter who took the time to bake things for her friends.”
“Wow,” I said, “Well, that’s really nice of her. I guess I can make more for her next time, since she liked them so much.”
“Yes…” my mother said slowly, “Though she plays so much badminton to maintain her sixty pound weight loss…so I’m not sure if you should make her quite so many cookies.”
After her lesson Ju Pei came to chat with my mother again, asking if my mother and her husband were free to have dinner with her on Thanksgiving.
“I was thinking,” Ju Pei began, “I’d like to take you and your husband out to dinner on Thanksgiving. To Capital Seafood in Irvine. We’ll have lobster and crab! You can bring your daughter too.”
“That’s very nice,” my mother said, and trying to phrase the obvious as gingerly as possible, “but we spend Thanksgiving with our family.”
Ju Pei’s expression, my mother said, could not be described as crestfallen, but discouraged was certainly apt.
“Who the hell invites someone to dinner on Thanksgiving?” I asked, incredulous.
“Well she didn’t know that we made a big to-do about it, because she never celebrates with her daughter.”
“She says her daughter never asks her to dinner at her house, never mind Thanksgiving.”
“That’s really a pity,” I said, feeling terrible for the woman. I thought ahead to all the faces I looked forward to seeing on Thanksgiving and how warm my aunt’s house felt, no matter how cold it was outside, no matter that we had just lost our grandmother. I imagined the woman eating alone at the Seafood Restaurant, a glistening, sautéed lobster on the table before her.
“I don’t know what you do as a mother, as a woman to end up like that,” my mother shook her head, “but I sure hope I’m not doing it now.”
I kissed my mother on the cheek, knowing that it wasn’t a so much a difference in action as it was in souls. The woman wasn’t a bad person – she had just been ill-advised and then, it seems, too narrow-minded and nearsighted. Impulsive too, perhaps. But from what my mother told me the woman was beginning to change. She was definitely someone worth studying, but perhaps not right now. My mother and I had Thanksgiving with our family to think about.
|Edward Hopper “Summer in the City,” 1949 Oil on Canvas|
|Edward Hopper Automat 1927 Oil on Canvas|
The child was not easy. She was often sick, wailed at all hours of the night and for some reason, flinched at her mother’s touch. Continue reading “Distance”