Monday, December 14, 2009

Acceptable Stereotype

The later years of my stay in the US, I was an indoctrinated listener of National Public Radio. Every liberal intellectual type seemed to have the local NPR station preset on their radios, so I followed suit.

But lately, every time I visited the US, NPR increasingly annoyed me. China is becoming an ever popular topic, and every other day, some China expert would be talking about what this “China” is, or what those “Chinese” are. It always shocks me that the commentators could so comfortably and so confidently lecture on China on radio after just a few years living in Beijing or Shanghai. So I gradually weaned myself off NPR.

Yet there is just so much dance music one can listen to on commercial radio while driving on the expansive American highway system. A few days ago I found myself searching for local public radio station again in my rented car in San Francisco. Not surprisingly, I heard a long interview of a Chinese American writer who had lived in Beijing and in Dharamsala for many years and had just published a book on a topic related to China and Tibet.

The writer bantered jokes and anecdotes with the interviewer on radio. Because I am ethnically Chinese, she said, I can speak candidly about the Chinese. Chinese are “rude,” “cynical,” and “jaded.” It’s an “autocratic” state over there, and people can be thrown in jail at whim. Oh yes, she brushed with jail intimately once. She was riding a bike in the street and police stopped her and wanted to arrest her. She said she could get by with her Chinese but couldn’t understand what her arrester-wanna-be was yelling about – it made a big scene and crowd formed around them. She might have been biking in the wrong direction on a one-way street.

Tibetans on the other hand, she described enthusiastically, are warm, kind and welcoming – the antithesis of the Chinese.

The interview annoyed me as much as when I read the first couple of chapters of a Chinese best-seller written by Chinese who had never lived overseas and criticizing American culture based on Hollywood films. Not that “Chinese” are not “rude,” “cynical” or “jaded,” but the Chinese American writer’s intellectual sloppiness in making those sweeping generalization made me head spin – how many Chinese in China did she intimately know with her barely-getting-by Chinese? Beijing alone has 17 million people and it is very easy to spot rude behavior committed by a few in jammed buses and shopping malls; but then to call 1.3 billion Chinese rude? Cynicism and jadedness may mark the majority of older generations, but the young I know are much less affected. Her almost arrest incident was also likely just a cheng guan, traffic guard hired by the municipal government and not the official police, stopping her on a one-way street and wanting to fine her for going the wrong direction.

There seems to exist a persistent stereotype about China and the Chinese that strangely finds comfortable acceptance in mainstream American media in today’s otherwise politically correct world. Liberals and conservatives alike enjoy seeing things black and white – good vs evil, China vs Tibet, China vs the free world… China is materialistic, totalitarian and repressed, while Tibet is all peace loving Shangri-la (watch my friend Jocelyn’s video on a Tibetan woman’s struggle between tradition and modernity, a more complex picture of “Shangri-la”). Sometimes it is the language issue – how many expats living in Beijing, Shanghai and Tibet can truly converse with either local Chinese or Tibetans and understand the intimate details of their lives? Other times old stereotype may be too convenient for us to abandon, for realities are sometimes too complex to summarize.

Sidney Rittenberg, an American who had suffered much along with the birth of communist China, including two solitary imprisonments totaling 16 years, recently came back to China for a visit. At one of his speeches in Beijing, he spoke about what he likes and dislikes about China, the challenges China faces and his confidence that China will ride through these challenges.

Do we all have to experience jail term to learn to discard old stereotypes and see the whole picture?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

In Search of Chinese-Chinese

One day last week I went to a private clinic in Beijing. As usual the clinic was quiet and only a few clients—half of them foreign expats—sat around waiting. A tall Scandinavian-looking guy came and sat in the couch next to me. We stroke up a conversation about the newspaper story I was reading. Then he asked,

“Are you Chinese Chinese?”

Reflexively I explained that I had lived and worked in the US for many years. The Scandinavian guy then nodded, seemingly satisfied. “You don’t look very Chinese to me,” he said.

It was not the first time that I was asked that question, which made me wonder – what makes me looking not very Chinese Chinese? Surely there are other Chinese who gel their hair, wear Zara and work out in the gym.

My Chinese staff at work said it is not my appearance, but some je-ne-sais-quoi “-ness” that gives me away. I laugh and speak my mind at will at work. I tell them not to call me “boss” but address me by my first name. In return, they make fun of my poor memory of Chinese idioms. And every so often, they would patiently counsel me the “right” way to do business in China.

Then what is this “Chinese Chinese”-ness that I am so obviously poor at grasping?

The question did not used to bug me. In fact, it fanned my ego that my high-school friends called me “half-American,” for raising my hands and asking questions in class, for directing plays and organizing dance parties, and for not shying away from any opportunity to be different. I used to be flattered by other Americans’ questions if I had grown up in the US, back in the days when I desired very much to be something other than the stale, conservative and order-following Chinese stereotype in my mind.

Then after spending 12 years in the US, I knew I would never be a full-blown American. So I moved back, partly to understand whether there is such a thing as Chinese Chinese?

The longer I have lived in Beijing, however, the less certain I am of what a true Chinese Chinese would be. For every (3?) money-chasing Chinese, I could find a Chinese content with his routine life. For every (5?) Chinese who give up their dreams for desk jobs, I could find an entrepreneur risking it all to strike it rich. And for every (10?) Chinese who go ga-ga over Gucci and Prada, I could find a young kid dead serious about art or environment causes.

Of course, statistically, most Han Chinese in prosperous regions of China are very focused on making their lives better off, their kids better educated, and their families and friends proud of their achievements. But any statistical definition of the “Chinese Chinese”-ness sounds a bit too vulgar. Isn’t there any big word(s) that could be claimed shared by all true Chinese, like Confucianism, materialism, individualism, conformism, or entrepreneurialism?

I remembered my trip along the ancient Silk Road, from Xi’an to Kashgar, a few years ago. I saw the ruins of Tang Dynasty grandeur and Han Dynasty border expansion. I met many ethnicities of languages and customs different from us Han. I found, at the many Buddhist grottoes along the Silk Road, how Buddhism had migrated to and been modified by China. I remember realizing then that what we considered to be “Chineseness” now must have been different from that in Tang Dynasty, in Han Dynasty, and in the tribal periods of our legendary forefathers.

So any romantic concept of deep-rooted “Chinese Chinese”-ness appears to be a myth – we as a people now are very different from those living in the 1960s, the Republic era, the end of Qing Dynasty, or any period prior. Of course there exists a continuation from generation to generation, but this continuation itself has always been changing, via interaction with the outside, fighting among the internal factions and competition of different schools of thoughts for domination.

Or so I hope – that the true “Chinese Chinese”-ness is our ability to absorb, to learn and to grow, which would make me feel more “Chinese Chinese” despite what others might say.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

20th Reunion

I flew back to Chengdu for my high school 20th reunion. Of the 360 students in my graduating class, more than one third showed up. Most I had not seen for 20 years and had a hard time remembering. It was embarrassing but also a source of rapturous laughter once the identities were revealed.

The reunion ran in style. We formally signed in and then were seated in a banquet hall. Three MCs guided us through the long list of agenda items--teachers spoke, student representatives spoke, MCs recited cheesy poems, we watched a video montage of old photos, and every class was asked to perform. The routine resembled so much of our high school annual variety show that it brought melancholy to my grins, for the unruly boys had lost their hairs and gained much weight, and the timid girls had wrinkles crawling next to their lustrous eyes.

Lunch ended in guys endlessly toasting around tables with baiju. A few puked in the bathrooms. Outside of the banquet room, we took endless group photos. Afterwards we broke into smaller rooms for tea. An old friend, a professional musician, played guitar while we sang songs that had long slipped into the “oldies” category at KTV.

Then we went around updating the circle of our past twenty years. Most had become entrepreneurs--selling insurance, selling gold investment, selling real estate, and selling interior decoration for the real estate. Some looked as if having made fortunes, others apparently struggling.

We all said how we missed our high school years--teachers caring, friends loving, and time innocent. David, visiting all the way from the US, said that his life had been down hill ever since high school. Everyone nodded. I felt dizzy from too much alcohol during lunch.

I joined Jason for a smoke outside. Jason and I had been close ever since high school. I had witnessed his many romantic longings and listened to his ups and downs with his ex-wife who had been his college sweet heart. Jason had remarried a year ago and was now expecting his first baby.

“How is Jenny then?” I asked about his ex-wife.

He sighed. His silence surprised me, for he had been open with me about his entangled relationship with Jenny. They were married for 10 years, a seeming perfect couple for as long. Then Jenny pushed him away--she was distant in bed and in life. She said she wanted to be alone. Jason had always wanted to remarry her, if she would ever agree to, even though she could not satisfy him in bed, even though she kept pushing him away.

“A month after I re-married,” Jason finally started, “Jenny committed suicide. She put a…” Jason gestured the shape of a rope around his neck. “She was rushed to the hospital. But she had been up there for too long. It took her several months to wake up. Now she still can't take care of herself. Her hands shake all the time…”

I was shocked mute. Oh Jenny, the pretty Jenny with her smooth long hair.

“She told me that she had been depressed for so long,” Jason continued. “I should have noticed in the latter years of our marriage. Now whenever I visit her she would hit me. She would cry and say it's my fault. What can I do? I'm married now expecting a baby. It is my fault.”

We finished a second cigarette and went back in. Our friends were still reminiscing about the good old days. I sat deep in the couch, nursing my headache from the hangover. The noisy chatters gradually grew tasteless--are we spending so much time dwelling on the good old days so we can get away from the cruel reality that shall be unnamed among old friends? I looked at those faces around me that had grown chubby and sagged. How I longed to talk to them about our present confusions and longings, like we used to. Life had been a lot tougher than we had ever imagined, yet we all conspired to hide our scars in baiju and laughter.

So I left, hoping for another reunion in which we could be younger.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

In Pursuit of Tai Chi

I was in Boston for a short trip and my old friend Mary, whom I hadn’t seen for a year, visited me from Philadelphia. Over the weekend, she could not stop talking about Tai Chi.

I took my first English writing class from Mary 12 years ago. We have been close friends since. She witnessed my various attempts to fit in America, and I kept her company through her various heartbreaks. Still, her fascination with Tai Chi took me my surprise.

Mary grew up in the Midwest a pious and liberal Christian. After receiving her Ph.D. in a humanities field, she taught writing at universities and was heavily involved in community building and social justice. Despite our great friendship, she would only smile politely each time I sent her books on Chinese history or invited her to visit China. What had suddenly drawn her to the Chi?

You know that I went to Taiwan in 2008 for research on Eastern Healing, said Mary. I arrived in Taipei with my knee and back badly hurting. Dr. Lin, my host, did acupuncture on me and the pain went away! He also suggested that I took up Tai Chi, as a way to change my lifestyle and my health.
After that trip, Mary started taking classes at a dance studio set up by a gay Taiwanese dancer in Philadelphia. The Tai Chi teacher, an Italian American from South Philly, also taught at the community center where most of the students were African American and Muslim women with their faces behind veils.

The South Philly teacher sent Mary, a slow but tenacious student, to classes by his master. Master Ching came from China. He was in the same generation of Jet Li and appeared in many of Jet Li’s early martial arts films. Now he owns a martial arts school in Philadelphia in order to have his two kids educated in America.

I mused at the people of various colors and background threading the story of Tai Chi in America. We were having brunch on the porch of the hotel restaurant overlooking the Charles River and the Boston skyline. Mary was asking how to pronounce the Chinese names of the different moves, for Master Ching could not speak English.

We took a break. Mary read me an I Ching passage she liked. Besides health reason, what else drew you to the Tai Chi oneness? I asked.

Mary was silent for a beat. It’s almost like fate, she said slowly, that the invitation for that research trip came out of the blue from a former student of mine. I had never had any interest in Eastern medicine but I needed a chance to get away. Remember Marcos, the capoeira teacher from Brazil? I thought I had helped him much, trying to get the his non-profit going and helping him with his immigration. In the end he and his wife kicked me out of the organization, telling me that I was too pushy in my desire to help. That experience shook me up. I had always considered it necessary to actively go out and help others. But with Marcos…?

She borrowed $8000 from her high-interest credit card to hire an immigration lawyer for Marcos. She’s still paying it back, having never asked Marcos to pay back.

The church was of little help, Mary continued. I had tried two churches in Philly. Each time I spent my time and energy in building the community, and each time the leadership politics disappointed me. I stayed away, meditating and praying on my own. Then there came Tai Chi. How to maintain a balance between the community and the self? The action and the reflection?

Young and old jogged by the river. The sun shone warmly. It was a beautiful day in Boston. I marveled at the journeys we undertake, across East and West, in pursuit of happiness and peace of mind. Mary used to be my English teacher and my guide; now it is my turn to help her with the little I can.

I taught Mary how to say Open, Close, Push, and Breathe in Chinese, and in her booklet, she earnestly wrote every pinyin down.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

To Catch a White Wolf with Bare Hands

The cliché goes—in the new Wild Wild East of China, anything is possible. Tiring as it is, clichés do seem to exist for a reason.

In early 2006, Betty, a Chinese screenwriter friend living in Los Angeles, forwarded me a movie script in English and asked if I could help rewrite. I was having a two-year filmmaking stint then. There was a small circle of bilingual filmmakers in Beijing who, like me, were trying to leverage the West’s growing fascination with China to work on co-production projects.

But few seemed ever to pan out. Some American independent producers I knew made frequent trips to China, visiting film studios and attending film conferences as “Hollywood experts.” The scripts that they pitched varied from mediocre to trash. One such meeting that I attended was about a 3-D film of humans battling giant alien lizards in the Gobi desert. I admired the Chinese studio head for his patient smile throughout the session.

The central issue, like always, is about money. The most difficult for independent producers is to find the “first money”— usually with nothing more than a script, suggested star castings, and a fantasy revenue forecast—to attract later investors. In an industry well known for its crapshoots, this routine always reminded me of the Chinese saying, “to catch a white wolf with bare hands.”

None of the stereotypes seemed to apply to the project referred by Betty, however. For one, the producer had a real office (albeit in an apartment building) staffed with young faces apparently busy in front of computers. Secondly, he did not mention the need for financing once in our two-hour conversation.

“During my most recent trip to Hollywood, I met with executives from Warner Brothers and Dreamworks,” he said with a deep southern accent. “Your friend Betty helped me a lot. She recommended you to help clean up the English translation of the script.”

No wonder—Betty, an established screenwriter, would never associate herself with such a project. It was a story about an American stranded in Beijing, having a relationship with a Chinese girl while still pining for a Middle-eastern girl whom he had met in Paris and who was now trapped in her war-torn home country. It had all the clichés of a Chinese melodrama and none of the cultural understanding of foreign countries. Structurally, it also needed a complete rewrite.

“I wrote the script myself,” the producer announced proudly. He looked like your average Chinese businessman with his chubby face, faded zipper jacket, and a man-purse on the coffee table. “The West has Gone With the Wind and the Titanic. It’s time that we Chinese have a similar movie classic. Once the script is finished, I’ll go back to Dreamworks and ask Steven Spielberg to direct it.”

That made me gasp. I gathered that he had made a fortune from somewhere; he was an avid movie fan and it was his first time at filmmaking. But hiring Steven Spielberg?

Soon after the meeting I had to leave Beijing for six months and forgot completely about the project. In late 2007, while having coffee with a French filmmaker friend, she told me that she had been working on pre-production for a tri-country love story set in Beijing.

It shocked me that the project had survived this long. Then a year later, after the Beijing Olympics, posters for the movie suddenly popped up at all the Beijing subway stations and bus stops. The entrepreneur-writer-producer ended up directing the film himself. He invited the biggest Chinese movie stars to the premier, and in the press, there was orchestrated fanfare of the movie going to the Oscars!

That the movie opened to a box-office disaster did not shock me. Internet users gossiped that he made the movie on borrowed money and was now in big trouble with the debtors.

I never watched the movie. But the more I think about his story, the more my respect for him grew—fool or not, bare-handed or not, he had a great dream of the white wolf and he went after it persistently until catching it.

With people like him, no wonder people call China the new Wild Wild East.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

The Lesson of Happiness

Ben was my Ph.D. advisor in Boston. I have forgotten all of what he had taught me about evolution and molecular biology. One thing I do remember clearly was what he had said to me once at his house party, back in 1994.

His family had just moved into a beautiful colonial house in Cambridge and invited everyone working in his lab over for a party. While all the adults chatted over free flowing white wine, his preschool twin girls chased each other around, scattering pearls of laughter in every room.

“They are so cute,” I said to Ben. “Which one is smarter?”

Ben immediately pulled me aside and whispered: “We shouldn’t say anything putting either down. They are both great in their own ways.”

I remember being very embarrassed by my cultural faux pas. To us Chinese, to be put down, by parents and by our peers, is a natural part of growing up. In high school, my grades were never good enough for my parents. When I was number 2 in my class, they pointed to number 1. When I reached number 1, they pointed to some genius who had just won the Maths Olympiad.

But Americans tend to believe in the power of encouragement and positive outlook on life. Thus one often hears enthusiastic “super,” “awesome,” “fantastic,” and “good job!” To us Chinese, how could that kind of seemingly superficial praise really encourage hard work and achievement?

Ben seemed a prime counter example to that Chinese prejudice. In his teenage years, he dropped out of school and worked in hospital, construction and boat building. Then he went to a community college for his associate degree. It was there, at the age of 23, that he discovered his passion for science. He studied hard, received top grades and transferred to Berkeley. After finishing his bachelor’s degree, he studied at Harvard for his Ph.D. and later did post-doc work at the prestigious Mass General Hospital.

As a balding tenure-track professor, he still sported a child-like grin in the lab. He spent most of his time in his small office, among piles and piles of littered paper, reading, thinking and every once in a while, jumping out into the lab area and proclaiming another breakthrough in his thinking. Sometimes I wondered whether he could have come this far if his American family had not supported his early wandering, or if he had been raised in China, being constantly put down and laughed at as a vagabond.

However, Ben’s positive attitude did not get him to the top. He chose an exciting yet extremely risky research topic. After six years, he did not find any major breakthrough and thus did not get his tenure.
I left graduate school before he did. Ben did not try to convince me to stay. Unlike the other professors in our department, he had never frowned upon my taking French lessons or auditing psychology classes. He must have sensed that in some way I was following his footstep.

I wandered—worked in biotech company, moved around the US, went into business, moved back to China to take up filmmaking ... Every time I made a change, my Chinese friends tended to put me down, while my American friends cheer me on. Some days I felt lost and worthless, and others ecstatic at being able to do what I loved.

Now many years later, I am back in business, older, calmer and happier. A week ago, I searched online to find Ben’s whereabouts. Apparently he had started a biotech company that appeared somewhat successful.

Still, what a pity that Ben did not become an academic star with all his intelligence and hard work? I thought.

Then I remembered his child-like grin. I knew regardless of how other felt about his path, he had been enjoying what he did all along.

It was then that I realized what Ben had taught me is not that encouragement and positive attitude beget success; rather, they allow us to try things appealing to our hearts, which, ultimately, make us happy.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Shredded Pork with Sweet Red Pepper

I went back to Chengdu, my hometown in southwest China, for my dad's big 69th birthday over the weekend. Since it's big, we basically ate for two days--Saturday lunch and dinner with close family, and Sunday lunch and dinner with extended family.

On Sunday we lunched at a very nice restaurant in a private room, with two tables for 24 people. Then befitting the image of leisured Sichuanese who spent their days away at mahjong tables, we moved to a crowded tea house by a muddy river to play mahjong. We had three tables of mahjong blocks, one table of nuts and fruits, three kids running around, one baby crying for mommy, and non-mahjong-playing adults whispering family gossips, all under the swaying new green leaves of the willow trees dense with dust.

I had not seen some of my distant relatives for a few years. I used to see them at least twice a year--once during Chinese New Year, and once more during summer break. Time then was also spent over dinner dinner tables and mahjong tables, except that we were all poor then and we had more things to talk about.

Now a veil of silence hanged over the mahjong tables. My grand-uncles and -aunts had all retired with puny pensions. My aunt was worried that her daughter might not test into college next year and asked me for any connection in Beijing. Neither the step-son of my grandpa nor his wife uttered a word. Their daughter is graduating soon but has no job in sight; she had joined the communist party to gain more trust from prospective employers. My grandpa asked if I could help.

The most awkward was with my two distant cousins whom I used to be close to. They were only a couple of years older and always behaved like big sisters to me. In the past, they would jump up with huge grins whenever they saw me. "What do you want to eat this time?" "How did do at your final exams?" "How was university life?" "Ready to play mahjong?"

They shot out questions like cheerful firecrackers. And what little mahjong techniques I know, I owe it to them.

Now they appeared subdued at the table. They might have lost their jobs from their work units. Both had kids who have no access to dancing rehearsals, piano classes or french lessons as kids in my circle of friends. Both of their families still dined at my grand-uncle's old apartment. I did not dare ask how they were doing; nor did they about me. Perhaps it was already obvious how differently we had fared in life.

My sister and I dutifully paid for everything. Dinner passed with small talks about kids. I was bored -- how dreadful it was that, in order to maintain the facade of a harmonious family, we had to waste time over small talks and pretend we all enjoy each other's company. There had been past grudges between the families, about who hadn't treated whom well enough and who had been stingy with money, which I only began to know as an adult.

But to a kid, these relatives were always ready with a smile and red envelopes stuffed with cash for firecrackers. Now, it seems all irreversibly gone, burdened with past differences and growing gaps of the present.

We said goodbye to each other in the dark parking lot. My grand-uncle pushed a bagful of sausages and fermented tofu into my mom's hand. "Something I made," he said, "for the kids to take back home."

"Take them. They are very tasty," one of my cousin chimed in. "His students often came to our house to taste his cooking."

I remembered then the wonderful home cooking that my grand-uncle and -aunt used to prepare for Chinese New Year. "I loved the shredded pork with green peppers you used to make," I said.

"No. It's shredded pork with sweet red pepper that you used to love," my grand-aunt corrected me. "Remember we used to make a big bowlful for you each year?"

Yes, I remember. And that tiny dark dinning room of yours which was always filled with laughter and lively discussion of mahjong tricks, relatives' dating gossips, and what we, as kids then, would turn out someday.

"Come visit us in the summer and we will make it for you again," my grand-aunt grinned. "And bring your girlfriend this time."

"Yeah, come. Definitely come." My two cousins added enthusiastically. Finally everyone was beaming with excitement. Finally we appeared to be a big harmonious family for real.

For that shredded pork with sweet red pepper, I'm planning a trip back to Chengdu this summer.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Time Would Never Tell

I arrived in the US a year after the Lu Gang incident, yet it was still a frequent topic among overseas Chinese students. On November 1st, 1991, Lu Gang, a Chinese student who had just received his Ph.D. in physics at the University of Iowa, shot and killed five people on Iowa campus, including his advisor and a fellow Chinese student, and then killed himself. I remember reading about him in magazines in abhorrence and fascination—what would motivate a Chinese immigrant to pick up a gun and destroy everything he had worked for?

Yet strangely, as time went by, I began to understand him, even though I never studied his family background in detail. Yes, he was a super-competitive loner, a geek whose reason of existence had been to excel in exams in China’s education system, to measure oneself against some recognized yardstick, and to be applauded and adored by those inferior to him.

Weren’t we all like that, to a degree though?

Back in the 80s and early 90s, most Chinese students who studied overseas were academic elites. Unlike now, very few then could afford the exorbitant overseas tuition and living expenses, so we had to have good grades to test into elite universities, more good grades in universities to rank among the top of the class, and yet more good grades for TOEFL and GRE to get scholarship from foreign universities, preferably those in America.

Back then, going to America seemed the natural path for any self-respecting elite. Of the forty in my university Biology class, thirty six ended up in the US. One friend hopped to a university in Hong Kong first, then to Singapore, next to Hawaii, before finally landing in Los Angeles.

Only in America did many of us realize that the road had to continue, with no clear yardstick in view. Life as a graduate student was boring, contrary to what many had cheerfully depicted in newspapers back in China: classroom, lab, apartment; clipping coupons, shopping and cooking, saving every penny; playing cards on weekend with other Chinese, exchanging tips on getting a Green Card, discussing which professor had the most funding, which lab generated publications in the most prestigious journals, and who graduated and found jobs at top universities. Every so often someone would rail against the Americans for failing to appreciate our brilliance and somehow, seemingly so easy for them, climbing onto the top of the academic world.

For some, research was an indifferent existence one had to maintain in order to stay in America and make the family back home proud. For some others, it was the pecking order to climb on top of, out of a lifelong habit.

In that regard, I could understand Lu Gang. Academia was his only way of climbing up in America. When he flopped, he exploded at his fellow Chinese student—his rivalry—at his advisor, at the ambiguous American environment that failed him.

As time passed, overseas Chinese students’ aspiration evolved, perhaps in sync with what was happening in China. No longer getting a tenured professorship at a brand-name school counted as the only success. Biology Ph.D.’s went into consulting and law. Those in Maths and Physics went to Wall Street. Many hopped to study computer and business. Dinner conversations shifted from academic publications to salaries, stocks and real estate prices. During international calls home, my parents reminded me that wealth was now the ultimate measure of success.

I quit my Ph.D. program in Biology, wandered for a few years getting nowhere, and finally went for my MBA degree.

Sometimes I wondered if Lu Gang had gone to the US five years later, would he have been so obsessed with academic rivalry to the point of massacre? Would he have gone to Wall Street and become a millionaire, and perhaps even come back to China as a top representative for a well-known investment bank?

Time would never tell.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

The Hierarchy of Dreams

At the Miami restaurant where I worked part-time back in 1993, a hierarchy existed among the staff to serve customers in style. At the very top was the manager in suit. Waiters were next in line with their bowties and velvet vests. Down below were bus boys cleaning the tables after each meal. We, the four food runners in plain white shirts and regular ties, were next to last, just above the Nicaraguans cleaning dishes.

Our job was simple—pass the orders from the waiters to the kitchen, and carry the dishes out next to the tables for waiters to serve. However, it proved more difficult for me than cutting frog eggs under a microscope in the lab. I could never carry a tray elegantly over my shoulder; the one time I tried, several plates broke. In contrast, the other three could tumble in and out of the kitchen, yelling Cantonese while piling all the plates onto a huge tray, throwing it over their shoulder, and swiftly carrying it off to the dining area.

Ah Ching was the nimblest of all. He was about twenty and had ready answers to all my stupid questions—what sauce to go with fried wontons? How to cook rice with that gigantic aluminum pot? He also had sharp eyes for dishes left barely touched by customers. “Want some?” He was always generous.

Like the other Fujianese staff, a snakehead arranged Ah Ching’s trip to Miami—it was almost a rite of passage for young people in his village, he explained, to come to America seeking fortune. His group stowed away first to Hong Kong, then to Thailand where they boarded a plane to Costa Rica; during the stopover in Miami, they escaped from the airport.

Life seemed pretty smooth in America: the boss provided free lodging for all illegal workers, we ate free at the restaurant, and each day, a food runner could make 20-30 dollars for lunch, and 50-70 dollars for dinner. He was also getting his green card via political asylum under the pretense of forced family planning back home, much to my envy.

All around us, however, dreams were crumbling along the hierarchy. The Hong Kong manager was rumored to have opened several restaurants and failed. Mike, the head chef, bought his way to Hong Kong from Guangdong when he was fifteen, and then to the US; he had also tried to run restaurants but to miserable end each time. Steve, the bulky boisterous waiter, would brag about his one-year stint in medical school whenever drunk. “I could have become a doctor,” he would announce sullenly, “if only we had money.”

None of that fazed Ah Ching. He counted his pay carefully each night. He would get his US citizenship, buy a restaurant, and one day go back to China a proud man.

Only once, on a lazy Saturday afternoon peeling string beans, did he keep silent.

“Nothing,” he replied casually to my inquiry. After a while, he began talking about his past—riding motorcycle with his girl through his village, and stopping at friends’ places for drinks.

“I was happy then,” he said.

I did not probe further. I could imagine his routine—getting up at 10am, arriving at the restaurant at 11am and working until 1am; doesn’t speak English; no friend in a new country—no backbreaking work, just dreary days repeating endlessly. I felt embarrassed of my constant existential crisis when not busy at the restaurant.

“You are studying for your doctor’s degree. That’s a future…” His voice trailed off.

The last night I worked there, we had chocolate cake to celebrate. He packed one more for me to take home, padded my back cheerfully and said, “go get your doctor’s degree and have a good life in America.”

I never got my doctor’s degree, and I often wondered if he had achieved his American dream as well.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Inner City

Even before I left China in 1992, I had had a fascination with working in a Chinese restaurant in the US. That seemed such an essential American experience for any Chinese immigrant, at least according to such popular novels as Beijinger in New York and Manhattan’s China Lady.

Soon after I arrived in Miami for graduate school, I began searching for a restaurant where I could fulfill my dream of illegal unemployment (those of us on student visas were not allowed to work off-campus). Job listings were plenty in Chinese-language newspapers, but transportation was a drag—the medical school where I studied was in Civic Center, an area of concrete hospitals and research institutions far away from everything else.

An hour zigzagging through the city on a bus later, I landed in a stately hotel right on the beach with a posh Chinese restaurant on the first floor overlooking the ocean. The manager needed help. I needed my experience. So it was a deal.

Coming out of the restaurant after the interview, it was getting dark. I saw the high-rise medical school building not too far away, so I decided to walk straight ahead to take a shortcut home.

The buildings became sparser and street light dimmer as I walked. Bums in rags asked for change. I did not dare not to comply. Soon I found myself standing in front of a block of low-rise apartments, all dark except for a lone street lamp coloring the buildings yellow. Shadows of human figures leaned against the buildings, raced on bicycles, and hustled around.

The scene reminded me of my childhood when kids hanged out in street corners after dinner. Then it dawned on me that I was in an inner city neighborhood, and those figures were not my buddies but idling black people. Oh all the horrible stories I had heard about American inner cities! My feet went weak. The medical school building appeared as far as when I started the shortcut home.

Suddenly several kids appeared from nowhere and pushed me to the ground. Before my adrenaline had time to rush, they snatched my leather portfolio and raced away on bicycles. “Go find your help!” They left their laughter behind.

I stood up and trudged on, my head spinning. Where to? The street lamp was far behind. There were only echoes of footsteps in the dark street.

“What are you doing here?” A window opened above me and a black woman in her twenties stuck her head out. “Don’t you know it’s dangerous here?”

I said that I was lost and robbed. She asked me to go upstairs. I could not move my feet—A black woman in an inner city neighborhood, would she robbed me blind like the others?

Before I could decide whether to run or not, the woman came down holding a little girl. “Why are you walking in this neighborhood?” asked she. I explained my shortcut. She shook her head. “Let me drive you home,” she insisted calmly.

She did not say much during the ride. The little girl studied me in the car seat. I studied her mother behind the steering wheel: her skin was of the color that could easily dissolve into the night, a color that until then had been strange, almost intimidating, to me; yet she was there helping a complete stranger get home safely. I wanted to apologize for having hesitated to accept her help.

“I hate those guys too,” she said.

Since then, I have learned to use the term “African Americans” instead of “blacks.” I made African American friends in business school and celebrate holidays with inner city families. I have learned to appreciate the kindness in all of us despite our drastically different skin colors and upbringings.
This American experience of mine, it began on that night.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Farewell, Marianne

When I first met Marianne, she insisted on my addressing her as “Missis Marks.” “That’s what a properly raised gentleman should call a lady,” she commanded.

That, and her German accent, awed me. 1996 was my fourth year living in the US, yet I still did not know how to behave properly in the American way, especially not in front of a silver-haired lady in her 70s who lived in a house frozen in the 60s— Parker Knoll sofas and chairs, Midwinter-style colorful ceramics, Persian carpets, and brightly painted walls.

The seven-bedroom Arts and Crafts house in Westchester County, New York was also sprinkled with handwritten notes of rules. The one on the kitchen cabinet, titled “BASIC TRAINING,” had ten; the last two read:

9. If you don’t know how to operate it, LEAVE IT ALONE!
10. If it doesn’t concern you, DON’T MESS WITH IT!

“Too many inmates (that was how she called her boarders) don’t know the basic manners,” she huffed. “What’s going on with your generation?”

I moved in. Manhattan, where I had stayed for nine months, was exciting yet too lonely. Mrs. Marks’ house, dense with history and surrounded by woods, seemed a nice place to settle for a while.
Quickly Mrs. Marks’ iron-lady façade peeled away, even though we annoyed her constantly with misplaced kitchenware or wasteful takeout dinner orders. She spent the day running up and down the stairs cleaning. She needed company at the end of day, usually in the kitchen, where we shared our takeout food with her and she made us Gins and Tonics.

There were three other boarders—another Chinese, a German, and an Italian; most of her boarders were young interns at the nearby IBM headquarter. The young would talk about weekend excursions into Manhattan—the bars and dance clubs; she would listen with much interest, and then tell us about the people who had stayed at her house before, her life back in Germany, and the many countries she had visited in her life.

Even in her 70s, one could still find traces of her feisty beauty through layers of wrinkles. That was probably how she attracted an American colonel in Berlin after World War II and moved to the US to marry him. They had two sons who now lived far away. She never remarried after the colonel passed away. She lived in her big house and traveled with boyfriends all over the world.

A couple of Gins and Tonics later, I would be the only one left in the kitchen, transfixed by her constant guffaws and the storytelling. I sipped my drink, the first cocktail I knew, and marveled at the myriad of people having passed through her life, and at the rich American stories I had never known which she was now introducing to me.

She started calling me “kiddo” and taking me to operas, symphonies and modern dance performances in the city—few other inmates cared for them much. During the forty-minute car ride into the city, she would drive on the windy Saw Mill Parkway like a crazy teenager, cursing the other soccer mothers whose slow SUVs blocked her way. She had season tickets to most of New York’s arts institutions, yet I was not sure how she really loved them—she would fall asleep snoring during a symphony, and wake up at the end bravo-ing and clapping.

We spent more and more time alone. Often when I came home after work, I would find the house empty except for the Sinatra from the old transistor radio floating in the air. “Want a Gin and Tonic, kiddo?” She would ask when she saw me and we would spend our evenings away chatting over drinks and nuts and whatever leftover we could scourge from the frig.

“Oh, what fun we had!” She enjoyed reminiscing about her wild disco days at the (in)famous Studio 54. “We only stopped after we caught words of a herpes outbreak.”

I grew used to that kind of shocking private details. That was American life to me then—adventurous, carefree and fascinating. In her 50s she had a young poet boyfriend more than 20 years her junior. She only dumped him after finding him going after her money.

“What about your love life, kiddo?”

I told her that uh…I was alternative....

“I always knew you are different,” she looked right into me. “That’s why you are interested in my stories.”

She took me to visit her old friend who was living in Manhattan—a violin maker, a darling from her Manhattan days before moving out to the suburb—who would die of AIDS a year later. We dined at our favorite Chinese restaurant near the Lincoln Center.

“What do you want to do in this life, kiddo?” She asked me driving back from Manhattan, her car flying in the darkness.

I said I don’t know. I was still searching, in America.

“Work hard and be patient,” she stated matter-of-fact-ly. “This is America. You shall find what you want if you work hard.”

Life at Mrs. Marks’ gradually settled into a familiar routine. I would let the cat out in the morning. When I got home after work, I would walk the dog. Then dinner and drinks at the kitchen table. Later we would retreat to her TV room watching PBS, her two dogs sleeping next to us in the couch.
When I was ready to move back to Boston after four months, I hugged her tight bidding farewell. “I’ll miss you and this house, Mrs. Marks.” I said.

“Call me Marianne, kiddo.” Her eyes smiled at me.

I almost cried.

“I know I know,” she padded my back. “Just know you’ll have a room to stay whenever you come.”
I visited New York often. Every time I would stop by her place and spend a night. I brought my best friends there. In the summer time we would spend the afternoon around the small pool drinking Gin and Tonic, and in the evening we would move to her glassed-in porch. The crickets chirped while she updated me of her former inmates who kept on coming back to visit her. On her birthday and holidays, I would stop by, or send a card and make a call.

I moved back to China in 2004. I saw Marianne in 2005 when I visited New York. She was in her 80s then. Her movement had slowed noticeably, and her wrinkles had begun to distort her face. She mentioned again her desire to move to the West Coast. She could no longer take care of the house, or clean the gutters in the winter.

“I stopped going into the city,” she proclaimed. “It’s too exhausting. Plus there were too many Chinese and Indians. Those damn immigrants are taking America over!”

What about me?

“Oh,” she paused for a beat. “You are different. You are educated. You are driven.”

No Marianne, they are here to search for a new home, just like I did once.

Despite her border-line racism, I loved her, just like my own deeply flawed mother.

I called her again on Christmas 2006. After that, I lost her phone number through misplaced computer backups. I tried to find her number. Directory service could no longer locate her. Had she moved to the West Coast?

In January 2009 finally I was able to visit the US. I found her number in an old storage box. I called, repeatedly. A few days later a woman picked up. Mrs. Marks had sold the house to her and moved to the West Coast in 2007. She passed away from cancer in 2008.

“In Spring 2008, her former boarders all came back and had a farewell party in her honor,” the new owner informed me.

The news—not exactly unexpected—hanged heavily over me: once when I needed a place to look forward to in blooming spring flowers and in drifting winter snow, a place in America where I was always welcomed with a hug, a place to imagine as home, she was first to provide me one. How could I have missed the chance to see her off?

Then I remembered her straight-shooting feistiness. She would have wanted all of us who had passed through her life to be happy, to guffaw and drink and suck the most out of life.

And I knew she had always known that I loved her. Once she had asked: “I’m your American mother, ain’t I?”

Today, March 20th, is her birthday.

So here’s my farewell to you, dear Marianne.