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.