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.