Chapter 4: On Mom, The Librarian

August 16, 2009

chapter4

I don’t really remember much from the rest of my early elementary school experience.  There really wasn’t much worth remembering I guess.  Life leapt from unremarkable event to unremarkable event.  It’s funny how every little thing seemed of the utmost importance as a child.  After I leapt over the language barrier, it was much easier for me to make friends.  Participating in after-school activities like Cub Scouts and Little League helped speed along the process of course.

By this time, my family had comfortably settled in our own home.  We weren’t relegated to crowdedly coexisting with our relatives, my dad had found a decent job and my mom was working as a waitress at my uncle’s local Chinese restaurant (go figure).  The hours were long and she was always home late so eventually she decided to find another job – one where she could work from home so she could look after my brother and I while we grew up.

In elementary school, my mom decided to take some time off during the workday to volunteer a couple hours at the school library, clearly the good suburbanite housewife thing to do.  Oh how exciting it was to see my mom outside of her element.  It wasn’t an easy thing for her to do. My home wasn’t exactly the type of home that the cool kids flocked to.  I rarely had any toys.  Just a flaccid Styrofoam-stuffed ninja turtle that we all took turns pummeling in a set rotation.  The only reason some of my friends came over was because my house always had the most up-to-date computer technology because my mom had started a job as a computer programmer and her company always regularly upgraded her computer hardware.  This only meant we could always play the latest computer games at my house.

The one instance I do remember of one of my good friends coming over ended up a disaster.  My friend Peter and I were just horsing around, as boys often do, and since I’m Asian and obviously born skilled at the martial arts, we decided to have ourselves a little sparring session.  I don’t know how things escalated.  Who played dirty first?  Who was running their mouth?  But I do clearly remember losing my temper, balling up my small left fist and popping my friend as hard as I could just below his chin in the Adam’s apple.  Bad idea.  He instinctively wrapped his hands around his throat, his face contorted in pain as he struggled to breath in and out, in and out to no avail.  Terror was written all over his features, his eyes tearing and his movements more frantic.  His face was turning purple, his freckles less and less prominent as color rushed to his normally pasty white complexion.  He was alternating between gagging and gasping and all I could do was stand there frozen in fear, gawking uneasily.  After what seemed like the longest thirty seconds of my life, my friend was finally able to draw a full, life giving breathe.  Afterward, Peter sat hunched over, visibly shaken.  I was relieved.  How could I have done something so awful to my friend?  I didn’t really want to hurt him.  He’d always been nice to me.  Sure, friends have their disagreements sometimes, but is it worth engaging in this gratuitous violence and reactionary hatred?  He isn’t so different from me.  We’re all human – our lives equally as precious and deserving of that next breathe.

So my mom’s volunteer work at the library was really that significant.  It was her own stand in a society that found her and her kind alien.  Her broken English, her quirky Oriental way of thought – all of that separated her, but she was still willing to attempt to lay her differences aside and challenge herself, all for the sake of her sons.  Instead of just being the courteous waitress that served you at the local Chinese restaurant, my mom became the Asian librarian that everybody knew to be my mom – just a little bit out of place, but still able to hang with the best of them.


Chapter 3: On Starting School

May 5, 2009

chapter3

02

I’m the Asian being held/comforted by the teacher on the right.

I can only imagine how silly I looked my first day of school.  I get a little embarrassed thinking back on it now.  I must have been all trussed up in brightly-colored, matching sweats from Taiwan, butchered Engrish slogans strategically placed all over the whole getup.  What can I say to defend my childhood fashion faux pas?  Ignorance is bliss.  Apart from looking like I had come straight from Taiwan, I sounded it also.  I entered pre-school not knowing a lick of conversational English.  It was a little like being tossed into the fire.

This presented a problem to the Westport Board of Education that I’m not sure they’ve ever had to address before.  As far as I can remember, I was not placed in an English as a Second Language program, probably because (I’m going out on a limb here) I was one of the first completely non-English speaking students they were ever presented with.

Instead of creating a separate class for my “special” needs, I was just given extra attention by the teacher that served only to further isolated me from the rest of the class.  I didn’t mind though.  Being thrust into the classroom setting and forced to interact with English speakers and daily television therapy soon had me jabbering in English wherever I went, loosening my reliance on speaking Mandarin Chinese, a skill that was proving to be useless in this environment that I was quickly adapting to.

It was here in these early classrooms that my love for reading was first cultivated.  I learned English letters quickly and found myself reading more and more at a very young age.  As I mastered the ability to read at a certain grade level, I quickly moved on, finding more interesting reading material just around the corner on a different library bookshelf.  I was a voracious reader at an early age, spending hours at the library perusing the hallowed book stacks.  I always ended up checking out a stack of books too heavy for me to easily carry to bring home and pore over.  The library was my safe haven and the only colorblind space I could engage myself with at ease.


Mine Own Personal Beautiful Word Cloud

March 24, 2009

wordle

Wordle helps you create beautiful word clouds with your own text, either through manual input or rss feed.  I chose to manually input because it seemed like it was only reading a couple of my recent entries and I wasn’t getting the effect I desired.  I posted the last 20 or so of my posts, anticipating what sort of beautiful word cloud I would get.  It’s cool because it helps you see the trend in your writing so you can remind yourself to not use certain words with such regularity.

With that said, my big words are as follows: “just”, “like”, “much”, “life”, “going”, “people, “really”, “good”.  I must write this phrase a lot: “life is pretty much just going really good, people”.  I don’t know if that’s a good or bad thing.  Have fun with your own word clouds!


Chapter 2: On Moving To The ‘Burbs

March 20, 2009

burbs

There are probably very many reasons my parents would give for uprooting our family from the southern crawl of Oklahoma to the fast-paced hustle and bustle of the East Coast, specifically to the Connecticut suburb of Westport, and I am thankful for every single one of them.  A better job market, the proximity to New York City, and filial piety all seemed to play a part, but I’m pretty sure my paternal grandmother’s presence there was the determining factor.

I flew to John F. Kennedy Airport with my mother and my toddler brother, David.  My father had decided to drive a U-Haul truck the whole distance with a family friend so we wouldn’t have to pay a moving company ourselves.  It wasn’t that hard to pull off.  My family hadn’t accumulated that much stuff at that point in our lives.  I remember arriving in Connecticut to the welcoming arms of strange relatives I’d never seen before and anxiously awaiting for my father to arrive with more familiar furniture.  For some unbeknownst reason, I remember a very palpable fear regarding his safe reunion with the rest of his family.

The only family I had known before was the Bible study group in Edmond that I had grown up a part of.  My parents may have taken me back to Taiwan when I was younger to see my maternal grandparents and other relatives, but if this had happened, it was at too young an age to have created any sort of lasting impression.

All of a sudden I was being thrust into a familial structure foreign to me.  What was the hierarchy here?  Who was the top dog?  How exactly am I related to these people?  It was quite overwhelming for a mere five year old boy.  So many new faces were presented to me at one time, but I could always take comfort in the crinkled and affectionate gaze of my grandmother.

To call Westport, Connecticut a mere suburb would be an understatement. It is not the classic image of the suburb one might get when imagining white picket fences and cookie-cutter houses, mainly because of the lingering influence of ‘old’ (or settled) nouveau riche in the area.  In fact, F. Scott Fitzgerald had lived in Westport, Connecticut at one point in his career and had loosely based the classic novel, The Great Gatsby, on the life he experienced in the small town off the Long Island Sound.  Westport gained some more notoriety when Ricky and Lucy of I Love Lucy moved to Westport in their attempt to flee the rigors of city life and fall back on a lifestyle they considered to be synonymous with classic suburban living.  Residents of Westport never fail to mention that Martha Stewart, a woman that has become almost a national emblem of all things suburban, has a residence in Westport (in fact, she was placed under house arrest at this residence during that whole insider-trading fiasco in 2005) and that she’s not really all that nice of a person – an interesting insight into the repressed reality of the modern suburban existence.

Every house in Westport is different.  Different shapes, different styles, different colors, different acreage, and even different mailboxes.  The town is about history, and every house has a different and unique story.  Westport had been the point of entry for the British in their invasion of Danbury during the Revolutionary War, and to me, it always seemed like Paul Revere’s hoofbeats were still echoing in the archaic streets of Westport.  With about as rich a history as one can get in the United States, there was a lot of pride to be had in living in Westport, Connecticut. Unfortunately, such pride can only be underscored by exclusivity and internalized racism, which I would experience firsthand for myself soon enough.


The Hemingway Challenge

March 17, 2009

Six-word novels from 25 influential writers

Ernest Hemingway was once challenged to write a story in six words. The result: “For sale: baby shoes, never used.” Rumor has it that Hemingway regarded it as his greatest work. Stirred by this masterwork, the editors of BlackBook asked 25 of today’s most renowned writers to offer their own original six-word stories. Some offered more than 10 narratives in less than an hour’s time, while others took weeks to labor over each of their six words. In spite of its economy, the collection delivers the same humor, drama, irony, and suspense found in literature’s lengthier tomes.

Give it a try in a Comment to this Post!

“Forgive me!” “What for?” “Never mind.” –John Updike

Eyeballed me, killed him. Slight exaggeration. –Irvine Welsh

Satan—Jehovah—fifteen rounds. A draw. –Norman Mailer

“Welcome to Moeshe Christiansen’s Bar Mitzvah.” –Andrea Seigel

grass, cow, calf, milk, cheese, France –Rick Moody

He remembered something that never happened. –A.M. Homes

Saigon Hotel. Decades later. He weeps. –Robert Olen Butler

—I love you . . . –Love ya back. –Courtney Eldridge

She gave. He took. He forgot. –Tobias Wolff

You are not shit. You are! –Memoir, Jerry Stahl

All her life: half a house. –Jamie O’Neill

Poison; meditation; skiing; ants—nothing worked. –Edward Albee

My nemesis is dead. Now what? –Michael Cunningham

I saw. I conquered. Couldn’t come. –David Lodge

“Cyanide? Bitter almonds.” He knew. How? –Brian Bouldrey

Father died. Mother triumphed. I left. –Mary Gaitskill

“You? Her? No dice, fat boy.” –Pinckney Benedict

Oh, that? It’s nothing. Not contagious. –Augusten Burroughs

Mother’s Day came, doubling Oedipus’ pleasure. –Bruce Benderson

Tossed remorselessly, whiffle balls sure hurt. –J.T. LeRoy

As she fell, her mind wandered. –Rebecca Miller

It’s negative. Say hi to Mom. –Ben Greenman

Horny professor. Failing coed. No tenure. –“A Short History of Academia,” by Sue Grafton

Shiva destroys Earth: “Well, that’s that.” –A.G. Pasquella

Havana’s no place for hockey, coach. –Nicholas Weinstock.

The above appeared in the Utne Reader, July-August 2005, reprinted from the Fall 2004 Arts Issue of BlackBook.


What’s My Passion?

March 17, 2009

I gave my SD card to Crystal Jean to rip the pictures I took yesterday off so she can jump on the editing process so my updates this week will have to be less visual and much more content-driven.

I had a 2 1/2 hour work day today.  I first couldn’t find any parking on the tenant parking lot so I ended up parking three blocks away and walking to work.  I was observant enough to notice the street cleaning signs for Monday from 12-3pm so I avoided making a terrible mistake and incurring my third ticket of the last two weeks.  Parking so far away shouldn’t be that notable of an event but working in Mid-City, Los Angeles makes the mundane much more interesting when your neighbors spend their days riding around the hood on a bicycle doing only God know what, looking for God knows who.

I click-clacked my way into the shop, unlocking the vast array of dead bolts, twist-knobs, metal-prongs & sheet metal that bar the general public from the store during off-hours.  From my very first step in the door, I could already tell that something was amiss.

Silence.  Stone cold silence. I glanced around.  Where was the steady hum of the fridge holding ice cold beverages for the wayward customer?  The almost-undetectable whine of the computer monitors stuck in sleep mode?  The soft red glow of the power strip healthily chugging along?  I put down my things in the back office, and hit the light switch to get the business buzzing.

Chirp. Chirp. Chirp.  That damned cricket stuck behind the counter is still living like a king behind the fire-hazard of coiled wires.

Electricity was out.  Nothing was working.  I wouldn’t be able to jump into my work like I wanted to.  I came in ready to conquer the world and moments later, I was sitting alone in a dark shop, defeated.

I eventually got my act together, shot my boss a call and he said he’d try to figure out what was up and that he was sure he had paid the electric bill last week, and I said I’d go check on our neighbor to see if they still had power.  I walked over to our new neighbor, who had just moved in.  The door was freshly painted a hippy-tree green, still glistening with wet paint.  She warned me not to touch the door as I inquired about the state of electricity on the block.  Obviously, all was still well with her electricity because her lights and displays were all vibrant.  I left dejected, and her blatantly homosexual hipster employee looked me in the eyes and told me that he liked my eyes.  He demonstrated by tugging ever-so-slightly on the edge of his eye in jest.  He said my eyes looked like they were painted on my face – all with an eerily-calm smile on his face.  I left the store hurriedly, not sure how I felt about that turn of events.

I walked back into the shop, not knowing what to do for the rest of the day since obviously, business could not be had unless it was old-fashioned, hand-written receipt business, and Mondays have never, ever in the history of my working there been even a decent revenue-by-foot-traffic day.  Ironically, there was a knock on the door.  One of our regular customers, Jesus (pronounced Hey Zeus!), was standing outside.  He’s a really chill guy, and he’s in with the right guys at the store because he can cop whatever he wants at a wholesale price.  He came in, said what’s up as I explained the no electricity situation, and started rifling through the racks.  I think if it had been any other customer it would’ve been awkward since the shop was dark and completely silent, but Jesus is just that chill of a guy.  He understands us.  He knows what we’re going through.  We don’t have to hide the fact that we’re hustling as hard as we can just to scrape by month to month.  As he looked around, I pulled out my laptop and started on the only project that I could do without the internet – calculating how much money I’m owed by the company.  It took quite a while to get this going cos I’m a noob at excel and I also have quite a few unaccounted pay periods to manually input.  As he looked around at different jackets, tees and jeans, we chopped it up a little.

“If you don’t mind me asking, what line of work are you in?”.  I decide to strike up some simple conversation.  He’s always been pretty well-kempt, and he always bought multiple items in the shop even during the heart of the recession, so I was genuinely interested.  Maybe I was scoping for a line of work to get into.  It turns out he’s a professional audio/music mixing technician and does mixing for a studio in the area and he was certified in a 9-month program at one of the LA-based academies.  His line of work wasn’t hit that hard by the recession because, well, music still comes out regardless of the hard times and his studio is frequented by the right people.  The conversation got to a point where we started talking about what we like to do, where we see ourselves and what we’re passionate about.

I thought for a moment.  “I like reading and writing.  No real particular form, I just like doing it.  I think that if I could, I would want to pursue that.  I’m still trying to figure out the rest of my life though.  God knows where I’ll be in a couple years.  With money as tight as it is now , I don’t think I can keep working here up very much longer and I don’t know where I’ll be even a couple months from now.  All I know is, if I can be passionate about my line of work, there’s nothing that’ll I have to do to stay motivated.  I wouldn’t care about the hours I put in, the sacrifices I’d have to make.  I’m not saying there won’t be times that I won’t be feeling ‘it’, but thats when you kick it into overdrive and see how far you can go”.

Essentially, Jesus didn’t even have to say that much, but he had said enough.  I’m not that sociable of a person.  I’d rather sit at home in my backyard on my laptop with my puppy running around than be at the heart of LA having to be a sociable creature.  It goes against my nature.  Then there are those moments when you really connect on a personal level, where it’s not even about the exchange of goods, but its about developing a friendship beyond that of a normal shopkeeper/customer.

After Jesus paid for the two pairs of Levi’s he bought and left, I felt good about the rest of the day.  I didn’t mind when my boss had me scour the outside of the building in search of the fuse box, forcing me to stick my hand into cobwebs to flip random fuses in search of an answer to our electrical woes.  I didn’t mind when my boss told me that he had indeed forgotten to pay his electricity bill and that my driving all the way to LA today was indeed a fruitless undertaking.  I didn’t mind that after plugging in numbers on my make-shift Excel workbook, I found out that I’m owed just about $6000 in back pay.  I didn’t mind that even though I left work at about 2:40pm, it still took me almost an hour and a half to get home to finally eat lunch at 4pm because I had no microwave to heat it up.  I didn’t mind that as I was working in my backyard, my dog took a massive dump and I had to scoop it up before she gleefully cleaned it up herself…with her mouth.

What’s my passion?  What’s my dream job?  Come back to me on that.  I know what I wouldn’t mind doing though.  I wouldn’t mind writing for a show like NBC’s ‘The Office’.  I feel like I could write family-friendly (yet at the same time) borderline-risque over-the-top mockumentary style humor set in an office, no problem.


Chapter 1: On Being Born An Okie

March 11, 2009

chapter1

I have no idea how I ended up being born in Edmond, Oklahoma.  Well, I do have a little idea.  Talk about an odd place for a freshly formed American-born Chinese infant to open his almond eyes in wonderment for the very first time.  Both of my parents graduated from prestigious Taiwanese universities, so how they ended up in a small nondescript public university (Central State University, since renamed to the University of Central Oklahoma) in the middle of nowhere has always been beyond me.  I always just figured that graduate schools were easier to get into in the Midwest, especially for international students who just didn’t know any better.  “Everything from America must be great!” the sentiment must have been then.

Most of my memories from early childhood are pretty fuzzy.  One part of my life that actually takes the form of a tangible image in my mind’s eye is of a single story brick house accented with hues of yellow and brown.  A quaint image.  Maybe I lived there.  In the realm of my memories, I’ve certainly convinced myself that I did.  Some of my earliest memories of my days in Oklahoma are of a Bible study group held in this humble home.  I remember our idyllic earthy house packed full of Chinese international students (practically to the limit) and I, the precious young toddler that I was, being passed around like a freshly-rolled joint at Woodstock.  Every adoring female in the group cooed at me and took their turn holding me, dreaming up machinations of one day being able to mother a child of their own as cute as me.

It was in this frenetic environment that I received my very first scar.  Apparently I wasn’t very attached to my mother, as any normal toddler would have been, but was perfectly content being passed amongst these family friends.  One fateful day, I found my way into the hands of an “Auntie” who was pretty new to this baby-holding thing and she abruptly tried to hold my tender and helpless body too high up on her shoulder and, like a fulcrum, my body pivoted around her shoulder and flipped over on to the ground, headfirst.  Yes, I know.  This childhood trauma explains a lot about how I’ve turned out today.  I’ll be the first to admit it – I was dropped on my head as a baby and I have the scar on the corner of my right eyebrow to prove it.

I don’t really recall any instances of blatant racism in my time spent in Edmond, Oklahoma.  Maybe I was too naïve to notice any of it, or maybe my white friends were too naïve to have developed it.  I remember playing in the sandbox with a friendly neighbor just about my age – Peter, I think his name was.  Peter and I played with miniature plastic soldiers, waging epic wars together in the neighborhood sandbox, almost a prophetic representation of the United State’s future conflict in the sands of the Middle East.  These were good times – so surreal in my memory that I’ve tricked myself into thinking I’ve seen this same scene painted and hung up in a Norman Rockwell exhibit somewhere – little yellow boy and little white boy, playing together in a true testament to the solidarity of middle-class America.

My next solidified memory is of when my family decided to up and relocate to Tulsa, Oklahoma, just about 100 miles away.  I don’t know the circumstances of our move but for some reason, I get the impression that we shared a house with a nice white family.  I was a little bit older now, and my kid brother David (three years younger than I) had been born and was still a nursing infant.

My family has always been one that spends thriftily, so I’m sure I didn’t really have that many interesting toys of my own.  All of a sudden, I was placed in close proximity with a well-off white family, playing with a white boy who had a collection of fantastic toys I had only previously seen on the TV screen in commercials.  One toy in particular captured my heart.  It was the Saturn-shaped toy that kids squeezed between their feet and bounced on, similarly to a pogo stick minus the stick.  I remember coveting it.  That purple rubber dome bisected by the orange disc is still very deeply etched into my memory.  That toy was almost legendary; I had never seen it before and have never seen it since.  My singular desire was to try it out – just once – to see if I had the knack for it.  I don’t know if it was because I was too young, or maybe because I’m Asian, cheap and undeserving of such interesting and cutting-edge toys, but I never got the chance to try the toy out, and that incident broke my wee little heart and has stuck with me since.

It wasn’t until I came back to Oklahoma almost ten years later that I realized what a destitute and homogenous place I had grown up living in.  I was different and there was no two ways about it.  I remember upon this revisitation of my childhood home, I got challenged to a snowball fight (snow? In Oklahoma?) by a neighborhood kid cozied up in his snow fort.  “America versus China!  Come on!  America’s going to beat China!” he was chanting, issuing a challenge that I could not ignore for the sake of my heritage.  He was hitting a nerve by drawing attention to this racial divide but he was just an ignorant white kid, probably one of many in this forsaken place.  Luckily for him, I’d been groomed as a pitcher ever since I first picked up a baseball years before, so this kid got a good pummeling and a small victory was won that day in the name of the China Reds, grudgingly delivered via red-blooded American baseball prowess.

The Chinese international students from that original Bible study group years ago in my old Edmond home have since spread out all over the United States, but some have stuck around in Oklahoma, clumping together in little cultural enclaves like grape clusters on a variegated grape vine, stretched thinly across a parched terrain.  Sure, it was pretty amazing when I came back and found out that my original home in Edmond was now on the market again for less than the price of a decent family sedan, but this just validated the fact that Oklahoma was not the place to be, especially for an upwardly-mobilizing Taiwanese family destined for more than small town sentimentality.