Wednesday, May 29, 2013

i get it now.

My grandparents - most likely in Hong Kong, post-war.
I used to watch my grandma work on her garden through the living room window of her Sacramento home. The backyard was more than just a place to grow food; it was a place we explored and pretended was another world. The grass was our soccer field, the clothesline was a jungle, and the sprinklers were what we imagined running through a waterfall must feel like. In the mornings, it was a tai chi space; in the afternoon, it was a playground.

As I grew a bit older, I was envious of my classmates and friends who lived near parks and whose parents allowed them to go to sleep-away camps and join sports teams. Their worlds seemed to have no limits to where they could go and where they could play, and yet I could only call the rectangular space in a Sacramento suburb my park, my world.

But I think I get it now.

Na and I spent a large part of our childhood calling our grandparents' home our own home, so it goes without saying that the story behind that front door is as important as the one housed in my parents' two-story home. To get to the home my parents built and nurtured, you have to understand where each of them came from: from different homes in different places, all traced back to a country halfway around the world. Both sets of my grandparents found love during war, and escaped into Hong Kong when the Communists came. Their worlds changed dramatically, and even more so when they came to the U.S. at a time when a quota stopped many Asians from doing so. I get it now why they stuck to their kin, afraid of being the obvious foreigners.

Mei gok - "golden land." A land of opportunity. My grandparents didn't do it for themselves; they did it for their children and their grandchildren, and the generations to come. It never occurred to me as a child that the stories of war and torture and escape weren't just inside the pages of an unwritten book. These were the realities of real peoples' lives, my families' lives. The wealthy landowner who was tortured and killed and his wife who committed suicide were my great-grandparents. The diligent engineer who abandoned proof of his educated status to avoid being taken, the young girl who hid her younger family members during war...the soldier and the nurse who stood by the Nationalists until they lost...those were my grandparents.

I get it now why they held us so close when we were young, and spend their days and nights worrying about us now that we're older. I think there's still a lot of pain for what they lost back home as children and young adults. I think they want to make sure that despite all the people they couldn't quite save, they could at least save us from whatever might hurt us.

They came to America with broken hearts, and so I get why they pushed us so hard: to make sure we we were strong enough one day to push on despite our own heartbreaks and struggles.

I don't think my grandparents know how much their grandchildren know about their lives back in China. I remember the look in yeh yeh's eyes when he saw the book of old photographs we'd put together for him from old photo albums we found in their spare bedroom. It must've been 60 or 70 years since he saw many of those faces in person, and the stoic army man I remember growing up with disappeared for just a moment. I wished I could unlock his heart for a second and know everything he was feeling, but I know I'll never know. I can only hope I understand the strength he and my family mustered up to keep going despite all that had happened.

After spending a short week in Beijing and seeing thousands of faces that reminded me of my grandparents, I was overwhelmed just thinking about the sacrifices so many of our elders made for us. And as a child, I know I never appreciated it, and the funny thing is they never forced me to appreciate them for what they did. They stayed quiet so much of the time about the things they saw, the emotions they felt, the anguish of losing everything they knew. When we fought and cried and pouted over what we thought were robbed childhoods, they knew better. I know better now. I get it.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

narrow death by taxi driver, five nights a week.

The corner where I almost die every night,
as seen by Google Maps in the daytime.
I have a lot of really terrible stories about New York City cabs. Greg once told me I should write a series of essays about my experiences because everything terrible always seems to happen to me. Did I tell you all about the time a cab driver refused to let me out of his car, so I had to jump out and run and then realized I was stranded in East Harlem at 11 p.m. with a dead cell phone?

It's a funny story, I'll tell you about it later.

But of all the crappy things that have happened, I think I've finally settled on my least favorite one: it's a nightly occurrence that happens as I'm walking down 50th and crossing 7th Ave. Because of my work schedule, I don't get to leave 30 Rock until about 11:30 p.m. or later, and for some reason I always either miss the walk signal when I get to the 7th Ave crosswalk, or it changes to 'walk' as I'm several paces away so I have to run to catch it before it turns to 'stop.' I've realized if I don't catch it, the resulting domino effect is that I end up missing the train and have to wait 20 minutes for the next one.

Anyways, so crossing 7th Ave every night is the biggest hazard ever. Cabs make a right onto 7th at that corner, you see, and if there's one thing you learn quickly about New York City cabs, it's that they don't slow down. I've seen a cab cut off an ambulance before--and yes, that ambulance had its siren on.

Tonight, for instance: I see the 'walk' symbol appear from a short distance, so I speed up and step off the sidewalk even before it changes to the blinking red hand, but the line of cabs waiting to turn sure don't give a fuck. They're already turning. I let one driver swerve dangerously in front of me, and then boldly keep walking because, hey--it's my right of way. But then the next cab in line decides, "NOPE, MY TURN NEXT," and makes a sharp right. I run forward and my purse falls off my shoulder into my right hand, and as it's trailing behind me, the cab hits it and I stumble into the sidewalk.

The driver jerks to a stop momentarily to roll down his window and yell at me. I give him the middle finger, he calls me a bitch, and then he drives off.

The only good part of the night was that I caught the train right as it pulled into the station. I still didn't make it home before midnight, but at least I'm alive (and got to flip off a cab driver), right?

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

tl;dr: i'm going to write that book.

After two and a half years of growing her hair out, my sister
cut and donated her hair to NAAF in December. What a gift!
I often wonder what my life would be like if I were brave enough to walk outside without a wig.

It's such a part of my daily routine (wake up, wig on; wig off, sleep) that I often don't think about it until the weather gets extreme. The winter chill hits my scalp in a way I'm almost positive wouldn't happen if I had real hair on my head, and the unbearable humidity in the summer makes me wish I didn't have a wig on my head at all.

It's been easier to lie in the last couple of years about my condition because the people around me didn't grow up with me. They didn't see the slow transformation that happened between the ages of 7 and 18. And though I am no longer ashamed, the truth is that it is much easier to pretend than to divulge my entire life story. To tell you that I wear a wig is more than one line; it is a narrative that I only just began to understand myself three years ago.

But, like with any lie, there needs to be some convincing. Which is also why I find myself walking through Chinatown and taking mental notes of the names of different hair salons and their locations and the prices listed on boards propped up inside their windows. I realize that I really know nothing about going somewhere to get my hair cut. The last time I sat in a chair while somebody trimmed my hair, I was being fitted for another wig--and I definitely knew the cost of that. Last December, I went with Na to get her hair cut and was fascinated by the whole song and dance, from the wash and shampoo (Why does it cost extra at some places?) to the dozens of combs in all shapes and sizes sitting at each station (and they seem to all be used at once too).

The same goes for getting your hair "done" at a salon. I remember when Na went to prom and Mom took her to get her done. She came home with really pretty curls and looked as elegant as a celebrity. For every dance and every event that warranted that special trip, I stayed home. All it took was one motion to put a wig on my head, and there was nothing fancy to it. Mom would buy different barrettes from time to time because I think she didn't want me to feel left out, so I'd choose one from a box and clip my hair in a half ponytail. It never took more than 10 minutes. For my high school graduation, I sat on the couch for half an hour with my hair on a styrofoam head in front of me and curled it. It took half an hour. Na spent longer on her hair that night than I did on mine.

Hair salons, nail salons, Sephora makeovers, spas--you name it. I've never taken part in any of those beauty parlor adventures, and spent years doing my own hair (which ranged from tying bandanas and scarves around my head to the aforementioned barrette-choosing) and makeup (I have terrible memories of the women backstage before a play who would try to draw eyebrows on my face; it never, ever looked good) and nails. Then, as an adult, it became such a habit to not go to those places, and so I've never done any of it. I wouldn't even know the first thing about how to do any of it.

This, all to say: I've been thinking lately about the narrative that I said I wanted to finish, and about the people in my life who've asked me about finishing it since. I always said I wanted to "write that book," to really make something of the workshop piece I wrote in 2010 (I've excerpted very small bits of it before on this blog). In fact it was Joon who asked me a few weeks ago on my visit back to California if I was still writing, and I had to admit I haven't been, and scrambled to find a good reason as to why I stopped. So, I guess this seems like the right time to actually do more than just talk about wanting to write.