Cultural Light Years Apart

She was a daughter of a WWII General. I was a daughter of an immigrant playboy. Her father flowed in and out of early childhood years, mine abandoned me completely by high school. Though our worlds as young girls were as different as Earth and Mars, 10,000 cultural light years apart, there were hidden similarities between our intertwined blueprints, passed down through the natural inheritance from one generation over to the next that would shadow and define our relationship for decades ahead.

The year is 1943, the Japanese attack the small urban town of Changjiao in Hunan Province. The massacre lasts for four days, with the Japanese murdering 30,000 civilians and raping thousands of women. My mother’s father is fighting the Japanese under the direct command of Chiang Kai Shek. Her mother gathers the belongings of her four children, three servants, a retired wet nurse and a stubborn, slow moving (due to foot binding) aged aunt, to head to Shanghai.

My mother silently observes the destruction of her birthplace, sounds and sights of violence all around her, the deafening thunder of bombs, the screams and wounds from women, children and men, and the orders in her mother’s native Hunanese dialect, “Hurry.”  My mother, Li Chi Teh, is four years old and she is running for her life.

The year is 1976, my family, which includes my father’s parents, is living in Queens, New York. Our home is a modest three bedroom off Jamaica Avenue. My father is a full time student and my mother a full time bookkeeper at a Sobering up Station in upper Manhattan. My mother and her mother-in-law do not get along; constant accusations, fighting, and betrayal. My mother is the only one working in our household, she supports the entire family only to receive subway tokens as her daily allowance.

Dad's parents
A rare photo in our home in Jamaica Ave (left to right) my older sister, me, my father’s parents, my baby sister and my mom

It is a crisp fall afternoon, my grandmother, awaits by the front door for my mother to come home from work. She’s pacing, waiting to give my father notice. My sister and I are in the living room, not knowing the rising eruption.  As my mother enters the back door, she notices my father burning one of her art scrolls given to her by a close friend. My father is accusing her of stealing money. “What are you doing?” as she frantically tries to open the door, it is locked from the inside. She breaks through a small pane and hooks her hand through to unlock the door. He pins her wrist against the broken glass and presses with hateful force.

Her screams hover over the cobble stoned streets of Jamaica Avenue, there is little time to know what is happening, we have to get out. My Jieh Jieh (older sister) grabs my hand as we run to the far side of our neighbor’s driveway. We cover our ears from the violence and hold back streaming tears. My mother is hurt, her wrist bleeding from the sharp edges of the shattered glass. My father is the culprit, he is seething and justifying his anger while unraveling the cloth from his hands that he used to break through the shards of lingering glass. Crying, crouching, waiting, my sister whispers to me “Hurry”. My Chinese name is An Chi Li, I am four years old and I too am running for my life.

My mother was the only daughter and although favored and nurtured by her almost always absent father, her mother showed very little love, never letting her forget the burdens of being a woman, her only daughter whom she had considered giving away because of it. I too was my father’s favorite and the one to whom my mother handed over to living with during their all too often, marital separations. I was the easiest to handle.

Life or death, all or nothing, abandonment, fear, and anger, those were the underlying rhythms which framed my mother and me, at very early ages.  It affected every decision, every perspective, and every outburst, thereafter, but the differences between my mother goes back to this: We are cultural light years apart. I had the ability to open myself to outside influences, education, forgiveness, and therapies that my mother never had the chance, nor the desire to explore or to face.  I learned to heal, at 78 years old, my mother has yet to tear the bandages off.

Our First Thanksgiving

My mother’s first job in Atlanta initiated from a non conventional interview between her, the hiring manager and my father. “Yes, she’s very quick learner, very smart, 10-key pad, no problem. “Whatever she needs to learn, she will do, I give you my word.”

Mr. Folger West, VP of a corporate insurance company, was a tall, handsome, southern cowboy. He was a devout Shriner and Freemason who adorned his home with various plaques from “South’s gonna rise again” to “If you’re here, you’re family”. He had a distinct Bob Hope charm about him, caring with a dash of dry wit and a flirtatious spirit.

As my mother’s interpreter continues his over zealous sales pitch, Mr. West’s shifts his swivel chair towards the petite and quiet potential hiree. “Honey, he ever lets you speak?” My mother looks up with a quick giggle. “I’m just kiddin’, George I tell you what, I like you and I want to hire Ms. Grace, but I got one question and the answer to this will seal the deal”. “ Of course, anything, I can send you, “Grace, you know how to make fried rice?” My father repeats, “Frrried Rice?” and then turns to my mom, “Tsao Fan”, she giggles with both hands cupped over her lips staring up at her funny new boss and nods. “Fantastic, Ms. Grace, you’re hired!”

The first time my mother ever actually made fried rice for Mr. West was when he and his wife Norma Jean invited our family to their home for Thanksgiving dinner. I never really understood why they exclusively invited us to this salient ritual; perhaps they needed a subject for a charitable cause, or perhaps they really, really just liked fried rice. Whatever their reasons were, other than Indians, Pilgrims and the Mayflower, we had no clue about this meal, did I mention that Chinese people don’t eat turkey?

As we entered their beautiful, colonial mansion atop a large mound in a rustic, farm- like neighborhood, the smells of warmed spices filled the main foyer. We passed the gentle glow of candles lit up in every room as we traveled inwards towards the dining room. My sisters and I had never met Norma Jean or Mr. West, but we instantly felt safe, happy, and good.

Norma Jean was a kind woman with soft copper curls, a real Mrs. Claus presence. She was not overly talkative, but never allowed any uncomfortable silences to linger.

She led us towards a tablescape all fancied up with gold linens, flowers and more candles.  Each place-setting hosted the shiniest of silverware, an antique, floral china plate and a single, stout goblet. I had my first Shirley Temple from that goblet, of course made by Norma Jean, who also transformed an apple with toothpicks and paper feathers into a mini turkey. She placed him in front of the kids’ side of the table so that we had a fun focal point throughout the meal, this was one of many personal touches that made us feel so embraced.

Mr. West brought in the main attraction, a brown lacquered bird so big, he rolled it out in a cart. All eyes were on this bird, my father wiped away the mouthwatering trickle dripping on the side of his mouth while my sisters and I tapped each other’s arms to ensure that we weren’t dreaming.

Each side dish found its way towards the buffet, wrapped in individual crocheted trivet nests.  Norma Jean presented each with great pride, “Now this is corn bread, we make it with pork cracklins. And this here, this is called green bean casserole, see them crunchy things, that’s the best part.” She continued to explain the rest of the dishes, the country dressing, jello mold, gravy, and mashed potato.

We worked our way through the sides, loading our plates up and smiling at each other with sheer joy.  My sisters and I forgot about my mother’s fried rice, though she discreetly tried to find it, but it too was wrapped in an individual crocheted trivet nest, sitting comfortably in the center along with the rest of our first Thanksgiving dishes.

The Three Percent Club

It was a typical fall morning, rushing the kids and Jeff out the door so I could start my workday typing and jumping from one mobile device to another, all while sipping coffee, skimming through social posts, and searching for the conference code for my next call.

2014 was insanely busy. We had just moved into our new home in Roswell. I worked as a contractor for three companies. A non profit for the visually impaired, a cause marketing firm run by some really smart women and a boutique content agency owned and operated by a neighbor. I was the PTA President of one school and committee chair for the 5th grade graduation at the other. I ran 10Ks once a week and was an excessive, assistant coach to my daughter’s soccer team. I was an adrenaline-induced spectacle, a ticking time bomb, ready to rupture.

“Alright, Tammy, sounds great, talk to you tomorrow.”  I hung up feeling an overwhelming sense of anxiety rush through my body. I decided to finish my coffee on the deck and shamefully broke into my secret stash of Camel Lights, “it’s okay, I thought, just one”. As with everything in my life at that time, I rapidly inhaled and ran through my list of to do’s, all of which needed to be done before the kids came home.

As I paced back into the house, a sudden snap pierced inside my ears. The sounds of the running dishwasher and refrigerator began to hollow into a tunnel of faint and muffled hums. An inexplicable warmth crept within the cavernous spaces between my head. I pinched my eyes shut and stood silent in the middle of the kitchen with both hands slightly raised on either side of my body, trying to find balance while the intense pain ravaged my senses. At that moment, an inner voice screamed  “CALL 9-1-1, NOW”! It was as if God had positioned the cell phone in my hand, I cautiously dialed the three numbers. “Yes, I think I’m having a stroke, please hurry”. I stayed on the line, clinging to every word. “Just stay calm, what is your address”. After the fourth repetition of dictating where I lived, I started to raise my voice, “no, 1-3-0, S-A-D-D-L-E Creek Court, yes…” Oh God, the pain, “please hurry”.

The same inner champion, embraced me with further orders of finding my driver’s license and insurance card through piles of insignificant artifacts only an annoyingly, mid-sized purse could hide. My vision blurred and I felt my legs dragging through my living room as I made my way towards the garage, focused on one single thought, “ I have to get out so they can find me.”

The next series of events played out like an old 35mm, home video. The choppy scenes and sounds fluttered in and out from one erratic image to another. At the hospital, they poked me with needles pumped with worthless pain killers. “Where’s my husband?” No one answered.

Laid out in a stretcher along the ER hallway, in a fetal position, I eventually hear Jeff’s soothing voice. “How is she? Your wife had an aneurysm rupture in her brain and she’s bleeding, there’s nothing we can do for here, we’ve called Emory, the helicopter is on it’s way.”

The voices, the eerily dimmed lights and the haze of images teetering, weeping, whispering around me, the pain, oh God, the pain. I remember feeling, quiet yet loud all at the same time. A soft voice, one imprinted from childhood, patting and stroking her Chinese ancient comfort over my iv pierced hand, “Lee-ly, you okay.” Mom, is that you?” A different voice disrupted my brief moment of solace, and appeared as an awkwardly handsome young man in a crisp white coat and metal clipboard, pressed tightly against his chest. He nudged his glasses and said, “You’re at Emory’s Neurointensive Care Unit, do you know how lucky you are?” I winced a couple of times in an effort to focus. “They call it the three percent club, you’re like one in a million.”

My life, and how I viewed it changed forever, but I guess spending eighteen days in an ICU will do that to anyone. For whatever reason, I lived. More than that, my children still has a mom, my husband, his wife. It’s been over two years now, for the most part, I’ve physically and emotionally rehabilitated from that alarming wake up call, but occasionally certain smells take me back to that paralyzing time. I live my life quite differently today. I’ve learned to set the pause button, say “no” and really put my health above everything else.

 

 

Our first place

Wuesthoff , a not so gentle southern proprietor of his own crazy decree, owned two homes off our fringy little corner of Decatur, Georgia. The first one was a grand, two-story Dutchman, proudly showcasing its classic charms to the remaining patchwork of postwar homes, a small church and an abandoned retail shop. My boyfriend then and my husband now, Jeff, lived in the second Wuesthoff house along with two beatnik-wannabe buddies, Ron and Bart. This house was rustic, at best, but lent itself perfectly to a threesome of starving college students in need of a cheap place to rent.

Behind the house was a two story garage. The lower level served as a storage facility for Wuesthoff’s eclectic inventory of vintage power tools, broken pieces of Formica, stuffed oversized birds and nine feet, high rolls of faded oriental carpets, all faintly visible through four, tiny, filmy garage door windows. As a 19 year old with a dramatic imagination, I believed skeletal remains made up the rest of his stash of weird junk. The top level served as a Fonzie-esque garage apartment to an unknown number of younger tenants. Jeff and his roommates shared a gravel parking lot with these unknowns, but never laid eyes on any of them except an occasional appearance and nod to the main renter.

Jeff and I started seeing each other about two months after he moved into that house. As our dates turned into week long sleep overs, I too became a regular beatnik-wannabe.  We spent most nights on the porch listening to the Velvet Underground, smoking hand rolled cigarettes, and engaged in endless conversations about everything. We were living the newly found independent, college life. But like a typical bad guest, my time there was starting to stink among his roommates.

As if the universe smelled my extended stay, one morning, Jeff and I woke up to the sounds of an eviction. Turned out that the unknown number of tenants were actually young kids paying their share of the rent, not knowing that the money never reached Wuesthoff. The renter pocketed his loot from those poor kids and spent it on drugs. No one had proof of course, but that was the big story and that was good enough to bring in the county Marshall.

Wuesthoff stood with us, tall and firm, both hands in his denim pockets, twirling a toothpick at the side of his full chapped lips. His piercing pale blue eyes darted between the piles of clothes, mattresses, stained bed sheets and unlaced shoes, all laid out on “their” side of that gravel parking lot. But in that moment of his heavy despair, Jeff and I seized our opportunity to play grown up, to live in sin and finally have a place of our own.  “Hey, uh, mind if we go in for a look?” These words immediately lifted Wuesthoff from his slump, his eyes softened to a relaxed shade of grey. He tilted his crusty, old baseball cap just enough for a hint of dirty, blonde curls covering up the scarcity underneath. With a gratifying scratch, “sure, come on up.”  Wuesthoff released his toothpick and led Jeff up those steep concrete stairs, cradled between two white paint-chipped wobbly wooden rail beams.

The now-vacant apartment had a living room to the left with a single window overlooking the gravel parking lot. The kitchen was visually loud, decorated with peach colored cabinets and coffee stained, silver speckled, Formica white counter tops. What it lacked in appliances, it made up with an avocado green refrigerator. Off the kitchen was a single bedroom large enough to fit a double bed and nothing else. There was a single closet made for little people, my full sized hangers fit snugly, sideways. The bedroom doors were heavy, adorned with beautiful gem like, glass knobs, Gothic key holes and at times locked me in when turned the wrong way. The apartment ended with a small study through an arched hallway entry. This room eventually housed our adopted cat’s litter box, vinyls and college books. It’s where we set up Jeff’s first computer system, something that jumped started into a career within the internet and five years later, led us out of our precious time within that garage apartment.

Chateau D’Hambye

My brother in law, Brian and I have always been the assigned family chefs, we both shared a passion for good food, wines and home cooked meals. We were eager to redirect everyone’s attention towards cocktails and apéritifs. After situating the kids in their rooms, the grown ups walked into town to plan our highly anticipated, homemade meal. Our first stop was the Boucher, for an assortment of fresh pate, sausages, tenderloins and hens to grill. We then made our way to the open farmer’s market and picked up freshly grown tomatoes, onions, bay leaves, cucumbers, cheeses, apples and baby lettuces. Our final destination brought us to the boulangerie. There, we purchased several loaves of warm, crispy baguettes and a dozen flaky croissants and pastries for the following day’s breakfast. The six of us, wandered around town with parcels of local staples, flowers and bottles of Cote de Rhones, giggling in between our si vous plait’s, merci beacoup’s and bonjour’s. We couldn’t wait to get back to our make believe castle and prepare our version of Babette’s Feast.

I added Normandy, France at the bottom of the unfathomable list of future travel destinations,  I honestly never gave France much thought beyond Paris. Surprisingly, due to cheap airline tickets and the angst for an adventurous summer, I and my colorful array of extended family members, embarked in a trip that truly was a once in a lifetime experience.

Our itinerary started with a flight into Zurich and a high speed train ride into Paris. We spent three amazing days in a beautifully authentic apartment, overlooking a quaint and idealistic Parisienne view right in the heart of the 15th arrondissement. We mastered the Metro, explored  the Catacombs, lingered in Versaille and the Louvre and soaked in the Eiffel Tower, all while drinking and eating the most decadent of delights. Paris truly exceeded my expectations.

On the fourth day of our 14-day stretch through Europe, we rented a car and road tripped our way out of Paris, into the western countryside.  I sat back and took in the fields of red and orange poppies, swaying along both sides of the highway. It was the most relaxed I had been since our arrival and I was looking forward to the retreat ahead.

As we approached the iron gates of Chateau de’Hambye, an Airbnb gem that served as our home for the next three nights, the butterflies tickled my core with such exhilarance, my face hurt from smiling. The pebble driveway led towards the 280 year old structure built of large greystones and adorned with medieval charm. We were greeted by the property owners, a hippy styled pair of married Brits, eager to share the history and landscape of their newly renovated heart and sole.

We impetuously pushed through a massive, dense door, creaking from a centuries old wooden frame. Every step in brought us a little step back in time to an era defined through romanticized decor, elegance and culture. There were a total of seven bedrooms, connected through secret hallways, each with its own modern bathroom. Every room housed queen sized poster beds with elaborately laced chandeliers and a faint musty odor, seeping through the large casement style windows. At the side of the house was an indoor jacuzzi which led to a flagstoned path towards the outdoor pool. The large farmhouse kitchen opened to the patio, which served as our nightly dining room.

The backdrop to our first meal included a freshly lawned pasture, circling around a humongous, sweet smelling fruit tree and the golden warmth of glowing candles. We spread chairs throughout the backyard, while our kids showed up one by one, freshly showered from their afternoon at the pool. After laying out morsels of appetizers, salads and the main course, everyone grabbed what they wanted and gently settled into their own snug, designated spot. I sighed into a lightened state of euphoria while sipping wine, staring up at the early amber sky and the single bright star hovering above fourteen content and motionless bodies. We were surrounded by everyone and everything that mattered, it was a moment in time that we will treasure forever.

My very first friend

It was 1979 in a modest apartment complex playground off Buford Highway where I first met Virginia Mosca. My family and I were transients from Queens New York, the move to Atlanta served as a second chance for our parents at marriage and a space between ourselves from the ancestral dysfunctions and disputes haunting us all the way from Taiwan. We came broken, but the fresh start made all of us eager for stability, planting of roots and naturally, new friendships.

It was a warm spring afternoon when I first set eyes on her. She came swirling around my younger sister and me like a Tasmanian devil, a miniature, high-octane bullet, desperate to gain our attention for a quick round of Mother May I. I don’t remember if we even spoke that first afternoon, but something about her energy exuded confidence and fun, two very foreign characteristics from our very controlled, traditional, Chinese raised demeanor. Needless to say, my sister and I were instantly hooked. Vicky was just about six, my sister seven and I eight, prime ages for make believe adventurers, seeking a way to fit into our new surroundings.

The Moscas were from Uruguay, they migrated into this country through a similar path as my parents did, coming in through New York before making the decision to move to Atlanta. Her mother Olga cleaned apartment complexes and her father Jose was a computer engineer by trade, but worked several odd jobs by night to raise his large party of six.

Vicky young

Vicky quickly became a daily, front door fixture, coming to our house at the crack of dawn itching to plan out the day’s recreational agenda. My parents used to call her the wild spanish and rarely let her enter past the doorway. My father set strict time conditions as soon as the doorbell rang. My sister and I nodded our usual obedient gestures while quietly bolting out as quickly as we could to greet our new best friend. The three of us would run through the complex from one building to another while morphing into Charlie’s Angels. As we clung to our thinly strapped, gold lamey pocket books and shaped our hands into compact pistols, we sought each other’s backs, weaving in and out through the thorn bushes of our communal rose garden and screaming “freeze” to the invisible bad guys.

During one of our excursions, we stumbled onto a pack of cigarettes. Vicky was the first to open it and invited my sister and I to each pull one out. We were reluctant, but had come to follow her lead in almost all of our decisions, she took us places we weren’t confident in going, but that had always been the draw. With one hand on our hips and an unlit cigarette between our fingers in the other, we laughed and pretended to be one of the many sun kissed, baby oiled gringas who dominated our apartment complex swimming pool. Just as we were making our way back towards home, Vicky’s older brother Alex charged at us, I immediately threw my cigarette on the ground and grabbed my sister’s hand to run. He finally caught up to us after what felt like hours of marathoning away from him.

Alex was a junior high school jerk, whom for whatever reasons, my older sister had a crush on. He had designated himself as Vicky’s keeper, perhaps he felt like someone had to take on this protective role since both his parents were both working and lenient.  “Did you guys smoke these”? Vicky immediately blurted a solid  “no”. Technically she was right, we didn’t actually smoke anything. Alex then probed straight into my eyes, as if he knew I would succumb to his examination. “Did Vicky get you guys to smoke these”? I felt Vicky’s pleading stare but I couldn’t see through Alex’s deliberate, blocked stance. I had enough of his incessant bullying so I nodded even though I knew I was throwing my friend under the bus. I remember him grabbing her, kicking and screaming all the way up the paved hills towards their apartment.

We weren’t allowed to play with each other for the next few days, a decision my parents firmly made, but over time and begging, Vicky regained her front door status and our friendship grew stronger with endless pool days and occasional sleep overs (yes, my parents finally let her into our home).

Both families eventually made our ways out of those apartment complexes and into the same subdivision. We lived as neighbors, a house apart, for ten of the happiest years before my parents’ violent divorce separated us with a move across town.

Our friendship has ebbed and flowed through thirty-eight years of laughing till we cry tales, severe heartbreaks, girls weekend trips and painful losses. Though we’ve grown apart for reasons beyond just Atlanta traffic, it only takes a single call or text to instantly reconnect our childhood hearts, I guess that’s what makes us forever sisters.

Memoirs of a Southern Chinese Gal

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Welcome to my blog AKA parking lot for the humble beginnings of a collection of memories. New posts will be posted as they are “graded” through a memoir writing class that I’m taking at Milton Library. I welcome all comments. My personal goal is to simply write and to share these memories with my children, family and friends.

Enjoy ~ Lily / AsianFrida