Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Seeing Relatives

photo by Flo Oy Wong

I drove in to visit my mother the other day. When I walked in the door, she announced that my cousin had just called to say that she was coming over with her grown children and her granddaughter. I’ve seen my cousin K less than half a dozen times since we grew up. Both of my parents came from families that fought frequently. While there really weren’t any disputes among the younger generation, it was just safer not to have too much to do with my relatives. I never knew who was supposed to be speaking to whom. I also have two cousin K’s, one on each side of the family, so I was confused until my mother mentioned children and grandchildren. The other cousin K is from my father’s side of the family and like several of my cousins on that side, she never married.

My mother makes me sit down to lunch. She throws a rack of lamb with mint sauce in front of me that she tells me that she got from Costco. She tells me, “You just throw it in the microwave for two and a half minutes and it’s ready to serve, isn’t that great?”

Like many Chinese mothers, mine has a food obsession. She was born in 1930 and still has memories of not having enough to eat. It’s actually a complicated story. My mother was the eight child in twelve years and my grandmother had a nervous breakdown. She sent my mother to live with a woman she knew who had two kids of her own. The woman used the money intended to feed my mother for her own children and my mom got rickets. I don’t know how much of this event my mother directly remembers, but the story of her experience shaped her adult personality in ways that run deeper than I can grasp at times.

In any case when I visit, she has this obsession with feeding me sort of frenetically. One result is that along with the rack of lamb she insisted on including guy lan, a kind of Chinese broccoli only more bitter than the western variety, salad with feta cheese, and as always rice. My stepfather is Japanese and one of the differences between Chinese and Japanese food is that the Japanese prefer short-grained sticky rice and the Chinese eat the long-grained variety. For many years they compromised. My mom would put some of both in the rice cooker which actually worked pretty well. On my last few visits, I noticed that she’d shifted over entirely to the sticky Japanese variety. I don’t think this is what Costco had in mind.

Throughout the lunch, my mother alternated between insisting that I eat more of whatever she was serving me and trying to give my cousin directions to the house. Every three minutes she would say, “I’m glad they’re a little lost. It gives us time to finish lunch.”

Still, we ate in about twenty minutes at most while I savored the fact that I still have a mom who wants to feed me like this. So much of Asian culture is based on gestures. When I grew up, it was nearly impossible to figure out which rules applied at any given time. There were things you said and did among Chinese. There were things you weren’t supposed to do among non-Chinese. It was just that my parents who both grew up in California had also grown up between the two cultures. They never really knew all the rules for either American style socialization or traditional Chinese visiting customs.
Probably the most bizarre manifestation of this was that when my mother was a teenager she went to a white classmate’s birthday party. The family served spam. My mother didn’t like spam, neither do I even in Hawaii. Before I went to any non-Chinese household she would warn me,”Make sure you eat whatever they serve you and pretend to like it even if it’s spam.”

No one ever served me spam. After I was about fifteen or so the only unwanted substances at parties I went to tended to be either marijuana or alcohol. I didn’t follow my mother’s advice. I generally refused the offer of either. Looking back, maybe that was my own weird way of rebelling against parental authority. After all, no one ever offered me a combination of pork shoulder and ham so I never had to meet my mother’s test for following Caucasian rules.

I’ve still never asked her whether she refused the spam at that long ago birthday party. I think I prefer having this image of my mother hearing all these mean white children saying, “Wow, what a weird Chinese girl. They eat dogs and cats, but they won’t eat spam. Well, that just means there’s more for the rest of us. We’re never inviting her to our birthday parties again.”

I figure it’s just as well that it happened. I couldn’t imagine coming to see my mother and having her serve me spam for lunch and telling me that it would help me stay popular.

My usual out from having to eat several meals worth of food at my mother’s table is to go work on her computer in the family room. I know this is simply anti-social, but I do it because it keeps me from having to yell at my mother that I don’t want a fifth piece of lamb or half a chocolate cake. I figure that’s better than telling her something like “Why is it that you never make me Spam?”

I don’t do that, because she likely would. Equally strange, my mom who’s never really been overweight often makes these five thousand calorie meals then pushes me to eat while she eats a pre-packaged meal she got from Weight Watchers or Jenny Craig. One of my tasks on her computer is always to get her back into the Jenny Craig website because she keeps forgetting her user ID. This time though, I had the brilliant idea of finally installing the Powerpoint slide show I did when my stepdad took us on an Alaskan cruise after he beat lung cancer nine years ago. I got the file transferred, then realized that I’d forgotten to bring in my copy of Powerpoint. I go out to my car and naturally find myself greeting my cousin K, her two sons, her granddaughter, and her daughter in law.

For the last two years, my cousin’s son and his wife have been living about eight miles from my mom. Her son A is very sociable. Her son S is younger and shyer. Cousin K is somewhere in between. They sit down in the dining room. My mother brings out pumpkin seeds, drinks, and an assortment of dried persimmons. She spent two months drying seven hundred persimmons in her dining room Japanese style. In this method, you massage each persimmon a couple minutes a day so the sugar comes out gradually in the process. I don’t think my cousin or her family understand quite how obsessive my mother is about these things. I also doubt that they’ll ever find out. Cousin’s son A who is 6’2” is not at all shy. A and his wife are in their last year of their residency and while the career path of two anesthesiologists can be mildly interesting, it’s also the sort of talk that I think of as “middle seat” hell on an airplane. In the meantime, Cousin’s son S eats about three hundred pumpkin seeds after explaining that he’s about to apply to dental school and my Cousin K surprises me by informing me that she’s taken a part-time job teaching at the county jail.

“It’s not scary?” I ask.

“There are two guards there. I met a woman on one of my trips and she got me into it. You work seventy days a year and it’s as flexible as you want it to be.”

“But it’s not scary?”

“A lot of the prisoners are getting their third and fourth GEDs. It gives them something to do. If I say someone needs to leave, the guards take care of it. You get used to it.”

Most of what I’ve known of my cousin is that she travels a lot, lives well, and devoted her life to raising her kids and learning how to do feng hsui. I then remember that her mother, my aunt, who spent much of her adult life convalescing from tuberculosis caught when she volunteered in a hospital as a teenager, once marched against the War in Vietnam in Golden Gate Park. My aunt also insisted that she was psychic.

I relate the story about my aunt in a peace rally forty five years ago, one of the few times she ever ventured outside alone. Cousin K doesn’t seem to remember it. Cousin K’s kids have never heard it. In fact, A seems to really want to know about his grandmother who died when he was very young. I don’t have much more to say. My mother stopped talking to her sister for a while. Before I graduated college, my aunt wrote me a letter inviting me to come visit. I never answered her. I don’t tell them that story nor do I understand exactly why I never acknowledged her letter other than the fact that my mom wasn’t speaking to her for reasons that never got explained to me.

A asks a few more questions and it’s time to break out the stories. We go over the stranger bits. I have one cousin who married seven times. His last wife was his stepdaughter at one time. Stranger yet, one of my uncles dated his own nephew’s ex-wife. I then break out the strangest story of all. My uncle G was one of the first Chinese-Americans to go to UCSF Medical school. My uncle W then followed G there. Uncle W was extremely sociable and liked chasing women. Uncle G was the one who had to grade Uncle W’s pathology exam. G found himself having to fail his own brother and essentially be the one who flunked him out of Medical School. Uncle G told me that they solved the matter by getting someone else to fail Uncle W in another subject.

Uncle G never told his brother what he’d had to do. Uncle W then apparently erased any evidence of his having attended Medical school and successfully went through dental school. A generation later, Uncle G’s son despite enormous pressure from his father doesn’t get into medical school out of undergraduate. He decides to take the long route and gets a doctorate in micro-biology then applies to medical school. My cousin’s wife who has wanted to start a family then divorces him because she doesn’t want to be married to a student through their thirties. At my grandmother’s funeral I tell Uncle G “You must be really proud of W for going to medical school like you.”

Uncle G tells me, “It doesn’t mean anything. He’s already thirty years old.”

Fast forward a few years and one of my mother’s sisters suggests for some reason that Uncle W, now divorced, have dinner with cousin W’s ex-wife. They start dating and a bizarre psychological cycle plays out. Uncle G leaves a rather large fortune to his grandson who turns out to have Asperger’s.

We piece all of this together at my mother’s dining room table. I also learn that Cousin’s son A made a point of inviting all of her mother’s family to his wedding three years ago. It was the only time I’d met him before this as an adult. I begin to realize how curious he is about his mother’s side of the family and just why they didn’t get along. He asks “What started it?”

My mom gives a general answer, then I tell him what I know. One of my aunts married a man against my grandmother’s wishes. My mother was in junior high when my grandmother disowned her daughter and threatened to disown any member of the family who even spoke to her now non-daughter. My grandmother turned out to be exactly right about my aunt’s husband being a hot-headed womanizer who gambled too much. They were married for forty years nonetheless. My grandmother kept her word and never spoke to her daughter again even though they frequently ran into one another in Chinatown. This started the pattern in the family of not talking to one another for long stretches.

Much to my amazement Cousin A’s son has never heard this story despite his many attempts to learn about his mother’s family.

Eventually, it turns dark. They get up to leave but not before Cousin K's daughter in law shares the story of her parents leaving relatively comfortable lives in China after being harrassed for violating the state's two child policy (her mother had to disappear to the country to even find someone who would safely deliver a third child , twins as it turned out) My cousin K says she wants to have a family reunion. I say, “Sure.”

Mom tells her, “Make everyone go Dutch. In this family, if anyone pays more or less, it’ll just cause resentment.”

Everyone laughs. Oddly, I don’t know if I’ll see Cousin K or her kids again. My mother is 78. I realize that K’s sons see her as one of the last repositories of the family history even though I’m the one who for some reason knows many of the stories. I still have no idea why Uncle G told me about having to flunk Uncle W out of UCSF. Apparently, I’m the only one he told, yet it didn’t occur to me how perversely intertwined Uncle G and his brother were until I shared the story with the last member of the family to follow them to UCSF. Sadder yet, my wife and daughter aren’t with me. They’ve never heard these stories. I don’t exactly know why I’ve never shared them with my own kid.

Of course, now it’s on my blog and maybe someday somebody will send it to her via e-mail out of the blue. I think they call it “spam”.



At 1/01/2008 02:16:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You're so splendidly good at writing these family things, both real and imagined. You have such a great memory for the details and the weaving of the threads. I love reading these pieces even tho I know none of the people.

I have been reclusively dreadful about any family things for decades. Part of it is money & logistics. I can't afford to go visit because they're too far away.

I am always agog at how easily you seem to throw these events on your blog with such verisimilitude. They're always riveting & quotidianally suspenseful.

At 1/01/2008 02:57:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

Actually Mr. Pogblog,
I've always found your family stories and your adventures from when you were a young adult quite fascinating.

At 1/03/2008 02:51:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I didn't realize your mother was 78. Half my clients are in their 90s so I'm sure she has many years to happily overfeed you. However with all my parents gone, I really wish I'd asked more questions, including the awkward ones. I'd love to know how they felt when they first heard about Hiroshima & Nagasaki & what they thought in detail about McCarthy. I wish I knew more about how they met & courted. etc etc

At 1/03/2008 06:43:00 AM, Blogger Dale said...

That's a real trip down memory lane and so engrossingly told. Spam indeed! We also in Canada had variants of Spam called Klik and Kam, I'll slice some up for you if you're ever up this way but don't ask me to join in eating it.

My dad'll be 80 in February. No word on what will be served at his party.

At 1/03/2008 09:39:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

How nice that everyone swapped stories and you got to fill in so many pieces for your cousins.

At 1/06/2008 08:19:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

Mr. Pogblog,
I've talked to my mom a few times about these things. My stepdad is now 84 or so. I tell her she might live a very long time and she doesn't much like the idea. I wonder if she'll have other stories for me at some point that I've never heard.

Klik and Kam? Caesar cocktails instead of salads? You sure live in an exotic place. I didn't realize that your father is quite that old. Actually, he would have been exactly the same age as my father had mine lived.

yes, it was an unexpectedly nice visit. Always makes me think a lot.


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