Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A Beautiful Pearl

Sorry to have gone so long without a post. I finished the semester and crashed for a week or so of much needed rest and relaxation. I will be leaving Saturday night for two weeks in Singapore and Hong Kong where a professor and I will be presenting a research paper at an academic conference and doing more research. I will see some friends along the way. The next time I post will be well into 2011. Here's wishing everyone a safe, happy, and prosperous new year!

While Yuni was away in Florida, and before he had sent me cash or figured out how to feed the ATM, I needed to find ways to get money for groceries. One of my friends from church had a daughter who was 45 days older than the twins. My friend is not Chinese, but in the interests of protecting the innocent, I am transliterating the girl’s name into Chinese—珍娜, and then retranslating it back as ‘Pearl’. My friend is a nurse, and she worked three or four days a week. Her older child was in school, and little Pearl needed child care. Our home was the perfect place.

And so I adopted my first of many foster daughters. Pearl would come very early in the morning on the days that her mother worked. Some days she was in her pajamas, and she would go into the girls’ room and wriggle into the bed with them. (They had a bunk bed with a full-sized bed on the bottom and a twin bed on top.) Three small three-year old girls fit quite easily on the full-sized bottom bunk. Pearl’s clothes and things were all in a back pack that her mom would drop off at the doorway as she dashed off to work.

Since the girls were sleeping, I would go into my computer to do translation work. Eventually, there would be sounds of giggling from the girls’ room. A door would creak; someone would dash out and grab Pearl’s pack. Then the door would slam, and they would be inside getting dressed. That would be my signal to get them breakfast. The five of us all sat around the kitchen table eating, talking, and laughing.

After breakfast the girls would play in the yard or in the toy room. If my translation schedule was not too heavy, we would take a field trip on the bus. Some days we went into Seattle to the aquarium or just to take a ferry ride. Other days we went to the doll museum in Bellevue or to the downtown park. I had gotten lots of strange looks with my three little girls all of an age, and now I was zipping around with four. The strange looks multiplied, but that was okay. We had lots of fun. We would come back by 3 in the afternoon because at 3:30 my ESL tutoring students would arrive.

When I had an ESL student, the girls were finally allowed to turn on the TV. Our house was blocked by hills, and as I was earning enough between babysitting and tutoring and translating, we got basic cable to mesmerize the giggling beasts. When Pearl was around, they watched a lot of Disney movies. When she wasn’t, they watched a lot of Animal Planet. They also did tumbling on the old couch in the TV room, build forts out of blocks and legos, and dressed up in costumes from a box of clothes my dad’s wife had given them. I usually tutored from 3:30 to 5:30 every afternoon. When my last student was gone, I rushed to make dinner.

Pearl’s mother worked 13 hour shifts; her father frequently traveled for his business. Many times Pearl stayed for dinner with us. After Yuni’s time in Miami, he would frequently arrive home while I was tutoring my last student. The girls would let him into the TV room through the sliding door, and he would play with them until dinner was ready. After the student left, he would take them into the back yard to play ball or build things. Because the table where I did tutoring overlooked the backyard, we found it necessary to keep my kids out of the yard so my students could focus on their work.

After dinner, Yuni was in charge of the remote. He and the girls and Fei watched TV, while I cleaned the kitchen and did my things. Sometimes I had other students to tutor, and at other times I had more translation work to do. Pearl usually left by 8; my kids went to bed around 8:30, and I would read to them until 9. If I had a translation job involving people in Asia, I would get on the phone and computer and work until midnight or 1 am. The next morning it would start all over again around 5:30 or 6. At that point in my life, I was reasonably healthy, and I was having a lot of fun. I thoroughly enjoyed all four of my daughters. The translation and tutoring gave me just enough adult contact to make being a housewife really fun.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Another Interruption: Public Service Announcement

I had been planning to post another story of when the kids were little, but as I was reading through the New York Times online today, I came across Nicholas D. Kristof's op-ed column entitled "A Woman. A Slave. A Prostitute." In the article Kristof describes the story of Yumi Li, a young woman from China, who paid smugglers $50,000 to bring her to the US. Yumi is educated; she has a college education. She thought that she was coming to an accounting job in the US, but instead she was forced to work for three years as a sex slave in Manhattan, NYC.

The story is here for those who are interested: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/28/opinion/28kristof.html?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=a212

I decided to post about this because over the course of my two decades among the Chinese-American community, I met a number of women who had used "snake heads" or people smugglers to come to the US. All of them had been in terror of being sold into sex slavery because they either personally knew women who had been sold as sex slaves or they knew people who knew women sold into the sex trade. Most of these women were willing to pay a premium to the smugglers of $25,000 to $35,000 (US dollars) to ensure that they would escape that fate. In addition, they usually worked out elaborate arrangements with male relatives or friends both in the US and China to be sure that the "snake heads" kept their part of the bargain.

This is a big problem of which most of us mainstream Americans (of all races) are not aware. And as the Congress takes up issues like illegal immigration, we need to keep these things in our collective consciousness in order to make good choices. Unfortunately, there is a market in America for women sex slaves. And also unfortunately, Chinese society has terrible income disparity. (See Accepting Authoritarianism: State-Society Relations in China's Reform Era by Dr. Teresa Wright for more on the income disparity problem.) Women are not privileged in Chinese families because they cannot carry on the family name. If a family is struggling, the young women are more apt to be sent abroad to work because it does not matter in the family ancestral hall if they are lost, and because girls tend to be more responsible than the spoiled boys of the one-child era. Despite their unprivileged position in the family, women do send money back to their struggling relatives in China.

I don't have a ready answer to this problem, but I agree with Kristof that it needs to be brought to the light of day and into public discussions on immigration here in America.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

My "Almost-Passing" Answer to the Midterm Koan

We got our midterms back. I did very well. The professor announced at the beginning of class that one person almost passed. So for your edification and enjoyment:

In their book Paths to Liberation, Robert Buswell and Robert Gimello posit that “the doctrine of emptiness [shunyata] [is] audible in any form of Buddhism if one but listens for it … and is still coursing through the Buddhist universe like a low-frequency basal pulse” (p. 375). In this essay I propose to answer all questions in one search through the five sutra texts for the basal pulse of emptiness [shunyata] noted by these modern American Buddhologists. I will begin with a definition and description of the concept of emptiness and then examine the sutras in the order of 1, 3, 4, 2, 5 before reaching my conclusion about 6. If I am able to find the thread of emptiness in all five texts, the premise will have been proven for this subset of Buddhist texts.

Robinson defines “shunyata” in the Sutra Pitika as “an attribute of phenomena—stating that they are empty of self or anything pertaining to self—and as a mode of perception, in which phenomena are viewed simply in terms of what is absent or present to awareness, without adding or taking away anything … Nagarjuna later expanded these two meanings … phenomena had no “own-nature” [svabhava]; as a mode of perception, it meant the relinquishment of all views” (327-328).
In his explication, Robinson relates emptiness to the third realization in the Buddha Shakyamuni’s enlightenment experience. After passing through the four dhyanas (levels of meditative concentration), Shakyamuni first saw his lives and past lives and the causes of his rebirths. Then in his second insight, he saw the causes of rebirth for all the sentient beings in the cosmos. From there he was able to work out the concept of dependent co-arising [pratitya-samutpada], that nothing is permanent and that there is “no self” [anatman]. All things arise because of past actions, words, or thoughts with intention; all things pass away when the effect has run its course. Thus, there is no reason to cling to anything because everything is suffering in the constant cycle of samsara. With this vision of the emptiness of existence, Shakyamuni was able to extinguish the outflows [asravas] and be awakened. Because he found a pattern amid the chaos of samsara and identified the twelve steps from ignorance to death, rebirth, and suffering, he was able to teach people how to be free. Gethin notes that in Buddhist practice, practitioners work their way up the eight steps of mental concentration to see the same thing as Shakyamuni and thus free themselves from samsara. This insight can be considered the view of emptiness and success in the steps of mental cultivation can be called the practice of emptiness that is hinted at in Robinson’s definition.

The first sutra text is the story of Channa being taught the middle way. Channa was a Buddhist practitioner after the parinirvana (death of Shakyamuni). He was with other monks at the Deer Park in Benares, and he was quite frustrated at his inability to go up the ladder of mental concentrations and see the emptiness of all things. Without this vision, he was unable to cut off the outflows [asravas] and be freed from samsara. The other monks told him to seek out Ananda, Shakyamuni’s former companion. Channa asked his question, and Ananda repeated the Buddha’s sermon to Katyayana (also transliterated Kaccana). In this sermon, the Buddha restated his doctrine of the Middle Way, which he had first posited as being the way between the extremes of indulgence in sensual pleasures and complete asceticism. This time the Buddha said that the extremes are existence and non-existence. The middle way is to see pratitya-samutpada or dependent co-arising. Things arise from past karma and then pass away. People change, but they are still connected to previous experiences. They do not, however, exist forever. Ananda then repeated the Buddha’s tracing back through the twelve steps of dependent co-arising to show how each factor causes the next, trapping sentient beings in the cycle of samsara. Ananda then said: “What arises is suffering; what ceases is suffering—one who knows this has no doubts, is not distracted.” Channa heard this and realized the dharma.

From this story, we see the importance of emptiness in the early mainstream sutras. Things are impermanent, but they do arise based on intentions, thoughts and actions that have gone before. So we find the seed of emptiness in Shakyamuni’s enlightenment, in his later teachings, and in the teachings of his closest disciple.

As time passed, Buddhist scholars attempted to categorize the components of what arose and passed away. Since Shakyamuni had found order and a pattern in the chaos of samsara, these scholars continued that pursuit. They were the Abhidharmists, and eventually they tried to systematize Buddhist thought in absolute terms. Other Buddhist scholars felt that because the Abhidharmists said that all components of being [dharmas] each had its own nature [svabhava], the Abhidharmists were falling into the error of eternalism. Anonymous Buddhist scholars wrote the Prajna-Paramita sutras to counter this tendency. The Prajna-Paramita Sutra of 8,000 lines, which according to Gethin was the first such sutra, says, “all dharmas are fabricated by thought construction, not born, not come forth, not come, not gone, that no dharma is ever produced or stopped in the past, future, or present.” It also says, “All dharmas are indeed unknowable and imperceptible because they are shunya [empty] and do not lean on anything.” The Abhidharmists of course responded that such an attitude was the other erroneous extreme of nihilism.

A famous Buddhist scholar from the 2nd Century BCE named Nagarjuna jumped into this argument with his text “Root Verses on the Middle Way.” Nagarjuna began each chapter with the objections of his abhidharmist opponents. Then he proceeded to deconstruct those arguments using the concept of emptiness as the middle way. Nagarjuna based his writings on the Buddha’s sermon to Katyayana and on the sutra text discussed above. In Chapter 24 “On the Four Noble Truths,” Nagarjuna repeated the passage in the Channa sutra that the Four Noble Truths involve the arising and passing away of suffering. He argued that if something is to arise and pass away, then it cannot have its own nature [svabhava]. To Nagarjuna the possession of a svabhava is eternalism and means that all beings are frozen and unchangeable. The only way that dependent co-arising [pratitya-samutpada] can exist is if all things are empty of “own nature” [svabhava]. Nagarjuna said, “Interdependent origination—that is what we call emptiness. That is a conventional designation. It is also the Middle Way. There can be found no element of reality [dharma] that is not interdependently originated; therefore, there can be found no element of reality whatsoever that is not empty. If everything were not empty, there could be no arising or passing away … How could suffering not be interdependently originated?” (v. 18-20)

Thus, Nagarjuna strongly emphasized and expanded the earlier idea that all things are impermanent and thus empty. He continued in Ch. 25 to discuss the concept of Nirvana and noted that even this is empty. He eventually concluded that “there is no distinction whatsoever between samasara and nirvana; and there is no distinction whatsoever between nirvana and samsara.” In the end, for Nagarjuna emptiness means that the distinction between the finite and the infinite is blurred. A gloss to the Chinese commentary on Nagarjuna Ch. 25 says, “The tathagatas [Buddhas] at no time and at no site for people preach that nirvana is a fixed/established characteristic.”

In addition to stretching the meaning of emptiness and its implications, Nagarjuna used a schema that became popular among Mahayana Buddhists. He said that there are a conventional knowledge and discourse and an ultimate knowledge and discourse. He felt that the Abhidharmists had gone wrong because they took the conventional notion of “own nature” [svabhava] and made it absolute.

As time went on, Mahayana scholars took Nagarjuna’s teachings to an extreme and taught nihilism. So the story of Sudhana was written to show that within emptiness there is fullness and that all things are interpenetrated. Sudhana traveled all over India seeking teachers. In the end, the bodhisattva Maitreya showed him a vision that within one pore of the bodhisattva Samantabhada there was a cosmos containing an infinite number of cosmoses. This works going infinitely small and out infinitely large. Only emptiness makes this work. This is how nirvana and samsara interpenetrate each other.

Escaping from samsara was no longer the most important thing to Mahayana Buddhists. They wanted awakening [bodhi] to transcend samsara and then in a state that straddled the divide, they wanted to cross over all sentient beings. To achieve this goal they required wisdom [prajna] and tactical skill [upaya]. Tactical skill gives a teacher the way to enlighten or awaken others or to at least awaken in them “bodhicitta” or a desire for awakening. The Mahayana Buddhists said that the Buddha gave his teaching in three stages: first he gave a lower way, then the way of emptiness, and finally the teaching of the conventional and the ultimate.

The Lotus Sutra is a Mahayana sutra that according to Tenabe embodies the concept of emptiness. The entire sutra is a long discourse of praise for a sutra that is about to be, but never actually is taught. Thus, we find emptiness at the core of the Lotus.

The story given from the Lotus Sutra is the story of the three carts and the burning house. This story represents a skillful means of awakening bodhicitta. The story talks about children playing in a burning house. The father coaxes them out with promises of dog carts, goat carts, and ox carts. When the children get out, the only cart given them is an ox cart. We all are symbolized by the children. The burning house symbolizes samsara. The father symbolizes a Buddha. The Buddha uses any means to save his children, but in the end, the only path is the Mahayana, the path of the bodhisattva.

The Vimalakirti Sutra is another sutra that uses skillful means to teach its readers the Middle Way. Vimalakirti is a pattern of a person who lives in emptiness. He straddles all things, but is attached to none. He eats and drinks, but delights in meditation. He goes to brothels to show the follies of lust. He is able to deconstruct the teachings of all the great bodhisattvas. And in the end, after all have given their views on how to enter the gate of oneness, Vimalakirti remains silent. This might mean that the others have spoken well, and Vimalakirti will not refute them. Or it means that he cannot, and his life is empty, too. Or perhaps it means what Manjusri just said, “When you can neither speak nor talk of any event, when you neither indicate nor know anything, when you pass beyond both questions and answers. This is to enter the gate of oneness.” So Vimalakirti takes the middle way of silence and enters that gate.

Thus, we see that sutras 1, 3, and 4 specifically speak of dependent co-arising or emptiness. Sutras 2 and 5 do not mention emptiness explicitly, but the concept is there. Thus, emptiness can be called the basal pulse of these Buddhist texts, at least, and the 6th quote can be considered proven.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Trips to Taiwan and Miami

After Labor Day of our second year in America, we had enough money to take the kids back to Taiwan for a visit. Since we had been living abroad for two years, we were expected to bring back all kinds of gifts. Fortunately, shampoos that were cheap in America were considered to be expensive and of better quality than Taiwanese products. We went to K-Mart and bought out the shampoo and conditioner shelves for Yuni’s sisters and nieces. The older generation had discovered the benefits of Ben-Gay for sore muscles after Third Maternal Uncle had visited the US on a trip sponsored by the Lions Club. We bought out the super-sized tubes of Ben-Gay for all the aunts and uncles. Then we got bags of candy for the little kids.

Yuni only had a week’s vacation, so we left late Friday night and stayed until the following Sunday. Ma felt that it was not nearly enough time. I was inclined to agree with her because every night we visited different relatives or got invited out to dinner by someone in the clan. It was a whirlwind visit that was quite fun for all, but it was truly exhausting.

I did not realize it at the time, but later Ma told me that Yuni had discussed with his father our moving back to Taiwan since my grandfathers had both passed away, and my grandmothers were now stable and happy. That idea was soundly rebuffed to Ma’s great disappointment because Pa had been spreading face-saving tales among the family. He said that Yuni was about to buy his own house and start his own company, and that he would be getting his Master’s degree in architecture from an American university. After we returned to the US, I assumed that Yuni’s grumpiness stemmed from having to return immediately to work with a mega-case of jet lag.

A week or so after we had returned to the US, Yuni began to set the conditions for his return to Taiwan in motion. One of our friends from church was a wealthy Taiwanese businessman with factories in both Taiwan and China. He had been appalled at our neighborhood and had been looking for a house in Bellevue that he could buy and rent to us. Yuni had some discussions with him after church, and the upshot was that he would put up 50% down payment and we would get a loan for the other 50%, and we would buy a home for us together in Bellevue. We went to the bank and got preapproved for the loan. Then we used my grandmother’s lawyer and drew up the agreement. Next we started house hunting.

We found a place that was just perfect. It had a large backyard, rooms for our family and Fei, and it was close to the freeway to Yuni’s work and my grandmother’s as well as to my dad’s place. We made our offer and waited for the loan to close. 60 days later, the underwriter still had not decided. Fortunately, my aunt was a vice president in the bank, and she was able to get several reviews done because we had gotten a letter of pre-approval without any problem. Our measly little loan was decided by several vice presidents and a branch manager. Our earnest money was safe, and we moved into our first house in America.

A few weeks later, Hurricane Andrew tore through Florida, and the call went out at church for skilled masons and tile setters to help families rebuild. Yuni’s work was getting slow, and he arranged with his boss to take voluntary leave instead of getting laid off so that he could go to Florida to help rebuild the church hall and houses for church members. There was a huge problem in Florida of people having insurance money, but not being able to find a contractor to fix their houses. The congregation in Bellevue chipped in to buy Yuni’s ticket, and he set off alone on a plane for the first time in his life. He did not yet have a cell phone.

Yuni arrived in Florida without mishap, and he found a pay phone to call his contact in Miami for a pick up at the airport. The person asked him where he was, and all he could say was “Airport.” The driver said, “Which airline?” Yuni answered, “Airport.” Finally, I got a call from the church elders asking me for his flight information. Yuni waited at the airport for an hour before they found him and took him to the family with whom he was to be billeted. There were only two Chinese families in the church group there, and both their homes had been laid to waste. Yuni was staying with a Caucasian family who spoke no Chinese. It was time for him to put his English lessons to use.

The family lent him a bicycle, and he cycled around Miami laying tile, fixing boundary walls, and doing other projects for numerous families in the church there. He worked for three months and made quite a bit of money. The first time he decided to send me money for the mortgage, he got a long white envelope and stuffed it with $3000 in cash. Then he sent it by regular mail. I almost had a cow. He called home once a week from a pay phone to talk to me and the kids. I told him that he had an ATM card and should deposit the money directly into our bank account. He had never done that before because I had been doing all the books and things requiring English. We rehearsed the ATM prompts on several different phone calls, and the next time he got paid, Yuni deposited the funds himself. His time in Miami really gave him confidence that he could survive on his own in America. He learned to buy his own materials, to use the bank, to order his own meals, and to deal with English-speaking customers and insurance companies. It was a very profitable three months for him in many, many ways.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

A Koan of a Midterm

This week, I can only add a few sentences to my story of our family. With the addition of Fei to our household, things got better and better. Yuni got into advanced English classes at the community college. He began to learn how to mix the precast concrete and do other technical things. He got raises every time he came up for evaluation. My translation and tutoring businesses flourished. The kids grew like weeds. Peace began speaking all at once in full sentences (a common occurence among children in bilingual households). The girls and I continued with our regular excursions around Seattle, and a whole year went by in peace and prosperity.

I do not have time to write about our family's next set of adventures because it is mid-term season. I only have one class with a mid-term: Buddhism, but the professor has told us outright that the exam is impossible to pass. He spread it out over two 1 1/4 hour class periods. Last Thursday we had our Sanskrit vocabulary test. We got the essay portion of the test two weeks early. It will be an open book, open notes, open everything test. We can bring our outlines of the essays, but we must wait until the 1 1/4 hour period begins to write in our blue books. We have to write one-page explanations/interpretations/commentaries on each of five selections from translations of Buddhist sutras and then another one-page commentary on a quotation by an American Buddhologist.

I am listing the questions here for your edification and delight:

We have to comment on the story "Channa is Taught the Middle Way" from a mainstream sutra in Collection of Connected Discourses. For that question we need to focus on the anta-s and the madhya.

Then we need to comment on the "Story of the Burning House" in the Mahayana sutra Lotus of the True Dharma.

Then we need to comment on two chapters from Nagarjuna's Root Verses on the Middle Way--Chapter 24 "On the Four Noble Truths" and Chapter 25 "On Nirvana."

The fourth sutra text is "Sudhana's Vision of the Cosmos" from the Gandhavyuha Sutra.

And the fifth sutra text is a long exerpt from the Vimalakirti Sutra, but we particularly need to focus on Vimalakirti's thunderous silence in answer to Manjusri's question, "How [does] a bodhisattva [enter] the gate of oneness?"

Finally, we have to comment on the following quotation:

"[There is a] deep resonance of the doctrine of emptiness [shunyata] that is audible in any form of Buddhism if one but listens for it. The original Buddhist discovery of the emptiness of all things was a kind of doctrinal 'Big Bang,' the cognitive 'radiation' from which has always been and still is coursing through the Buddhist universe like a low-frequency basal pulse." (Buswell, Robert E. and Robert M. Gimello. Paths to Liberation. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1992)

I do not know how anyone can write all that needs to be written on these six questions in a mere 1 1/4 hours. I had an idea of a way to do it, and I asked the professor after class last week. He got a glint in his eye and said, "That is creative; I like creativity." And I responded, "Well, since you said that the exam is impossible to pass, and because the quote implies that all grades are emptiness, I thought I would try it this way." The other students around us were just scratching their heads. When I get my graded exam back, I'll tell you if I solved the koan or not. Tuesday will be exam day.

We do not have a mid-term in the seminar on Korean pop culture. I do, however, have some recommendations of movies and TV shows for you. We watched the movies The Host, Shiri, and Peppermint Candy in class. All are very good; Peppermint Candy is a little disturbing, but it is also very well done. As far as TV dramas go, I liked the period drama Jewel in the Palace best. And there is a great short film about K-pop fans in Hawaii that is an absolute riot: Ajumma! Are you Krazy? (http://iamkoream.com/ajumma-are-you-krazy/ Check out this review.) For our final project, we will be interviewing K-pop fans among our friends and writing a sociological analysis of our findings. It should be fun.

We have also sent out the call for papers for our grad student conference next spring. We're pretty excited because we got our first submission within 24 hours of our call for papers going out. Check out our websites. If you know grad students in Asian Studies, feel free to pass the links along.

And finally, my professor and I gave a practice presentation of our research paper on house churches in China at the Poli Sci Department's faculty colloquium on Wednesday. It went very well. We got lots of good feedback, and after my mid-term is over, we will be furiously rewriting to meet our December 2nd submission deadline for the Singapore conference.

No news from Truth this week.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Two Funerals, a Lay-off, and Fei

 Truth, Peace, and Love on the slide at the park after we have removed broken glass from the sand.

All of us, including Yuni, with Fei at my aunt's house for Christmas 1992

I am finally able to pick up the thread of my tale. I do have a killer mid-term for Buddhism over two class periods next week and the following week, but I think I have a little time to write, and I have been writing this in my head for so long that I need to get it down on paper.

If you remember, our family was living in Seattle above the International District on Beacon Hill. We were in the upper floor of an old house at the very top of the hill. Yuni was working in a pre-cast concrete company in Redmond, and I was doing translation, ESL tutoring, thesis editing, and other bilingual services in the Chinese community. Yuni had just had major surgery that had wiped out our savings, but with the good union health plan and financial help from his parents and people at church, we had made it through the crisis.

In October, though, my paternal grandfather suffered a stroke and passed away. My dad’s wife took me and the girls to buy new black mourning clothes (with flowers in the skirts so we could wear them to church after the funeral). My brother had moved to Connecticut and just started a new job there, but he took bereavement leave and flew out for the funeral. It was a nice service, and the girls handled themselves quite well in church. My maternal grandmother and aunt had come to the memorial service, and my grandmother asked Yuni and me to drive her to the nursing home where my maternal grandfather was battling cancer later that day. She said she wanted him to see my girls in their funeral finery. So after we had finished our familial duties with my dad’s family, we went and picked up Grandma to take her to the nursing home.

At the nursing home, my grandfather was catatonic. He had not ingested anything for over 24 hours, and his breathing was quite labored. The nurse kept asking my grandmother if they could give my grandfather morphine because he was having a “rough go.” Yuni took one look at my grandpa and told me in Chinese that he was dying. He said that he would leave me and Grandma there to be with him and would take the girls to get my aunt. I was just going to translate this to my Grandma when she sailed out of the room and marched to the car. She sat in the front seat and demanded to be taken home so she could call my uncle to consult with him about what medicines would wake up my grandpa. When she got home, my uncle was out, so she called my dad—a clinical chemist—and talked things over with him. Yuni and I used the pretext of the girls needing a nap to go to our home to call my aunt and give her a heads up. We found my brother Tom sitting on the doorstep waiting for us. We had forgotten that we had been planning to have dinner with him. Our call to my aunt went through, and she immediately got in touch with the nursing home. She called us right back to inform us that my grandfather had passed away 15 minutes earlier. She went and took my grandma back to the home while we grandchildren and great-grandchildren went out for a very somber dinner. Tom flew back to Connecticut the next morning to ask for another Friday of bereavement leave for the other grandfather’s funeral. (I think my aunt gave him a copy of the doctor’s death certificate as proof.)

One week later, the girls and I again wore our funeral finery. Tom flew out again, and my mom flew up from California. My uncle flew in from Wisconsin. It was another intense week of family. My mother’s grandmother had bought plots for her progeny. There was some confusion at the cemetery as to who could speak for family about which cremation urns could be buried on top of the family coffins. It appeared that my grandfather had been the person of record. My aunt and I went to the funeral home and got things straightened out. My great –aunt (who just celebrated her 100th birthday last month) was entered in as the last surviving child and spokesperson for the family. She pretty much registered any of us who wanted an urn slot because cemetery plots are getting more and more expensive. Yuni was quite touched at being invited to have a spot in the family crypt.

Our life went on. Weekends were spent visiting my grandmothers. Both of them were jolted by the loss of their long-time husbands, and it really cheered them up to spend time with their great-grandchildren. Saturdays we went to my maternal grandmother’s condo near the University of Washington. Sundays we went to church in Bellevue and then visited my paternal grandmother in her nursing home apartment. We frequently had lunch with my dad and then all went together to see Grammie. Doctors said that both the widows might die within eight months of losing their husbands and that it was important to keep them happy.

At the end of October, Yuni got laid off. When I told my maternal grandmother, she got very agitated and made us swear to her that we would not go on “the Dole.” We were not planning to go on welfare, but Yuni should have been eligible for unemployment insurance benefits. As we were discussing this with her, it became obvious that for her “the Dole” meant unemployment benefits, as well. At the time, I did not know how to describe unemployment benefits to her. I tried to explain that it was a payroll deduction and that his employer also made a payment to the State Unemployment Insurance entity so that he could collect benefits equal to half his pay. Grandma kept insisting that it would be a shame to the memory of my recently departed grandfathers for us to collect any money from the state. My parents and aunts and uncles were still traumatized by the loss of their fathers, and we decided not to bother them with this problem. Instead, Yuni decided to call his parents to find out what to do.

When Pa heard that one of my newly widowed grandmothers was making our collecting unemployment benefits into an issue of shaming a recently deceased grandfather, he told Yuni to find another way. He then pointed out that Taiwan had never had unemployment insurance, and yet he had still found a way to raise all seven of his children to adulthood. That pretty much killed the idea of collecting unemployment benefits. So Yuni went into depression. For nearly a whole week, he sat in the study room staring out the window at two people putting a roof onto the garage next door. He rarely ate. He did not always sleep in bed. He just sat in that chair with his feet on the window sill staring out into space. Finally, he got up and slipped outside to the car. He took off without me and the girls and drove around all afternoon. When he came back, he had paperwork for a temporary labor place and the possibility of a two-week job starting the next day. He worked for the temporary labor company for several weeks before his factory called him back to work in early December. He had been laid off for six weeks.

People from church heard about our situation, and many times our Chinese church friends would come over late at night after work. They noticed that there were prostitutes plying their trade at the bus stop across the street and drunks and drug addicts overrunning the park at night. I guess Ma had said something to the people from church about how we had to check the sand for glass before letting the kids play on the slide every day. They were quite concerned for us, but without a steady job, there was no way for us to move to a better neighborhood.

Just about the time Yuni went back to work, the people from church came through with more help. One woman found me a long-term translation client who was in a protracted divorce case involving English-speaking lawyers in New Jersey and Hong Kong. She needed someone to talk to her lawyers and relay the information to her. I would get up at 6:30 to talk to the lawyers in New Jersey, and then I would stay up until midnight to talk to the lawyers in Hong Kong, but since the time spent did not really affect my time with Yuni and the kids, it was perfect. One month I made several thousand dollars from her. Another couple introduced us to an overseas Chinese woman named Fei.

Fei worked in the garment district south of Seattle. She needed a cheap place to stay and felt safest living with a Chinese-speaking family. Fei began renting our study room. She became back-up babysitting so I could take more translation jobs. She ate with us and contributed money to groceries every month. She also would lend us money when things were tight. Fei lived with us from the winter of 1991 until a few months before we moved to California in January of 1995. She spoke Mandarin to the girls and became their third-language adult. Her presence in our household meant that things began to improve for us economically. We could even afford to get the kids their winter coats at the January sales at K-Mart the next year. Things were looking up.

But Yuni did not really see it that way. His experience being laid off was a huge shame to him. He had felt helpless in caring for his family. He had expected that my family would have chipped in to buy us food, but instead, my grandmother had prevented him from accepting the unemployment benefits to which he was entitled. He is proud; he would not beg. If FAMILY could not see how tight we were, then it must be because they looked down on him. He boycotted Christmas with my maternal relatives that year. He began to argue with me about finances all the time. He said that rich girls like me could never understand him. I kept trying to explain to him that my family did not know because he would not let me tell them. It didn’t matter. He was convinced that they looked down on him.

I have come to realize that there were two issues operating here. One was socio-economic, and the other was cultural. Socio-economically, my family was not in tune with how tight things were for us. They did not think that we might be so tight financially that food would be a problem. They helped a lot in buying warm clothes for all of us. They filled our house with educational toys so that the girls would have a leg up on life educationally, but you can’t eat scissors and books and puzzles. Yuni was from a socio-economic class and a family that had gone hungry many times in his lifetime. Educational things and even clothes were luxuries. If we had told my family we needed money for groceries, they would have given us loans or even gifts of money outright to tide us over the lay-off, but Yuni’s Asian male face could not take it. And he was also operating on a different definition of familial obligations. He assumed they could see but were choosing to be blind.

Then there was the issue of my newly widowed grandmother telling us that it would shame my grandfather’s memory for us to go on “the Dole.” That pretty much tied our hands with all kinds of chains of Confucian filial piety. During the first month after a person’s death, traditional Chinese believe that the spirit may or may not be at rest. If the surviving spouse says you will shame their memory doing something, it could mean that the departed does not cross over right. Chinese families have ceremonies to lay the family’s ghosts to rest at 7 day intervals for 49 days after the funeral. Although Yuni is a Christian, he did not convert until high school. Many of his gut reactions still revert to these traditional practices. By an unfortunate happenstance, my grandmother had chained his hands and thrown away the key. And I could not articulate to either side the logic of the other. I just felt squished in between.

I wanted to write this post today because there has been recent election rhetoric that people on unemployment are lazy and that unemployment benefits are not a pay-out from insurance but equal “the Dole.” This is a lie. Everyone who is not a sole proprietor pays insurance premiums as a payroll deduction. Some people never collect benefits, but the insurance is there, just like automobile insurance or home-owners insurance. It is a way for people to keep their dignity in a time of trouble. And dignity is quite important to most people in the world. No one likes to feel like a free-loader or a moocher, but there is a tide working to remove social institutions that allow people to maintain their livelihood with dignity. Based on my personal experience, I have to say that it is a dangerous tide for everyone because it breeds resentment and divisions among social groups, and it could have some tragic repercussions.

Check out the latest from grown-up Truth in Africa: http://whenjoewenttoafricatohelpstopaids.blogspot.com/2010/10/aids.html

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Mid-October Madness

The Chinese Film and Culture Festival is in full swing at Cal State Long Beach.

Thursday we kicked it off with an opening ceremony attended by the Lieutenant Governor of California, the Vice Minister of Culture from China, the Consul-General to LA from China, the CSU Board of Trustees (who came in a bus), the President and Provost of CSULB, the head of Disney Shanghai, and numerous other dignitaries. The show kicked off with an Ansai Drum performance. Then there were speeches. Next came a Sichuan Opera mask changing performance, and then there were promo clips about the festival and all the related activities.

The Asian Studies Graduate Society (of which I am president this year) provided parking lot and ushering services. I was stationed at the entrance to the parking lot to direct the Chinese speaking drivers to their reserved spaces (in Chinese). I had a few of my classmates near me to run to the other lane and signal the campus police that this car was a VIP. Then the appropriate welcoming committee of local Chinese dignitaries greeted the visiting dignitaries and some other of my classmates who were stationed by the spaces led the dignitaries and their entourages into the theater. (Our campus is very large and confusing for first-time visitors.) Inside the theater more of my classmates led people to their seats and kept the riff-raff (mere students and faculty) in the back section of the theater. One of my Taiwanese classmates guarded the mask changer while he put on his secret make-up and masks. He got lost between the freeway and the campus, so she also had to direct him in Chinese by cell phone to the parking lot behind the stage.

My classmates saw most of the performances, but I missed the drums because I was waiting to be sure there were no stragglers. I brought in the last group of honored guests by myself. The mask changer was terrific. The speeches were inspiring, and just as the promos were going, I was called upon to ride with the limos to another part of campus to pick up the dignitaries at the end of their tour of campus and viewing of the art exhibition part of the festival. Campus police had specified a certain area for the limos because they would not fit in the driveway to the parking lot behind the student union.

My classmates brought up the rear of the gaggle from the theater making sure that no one got lost on the campus. None of the high mucky-muckies from our school knew their way around the student union (where the art exhibition is set up) very well. When the time came for the Vice Minister to leave, I got a phone call to come in and lead him out. So I was the representative from the school who saw all the Chinese diplomatic dignitaries and their entourages into the limos. It was fun; we had a good conversation in Chinese. I shook hands with all of them and wished them a safe journey.

Friday we saw two films.

The first was "Eternally Enthralled" which stars Zhang Ziyi and was directed by Chen Kaige. The professor from the Beijing Film Academy who gave the post-screening discussion of the film had been Chen Kaige's teacher. He is considered to be the "Roger Ebert" of China. I had not intepreted for the Vice Minister because of the status issue: it looks bad for a student to interpret for such an important dignitary. I did the interpretation for the professor. It was quite fun. He did not pull any punches. All the currently famous Chinese directors were once his students, and he was quite critical of all of them. He told us that he felt the movie "Red Cliff" is an unmitigated failure. American professors in the audience disagreed with him, and there was a great discussion back and forth.

The second was "The Everlasting Flame: Beijing 2008." It is the official documentary of the Beijing Olympics. The lead director of that film was there for the first US screening last night. She was very nice and very tired, as she came straight from the airport to the festival. It was quite interesting to hear how she had made the film and how long it took them to get all the footage. She described how they took 400 hours of footage to get 1 1/2 hours of film.

Monday I will interpret for the associate dean of the Chinese School of Film and Animation Academy as he discusses a film called "Invisible Wings."

Beginning on Tuesday the Asian Studies grad students will lead cultural studies discussions of the afternoon films for the last three days of the festival.

And then there will be mid-terms...

One of the professors on my thesis committee sent back my third chapter with suggestions for major structural revisions. She likes my analyses, but she thinks I need to cut and paste. My thesis committee chair liked the idea so much that she wants me to go back and reapply it to the entire thesis. But because we are now intensively working on perfecting the research paper that we will present in Singapore and Hawaii (we got accepted there, too), I have a major time crunch. Long story short: I will take the time I need to do all things well. And I will not graduate in May 2011. That is actually a good thing because I was not sure how I was going to get all the writing and classwork done as well as retaking the GRE during mid-terms and applying for PhD programs during finals. Now I can take things just two or three at a time instead of seven or eight at a time.

There was a new post from Truth:


Monday, October 4, 2010



After a long hard month, I have most of all five chapters on my thesis written. Now I am starting in on major rewrites to please the wonderful professors on my thesis committee.

I am still the intern at the faculty association. We are in full swing with political activism for the upcoming election. Plus we are sponsoring activities to improve the quality of education.


Oct. 8 , 10am. (Anatol Center or on-line): A Discussion with Charles Fadel on "Twenty-first Century Skills: Creativity and Innovation in Quality Higher Education"

Bernie Trilling and Charles Fadel, "21st Century Skills: Learning for Life in Our Times." published by Jossey and Bass, 2009.

Oct 9, 10am-2pm UNITE FOR QUALITY PUBLIC EDUCTION PICNIC (music, food, and fun). Long BEACH, POV Park.

I am also president of the Asian Studies Graduate Society. We are planning a grad student scholarly conference next spring, and we are helping out with the Chinese Film and Culture Festival on campus next week. (http://www.ccpe.csulb.edu/ChineseFCF/index.htm)

One of my professors recommended me as a volunteer interpreter for the 25th Anniversary festivities of the Long Beach Qingdao Association celebrating 25 years of sister city relationship between the cities of Long Beach and Qingdao. It was pretty cool; the English-Chinese interpretation was done by me, and the Chinese-English interpretation was done by the interpreter from China. The program was broadcast simultaneously in China over the Internet so that the families of the cute Chinese dancers could watch the program, too. (See this link to a newspaper article with great pictures of the Chinese kids: http://www.contracostatimes.com/california/ci_16252631.)

I have two regular classes with papers and midterms and homework, and I am doing a research project with a professor in the Poli Sci department on underground churches in China. We will be presenting our findings at a conference in Singapore next January (and maybe in Hawaii next spring). (http://youthinfo.do.am/news/christianity_in_contemporary_china_socio_cultural_perspectives_7th_and_8th_january_2011_deadline_30_july_2010/2010-07-08-487)

Truth has another post about her month kicking back in Taiwan. If you go back to earlier posts, she has great pictures up on the blog from her adventures in Mongolia. (http://whenjoewenttoafricatohelpstopaids.blogspot.com/2010/10/taiwan.html)

I do plan to write more for the blog. I will be re-taking the GRE this month and trying to get the first complete draft of my thesis written. After those things are out of the way, I should be able to pick up the thread of my saga. If any of you are in Long Beach, CA on Saturday, come to the park for some zydeco music and support quality public education. If you want to see really cool Chinese artisans or watch a few free Chinese films come to CSULB next week for the Chinese Film and Culture Festival. I will be running around at both events.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Thesis Writing Trumps Blogging

Sorry for being AWOL so often this summer. I am writing my thesis, and when I have a break, I am less apt to want to write blog posts. As I get down to crunch time and fall semester starting, I think I will have less time for blogging.

Fortunately, my daughter Truth has a blog of her hobo journey around the world. She has a great post written from a train heading for Mongolia about her last three days in Beijing. If any of you experience withdrawal symptoms from our family's hijinks I suggest you try her blog:


Friday, August 6, 2010

Chinese Women, Confucian Yin-Yang Theory, and Living out Virtue through the Female Body

One nice thing about writing this blog while I am researching and writing my MA thesis is that things from the blog help me understand my writing, and theory for my thesis helps me understand my life as a Chinese daughter-in-law. Last post I mentioned that many of my female Chinese friends as well as female relatives in the Liu and Chu families were expected to do with less physically than the men and children. They got the worst food, they typically did not get medical care until after their children were grown, and they were expected to work from before dawn to after dark doing all the housework AND earning money to help the family.

I recently finished a chapter in my thesis that was a survey of the different Chinese concepts of what constitutes an ideal woman. After writing my last post, I did one more check of previous scholarship to be sure that I had not missed any key points. Well, lo and behold, that insight into my family life helped me catch a major theoretical point that is perhaps not readily realized by Westerners. I found it very interesting, so I thought I would share it here.

Some people may be surprised to see that there is a Confucian Yin-Yang theory as most people see yin and yang as being part of Daoism. It is true; the earliest discussions of yin and yang were in the texts and shamanistic religious traditions that eventually morphed into Daoism. In that tradition, yin and yang are complementary forces that always rotate in a cycle to keep the natural world alive and moving. Yang is bright, strong, outward, and moving. The character literally means the sunny side of a hill. Yin is dark, weak, inward, and still. The character for yin means the shady side of a hill. Yang is fiery and related to qi or spirit; yin is damp and related to blood or physical matter. All things are seen as having a yang aspect and a yin aspect. In relational pairs, one thing will be yang in the relationship while the other will be yin. But the person or thing that is yin in one relationship can also be yang in a different relationship. Thus, in Daoism and in Chinese medicine, women are powerful. They are connected to the earth and water; they represent fertility and life blood. The earliest Daoist goddesses actually hold the power of life and death. They are related to the early matriarchal social structure that I mentioned in earlier posts on this blog and that is described in Julia Kristeva’s book About Chinese Women.

The yin-yang cycle was not strictly Daoist at the outset. It was more the framework for the earliest Chinese science and philosophy. This is how it is used, even today, in Chinese medicine. Therefore, it was not until the first century BCE, in the middle of the Han Dynasty, that yin-yang theory was worked into both Daoism and Confucianism. By this time, Confucius was long dead. His philosophy was one of relational ethics. He did not say much about cosmology; he was interested in what rituals and forms of conduct would make all people in society civilized so that life would be good for the greatest number of people. He lived in a time of civil unrest and war at the end of the Zhou Dynasty (1027-221 BCE). He was mainly concerned with how to cause society to be at peace so that everyone could prosper. His teachings are principally about how to use the rituals and etiquette from the earliest Zhou dynasty court rule books to maintain order in society. He also advocated education as a means of promoting social order and prosperity.

Confucius described three foundational relationships for society: ruler—subject, father—son, and husband—wife. His teachings were based on the ancient classics such as the Book of Odes and the Book of Rites. Some of the rituals in the Book of Rites probably came from the Shang dynasty (1700-1027 BCE, think oracle bones) to the Zhou, and they represent part of China’s most ancient customs. In the early days, China developed an idea that inside China people were civilized because they were agrarian and worshipped their ancestors at family tombs near which they lived. The nomads roaming on the plains outside China were barbarians. The rituals related to ancestor worship were crucial to the practice of Chinese civilization. Chinese have always been pragmatic; their concept is more about doing than about being, and this is where they differ most from the West. Their ethics are worked out practically through the rituals related to their relationships.

In early Chinese antiquity, the ancients developed a gendered division of labor. Men worked in agriculture, and women worked in sericulture. Both occupations were considered crucial to the survival of society, and men and women participated equally in the worship of the ancestors with the products of their labor. During the transition time from a matriarchal society to a patriarchal society, there was a time when China had a dual-lineage society for ancestor worship. But by the time of Confucius, family blood-lines for ancestor worship were patriarchal. Women still engaged in sericulture, but their labor was done for the husband’s family. Thus, Confucius and his students, like Mencius, taught that for women the practice of civilization was a matter of obedience. Women had three major roles in their lives. First, they were daughters who needed to obey their fathers. Then they were wives, who needed to submit to their husbands. Finally, they were mothers, who needed to follow their grown sons. Fathers, husbands, and sons had responsibilities to care for and nurture their daughters, wives, and mothers. At the time of Confucius, women were still considered more complementary than inferior to men in the practice of Chinese civilization that was supposed to benefit the entire world when carried out properly.

In the first century BCE, Neo-Confucian scholars married yin-yang theory to this Confucian idea of obedience. The primary scholar to change Confucianism was called Dong Zhongshu. Dong Zhongshu moved women from their complementary position to an inferior position. He said that although yin and yang were complementary, because yin was dark and passive and weak, it was always inferior to yang. He even went so far as to say that the yin component of any relationship could not have any accomplishment in and of itself. Thus, if a woman had a success, it was solely because of and for the sake of her father or her husband or her son. Prior to Dong Zhongshu, women were not associated with yin, but afterwards, they were seen as belonging to the earth, belonging to the lower physical realm, belonging to dirty blood, belonging to the darkness, and being far inferior to men.

Over the centuries, each wave of Neo-Confucianism seems to have pushed women further and further down beneath men. During the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE), China implemented a civil service examination system, and the ideal for men changed. Prior to the Tang, an ideal man was adept at warfare and strong enough to till the fields. After the civil service exam became the way for any male in China to obtain an official post, the ideal man was literate and a good writer. Men proved their worth intellectually and spiritually by writing prose and poetry, composing and playing music, painting, excelling at chess, and showing prowess in other mental feats. Such talents fit in with the spiritual side of yang. By the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE) women began binding their feet as a way of proving their feminine yin virtue. Since men were excelling spiritually, women had to excel physically, not by being strong (because yin is weak), but by showing their ability and self-discipline in enduring pain. The earliest forms of foot-binding did not break the bones as thoroughly as later forms in the Ming and Qing dynasties, but they were still painful. But these two lines of gendered excellence continued to develop until the late imperial era in the 16th through 19th centuries. In this period, men were expected to express literary talent as a manifestation of their yang spirit. Women were expected to express their virtue as a manifestation of yin by enduring physical hardship through foot-binding, child-bearing, service to family, suicide in the face of rape, and not remarrying as widows. Although foot-binding has been abolished, the other expectations live on among many Chinese families.

Girls are taught from a very young age that they must endure physical deprivations. Women play one-upmanship with stories of how much pain they have borne or how many physical hardships they have suffered. Anthropologists interviewing some of the few remaining women with bound feet learned that these women took pride that their ability to endure pain was proven by their “tiny lotuses.” Many Chinese women today have a similar mindset concerning the trials they bear for the sake of their families. The ability to endure all pain and bravely soldier on is the highest form of virtue for these women. Ideas and expressions of the spirit belong to the realm of men; physical pain and material tribulations are the milieu of virtuous Chinese women.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Road Trip to the Olympic Peninsula

As I mentioned in the last post, the monetary gifts we got from Chinese friends at church gave us enough money to take Ma and Pa on a short road trip to the Olympic Peninsula before they left to return to Taiwan. Yuni was not really better, but he wanted to show his parents something in America that they hadn’t seen before. So we all piled into our huge station wagon. We had to put up the seats in the back cargo area, but there was still a little room for our overnight bags. Pa and one of the twins sat in the rear seats. Ma sat in the regular back seat with the other twin and Peace. Yuni and I were in front.

Yuni drove at the beginning. We went down to the Seattle waterfront and caught a ferry to Port Angeles. From there we went into the Olympic Mountains and took a short hike along an alpine meadow. The kids fed their snacks to the chipmunks. We could not go far because of my bad knee, Yuni’s health, and the kids’ young age, but we did have a lot of fun. When we came down from the mountains, we went to a wild animal park. It was similar to the one in Taiwan. You drove your car through, and the animals were just roaming. But all these animals were North American animals. There were bison, elk, and deer. The cougars and pumas were in cages that you walked past like a regular zoo. When you drove into the compound with the deer and bison, you were given a loaf of whole wheat bread to feed the animals. Pa and Love were in the back, and they kept throwing bits of bread out as we drove, until we were surrounded by a whole herd of bison, elk, and deer. One bison even stuck his head in the front window looking for more food. I quickly tried to put the window up, and I almost caught his black tongue as he was trying to lick the loaf of bread out of my lap. It was quite exciting. We were glad to have such a large, sturdy car.

We stayed in a motel along the Pacific Ocean. It was one of those old hotels from the forties or fifties. Each unit was a little cabin overlooking the beach. After unloading the car, we went and played on the beach for awhile. The next day we drove into the rain forest and took another short hike. Yuni had been doing all the driving, and of course, he had been walking along like nothing was wrong. After a day and a half of steady activity, pain hit. He could no longer drive, and we had to get back because Pa and Ma were leaving the next afternoon. Yuni slumped in the passenger side of the front seat, and I drove home down around the end of Puget Sound so that we could just keep moving. It was a two or three hour drive, and we made it home fine. But by the time we got everything upstairs from the car, my right knee (the one with bone scraping bone) was three times its usual size. I couldn’t put any weight on it. I had to sit on the living room couch with an ice bag, while Ma tried to figure out how to cook with an electric frying pan instead of a wok. I couldn’t walk for another two days. I missed seeing Pa and Ma off at the airport. Yuni took them, since it was late at night, and I stayed home with the girls. My knees were considered pre-existing conditions when we got our insurance, and so they would not be covered for another 21 months. We did not have enough money for me to see a doctor, so I just sat with my leg elevated, alternating hot and cold packs.

Later, a friend from church, who was mainland Chinese and doing post-doctoral studies at the University of Washington’s medical school, found me another mainland Chinese friend who was an orthopedist. I bartered editing services on the orthopedist’s research paper in return for a knee examination, but we couldn’t afford an x-ray. The doctor said that my bones must have scraped each other as I was pressing the accelerator and the brake, and after several hours, the nerves inside the bones had become inflamed. He offered me pain killers that he had brought from China. I did not take him up on that, but I did take a supply of sulfa antibiotics that I could use to self-medicate when my post-Peace infections flared up. I kept myself supplied with antibiotics from mainland China for several years as word went around among the mainland Chinese students that I would edit their papers for a combination of cash and barter, depending on our needs and their resources. It seemed like a good idea at the time because we didn’t need to worry about having Yuni miss work to get me to the doctor. We didn’t have to scrape together cash for the deductible, either. Later, I had a physical with a blood test, and the doctor told me that my liver function was low for a woman of my age. We went through the list of things I might have done to damage my liver, and I learned to my chagrin that there is a limit to how much sulfa you can take in your life time. Fortunately, my Chinese connections were able to recommend a good herbalist, who was also open to barter, so I began taking herbs for those complaints.

This is a very common pattern among working-class Chinese families. The husband and children go to the doctor whenever they get sick, but the mother is expected to make do with home remedies, especially when the children are small. Mothers are also expected to eat mainly leftovers and even partially spoiled food. Yet, the women work hard from dawn to well past dark doing both work for income and all the housework. My sisters-in-law and several of my friends all ruined their health this way. It didn’t work out too well for me, either.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Breadwinner Down

Yuni had what we thought was a problem with kidney stones. He had had it in Taiwan; some mornings he would wake up with excruciating pain in his kidneys. He would roll around in agony, but then he would get up and walk downstairs, go to work, and by evening when he went to a clinic, the pain would be gone. He had scores of x-rays taken, but the doctors found nothing. They told him that he had probably formed and passed a kidney stone.

He had a few attacks after we arrived in the US, but they occurred on work days, and he didn’t feel that we could afford it if he missed the opportunity to make money. Fortunately, he was working in a union shop, and after three months, we had very good health insurance. It included free check-ups and immunizations for the girls, and we only had a $500 deductible. On Memorial Day weekend, Yuni had another attack. It was a Sunday morning, so he did not need to go to work. He just lay in bed screaming. Finally, I called some church friends to see if they would take the kids to Sunday school while I took Yuni to the emergency room. The hospital closest to our home was a teaching hospital called Harborview. As we lived in the poorer section of town, it was full to the bursting with sick babies on a Sunday morning. After Yuni got up and walked a little, his pain subsided. We waited and waited with him lying on a bed, and finally we were seen by a student doctor. At first, he was going to discharge us quickly because the x-ray again showed nothing, but while he was waiting for the supervising instructor to come sign the discharge form, Yuni went into an attack again. The instructor berated the student for wanting to charge a patient in so much pain and ordered Yuni to take an ultrasound.

The line for the ultrasound was not very long, and within a short time, the entire class of ultrasound technologists were crowded around the screen showing Yuni’s kidneys. They could not tell me what they were looking at, but they did say it might be serious. I was freaking out. Back in the emergency room, the supervising teacher saw the film and told me that Yuni’s left kidney was blown up like a balloon. He asked a number of pointed questions as to how long the pains had been occurring. After finding out that this was a ten-year ailment, he said that the left kidney might not have any function left at all. He actually called in the head of the urology department to consult as to whether or not Yuni needed to be hospitalized immediately. The answer was no, but we needed to see the urology team on Tuesday and have some more tests done all that next week.

I was able to find friends to take the girls, but it was a very nerve-wracking time. Tuesday came around, and the urologist with his band of students told us that Yuni would definitely need surgery. He might even need his kidney replaced. We went home to look at the bank account because we did not know what we were going to do. Yuni was not working, so there was no income. I needed to accompany him to the hospital to translate because Mandarin translators were not as common then as they are now. We had fulfilled our deductible, but we still had to reach a threshold of $3000 before we had 100% coverage, and we did not have enough savings to live on AND to pay the medical bills. Yuni called his parents and told them what was going on. They arrived the next week with some money and to take care of the kids.

We did get some good news. The kidney still had 90% of its function, so the urologists said things were hopeful. They thought Yuni had a congenitally small tube that made it difficult for the kidney to drain. They were planning to go in and put in a stint. So plans were made; we called Yuni’s work. They would keep his job, but since he had only been there for 8 months, he did not have enough sick days or paid vacation to cover all the time off he would need to take. Pa and Ma brought a lot of money for them, but they had no idea of the relative costs of living. It was enough to support the family including them for the month Yuni would be off work, but it was not going to be enough to cover the medical bills. Yuni did not want to ask my family because he thought it would be a huge loss of face for him and Pa. I was saying lots of fervent prayers.

The surgery took much longer than the surgeons had expected. Ma and Pa and the kids and I were all sitting in the waiting room outside the operating rooms. Finally, the head of the urology department came out to tell us what had happened. When they got Yuni opened up, they discovered that the problem was not a narrow ureter; instead, Yuni had an extra branch off his aorta that pushed the opening in the kidney shut when he lay in certain positions. When he got up and moved around, things would shift a little, and the kidney would drain. This was why he had so much kidney function left, and it was also why the doctors had never found any traces of crystal when they thought he had kidney stones. If the surgeons had even nicked the branches of the aorta going into his kidney, he could have bled out, so they had taken the time to proceed slowly and carefully. That condition is congenital, and it only occurs in one out of every one hundred thousand patients. Of course, the surgery was too exciting to miss, and all surgical students had been called in to observe the condition that most doctors only get to read about. The surgeon himself had never performed the procedure, so he had taken extra care to do it right in front of all the surgical students. This was a good thing for the medical school, the students, and Yuni, but they forgot to tell us it was going to take an extra hour or so. Ma and I were almost crazy with worry.

To fix the problem, the doctors had to carefully detach the tube from the kidney and reattach it at a lower point away from both branches of his aorta. Then they had to be sure that everything was stitched up tightly so that nothing would leak in his body. They also had to cut around to approach it from behind, so he wound up with a huge 9 inch scar across his mid-section. He remained in the hospital for a whole week while the doctors made sure that everything was healing properly.

Every day that week, I would make breakfast and then leave the kids with Ma and Pa. I drove the car to the hospital and rushed in to get there before the morning rounds. Yuni did not speak enough English to answer the doctors’ questions. Every day, he had the largest contingent of doctors looking at him. He was quite the celebrity. The hospital was a mile and a half from our house, so Ma and Pa would walk the kids down for visiting hours at 4 pm. They would stay and watch Yuni eat his dinner at 5, and then I would drive everyone home about 6:30 or 7 when visiting hours were over. When we got home, I made dinner and went to bed pretty early. That week went by very swiftly.

Yuni was not allowed to work for three weeks. He stayed home resting and chatting with Ma and Pa for about ten days before he was totally bored out of his skull. We did have lots of visitors from church, and even though I had not spoken with them about our need, their generosity was an answer to all my prayers. We were short $2000 for the medical bills plus the expenses we would have for the two weeks after Yuni went back to work and before he got his first check. People from church kept giving us gift cards with cash inside. One person gave us an envelope with $2000, just enough to pay off all the outstanding medical bills. The rest of the money added up to enough for our living and enough to take Pa and Ma on a weekend trip to the Olympic Peninsula and rain forest.

As I watch the news these days, I sometimes wonder what some of our lawmakers are thinking when they accuse the unemployed of laziness or when people get so upset about unions. I am so thankful Yuni had the union job with the union health insurance. We still didn’t have enough money by ourselves, but it was much easier to come up with just a few thousand dollars for medical expenses and groceries and rent than it would have been to have come up with the $100,000 that the surgery alone had cost, much less the tests. We were not extravagant; we were working class poor. We still needed help from the food bank most weeks, and with that help we were able to save a few hundred dollars here and there, but we had not had time to build up much savings. I was very disappointed this year when the health care bill was passed without a public option for low-income people. We were so lucky to have had that health insurance because later in the calendar year of Yuni’s surgery, Truth stepped on a wasp and her foot swelled up to the size of a football. Then Peace got an intestinal flu and needed to go to the emergency room three times for IVs to prevent dehydration. Because we had good health insurance, our family was able to get through those small emergencies without any problem. The union used economies of scale to negotiate directly with the insurance company to get good coverage that was great for its members and cheaper for the employers. A public option could do the same thing on a national level.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Favorite Field Trip #1: Woodland Park Zoo

The girls were loaded down with loot that holiday season. They got cute designer dresses and toys and books and everything children could want and then some. My dad even bought them a tree-house slide for the playroom so they wouldn’t get bored on rainy days. That winter my family, Yuni and I began a running argument about the American tradition of giving presents. Chinese give gifts of money or solid gold jewelry to close relatives; the only non-valuable items they give are food items to more distant relatives and friends. My family wanted Christmas wish lists from all of us, and Yuni just asked for money. My family members wanted to give us something more “personal.” I kept trying to explain the cultural differences, but I was the daughter on one side and the wife on the other, so I was expected to whole-heartedly agree with both sides and convert the others. In the end, my family compromised by buying jigsaw puzzles or work shirts for Yuni to unwrap and then giving him gift certificates to hardware stores so he could purchase tools for his weekend jobs. After many years, my family understood the Chinese culture better and started giving us checks. By then, Yuni kind of liked opening presents and became nostalgic for having something to open. But that first year, he came home fuming that we had not gotten cash or anything to eat. I guess he felt that my family did not think him a close family member. I got sweatshirts and family passes to the zoo, the science center, the aquarium, and the children’s museum. The girls and I were all ready for spring.

Our apartment was right on the bus line. We went downstairs and walked a few yards to the bus stop. One adult fare took us all over. Ma Liu had made me an extra-long cloth carrier for the girls. When they were little, I took more wraps at the bottom; as they grew, they had less cloth holding them to me. The carrier was just a strip of checkered cloth that was several yards long. I looped it under the girl’s arms, swung her up on my back, crossed the ends in front with one short and one long, then I wrapped the long end around and around my waist under the girl’s rear making a sling for her to sit in. I tied off the ends in a knot, and she was secure. My grandma had given me a backpack for Christmas to take on our excursions. The carrier was always in the bottom of my pack, and whenever a girl got too tired to walk, I would put her on my back for a short nap. I couldn’t carry any one of them for too long because of my bad knee, but we managed.

One of our favorite places was the Woodland Park Zoo. It has natural-like habitats for its animals, and we would stand for hours in front of the cages watching the animals engaged in normal behaviors. The keepers there did their best to give the animals their food in ways that required them to forage like they would in the wild. The elephants had to walk through their pen to find bales of hay in the outside yard. The gorillas had to pick food off tree branches. On Thursdays, the keepers poured live fish in for the penguins, and they had to catch them. One of the perks of having membership cards was access to members-only classes. We got to go behind the scenes at the reptile house and the feline house. We learned about the elephants and different eco-zones. We also learned about raptors and alligators and many other exotic species.

The bus ride itself was an adventure. We would take the bus down into the International District and then transfer at Pioneer Square. Sometimes on the way back, if we had just missed the bus up the hill, we would walk around old town Seattle and visit the Klondike Gold Rush National Park Museum. (I think it’s the country’s smallest national park.) There is a trough in the museum where you can pan for gold and then put it back when you are done. The girls loved to play with it.

Many of Seattle’s homeless would congregate at the gazebo in Pioneer Square right near our bus stop. There I was with my three little racially mixed children, all of whom were under the age of three. A couple of times the panhandlers gave each of the kids money and said: “Listen to your mama. Stay in school. Don’t wind up on the streets like us.” They were all very nice to us. It was an interesting experience.

In general, our life was really fun. We didn’t have much money, but with the annual passes, we could go to interesting places several times a week for the cost of one adult bus fare. On the Saturdays that Yuni did not have work, he would drive us to one of our haunts, and the whole family would play.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Joy of Great-Grandkids

One of the best things for us in America was the fact that all four of my grandparents plus my dad, brother, aunt, and uncle were all living in the Seattle area, and we had the only little kids. Every weekend we would go to my maternal grandparents’ condo near the University of Washington. My grandfather had cancer, and they had in-home care. The helpers were co-opted into cooking and preparing for our visits. My grandmother’s cleaning lady/household assistant would take her shopping every week, and she always bought the stores out of the kids’ favorite foods: grapes and chocolate-covered marshmallow cookies. We usually had a large, hot lunch with my grandparents either Saturday at noon or Sunday after church.

My grandmother also bought the stores out of educational toys for the kids to play with at her house. We were not allowed to duplicate those toys at our house; they were only for trips to the condo. She bought a Thomas the Tank Engine train, building blocks in a wooden cart, and numerous other things. And she always had a stash of children’s books that she and my grandpa could read to the kids.

My grandparents were not really interested in talking to Yuni and me. They just wanted to watch the kids busily playing on the carpet in front of them. Yuni would frequently nap on the couch until it was time for our meal. When he was rested enough, he would get down on the floor and play with the kids’ toys, too, because, as he said, when he was growing up, his family had been too poor to have toys for the kids.

Every other Sunday we crossed the floating bridge from Seattle to Bellevue. We went to church near my dad’s condo and then visited him and his parents. We would eat at dad’s condo or have a picnic in a nearby park, and then we would go to the nursing home/apartment complex where Dad’s parents lived. Dad’s mother was in the apartment part, and her place was stuffed with toys for the kids, too. She bought the stores out of stuffed animals and dolls. She also specialized in Disney videos for the kids. They would watch Beauty and the Beast or Little Mermaid or Cinderella. The kids would sing and dance to their favorite songs. During visiting hours, we would go downstairs to the nursing home to see my dad’s father, who had suffered a stroke and was in a wheelchair. There were no toys on that floor, but the kids would sit on Gramps’s lap or turn somersaults on the floor. Their visits were a real highlight for him.

Birthdays and holidays were celebrated several times over with the two sets of grandparents and great-grandparents and aunts and uncles. The kids got loads of nice clothes and toys and gifts. They loved visiting the grandparents, and the grandparents loved interacting with them.

We had a number of adventures while visiting the old folks. The Sunday after the snowstorm, we were crossing the I-90 floating bridge on our regular visit to Bellevue. All of a sudden we noticed that the old floating bridge, which was undergoing repairs in its pontoons, was acting strangely. There had been lots of rain that had finally melted the snow, but for some reason the hatch covers of the pontoons under repair had been left open over the weekend. The chambers had filled with water, and the bridge was starting to sink. We watched as section after section began to settle to the bottom taking graders and tractors and cranes with it. The kids, of course, got very excited watching this from their car seats. Yuni was afraid that the currents of the sinking bridge would affect the new bridge that we were driving on. He hit the gas, and we sped out of there many miles over the speed limit. We got safely to the other side. At noon that day, we watched the whole thing again on the news while we were eating lunch at Dad’s place.

The floating bridge in 1940
Photo by Jet Lowe
HAER: Lacey V. Murrow Memorial Floating Bridge, Spanning Lake Washington at I-90, Seattle, King County, WA

The day after our trip to see the grandparents
Phil H. Webber/Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Then we got to watch repairs from our kitchen window

Another time, we were trying to get into my mother’s parents’ condo when all of Seattle seemed to be going to a Huskies football game. We were trying to turn left across two lanes of traffic without a light. The car in one lane waved us over, and there seemed to be no cars in the far right lane. We zipped across, but just as we were getting into the driveway, we got hit by a car speeding down the right lane, and our muffler got knocked off. No one was hurt, but we made an incident report to the police. In the end, it was our fault because we had been turning left. Yuni insisted that we go to traffic court and argue about it because he was sure that the other car was driving outside the lane on the shoulder. Unfortunately, we couldn’t prove anything and because we had been going uphill, the policeman found our muffler just inside the edge of the lane of traffic. It was a lesson for Yuni about how the US court system works. And I got my first taste of interpreting in court. We also learned the value of car seats for children.

Taking the kids to spend time with the great-grandparents was a big part of our lives for many, many years. Even after the great-grandfathers passed away, we continued making regular visits to the great-grandmothers. It seems like such a small thing, but I think it was very important. And I think it is an experience that many Americans miss because our culture does not like old. When I was growing up, I knew five of my eight great-grandparents. One of my great-grandmothers was the first white child born in O’Neill County, Nebraska. She had been conceived in Ireland and born here in the USA. One of her younger sisters was kidnapped by Indians. She was the eldest of 13 children, and she helped her father train horses. She and one of her sisters ran a boarding house for miners in Butte, Montana. Later, she was a seamstress and a cook at a health camp for children with tuberculosis. She lived to the age of 101 ½. She passed away when I was 16. She made complete formal wardrobes for all my dolls, taught me to bake bread, and encouraged me to learn songs in Gaelic from the nuns at school. My relationship with my great-grandparents and my grandparents was one of the best things in my life. I wanted that same blessing for my children.

Fortunately, my Chinese husband and father-in-law agreed with me that it was important for both the old folks and the young folks to forge that bond. Pa insisted that we come to America when he heard both my grandfathers were infirm. And once we were here, Yuni willingly drove us to spend time with the old folks every week. It was boring for him, but it was a value he agreed that the kids should have. It is hard to describe the benefits of being close to grandparents and great-grandparents. Every move a great-grandchild makes is a miracle to his or her great-grandparents. There is no judging, no pressure to perform, no anger at mistakes. The great-grandparents are simply filled with wonder that they have lived to see progeny of the fourth generation, and they are more than willing to wholly and absolutely dote on the children. Love once told me that the time spent with great-grandparents as a toddler and preschooler made her feel safe because she knew her family had a stable history. It also made her feel special, and it gave her an interest in history because she knew people who were old, and she wanted to know what life had been like when her great-grandparents were little kids.

I am not sure whose joy is greater in this relationship, that of the great-grandparents or that of the great-grandkids.