Monday, May 31, 2010

Life as a FOB

“FOB” in the Chinese-American community means “fresh off the boat.” It refers to people who have just come from Taiwan or China and who still have not gotten the hang of American life. The kids dress like kids in Asia. They wear their hair differently. They do not usually speak any English. In short, they do not fit into American life outside of Chinatown.

That first winter we were really FOBs. Children’s clothes are cheap in Taiwan, so we had stocked up on summer and winter clothes in varying sizes for the next year or so. Taiwanese kids wore pajama-like outfits in summer and sweats in winter. They also wore lots of long underwear. Our kids were no exception. Fortunately, the kids were so young, so they were not faced with ridicule in school. We could not have afforded to buy the jeans and shirts they would have needed to fit in with American kids. Instead, they wore their Taiwanese outfits happily, oblivious to the fact that they looked like outsiders.

We did need to buy winter coats and boots for them because it rains and snows in Seattle. We did not really have enough money after buying the car and getting ourselves into the apartment. The first few months were really tight until after Yuni had his six-month performance review and got a raise to more than $9 per hour. Fortunately, my brother Tom knew how to shop at thrift stores. He taught us about red tag specials and which days were half price at Goodwill and Value Village and St. Vincent de Paul’s. We soon learned where all the thrift stores were and which ones had the best stuff. We got the kids’ coats and boots at the thrift stores for pretty cheap. We also found dishes to complete our kitchen and a desk. We found an old hide-a-bed couch for Yuni and me to sleep on. It was listed for $100 in the Pennysaver ads. We drove our monster station wagon down to purchase it. It wasn’t much, but it was better than nothing.

We were living in the second story of an old house on Beacon Hill. The house had been divided into three apartments. There was a studio in the basement next to the laundry room. A family of Vietnamese-Chinese lived on the first floor. They had lived in California, but the husband was shot when he was collecting rent at the apartments he managed. He was permanently disabled and had a permanent pass to the food bank. The parents both spoke Mandarin, and they were quite a help to us. The first week were lived there, the husband took Yuni to the food bank. We were eligible for food there until he began earning $8.50 per hour. Then we didn’t have quite enough to make ends meet, but we were making too much to qualify for that assistance. Our neighbor would leave groceries on our porch twice a week because his wife and sons were working, and they were able to afford better food. The sons were students and only worked sporadically, so our neighbor went several times a week to maintain his eligibility at the food bank. When their family had money, his children wanted to eat fresh food, instead of the day-old fare that came from the food bank. We were just happy to have free food.

The wife downstairs took Yuni with her to the local high school to register for adult English classes. He went three nights a week at the high school for several quarters. Eventually, he got tired of studying with so many old Chinese-speaking women. They were in the school for socialization more than education. The teachers mainly taught vocabulary for going shopping or ordering food in a restaurant. Yuni was going to try to go back to school, so he wanted a more stringent course of study. After nine months, his teacher suggested that he transfer to the free English courses at the community college. They included reading and writing in the curriculum. He did another year of English at the community college and got pretty good with his English.

We planned to keep the children trilingual, so Yuni only spoke to them in Hakka. He and I only spoke Mandarin, and I only spoke to them in English. For the first six months or so, the children really resisted all the English in their environment. When we went to church, they refused to stay alone in the nursery without me. One time Yuni and I tried to go out with a friend to see about a better job for Yuni. We left the girls with my dad, but Love cried so hard for the entire time we were gone that she vomited grape juice all over Dad’s white carpet. They did not like being on the street in areas where there were mainly white people. They felt most comfortable in the parks near the international district with a diverse population of users.

The month at my dad’s place also taught us that Yuni got an upset stomach from too much American food. He could not digest too much meat, and raw salad made him sick. Since he was the only one working, we decided to keep to a Chinese diet with American food on the weekends when we went to visit my grandparents and father. But our stove was old and electric. It did not really get hot enough for stir-fry, and we could not afford to buy a wok. One of my parents’ friends gave us an electric frying pan. I learned to fake stir-fry in it. None of the vegetables that we could afford were quite the same as the ones in Taiwan. The markets in the international district sold imported Asian vegetables, but after buying diapers and formula for the kids, we could not afford designer veggies. Every night I made enough Chinese food and rice for dinner with leftovers for Yuni to take lunch and for the kids and me to eat for lunch. Fortunately, rice is cheap. Including diapers, formula, and cleaning supplies, our budget only allowed us to spend $80 per week for groceries. If Yuni got extra overtime hours, we could splurge and get a roasted duck when they were on special. Those were our favorite dinners.

My family was not familiar with the way social services worked. My dad had sponsored us and signed a form stating that no one in the family would become a charge on the state or Yuni might not be able to get citizenship. A number of my relatives were also concerned about how it would look for my grandfathers’ great-grandchildren to be on the dole. I was warned by several different people that we should not apply for public assistance. I didn’t realize that the girls and I were eligible no matter what because we were all US citizens. So I didn’t apply. We just made do with what we had. Yuni also insisted that we find some way to save a few hundred dollars every month. His goal was $500 per month into savings. He worked any overtime that he could get; he also did weekend jobs of concrete or tile for my relatives, their friends, and people from church. I began to get tutoring and translation clients who would come to our home. The kids played in one room while I worked in another.

Every Sunday, we would go to church in the morning, have lunch with my relatives at noon, and then go to one of Seattle’s many parks in the afternoon to play with the kids. As my tutoring and translation schedule became fixed, I would take the girls on the bus, and we would ride all over Seattle to free places like the Pike Place Market or the Waterfront Park or Pioneer Square. We usually went on excursions a couple of times a week. My family gave the kids lots of toys and books, so they had plenty to do when it was too rainy to go outside. Truth remembers this as her idyllic, happy childhood.

We did not have much in material possessions. Our upstairs apartment consisted of three bedrooms, a large hall, a fourth room that had been converted into a kitchen, and a bathroom with no shower. We used one bedroom as a study; it had our thrift store desk and a chair from my grandmother’s house. We put the love-seat hide-a-bed in the second bedroom with two old armchairs from my grandmother’s living room. That closet was full of toys, making that room the guest room and playroom. The largest room had a walk-in closet with a window and no curtain rod. We put an old chest of drawers from my grandmother in there and the kids slept on a blanket on the floor. Yuni and I had the hide-a-bed in the room next to the closet room plus an old mosaic table that my mom had made when I was a toddler with my brother’s old TV. By day we used the room as a bedroom, and at night Yuni and I slept there. That room adjoined the bathroom. The kitchen was across the hall from the toy room. It had a large picture window with a view of Lake Washington and the Mercer Island floating bridge. In the summers during Sea Fair, the Blue Angels would fly over the lake between heats of the hydroplane races, and they would make their turns right in front of our window. It was quite exciting. We put my grandmother’s old card table and five chairs at the window. Then there was a refrigerator, a stove, and cupboards with counter and sink on each of the remaining walls.

Despite the spartan existence, I have to agree with Truth that our life was really happy. We did a lot together as a family. We all pulled together for the common good, and we were so busy learning the ropes of our new life that we did not have time to be sad or upset or depressed. Even though we were tight, our bills were always paid on time, and we never went hungry thanks to our neighbor’s regular offerings from the food bank. And we did manage to save a little every month. It was a good feeling to owe no one and to be laying the foundation of a nest egg. But on some level, I think Yuni was hurt and disappointed that my family did not do more for us. I think he was expecting to be given a job or to be set up in business. But there are great differences between the American way of doing things and the Chinese way of doing them. I tried to explain, but the things I knew intuitively in English did not translate well at all into Chinese.


murat11 said...

This takes me back to our early days, after "The Fall." Maybe not FOB, but certainly FBTL (Fresh Back in Tres Leches). Never ever expected to return here, and once here, it was a strange amalgam of old times and memories combined with newly discovered Lechian worlds. Times were very tight, I was feeling spiritually lost, but it also felt like I was coming to a Zero Point upon which to build a real future, coming out of a real place. It felt like, for the first time in my life, I was truly grounded.

Thank you for continuing this story, Teresa.

Teresa said...

Thanks for your encouragement, Murat. I'm glad to have a reader. Sometimes the memories make me so nostalgic that my glasses fog up; we used the hide-a-bed as a living room couch by day with the TV and a bedroom by night. There was a lot of empty space in the apartment which gave the kids room to run and tumble and do whatever it is that busy toddlers/preschoolers need to do.

All in all things were great, but I did not have an agenda of needing to do something spectacular to wipe away shame. That undercurrent made it much harder for Yuni, I think. He would get frustrated that things were going so slowly.

murat11 said...

All in all things were great, but I did not have an agenda of needing to do something spectacular to wipe away shame.

What a gloriously sad, and yet so very truthful, insight. And what a terrible burden to carry - especially if blocked.

Teresa said...

I'm not sure who was blocking the agenda. I was not aware of it because I did not have the deep understanding of the culture that I gained over the past twenty years of living Chinese in America.

He knew there was shame, but because it was shame, it was not something anyone would talk about. I think he assumed that I understood.

Cloudia said...

Your story is very interesting, and good reading! Your family has become ours through your selfless sharing. Thanks so much!

Aloha from Waikiki

Comfort Spiral

Anonymous said...

This is a beautiful story. Thank you for sharing with us. :)