Sunday, June 6, 2010

First Snow

Love in a box in the toy room

It seems that my posts have been getting darker as time goes on, but I am trying to record as best I can what we were going through, not because we are anything special, but because we aren’t. I am unique in that I experienced being an immigrant to my own country, and I experienced things that most people of my race, class, and educational background do not experience. Moreover, because my grandmothers, in particular, were worried about my grandfathers’ prestige if we “went on the dole,” our family did this without any social services. Later, in my translation business, I helped newly arrived families with small children “go on the dole;” to be honest, they had a much easier time of it than we did even though they had NO family here. I want to put our experience out there as an example.

America today is in a time period when a certain sector of the populace wants to abolish all social services. Times are tough, and instead of uniting, we seem to be losing that American sense of uniting for the common good that we saw in the aftermath of 9/11 and at other times in our history. As resources get tighter, we are retreating into “tribalism” and trying to shut out all who are different. I feel that this is a huge mistake.

During the Great Depression, the farmers’ march on Washington and the veterans’ encampment on the Capitol Mall put our leaders into fear of riots by the masses. FDR enacted legislation that laid the foundation for our social safety net, and we began several decades of domestic policy designed to increase the percentage of households in the middle class. The wealthy were taxed progressively, and that money was spent to ensure that hunger would not be a problem. Because we are a diverse nation, “tribalism” is particularly dangerous. When the race riots erupted in the 1960’s, Lyndon Johnson launched his Great Society program to bring more minorities into the middle class. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs states it clearly: when people are hungry they do not have the wherewithal to be moral. Other countries that do not have our safety net (tattered as it has become by the past thirty years of political policy favoring the wealthy and increasing income disparity), are already seeing riots by hungry workers who acutely feel their exploitation when they see the wealthy on TV. Thailand comes to mind as an example, as does rural China where farmers and factory workers riot frequently, although the news does not get into the mainstream media. Last year, even chicken farmers in Arkansas, USA rioted because their livelihood was being destroyed by a large polluting corporation. They were put down forcibly by the National Guard.

The Moral Economy of the Peasant by James Scott discusses the mindset of people standing up to their economic necks in water and how they react when a swamping wave comes along. Fanshen by William Hinton describes the brutality of peasant life in China during the early twentieth century that led to revolution upon revolution. That brutality seems to be returning, not only to China, but to the rest of the world. Building a wall won’t keep people out; it’s too late. Globalization has already occurred. And so, part of the reason why I record Yuni’s frustrations and anger as we tried to get a toe-hold, is because he is one of many. Most of our immigrant friends felt the same way and experienced similar discouragements. By dismantling the middle class or by trying to restrict middle-class status to one race or group, we as a society are playing with fire. The lessons from history proving this fact are numerous.

Winter came early our first year in America. One day in mid-November, the skies were grey and it looked like rain. But the temperature dropped. By noon, the ground was covered with a dusting of snow. The snow began to fall thicker and faster, and around two, Yuni called from work to say that the owners were sending everyone home. He thought it might take a little bit longer than usual, but he was confident he would be home for dinner. He was quite excited because he had only seen light dustings of snow on the very tops of Taiwan’s highest peaks. There had not even been enough snow to make a snowman and now he was having snowball fights with his friends in the parking lot. I reminded him not to get wet and chilled.

Since he was coming home before the snow got too deep, I was not too worried. I thought that the freeways would be clear from all the traffic. I bundled the girls into their padded cotton suits with many layers underneath, and we went out into the yard to play. The snow was about three inches deep. The girls had lots of fun making snow angels and running in the cold white stuff. Their Chinese suits were not waterproof, so we could only stay out for about 20 minutes. I got them into a hot bath and then we had some hot cocoa and snacks. They went in to watch Sesame Street and draw pictures while I started dinner.

I thought that Yuni would probably be home by 5 at the latest; that would give him three hours to cover a 40 minute drive. I also thought that he would be cold, so I made a chicken soup and other warming foods—veggies stir-fried in bacon grease and another meat dish in addition to the chicken in the soup. Yuni had not taken his warmest coat with him. He thought it was too much trouble. I was very worried that he would get chilled, but at least he had gloves. He didn’t even have a warm hat, yet.

5:00 came and went. I kept the dishes warming on the stove and in the electric fry-pan. By 6 the girls were hungry, so I fed them. At 7, I ate myself. Now I was really worried. The snow was falling thicker and faster. We stopped watching children’s shows and turned to the news. Some areas already had a foot accumulation. At 8, I called the police to ask if there had been an accident involving a non-English-speaking Chinese man in a huge, brown Town-and-Country station wagon. They took my number and thirty minutes later called back to say that there had been several accidents, but none involving anyone answering that description. At 10, I put the girls to bed and wondered what to do. A little before midnight, I heard stomping on the stairs as Yuni came in. His nose was totally red, but he was sweating. He took a warm bath and got out of his wet clothes. Then he told me his story while he ate. When he was bathing, I went down to look for the car. It was not there. I was very worried, but he insisted on telling it like a folk tale and didn’t let me know what had happened to the car until the very end.

He said:

“I started out on Highway 520 to go across the new floating bridge, but there is a hill as you come out of Redmond into Bellevue. Several cars had spun out there. I braked too quickly, and I spun out, too. I was stuck. I couldn’t get the car to move in reverse. I was right near the on-ramp from Marymoor Park. The man in the car in front of me told me that my car was heavy enough. He helped me push my front around so the car was pointing down the on-ramp. Then I inched my way down, driving the wrong way. I got onto the road that goes by Lake Sammamish and went to get gas first. It was lucky that I did that. Then I remembered that when my parents were here, your dad took us by this lake and along to I-90, so I could get to the other floating bridge and come home. I thought it looked like the same road, but it was hard to see with all the snow. I drove along, and finally I found it. The on-ramp there to I-90 is all downhill. Once I got onto the freeway, the road was pretty clear, but there were so many cars. When I was almost across Lake Washington, and I could see our house on top of the hill, traffic stopped still. I stayed stuck in traffic from 6:00 to 10:30. Finally, traffic began to move. Fortunately, our car is big and heavy; many people with little cars could not get up hills, even with those funny things wrapped on their tires (chains). I took the long way around, so I did not have to go up any steep hills. When I got to that green bridge to come onto Beacon Hill, I saw that a house had burned down. It was still smoldering. The fire trucks had sprayed water all over the road. It was about 11, and the night air had turned the water to ice. My car started sliding down a side street, but I saw the entrance to a parking lot. I didn’t want to leave our only car on the road because cars were getting buried in snow and then hit by other cars. There is an old folks’ home there, you know? So I slid into their parking lot and found a place to park. I didn’t do a good job parking, but at least the car is not on the street. Then I started to walk. The sidewalk was all covered with ice from the water. I had to crawl across the bridge because I could not stand up. It was a little better when I got across until I came to the steep part right before our house. I would walk a few steps and then slide down. Then I’d walk a few more steps and slide back some. But I knew I had to get home. So I crawled when I couldn’t walk, and I made it. Now I’m really tired.”

Yuni’s company was closed again the next day. The whole family trooped down to the car, and then we went down to buy bags of sand and chains. We put the sand in the cargo carrier to weight it, and we put the chains on in the parking lot. Yuni had figured out how to drive in snow the night before. He was already quite good at navigating. We also went to K-Mart to shop for snowsuits for the kids. We couldn’t afford any, but after we got home my dad called to say that he was coming to see us. Lo and behold, he brought three snowsuits for the girls and a warm hat with earflaps for Yuni. I got a nice hat, too.


Cloudia said...


This is not only compelling but important! Submit it somewhere; Huffington Post perhaps?

Too good NOT to publish...

Aloha from Waikiki

Comfort Spiral

Teresa said...

Thanks for the vote of confidence, Cloudia. I'm not sure where I would get this published. My idea is to finish the story online and then do a Blogger book. But I assume you're mainly referring to the preamble essay in italics.

If I get feedback, I take it into consideration as I'm drafting the next post. Sometimes, like this week, lightening strikes.

murat11 said...


I'm with Cloudia: very compelling preface.

As for Yuni's story, what a harrowing ordeal for all of you - especially for him, of course. Something wonderfully revealing about his doggedness; not to mention that the story is a remarkable correlative for his experiences in trying to get a foothold here.

Did he truly insist on the telling the story without interruption, or was the "telling" the writer's pragmatic way of passing the story along? No complaint implied in the asking; merely asking out of another writer's curiosity.

Teresa said...

Hi Murat,

Thanks for your comments.

The Lius were denied education for two generations, and many of Yuni's older cousins only had an elementary school education. They are all story tellers. This story is part of his yarn-swapping reportoire, and when he goes into folk tale mode, his voice changes, he rocks back and forth, and he tells the tale from beginning to end. To be honest, I probably recorded a later more practiced version because that is what I have heard the most. But when a Liu goes into story-teller mode, the room quiets, and everyone listens to the end.

I think it's the influence of the oral culture. Good question; thanks for asking.