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.