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:


Barrie said...

Oh my, what tough times. I think you hit the nail on the head when you said there were both socio-economic and cultural issues at work here. Communication can be so tough, can't it?

Teresa said...

Communication can be really tough, and I worry about our society sometimes. We now have so many cultural and socio-economic groups that understanding each other is really important to maintaining the fabric of our society. Unfortunately, there seem to be a lot of people who don't see it that way.

Cloudia said...

You are SO right!!!

Well funded and clever people have made night into day!

Health insurance is "bad" but impoverishing the middle class to pour more wealth on the to 1% is OK.


Aloha from Honolulu

Comfort Spiral


Teresa said...

Hi Cloudia, Glad you have time to blog hop these days. I don't think things are totally hopeless. Most Americans are basically decent, and I think that for the most part we do care about our neighbors. And attitudes are beginning to change.

murat11 said...

Mercy. This was a heartbreaker. Talk about squished in between: traditional practice and class pride conspiring to chain Yuni's - and your - hands.

I like the coda, which speaks to the beauty of your blog: as compelling a story as it is of your and the family's journey, it represents the journey of so many others who are also bashed around by the rhetoric of the (often privileged) clueless.

Speaking of dignity, Walden and I recently went to a dedication ceremony for Haven for Hope, which is a beautiful campus built just west of downtown for homeless families and homeless individuals. I say "campus," because that is exactly what it feels and looks like: a small college campus. People in desperate straits need places like Haven to bear them up, and to inspire their continued dreaming: not some hovel or the street.

Teresa said...

Thanks for stopping by, Murat. And thanks for sharing about Haven. It sounds like a wonderful place. I have been more and more concerned lately because the buses I ride to and from school are filling up with homeless people. The statistics may say that we are out of a recession, but the effects of prosperity have not trickled down very far.

murat11 said...

Amen to that, Sister.