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.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Moving to America

Finally all things were ready, and it was time to go. The entire Liu clan saw us off at the airport. We had little backpacks with toys for the kids. We also had several huge suitcases with all our clothes. We left most things in Taiwan, since we were planning to return. I could walk, but I was not allowed to carry anything. Each girl had to carry her own backpack. Yuni had the diaper bag and two other carry-on bags with everything that we would need for the long trip. Since neither of us would have hands to pick up a wayward girl, a week or so before our departure, I began impressing upon them the need to stay close to us in the airport. Ma helped me. We told them in Hakka, Mandarin, and English that we would be traveling, and they had to stay right with us. If they got lost in the airport, they could be left behind. All three looked at us with wide, solemn eyes and nodded.

We left the relatives in the waiting room and went behind the glass partition to the exit station and gates of the Chiang Kai-Shek Airport. Ma and all the sisters and cousins were crying. The girls were happy and excited. I was sniveling myself. Yuni walked in front with the bags, the three girls followed behind him, and I brought up the rear. We made it to the gate without mishap. Soon the call went out for pre-boarding. We all trooped onto the plane and got settled into our seats. We took up one whole center row. Yuni and I each sat on an aisle, and the three girls were in between. They played with their toys or listened to stories or napped. On the whole, they were very good.

In those days, there were no direct flights from Taipei to Seattle. We were going to have to change planes in Seoul. It was two years after the Seoul Olympics, and there was a very large and very cute tiger in a glass case in the middle of the airport between our two gates. The three children were entranced. But we did not have time to gawk, as we only had 20 minutes between flights. Yuni told me to keep walking because I could not run. He let the girls stare for three minutes, before he told them to start moving. They ignored him. He began walking off, reminding them that they might get left behind in the airport. Love was the first one to pick up on the fact that I was no longer behind them. She pulled Truth’s sleeve, and told her in Hakka, “We will be left behind.” Truth and Peace both looked up and saw their parents disappearing down the corridor. Love took one of Peace’s hands and Truth took the other. The three of them came tearing after us. We made it to the gate just in time for pre-boarding. The girls never lagged behind us in a public place after that. They always made sure to be within grabbing range when we traveled or went to museums.

The flight from Seoul to Seattle was long, but uneventful. Unfortunately, we had to put the twins back into diapers. They were potty trained as long as they could get swiftly to their potty seats, but there was no guarantee that they would be free to use the restroom as needed on a crowded plane. They also went back on their bottles because it was easier for them to drink from bottles on the plane. Adjustment was hard for them in America without all the support of the extended family; potting training and drinking from cups went by the wayside. In the end, all three got out of diapers and off of bottles at the same time just before Peace turned three years old.

When we arrived in America, we went through immigration. The girls and I all had US passports, but Yuni had a sealed envelope from the American Institute in Taipei with the papers granting him immigrant status. We showed the envelope to the official at the desk and were immediately sent to a little room. Yuni and his envelope went inside. The girls and I sat outside. After what seemed like an eternity, Yuni emerged with a temporary resident visa stamped into his passport. His green card would be sent to us in the mail. Everyone else from the plane had left by the time we got to the baggage claim. We got our huge suitcases and stacked them on carts. Then we staggered out through the doors.

My dad and his wife had seen us from the observation windows. They came down to the doors when we got the carts loaded. It was so good to see them. They had brought two cars in order to take us to their home. They had also borrowed car seats from friends and relatives. We safely made it to Dad’s condo in the center of Bellevue, a suburb of Seattle. They had futons in their TV room for Yuni and me, and the girls slept on blankets on the floor. The five of us all went to sleep.

The next few days were spent visiting my grandparents and other relatives. We had dinners here and dinners there. We took the kids to the Woodland Park Zoo, the Seattle Science Center, and the aquarium. Then we all went for a ferry ride. My maternal grandfather had cancer and could not really leave his apartment, so we went to his place a lot. My other grandfather had been in a car accident not long before we arrived. He had had a stroke; no one knew if it was what had caused the accident or the result of the accident. He was in a nursing home where his wife could have an apartment on the tenth floor. We went with my dad to help clean out their condo. Dad let us take what we needed from Grammie’s kitchen. We also got some bookshelves and a hide-a-bed loveseat. My brother Tom had boxes of things that he no longer needed. He took us to his storage locker and let us forage. Other relatives gave us their unwanted furniture and household items. Soon we had enough stuff for an apartment, but we needed a place to live and jobs.

We came with just a few hundred dollars because we had left so much money in Taiwan to pay the mortgage for Ma’s peace of mind. I had several thousand in a US bank account from before I had gone to Taiwan. My dad added a couple of thousand, but there was so much that we needed to buy. We had to get a car, and we had to pay first and last month’s rent. Diapers were expensive, as was formula. We were not used to American prices. Everything was so much more expensive than in Taiwan. We finally found a station wagon that Yuni could use for carrying construction materials. The owner gave us a break on the price when he saw us appearing en masse as a family. It cost us $2000 plus tax and licensing.

Yuni had been expecting a job as a full-time mason. But in between the time that my dad had sent us newspapers showing lots of work for masons and the time we arrived in the US, Seattle had entered the 1989 recession. The rest of the country was improving, but Seattle was just going down. My dad had a contact at the mason’s union, and the three of us went for the interview. The man was very nice. He looked politely at Yuni’s licenses and award certificates. Then he told us that Taiwanese standards and US standards were too different. Yuni could start as an apprentice and learn again from the ground up. He would be a hod carrier and earn $8.50 per hour. There was not much work, so he would only be guaranteed twenty hours work per week until business picked up. After two years, he could take the exam to be a journeyman mason. If he joined the union, he could not take non-union jobs. We walked out crushed. Yuni thought my family looked down on him since they had not come through with what he felt had been promises for a job. The Taiwanese news had not said much about the US recession; so as far as he was concerned, the recession did not exist. There was one company advertising in the want ads for a person to do precast concrete. The pay would be $7.10 during the probationary period. We were not desperate enough yet for him to take that job.

I sent out my resume looking for work as an assistant coordinator in the office of international students at a local community college. I was among the top three applicants, and I got called back for a couple of interviews, but in the end, I was told that going abroad for two or three years after college is good, but staying for eight years becomes a liability. While I understood the Taiwanese system, I no longer understood America. Several other places also refused me. We didn’t know what to do. We could not stay at my dad’s place for more than thirty days because it was a “no children” condo. After thirty days we lost our status as guests. Without jobs, we did not know how we could afford an apartment. Finally, we found a place near the international district that would let us in for first month/last month plus a security deposit with my dad as a co-signer. We took it before we had work. Everyone in my family was helping us look, but they were professionals and didn’t have an in with masons and construction workers.

We moved into the apartment and bought a newspaper. That job with the precast concrete was still there. Yuni had been to so many places looking for work, but his experience in Taiwan was discounted and his lack of English was a liability. Moreover, there was not much work for anyone. Finally, we had no choice; all the money was just about gone. All five of us piled into the station wagon and drove to the precast concrete company. Yuni went upstairs to get the application and brought it down to the car so I could fill it out. Then he went back up for the interview. About fifteen minutes later, he came down to the car and brought me and the kids back up to translate. The company was family-owned. When I went up with the three girls in tow, the boss’s wife gave her husband a look. In less than ten minutes, Yuni had a provisional job for the next month. He would make $7.10 per hour until he could prove that his lack of English would not hinder him from finishing concrete. By the second day, they had raised his wages to $8.35 per hour and made him a permanent employee. It was a lower hourly wage than the union was paying, but most weeks they had over-time hours available. The foreman was a very nice man who took it upon himself to teach Yuni English. Every day Yuni would come home with a list of English words from the foreman. I would give him the Chinese, and he would spend hours and hours memorizing them.

We had an apartment, one income, and a car; we were well and truly arrived.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Preparing to Immigrate

Yuni and the twins at Window on China

I suppose I should explain after my last post, that I finally figured those insights out in just the past few months. The differences in shame versus guilt and in views on gender values have always been conundrums to me, and they are two areas where we have experienced certain glitches along the way. For the most part, things were good, and we were quite happy. When I called my family to tell them that we would be immigrating to the US, my grandparents were quite pleased. One of my grandfathers had been diagnosed with a return of cancer, and he was not expected to live for very much longer. I was his only married grandchild, and he wanted to spend time with his only great-grandchildren while he was still alive.

So we decided to head for the Seattle area. My dad and his wife were there as were both sets of grandparents and my aunt and uncle and a couple of great-aunts. My family tree is something like an inverted pyramid, and to this day, I am the only one in my generation on either side of the family who is married with children. My dad sent us information about the market for masons, and it looked like Yuni would be able to get work as a mason and earn a very good wage, if he could get into the union. While we were waiting for his paperwork from the Immigration Department to come through, we went to all his schools getting certified English transcripts. We also got notarized English translations of his various construction trade licenses from Taiwan and his awards from both the Taiwan National Skill Olympics and the International Skill Olympics.

We continued working, and of course, there were family obligations, too. Both of my two unmarried sisters-in-law got engaged that summer before we left. In the Chinese system, the engagement party is done by the family of the bride, and the wedding is done by the groom’s family. So Yuni and I were there to play our roles as elder brother and sister-in-law in the ceremonies. They were traditional with gifts of gold and trays of money for the bride price. Since I had not required a bride price, Pa decided that he would no longer “sell” off his daughters, as his way of thanking the girls for helping him out of bankruptcy. He did take the money from the grooms’ families, but he put it into a secret bank account for each daughter as her own private nest egg.

Just before I got off my crutches, Yuntian had a grand mal epileptic seizure on his first major sea voyage with the navy. He was unconscious for 24 hours on the ship because they had to sedate him to stop the convulsions. Pa, Ma, and Yuni were completely distraught at the thought that Yuntian’s ailments were back. They decided that it would be too dangerous for them to drive in their hysteria, but they wanted me to go talk to the doctors, as I had gotten information on epilepsy from my clinical chemist father and veterinarian uncle. Besides, all medical records in Taiwan are written in English. The seven of us (including the babies) took the train to the southernmost part of the island to the Navy base where Yuntian’s ship was stationed. There is a large hospital in the middle of that base. Pa and Yuni were sure that we would have no trouble getting a taxi. But when we got there, the police were sweeping the taxi stands at the train station for taxis that took more than 4 passengers. We had to walk (or crutch) half a mile out to the regular streets before we could all get into one car with the kids on grown-ups’ laps in the back seat. Then, when we got to the Navy base, the taxi could not go inside. We had to crutch and walk another half mile or more to the hospital. We got to see Yuntian, and I was able to talk to his doctor. The doctor wanted to discharge Yuntian from the Navy immediately, but Yuntian wanted to stay and try to finish out his term of duty. He wanted to get transferred to a land unit in the Navy.

That night we stayed with the family I had lived with during my first year in Taiwan. The husband was Air Force and taught at a military college not far from the Navy base. While we were eating dinner with them, I asked him what we should do. He immediately got on the phone. First, he called a friend from church who was a doctor at the Navy hospital. The next day that friend drove us in a van up to the hospital door, so I didn’t need to crutch around. Then my friend called his uncle, who was the second in command of the entire Navy for all of Taiwan. (I really did not know that I had such powerful friends.) The uncle worked things out, and after two days we were able to bring Yuntian home for a months’ leave. When he returned to the base, he would be put into the shore patrol unit as a staff sergeant. We took Yuntian to the hospital where I had had my surgeries and got him tested and put onto anticonvulsants. By the time he went back, he was doing fine, and he was tagged as a friend of the second-in-command, so things went well for him. He stayed in the Navy for another few years before he was discharged.

The trip to the South reminded Yuni and me that we needed to show the girls Taiwan before we left. So we took trips every other weekend. We drove on several of the cross-island highways. We went to the Taroko Gorge, and we went to the wild animal park near Window on China. As far as the kids were concerned, the wild animal park was the best. It was the typical Taiwanese, unsafe and insane kind. You drove your family car through along a road with wild animals just roaming in open cages that you were driving inside. The lions crossed the road in front of you. The baboons would jump onto the cars and pull off the windshield wipers. It was all very exciting. At the end, there was a petting zoo with real farm animals. We stayed there for quite awhile as Ma caught ducks and geese and held them so her granddaughters could safely pet them. I’m not sure the animals were quite sure what to do with the Liu family visits. The kids liked it so much that we went several times.

I also went back for my final exam on the bone graft. The doctor said it had taken wonderfully, and I had exercised my leg well, so I could walk without any problems. Then I asked him why my right knee, which had been injured in high school, was hurting so badly after six months of putting all my weight on it. Dr. Hsu was perplexed. He ordered an immediate MRI and learned that at the age of 16 I had had ALL the cartilage in it removed during a procedure in which the surgeon should have left a small pad of cartilage. He questioned me further about what was done, and I learned that I had memorized only part of the name of the procedure. Dr. Hsu had assumed that because I could spell “minesectomy,” I knew what it meant and had the correct medical definition of the procedure. Because I had no cartilage, the bones in my knee had shifted over the six months that I was on crutches; hence, I was in great pain. He suggested that I lie on the couch until I was in my 60s when I could get a knee replacement surgery and that I lose the 15 pounds that I had gained from all Ma’s calcium-laden bone soups during my recovery. I thought, “I am 28, I have three kids under the age of three, I am moving to America without my mother-in-law in just a few months, I have to work, and there is no way I will lose any weight just lying on the couch.” But of course, I smiled politely and thanked the doctor. (I was already very Chinese.)

As soon as I got home, I went to the old Chinese doctor whose shop was by the big clock in the center of Chungli. I asked him what I should do. He gave me an herbal prescription to help with the pain, and then he said that I needed to keep moving. He said that my body would find its own equilibrium if I moved slowly and gently and paid attention to my breathing. So I began doing qi gong exercises and some tai chi exercises that I had learned while I was still single. And the Chinese doctor was right; I would never run again, but I have done pretty much everything I have wanted to do since then. The breathing really helps. It’s amazing. So does listening to my body.

Yuni passed his immigration physical at the 7th Day Adventist Hospital in Taipei. We got our plane reservations. We packed up clothes and things. Ma spent the summer trying to convince us to leave the kids with her. But I wanted to keep them bilingual, and there was no way they would get any English without me in the household. We did leave enough of our savings in Taiwan to pay the mortgage on the family’s home for three and a half years. We planned to be in the US just until the twins were elementary school age. Then we would return to Taiwan until they were in high school and come back to the US for high school and college. Ah, the best laid plans of mice and men…

But like the millions of immigrants who have come to the US, we had stars in our eyes about life in America, the international land of promise. I knew that it would not be as rosy as Yuni was dreaming; however, I did not know how to explain it to him. I knew that he would have culture shock and that I would have re-entry shock and that the kids would have to transition to a life without doting grandparents and aunts in the same household. But even I was not prepared for the reality that hit when we arrived in the US in the middle of a recession.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Face, Shame, and Teapot Spouts: What Chinese Babies Learn from their Mamas

I mentioned last week that the Chinese have a culture of shame. And as I have been working on projects for school while reflecting on my experiences in Taiwan with the Liu family, I concluded that the concepts of “face” and “shame” are gender-based. The Liu family is rural and working class, so I thought that some of the attitudes would be slightly different among urban, upper-class, highly-educated elite, but after reading “Two Sisters” by Yu Lihua, I realized that the attitudes seem to be pretty much the same in every class. These concepts have a several-thousand-year history in China, and they are very prevalent. Mao attempted to change things, but since his death, even urban elite and Party members in China are going back to the old gender-stereotyped ways.

So what are those ways?

I think the best way to describe it is to post a few You Tube clips from the Wu Tianming’s movie “The King of Masks.” This movie is about an elderly street performer in China during the 1930’s. He performs Sichuan opera mask-changing, and he is one of the best. Unfortunately, his wife abandoned him and their infant son because she could not stand their hard life. He did his best to raise his son, but the boy got sick and died in childhood. Now he needs a male heir to carry on his name and to learn the family’s art. So he goes to a child market where starving families, who lost their homes in a flood in the next county, are selling unwanted children. Most of the children for sale at the market are girls, but his family tradition states that he can only pass his art down to a boy of his family. He has to adopt a grandson. He is about to give up in despair when he sees a little boy. Unfortunately, after he and the child, Doggie, have bonded, he learns that “Doggie” is a girl. He tries to get rid of her, but she has been sold seven times by child slavers. Each time they try to pass her off as a boy, and when the family learns she is a girl, they throw her out on the street. The old man takes her on as a servant because he knows that the slavers beat her, and he treats his monkey better than they treated her. Since she is a girl, he can only teach her acrobatics and make her into a servant. She can no longer call him “Grandpa;” she has to call him "Boss." Together they pole his houseboat up and down the Yangtze River, going from town to town doing shows in the market place. One day, they watch the old man’s friend, a famous castrati opera star, perform the story of Guanyin, a woman who attains Nirvana. Doggie gets interesting ideas. But she does not have a tea-pot spout. Later in the film, Doggie accidently sets the houseboat on fire, and she runs away from shame. She is kidnapped again and kept to care for the little boy the kidnappers caught. Doggie uses her acrobatic skills to escape with the boy and discovers that he has a teapot spout. Since the boy is too young to know his family name or address, she delivers the boy to the King of Masks, so he can have the grandson he desires. I won’t tell you any more of the movie. It is well worth the cost of joining Netflix or sitting through 10 ten-minute segments on You Tube.

"You don't have a little teapot spout."

"Guanyin has breasts, so why do you worship her?"

Here we see a real "teapot spout."

Watching the movie and the close-up of the little boy’s “teapot spout” reminded me of the Liu family rules. Boy toddlers could run around in the summer without pants to prevent diaper rash (and to show off their genuine spouts to the neighbors), but girl babies were taught from day one that their privates were shameful. They had to keep them hidden. No matter how painful the diaper rash, a girl baby could not run around bare-bottomed. The source of shame was not the exposing; it was the lack of a teapot spout. When boy toddlers were bad, the worst threat was that their spouts would be cut off and they would be just like a girl. So before the child can talk, it is indoctrinated that people with “spouts” are somehow superior to people without.

Throughout their lives, boys are privileged. They are not expected to help with chores. They can order their mother and sisters around to some extent. They do not have to control their tempers. All they have to do is get good grades in school and learn how to earn money. Earning money and bringing glory to the family is the way a man gains face. His gender is NOT a source of shame. Even in his worst failure, he can comfort himself that his “teapot spout” sets him that many inches higher than any woman alive, no matter how successful she may seem.

Women do not gain face in and of themselves. The only way for a woman to gain face is for her to bear a son and to nag that son into becoming a successful adult. That is a woman’s true face. In the Hakka language, sons are called “children,” and daughters are daughters. So Ma would say to people, I have two children and five daughters. This does not mean that Ma hates her daughters. She loves them very much and worries about them and frets about them, but linguistically her sons have always been privileged, and that shaped family attitudes towards the boys. A woman only gets individual face when she is a widow living with her grown, wealthy son, and he treats her with honor and respect as his mother.

Before a woman attains that blissful state of widowed motherhood, she gains face by having a rich husband and acting as a fashion mannequin for his wealth. Her face comes from her husband. And so can her shame. If her husband does not earn as much money as her brothers, a woman feels that she cannot hold her head up. If her husband has a failure in business, a woman might be too embarrassed to visit her relatives for many years. For most of their lives, women live with vicarious shame and vicarious face. Everything depends on their husbands. While women do not have individual face, they might have individual shame beyond the “original shame” of their sex. If a woman fails to keep house, she is shamed. If a woman squanders the family’s hard-earned money, she is shamed. If a woman fails to bear sons, she is shamed. If a woman contradicts her husband, she is shamed. People shun her and then whisper behind her back and point at her.

For truly touching portrayals of women in Chinese families, I recommend two films by Zhang Yimou (also on Netflix): “Raise the Red Lantern” and “Ju Dou.” Both are brutal and NOT for family movie night, but they hauntingly portray the tragedy of women in traditional Chinese families.

I was apart from this face/shame paradigm because I was an American. I do not have that innate sense of shame. It never occurred to me that my lack of a “spout” made me a second-class citizen. I was given leeway because I am an American, and because in everything I did, I was a cheerful contributor to the family. But I was too successful outside the home, and then I got injured and sick from the botched surgery. It was a very sticky situation, and the most expedient way for a man to live down shame is to go away and come back after having done something so “face-making” that all previous shame is wiped away from the collective memory.

I mentioned last week that face is a matter for the family. That is true; an individual’s loss of face reflects on the entire clan. It also determines a man’s worth within the clan. If a man has much face, his words are weighty and everyone listens to him. If a man loses face, people turn their backs on him and ignore his suggestions without even bothering to listen. It is a very painful and traumatic situation, especially for someone who has been pampered all his life as a privileged boy among many women and girls.

Bonus clips:

What happens when the King of Masks learns that Doggies is a girl.

The Sichuan Opera about the story of Guanyin

Real Sichuan Mask-changers (and they breathe fire, too!)

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Recovering from Five Hours under the Knife

The day of my surgery, I was taken down to the OR very early. The anesthesiologist Dr. Ma did his thing, and I was feeling no pain. Eventually, I came to in the recovery room, and finally they wheeled me up to my room. It was late afternoon before I got to my room. My teeth were chattering and I was shivering. The nurses had to bring hot water bottles, hot towels, and heating pads and pack me in them to get me warm. I had been in surgery for a little more than five hours. The OR is kept cool to slow blood loss, and I was just very, very cold.

Dr. Hsu came to see me later when he made his evening rounds. He told me that it was a very good thing I had been breastfeeding Peace regularly during the two months between my accident and the surgery. He said that all the calcium in my body had gone to producing milk, and the break in my bones was very fresh. He warned me NOT to breastfeed after I got out of the hospital, or the bone graft would not take. My leg was immobilized on a kind of half cast, and there were some pins sticking out of my knee. But my incision was neat, and the stitches were the kind that dissolves automatically. The woman in the bed next to me was not a cash-paying American. She had had the same procedure, but they used black nylon thread on her. She had what looked like a centipede growing up her leg. She also had a rack of metal pins holding her leg in place. When I asked Dr. Hsu about the difference, he said that the woman was using the national health insurance which paid the hospital less than 60% of its costs. I was paying cash, so I got what I paid for. And another thing… I was American, and one day my scar would be inspected by doctors in America. It was a matter of national pride that Taiwan get it right on my leg, especially after the debacle with Peace.

The twenty-one days in the hospital went pretty quickly. My mom made friends all over the place as she went to get food or dump the bed pan or do all the myriad chores that family members do in Taiwanese hospitals. My incision healed well. I was taught to do leg lifts for physical therapy, and soon I was sent home to finish off my five and a quarter months of not putting weight on my left knee. Pa had called all his unmarried daughters to come home and help. Yuni and I slept downstairs in Yuntian’s bedroom for the first month or so because I was so sore, I could barely move even on crutches. The bone for the bone graft had been taken from my right hip, so I was sore on both sides. Pa and Ma each took one of the twins to care for. Pa took Truth and Ma took Love. Fourth Sister took Peace, and Second Sister did the laundry, cooking, and other housework. When Pa and Yuni were at work, Second Sister helped with Love and me.

Soon I was able to crutch around the ground floor and sit on the couch with my leg up. My dad and his wife came for a visit around Christmas time. We still had the fake tree that he had sent the year before, so they set it up, and we had gifts and a “Yule log” cake. The Liu family loved it. Peace spent much of the day in a walker chasing after her sisters. She was teething, and during the festivities, she noticed my toes hanging out of my cast. Her gums were particularly itchy, so she trundled on over and started gnawing on them. It tickled, but I couldn’t bend the leg or move it because of the heavy cast and the angle at which I was sitting. I started screaming, and everyone began laughing. Instead of rescuing me from my vampire baby, they ran for the video camera and made a tape of it. Everyone had a great time laughing. Unfortunately, we taped over that scene before we learned about the show America’s Funniest Home Videos. We probably could have won at least $5,000.

Within three months, my cast came off. I had to wear a soft splint and walk on crutches, but I was pretty mobile. I went back to work as a trainer of teachers at the Gloria English School, and I went back to teaching my university classes. At home, I would put Peace on my back in the carrier and crutch up three flights of stairs with the twins running up ahead of me. When we came down, the twins would hold onto part of the crutch as I hopped down. Somehow we all made it without tumbling down the stairs. I was quite happy, and I enjoyed going back to work. I was blithely unaware of currents among the Liu and Chu family clans that were only voiced in Hakka.

My Chinese literature professor this semester started several of her lectures with the statement: “America is a guilt-based society, but China is a shame-based society. You must understand this principle to understand what motivates the characters in Chinese literature.” This statement means that in America, we have a very legalistic view of things. When something goes wrong, we can assign blame for the mishap to various people based on their percentage of culpability. We also look at intent, and if a person caused a mishap unintentionally, we give them a lot of leeway. So when I look at the motorcycle accident, the most I will say is that Yuni was guilty of laziness. He did not cause the accident, and to my mind he is barely at fault for my mishap. In a shame-based society, it is all a matter of appearances. Everything is determined by what other people think about you. If something happens to someone related to you, and you had the slightest possibility of preventing the mishap, then you will be shamed for life, sometimes for not living up to your familial obligations.

After three years of marriage, I was very popular in both the Liu and Chu clans. My presence brought the family much face. My injury was a loss of face to the entire clan because it appeared to society at large that they could not take care of me properly. And since Yuni could have prevented this loss of face by rising early and driving me that day, the whispers began to shame him. The whispering did not bother me because I did not understand Hakka. When I was informed of the whispering, it didn’t matter to me because I did not think he was at fault. But then, I had not been brought up with his set of values. I had noticed that Ma’s worst threat to the children was: “Everyone will say you are bad. You will never be able to hold your head up. Shame, shame, shame.” I did not understand the repercussions of this threat.

Ma later told me that the whispering had reached a crescendo that neither Pa nor Yuni could tolerate. Yuni informed me that we would be moving to America, and I needed to apply for his green card. I asked if we could wait a year until I had healed more. The adamant answer was, “No!” Something in his tone of voice expressed almost panicked desperation, so I asked some of my American colleagues with foreign spouses about the procedures for making spousal green card applications. They told me horror stories about the interviews. One woman had been asked if her husband wore boxers or briefs, the size of his underwear, and the measurements of what was under the boxers. One man had almost failed because he did not know his wife’s bra size. I was told that we would be separated and asked questions about the most personal aspects of our lives, and if we gave different answers, the petition would fail. One man told me that it would be best if we took the children, so based on that advice, the five of us piled into the van and headed for Taipei.

I filled out the paperwork and asked for a same day interview due to my leg. The people at American Institute in Taiwan were quite accommodating. We were told to go out for lunch and return at 1 pm. When we got back, I was called to a window behind a screen. There were people at windows on either side of me conducting their business at AIT. The examiner went over the names, dates of birth, and other personal information. Then he turned beet red. He said that he had to ask us about our life together as husband and wife. His first question was how many times a week we had sex. Before I could open my mouth to answer, Love came running in calling, “Mommy, mommy, mommy.” I picked her up and began to answer. The examiner stopped me before I could embarrass myself. He asked, “Do you have children?” I said, “Yes, three.” So we brought the children and stood as a family before the window. I showed the examiner their birth certificates to prove that the twins were just barely two. The examiner asked them to point to Mommy. Both twins solemnly pointed at me. Then the examiner asked me if they called Yuni “Daddy” or “Baba.” As soon as they heard the word “Baba,” Truth and Love started pointing at Yuni and screaming “Baba, Baba.” The examiner wiped his hand across his forehead and then asked me to take Peace from Yuni and hold her. After she responded to me familiarly, he wrote on the application: “Two year old mixed race twins identified applicant and respondent as Mommy and Baba, mixed race baby was comfortable in both parents’ arms. This is obviously a true marriage. No further questions were needed. Application approved.” He then told me it would take about six months for all the paperwork to be processed, and then we could move to the United States of America.