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:

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Mid-October Madness

The Chinese Film and Culture Festival is in full swing at Cal State Long Beach.

Thursday we kicked it off with an opening ceremony attended by the Lieutenant Governor of California, the Vice Minister of Culture from China, the Consul-General to LA from China, the CSU Board of Trustees (who came in a bus), the President and Provost of CSULB, the head of Disney Shanghai, and numerous other dignitaries. The show kicked off with an Ansai Drum performance. Then there were speeches. Next came a Sichuan Opera mask changing performance, and then there were promo clips about the festival and all the related activities.

The Asian Studies Graduate Society (of which I am president this year) provided parking lot and ushering services. I was stationed at the entrance to the parking lot to direct the Chinese speaking drivers to their reserved spaces (in Chinese). I had a few of my classmates near me to run to the other lane and signal the campus police that this car was a VIP. Then the appropriate welcoming committee of local Chinese dignitaries greeted the visiting dignitaries and some other of my classmates who were stationed by the spaces led the dignitaries and their entourages into the theater. (Our campus is very large and confusing for first-time visitors.) Inside the theater more of my classmates led people to their seats and kept the riff-raff (mere students and faculty) in the back section of the theater. One of my Taiwanese classmates guarded the mask changer while he put on his secret make-up and masks. He got lost between the freeway and the campus, so she also had to direct him in Chinese by cell phone to the parking lot behind the stage.

My classmates saw most of the performances, but I missed the drums because I was waiting to be sure there were no stragglers. I brought in the last group of honored guests by myself. The mask changer was terrific. The speeches were inspiring, and just as the promos were going, I was called upon to ride with the limos to another part of campus to pick up the dignitaries at the end of their tour of campus and viewing of the art exhibition part of the festival. Campus police had specified a certain area for the limos because they would not fit in the driveway to the parking lot behind the student union.

My classmates brought up the rear of the gaggle from the theater making sure that no one got lost on the campus. None of the high mucky-muckies from our school knew their way around the student union (where the art exhibition is set up) very well. When the time came for the Vice Minister to leave, I got a phone call to come in and lead him out. So I was the representative from the school who saw all the Chinese diplomatic dignitaries and their entourages into the limos. It was fun; we had a good conversation in Chinese. I shook hands with all of them and wished them a safe journey.

Friday we saw two films.

The first was "Eternally Enthralled" which stars Zhang Ziyi and was directed by Chen Kaige. The professor from the Beijing Film Academy who gave the post-screening discussion of the film had been Chen Kaige's teacher. He is considered to be the "Roger Ebert" of China. I had not intepreted for the Vice Minister because of the status issue: it looks bad for a student to interpret for such an important dignitary. I did the interpretation for the professor. It was quite fun. He did not pull any punches. All the currently famous Chinese directors were once his students, and he was quite critical of all of them. He told us that he felt the movie "Red Cliff" is an unmitigated failure. American professors in the audience disagreed with him, and there was a great discussion back and forth.

The second was "The Everlasting Flame: Beijing 2008." It is the official documentary of the Beijing Olympics. The lead director of that film was there for the first US screening last night. She was very nice and very tired, as she came straight from the airport to the festival. It was quite interesting to hear how she had made the film and how long it took them to get all the footage. She described how they took 400 hours of footage to get 1 1/2 hours of film.

Monday I will interpret for the associate dean of the Chinese School of Film and Animation Academy as he discusses a film called "Invisible Wings."

Beginning on Tuesday the Asian Studies grad students will lead cultural studies discussions of the afternoon films for the last three days of the festival.

And then there will be mid-terms...

One of the professors on my thesis committee sent back my third chapter with suggestions for major structural revisions. She likes my analyses, but she thinks I need to cut and paste. My thesis committee chair liked the idea so much that she wants me to go back and reapply it to the entire thesis. But because we are now intensively working on perfecting the research paper that we will present in Singapore and Hawaii (we got accepted there, too), I have a major time crunch. Long story short: I will take the time I need to do all things well. And I will not graduate in May 2011. That is actually a good thing because I was not sure how I was going to get all the writing and classwork done as well as retaking the GRE during mid-terms and applying for PhD programs during finals. Now I can take things just two or three at a time instead of seven or eight at a time.

There was a new post from Truth:

Monday, October 4, 2010



After a long hard month, I have most of all five chapters on my thesis written. Now I am starting in on major rewrites to please the wonderful professors on my thesis committee.

I am still the intern at the faculty association. We are in full swing with political activism for the upcoming election. Plus we are sponsoring activities to improve the quality of education.


Oct. 8 , 10am. (Anatol Center or on-line): A Discussion with Charles Fadel on "Twenty-first Century Skills: Creativity and Innovation in Quality Higher Education"

Bernie Trilling and Charles Fadel, "21st Century Skills: Learning for Life in Our Times." published by Jossey and Bass, 2009.

Oct 9, 10am-2pm UNITE FOR QUALITY PUBLIC EDUCTION PICNIC (music, food, and fun). Long BEACH, POV Park.

I am also president of the Asian Studies Graduate Society. We are planning a grad student scholarly conference next spring, and we are helping out with the Chinese Film and Culture Festival on campus next week. (

One of my professors recommended me as a volunteer interpreter for the 25th Anniversary festivities of the Long Beach Qingdao Association celebrating 25 years of sister city relationship between the cities of Long Beach and Qingdao. It was pretty cool; the English-Chinese interpretation was done by me, and the Chinese-English interpretation was done by the interpreter from China. The program was broadcast simultaneously in China over the Internet so that the families of the cute Chinese dancers could watch the program, too. (See this link to a newspaper article with great pictures of the Chinese kids:

I have two regular classes with papers and midterms and homework, and I am doing a research project with a professor in the Poli Sci department on underground churches in China. We will be presenting our findings at a conference in Singapore next January (and maybe in Hawaii next spring). (

Truth has another post about her month kicking back in Taiwan. If you go back to earlier posts, she has great pictures up on the blog from her adventures in Mongolia. (

I do plan to write more for the blog. I will be re-taking the GRE this month and trying to get the first complete draft of my thesis written. After those things are out of the way, I should be able to pick up the thread of my saga. If any of you are in Long Beach, CA on Saturday, come to the park for some zydeco music and support quality public education. If you want to see really cool Chinese artisans or watch a few free Chinese films come to CSULB next week for the Chinese Film and Culture Festival. I will be running around at both events.