I realize that Jacqué is probably not the best influence. Troy likely is. Despite being whitebread, Troy is as wholesome as multigrain. However, there is an edge to Jacqué that I enjoy. With him, I am Rick, cool and tough. As my first nonwhite friend, Jacqué innately understands what it is like to grow up amongst those that do not look like me or understand the culture of my parents. True, he and I look nothing alike, and the cultures of our people are vastly different. However, the experience of immigrants’ sons is near universal. It’s about attempting to fit in and finding our place as an American without completely whitewashing ourselves.
Because no matter how many Pledges of Allegiance we make, no matter how many Fourth of Julys we celebrate, and no matter how many hot dogs, apple pies, and Cheerios we consume, we will never be white. The Arizona sun will only make us browner. So it feels comforting to finally have a friend who gets this, with whom I don’t have to try to fit in all the time, with whom I can simply be. Sure, I still have to act cool and tough around Jacqué, but it’s a more natural cool and tough.
“Mom, look, I’m sorry. I know you want me to watch out. And you want me to be more like Dad. But I’m not Dad. I never will be, and I never wanna be.”
“I know your dad tough on you. I know he doesn’t show love. He doesn’t go baseball game or play throw with you.”
“It’s catch, Mom. Not throw.”
“Don’t you have to throw to catch? You know your good ol’ mom English not so good. Anyhow, your dad difficult man but good man. He comes here with nothing. He work hard. Make good life for us all.”
“Yeah, Mom, but he works so damn hard and then ends up saving, saving, saving. In the end, he works hard, and his life is hard. He could be working hard and playing hard, or at least enjoying hard the fruits of his labor.”
“He does eat fruit. But he not laborer. He engineer, rocket scientist.”
“I know, Ma, it’s just an expression.”
Dad does work hard. It’s the tao of the Asian immigrant, and there’s no other way they know of to make it in America. However, Dad takes it to the extreme. Whereas many immigrants might feel they need to work twice as hard, Dad feels the need to work five times as hard. It does pay off. He is literally a rocket scientist. Last year he accepted a job to manage a team of rocket scientists. After doing it well for a year, he elected to step down. He wanted to focus on the work, and managing people was too stressful. That’s what Americans are good at, bossing others around, goading each other on to take the hill, country, or continent. He just wants his work to speak for itself.
I sometimes wonder what life might have been like if Dad and Mom had returned to Taiwan for good. Would life had been better for Dad and me? Would he and I have struggled less, thrived more, if we had gone “back to where we came from,” as some of our fellow Americans occasionally encourage us to do while merrily shouting at us from their Ford pickup or Winnebago?
In fact, we had moved back to Taipei, Taiwan, eleven years ago, in 1973, before Mei-mei was born. Dad returned a conquering hero, equipped with a Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering, with a wife on one arm and a young son in the other. Dad had secured a Visiting Professorship at his famed alma mater, National Taiwan University. Meanwhile, Wai-Gong used his connections to get Dad a research job at the National Chung-Shan Institute. Despite some continued misgivings about my dad, Wai-Gong and Wai-Po were glad to have Mom and me back in Taipei. Moreover, Dad’s status as a returnee Ph.D. provided some lubricant to smooth the at-times-strained relations between the two families.
On the one side was Mom’s, a proud, patrician wai sheng ren (“other province people”) family of means and education led by my elegantly beautiful Wai-Po and tall and strikingly handsome Wai-Gong. He had brought the family with him from the Mainland to help organize the Kuomingtang government-in-exile in Taiwan. On the other side, my father’s family, led by A-Gong and A-Ma, both sixth-grade educated, penniless in the early years, barely five-foot-tall ben sheng ren (“local province people”). The two of them somehow managed to send all seven of their surviving kids to the top universities in Taiwan while building several thriving small businesses.
The two patriarchs could not have been more strikingly different. Aside from the differences in physical and social stature, education, and initial wealth, even their Mandarin accents were so dissimilar as to render them mutually unintelligible. So my two grandfathers resorted to employing Japanese when communicating with each other. Ironically, both had been Japanese-educated: Wai-Gong by choice studying abroad in Japan before the War of Japanese Aggression and A-Gong without an option growing up under Japanese rule.
For nearly a year, I grew up between the two families, scampering between the legs of my many aunts and uncles, blithely ignorant to all the dark tensions that lurked just beneath the surface. I loved Taiwan as a four-year-old kid, and I would love it years later as an adult. I loved running amok with other xiaogui (“little monsters”) through its narrow alleyways in falling-apart sandals. I relished eating delicacies representing Taiwan and all other parts of China served by food cart vendors competing on the same street for what few New Taiwan Dollars we had in our pockets. The full textures and flavors of the food sometimes mixed with the sweet hint of decay from the sewage to form a unique sensory experience.
On the weekends, when I stayed with Mom and the Tang side of the family, Wai-Po would take me out shopping in Ximending. She would hold her parasol while I would carry mine, a mini-parasol that had been given to me by the boss of the umbrella shop below our house who was A-Gong’s tenant. The Japanese built Ximending as a glitzy shopping and entertainment area modeled after Ginza. Its bright neon lights, clattering pachinko machines, and colorful stores selling cheap trinkets made it a veritable Las Vegas for kids. I would enjoy ice cream on a cone, as it melted onto my little fingers and hands, and even off my shirt and shorts while Wai-Po busily haggled with the merchants.
When the monsoon season rains arrived to cool down the sweltering summer days, Wai-Po would turn off the air conditioning, which was a rare luxury for most families back then. She would open up all the windows, or we would go onto the balcony with Wai-Gong. There we would catch the evening breeze filled with aromas that changed by the second. One moment it might be the musky intoxication of burning incense wafting upwards from the local earth god mini-temple. Next would be the fruity, spicy fragrance of azaleas from our neighbor’s planter. On windier days, it was the lure of sweet bread from the bakery several blocks away. When Wai-Po went inside to supervise the maid or cook, Wai-Gong would graciously offer my cousin Nee and me a toke of his cigarette. We would demur but then wonder what we were missing out on as even Wai-Po would smoke from time to time.
In the evenings, while others watched TV my little maternal uncle, Xiao Jiu-Jiu, would mesmerize me with stories of his military exploits as a guerilla fighter/paratrooper/tank driver/frogman/submarine commander. How he led the amphibious landing upon the shores of Fujian. How he and a hardy few scaled cliffs and crawled for hundreds of yards on their bellies to ambush the Communists who had parachuted onto Yu Shan, Taiwan’s mightiest peak. Never mind the impossibly mindboggling logistics involved in him having to fight so many different battles in such far-flung places or the years of training required to master so many divergent martial skills. Forget the inconvenient facts that there was no overt war going on and Xiao Jiu-Jiu was too young to serve his mandatory military service. To a simpleton four-year-old such as I, any adventure was high adventure, whether grounded in truth or myth.
When I stayed with A-Ma and A-Gong during the weekdays, we would watch Sun Wukong: Adventures of the Monkey King and take naps together each afternoon. We would sleep under mosquito netting on raised floor tatami mats that were an interior design element left from the Japanese occupation era. It kept the sleeping surface cool to the touch. On sweltering days, when even the tatami felt as warm as a skillet on a low flame, A-Ma would turn on the green metallic fan that was heavy enough to crush the skull of any intruder. It would blow warm air over us as I cuddled against A-Ma’s bosom, the same one that had nurtured nine uncles and aunts with seven making it to adulthood.
Sometimes, when A-Ma had fallen asleep, and I was too hot or excited to do the same, I would sneak out of the room and stick my head through the balcony railing to observe the frenetic activities of the street below. Once, perhaps after a minor growth spurt, I found that I could not pull my head back in. For half a day, it seemed, I contemplated how I might have to grow up on the balcony, how everyone might have to take turns feeding me there, and how convenient this position was for future spankings. Fortunately, my Xiao Gugu (paternal little aunt) awoke from her nap before too long, literally sized up the situation, pressed my ears down with her hands, and pulled my head out of the railing.
After our naps, it would be snack time to tidy us over before dinner with the entire Lin family. One time, while eating a bit of fish leftover from lunch, I got a fishbone stuck in my throat. A-Gong happened to be around and spent fifteen minutes with a tweezer trying to remove the bone. A-Ma, being a grandma, knew better. She simply sent me down to the corner store to buy mochi, the sweet glutinous rice cake first created in China, popularized in Japan, and now a staple treat in Taiwan. One sticky mochi morsel down the hatch, and I was deboned and good to go.
Even school was a much better experience in Taiwan. For one thing, no one called me “Chinaman” because we were all Chinaboys and Chinagirls. Furthermore, I found that I could skip school sometimes without getting into trouble. One time, while waiting for the school van, I got led astray by a friend following ants into an alleyway. When I returned, I waited and wondered for an hour why the van hadn’t shown up that day. Perhaps the umbrella shop owner noticed, as before too long, my little paternal uncle, Xiao Shu-Shu, a bit of an aimless cad those days, bounded jauntily down the stairs. He scooped me into his arms, and off we went for a matinee showing of High Plains Drifter.
After that day, I would find myself missing the school van from time to time so as to have Clint Eastwood, John Wayne, and Gary Cooper as substitute teachers and Xiao Shu-Shu as the teaching assistant. When we weren’t playing hooky at the movies, Xiao Shu-Shu would also share his epic military adventures as an elite army diver eliminating sentries in the dark of the night along the coast of Fujian. Apparently, my family on both sides was teeming with undercover military heroes.
In Taipei, we were localvores before the term was even conceived. Like many other neighbors, we raised chickens and other livestock in the middle of the city. A-Gong made a small steel wire enclosure for several chickens in our back alley. A friend and I would play with our feathered friends and feed them. One day he inexplicably whipped out his xiao jiji (literally “little chicken”) and started to relieve himself on the fowls. This somehow seemed a good idea, so I did the same.
God has a wicked sense of humor. That afternoon, much clucking and commotion emanated from A-Ma’s kitchen. I entered the kitchen in time to see her arm go up and then a cleaver come down—end of clucking and start of mouth-watering scent filling the entire house. In the evening, during family dinner, I enjoyed the best-tasting chicken ever. Until my young brain finally put two and two together. I stopped eating, perhaps a bit bummed that I was savoring my erstwhile feathery friend, but likely more because I recalled the special marinade my buddy and I had applied to the chicken just a few hours prior.
Those were happier days in simpler times. Sure, sometimes I got the shit beat out of me by A-Gong, Dad, or Mom. Unquestionably, life was chaotic amongst so many boisterous and querulous aunties and uncles. And now and then, I might eat a chicken I had peed on. But it was home…where everything felt natural and right.
However, it was never meant to be. Taiwan was a dramatically different planet for men and women in the seventies. For Dad, it meant recognition, status, opportunity, and temptation. For Mom, it spelled a life filled with stifling extended familial obligations, traditional societal expectations and limitations, and temptation for her husband. And so we returned to the U.S. after only nine months in Taiwan, where the tables were turned. Just as my dad and I lived in two drastically different Americas, so too did he and Mom experience two completely divergent realms within the U.S., one that heavily favored Mom as an Asian woman. Dad would never be the same again. And neither would I.