Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Zest & Gusto

My mother is Farm Woman. My father is a Chicago Cubs fan. When they arrive to visit their grandchildren in San Diego, they wear sweatshirts that say, "San Diego." My mother is wind blowing over cornfields. My father is powerful, rumbling jet engines over Midway Airport. My parents look cozy inside their cold shoulders.

My mother is a good neighbor. Her closest friends live in nursing homes. My father plays with gadgets in the garage, the same garage where I used to rock with my band.

While visiting San Diego, my mother repotted all the plants in our house. She groomed the garden and polished the silver. She tangled me and my father in a lifting feat when she had an inclination to rearrange some furniture.

My father brought a polyscientific basin, one of his personal inventions that never really sold, but a basin you can essentially use for steaming giant crab legs. My father used his visit to San Diego to raid my wet bar while my oblivious mother toiled.

After the crab legs steamed in Grandpa's Crab Steamer, we sat down at the table that my wife had lovingly set. Now, I watch my wife as she dips the crab legs into ginger soy sauce. She licks her fingers. She smacks her lips. She says something profound in French, like tastes this fresh as goddess lips.

My high school band? Well, back then we called ourselves Faceband. This was long before Facebook's existence. (We’re suing that bastard, Mark Fuckerberg, for lifting our name!) The Bass player in Faceband was Zuckerberg’s cousin, a guy named William Fairbanks, but the Guys all called him “The Bones.” God, we loved “The Bones.” He laughed with the demons, and he laughed with the saints! “The Bones” dropped dead fifteen years ago, and tears still drop from our eyes if we just say his name.

"The Bones" deserves all the money in the world for how brilliant a guy he was. But my wife deserves the award for Best Actress tonight because she put up with my parents with such grace that she had them rolling with laughter at a joke she told over the dinner table.

“One summer evening, a woman invites her neighbor for dessert. They slowly lick forkfuls of chocolate cake and sip peppermint tea. Soon their conversation meanders to a discussion of human anatomy. The woman says, ‘I think the correct name for the area between a woman’s dunghole and her honeyhole is muff flap?’

'No, it’s called a pluggy pal,' says the neighbor.

'No. muff flap.' The woman insists.

'I swear it's a pluggy pal.' And the neighbor folds her arms over her chest.

The woman and her guest get into a heated conversation, verging on disagreement, when the woman’s husband comes out to the garden. The woman and neighbor ask him, 'So what is the correct name for the area between a woman’s dunghole and her honeyhole?'


Laughter. Such laughter.

My wife told that joke in her French-accented English and charmed the whole family into bursting laughter. Even the little children joined to laugh for the fun of laughing. Sure after that joke, lots of tension broke. We were a laughing family. We shared food and wine and zest and gusto!

Tuesday, May 03, 2011


In 1997, I started to study Mandarin. Back then everyone was talking about Monica Lewinsky’s blue dress, things were getting a little too ironic for Alanis Morisette, and politicians discussed China as a trading partner rather than an economic threat. While road tripping with my college sweetheart, racing to New York City in a red Tercel, he taught me lyrics to a famous song from his boyhood in China. He taught me some Chinese phrases. Sunshine dropped below the Pocono Mountains.

When I spoke his language, I woke a sleeping personality inside myself. At the rest stop in Ohio, the three of us made love in that tiny car—me, my sweetheart, and my new Chinese Self.

Later, he said, “You should study Chinese. It will open doors for you.” He was full of youth and ambition. I was a rascal. Sure I am more grateful than Caliban was to Prospero: more than how to curse, I’ve also learned how to con.

Later, I studied Chinese in graduate school in New York City and pretended to be an academic when I was an artist. After we were married with children, we lived with his parents; I feigned kindness when I wished them back in China.

Recently, I interviewed for a position as a Chinese language instructor. When I arrived at a grimy preschool room in an industrial park in San Diego, the director, assuming the English name Grace, looked at me and said, “Oh, you are foreign. Foreigner cannot teach Chinese. Maybe make you office assistant?”

In the middle of the interview, she answered a cell phone call. Her phone’s volume was so loud I could hear every word the auto Claims Adjuster was struggling to communicate. Grace kept interrupting. She grew increasingly panicked that a stranger was trying to pull one over on her. Grace drives a 2010 white, convertible Mercedes Benz, and she squealed, “Big damage. Very big.” She moved the phone away from her mouth to say to me, “Oh, you can wait or leave if you need. I get into car accident and take care this now.” I waited a few minutes with my hand extended until Grace put the Adjuster on hold. As I shook her hand, I spoke this sentence in Chinese: I am The Monkey King’s daughter; of course I can teach Chinese. She looked puzzled, shrugged, and continued to protest into her phone.

As I was leaving, I looked over her car in the lot. Not a scratch. In the wake of feeling rubbed the wrong way, I cursed the effort I’d made to learn Chinese. How is it so difficult to land a job?

Oh, I thought, where’s my sense of humor? So, I flattened my nose up against the driver’s window of Grace’s car, breathed a cloud of my foreign devil’s breath over her glass, etched a double happiness character with my finger, and raced home to my family.

Whenever we meet a family whose children are American born Chinese, they insist, “You must teach your children Chinese because China is a rising world power.” Or “China is becoming the economic giant.” To me, learning and speaking Chinese have little to do with the People’s Republic. It's these doors that open and close in my face that keep teaching me something about myself.

Sure kids, learn Chinese. You will expose the secrets of the Chinese government, engage in pillow talk with future Chinese economists, and bring democracy and the rule of law to China. That is, if China will ever really let you in. Better yet, you children of all ages, do learn the language, any language. Forget about doors. Child, simply realize the fascinating personalities you carry within yourself and start talking to yourself in a foreign language.