A few thoughts on hardship

Coming home from work last night, I glanced up at the ceiling on my way out and noticed a trapeze hanging from the joists. And I thought to myself my God, Thursday is going to be so much fun. I’d better clean the house tomorrow.

So I did, and not one of those “vacuum listlessly around the corners and swipe the counters with a filthy rag” cleanings. No, I cleaned. And it was good. My house had been feeling a little funky around the edges, and now it doesn’t. I’ve been keeping work cleaner than my house, which I’m sure makes my wonderful bosses happy, but makes me kind of depressed to come home. So I cleaned the house and did the laundry.

Now I realize that for some world citizens, “doing the laundry” still means “I went down to the river and beat my clothes with a rock and a cake of soap and it was freezing cold and it totally sucked.” Those of you for whom the above is true, please pass to the next paragraph. You see, for most of the first world, “doing the laundry” means “I tossed a load in the washer, then went and made a salad, tossed the load in the dryer, threw the next load in the washer, dicked off on the internet…” Some people have to actually leave their apartments and go do laundry somewhere onsite, like the basement. But the rest of us get to go to the laundrymat. As I was loading my car up, my landlord was loading his car with recycling, and he said “going on a little drive?” And I replied, through clenched teeth: “I hate going to the laundrymat almost as much as I hate going to the dentist.” But I love me some clean clothes. Obviously more than I love clean teeth, since I go to the laundrymat far more often than I go to the dentist. So off to the laundrymat I went. And then I searched for a washer that wasn’t out of order, fought with the change machine, tried to avoid the legions of unwashed masses that milled around, and watched my laundry spin. So I was understandably cranky by the time I got home.

So here I am steaming up some dumplings, and suddenly, I thought of my father’s girlfriend.

I thought of her because the particular dumplings I am steaming come on individual paper sheets, so that they won’t stick to the steaming tray. Of course, they still stick to the dumpling, so you have to tease them off and inevitably some of the dumpling sticks to the paper sheet.

Now, in this situation, I sort of halfheartedly scrape at it to get the bulk of the delicious doughy dumpling goodness off the paper, then I give it up as a bad job, and toss the paper in the compost. What my dad’s girlfriend would do, though, is suck the paper until all the dough came off. And then she would throw out the paper. For me, this epitomizes who she is, actually.

My dad’s girlfriend is kind of an interesting figure in my life. She’s unusual because I can call her “my dad’s girlfriend.” Throughout my life with my father, I’ve watched a parade of women move in and out of his life, and usually he kept quite a stable. His relationship to this assortment of women was usually unclear. He might go for a walk with Cindy on Monday, have Anne over for dinner on Thursday, and make the profound mistake of asking Melissa over for lunch on Saturday. He didn’t really have a truly poly relationship, persay, because none of the women knew about the other women, and they tended to get upset when I mentioned the others. Which was a tool I used to my advantage, because I have historically hated my father’s girlfriends, with the exception of one when I was very young. So I was surprised a few years ago when I met this particular girlfriend and came to realize there was only one. That I could refer to “his girlfriend” and not have a friend say “which one?” I have a great deal of admiration for her at this point, because she’s got my dad by the balls. And I think it’s pretty funny.

This girlfriend is also Chinese, which means that she happens to make really good food. But she also has a really interesting, and tragic, life story–one which I have only been able to put together in bits and pieces, because she rarely talks about herself.

My father’s girlfriend was born in Taiwan, into what might politely be called less than ideal economic circumstances. How not ideal? Her family slaughtered one pig a year, at the lunar new year, and rendered every conceivably usable part of the pig. Every family member had a lard allowance which they had to strictly adhere to, otherwise they would run out of fat halfway through the year and starve. It wasn’t uncommon to subsist for weeks on bamboo shoots and lard. She never saw white rice. She didn’t have shoes. She remembers vividly the first time she saw preserved ice, because she had been working in the fields all day barefoot in piles of pig manure and her feet were infected and burning, and someone put ice on them to make them feel better.

When she was 12, or thereabouts, her father passed her on to another farmer. The exact circumstances of this transaction are not quite clear to me, as I’ve only heard this part of her story second hand, through my father.

But the farmer, in turn, sold her to a restaurant owner in Taipei.

Where she learned to cook all that delicious food.

When she was 18, she ran away to the United States, and found herself in Los Angeles, where there is a large Chinese community. She got a scuba diving certificate and became an instructor. I’ve seen her license. She was devastatingly beautiful and dangerously thin. She then became a furniture dealer, and started amassing the huge empire I am familiar with today. And a much more pleasant figure–she kept the beauty but ditched the skeletal look. And she did very well in the United States. She’s like a poster child for pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, I tell you what.

Because let me tell you something about my dad’s girlfriend. She resolutely refused to learn English for a long time, because she didn’t need to. But she is a dangerously good businesswoman. She is unstoppable. She’s capable of getting an innocent sales clerk to reduce the price of something by 70%, throw in something else free, and agree to deliver it to her home within less than an hour. They seem to be under the impression that because she’s a little Chinese lady, they can pull a fast one on her, and they are always unpleasantly surprised.

She’s also a devout Buddhist, and she takes her duties as a Buddhist very seriously. Buddha gives her sound advice, she donates to the temple, and takes care of her household Buddha. It seems to me like she and Buddha have a good relationship. And whenever Buddha gives her some advice for me, as happens now and then, it tends to be good. I’ve watched her walk into a house and decide not to buy it because “Buddha say no.”

And then one day Buddha told her to move to Fort Bragg, so she did. And then she decided to spruce up her English, so she took a class at the local college, and fell in love with her professor, as most of his students did. And this is how she entered my life.

I first became aware of her in the last six months that I lived with my father, before I moved to Oakland. Every now and then he would bring home some bizarre Chinese dish, with a bemused expression, and he would say “my Chinese student brought this for me.”

One day, he came home with a thoughtful expression and said “have you ever eaten durian?”

“No,” I said.

“My Chinese student brought some durian to class today.”

“Oh,” I said, not at the time being aware of the devastating effects of durian.

“It was very odd,” he said.

I moved away. The first time I came home, a little Chinese lady was sitting in the kitchen drinking tea. As I entered the door carrying two infuriated cats and reeking of Oakland, she leapt up from the table.

“Hi!”

“Uh, hi,” I said back. I looked at my father. He stared blankly back.

She tried to unlace my shoes while I was standing.

“Oh, uh, I actually have to go out to the car to get some things,” I said.

“Oh no, I get for you! You drive all day!”

“No no, I don’t want to be any bother,” I said, carrying the cats to my room. “I’ll just let them out and then go get my bag.”

“Oh! KITTIES!”

The cats paused their meowing for a moment when faced with that level of excitement.

“I love kitty cats,” she said. She leaned down to the carrier. “Hello little cat!” She stuck her fingers through the bars, and Mr Bell nosed them. She squealed.

On each subsequent trip home, I got used to her presence. I got used to the fact that she would always be there, although she had a house in town. And I got to rather liking her. We all sat around and watched Disney movies at night, and she loved the cats. When I moved back home, she drove her minivan down and helped me move my things. It was a lot like having an actual mother, I realized.

When I flew to Goddard, she helped pay for my plane ticket. When Chinese new year rolled around, she gave me a red envelope. When I mentioned I was running low on rice, she brought over a 50 pound sack of basmati. She had somehow insinuated her way into our lives and we would never be quite the same. I now adore her fiercely and think of her as my mother, and the three of us, my father and her and I, go on little adventures all over the place. We must present an odd sight, an aging white man and a little Asian lady and me.

And out of habit, she saves everything. She never throws out food. She saves little jars and bottles and cans and things. She buys things on sale. My father and I are well aware that if she has one of something, she has fifty more in the box in the garage. Yet she is also an amazingly generous person. She belongs to several benevolent organizations, and she will do things like buy fifty sleeping bags to send to hurricane victims. For the Parents and Friends Christmas party, she bought everyone a little flashlight radio. It’s a curious mix of attitudes which can be found in my father and I as well–we are all tightfisted at one moment and almost foolishly generous at the next. I like it.

I know some people find her a little odd, especially when she’s doing things like sucking dumpling remains off paper, or cracking chicken bones in her teeth to suck out the marrow, but I won’t take any sass about her. She is a constant reminder to me of what can spring out of hardship if you are determined enough. She is far more generous and loving than my own mother was, although I suspect she secretly thinks I’m kind of spoiled. Sometimes she’s quite hard on me, especially when she says things like “why aren’t you going back to school? You should go to school, be a doctor!” Which is funny, since she never goes to the Western doctor. Sometimes she does amazingly sweet and sneaky things, too, like leaving dumplings on my doorstep on little paper sheets so that they won’t stick to my steamer.