First let me say that this is not a criticism of music writers or music writing as a genre. Far from it. To all of you music writers, I say, Rock on. Tons of people read your stuff, and will talk to you about it till the cows come home. But I won’t be one of them.

Not because I’m some sort of snob, or only read “literature.” (Please: I read celebrity gossip every day. Blind items revealed? Squee!) No. It’s because I don’t know shit about music. Like sports, most music is simply beyond my knowledge, so when you write about the best this or the worst that, or the top ten whatever, I’ll enjoy the writing, metaphors, and anecdotes, but I’ll have no idea who or what you’re talking about.

Case in point: a conversation I had with potential roommates many moons ago in Boston:

    Roommate Seeker: We don’t want someone who will be blasting Molly Hatchet into the wee hours.

    Me: I won’t do that.  I don’t even know who she is!

These are the top 10 most played songs on my iPod:

  • Hombre, MIA
  • My Love, Justin Timberlake
  • SexyBack, Justin Timberlake
  • All Nite (Don’t Stop), Janet Jackson
  • No Hay Igual, Nelly Furtado
  • Lose Control, Missy Elliot
  • Hollerback Girl, Gwen Stefani
  • Clocks, Coldplay
  • I’m a Slave 4 You, Britney Spears
  • Yummy, Gwen Stefani

In addition to being several years old, my most played playlist runs the gamut from dance music, to dance music, to whatever Coldplay is. I could make the excuse that I switched computers and haven’t had a chance to update my library, that I usually use my iPod for working out, that, I swear to God, I also have the Black Keys, Elbow, Corinne Bailey Rae, and tons more Amel Larrieux, but what it comes down to is: 1) does it have a good beat and 2) can I dance to it?

Like picnics, flip flops, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, music is something I know I should be into, but I’m just not. When I say “into” I mean really love. Can’t live without. I like music, and am appreciative to my iPod for drowning out inane/crazy conversations on the train and bus, but I’m not into it. I don’t worship bands. I don’t go out of my way to see anyone perform.

I could say I like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, but really it’s just that one song. Ditto the White Stripes. I couldn’t tell you if Meg White is a good drummer or not, and I don’t care. I can’t tell you anything about the chick from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, except that she’s part Korean. Like a blind baby bird, I consume what MTV and the airwaves feed me.

I’m lazy.

I played piano for eleven years. This doesn’t mean I know about music. I can read notes; I can tell major from minor.

My boyfriend has four guitars, a bass, and a bass six. Oh excuse me, I mean a bass VI. He has two ukeleles and several harmonicas. He’s the one who bought us the keyboard. He went to music school after losing his job in the financial meltdown. He loves music. He remembers lyrics and tunes decades later. For instance:

    Well I guess it would be nice

    If I could touch your body

    I know not everybody

    Has got a body like you

Not exactly some-lyricist-who-writes-interesting-lyrics, but I sure as hell can’t remember lyrics like that, at least not for a song I haven’t listened to since I was 14 and wore my belt on the outside of my shirt.

He says, “Listen to this, I’m getting so much better,” and plays some notes. I nod and smile, and say, “Yes, you’re so much better,” but really, I can’t tell the difference.

“Listen to this amp,” he says. “Listen to that one. Which sounds better?”

I have no idea.

“These guys are bad ass!” he says of some band I’ve, yet again, never heard of, and I say, “Yes, they sure are,” but I can’t tell the difference.

We go to Amoeba Records – The World’s Largest Independent Record Store! – and he walks away with five to seven to ten CDs every time, and I’ve never bought a single one. I wander the aisles, looking for artists I know. Look, the Eurythmics! Ace of Base! Kelly Clarkson!

“Maybe there’s something in classical you’ll like,” the boyfriend says, since I am after all, “classically trained” (ha!) and I shrug and smile, and wander down those less crowded aisles, and while I recognize the composers, I can’t remember the names of their songs. I don’t cream my jeans because so-and-so is the solo flautist for some performance though apparently she’s a famous enough flautist to warrant a glowy glamour shot for the CD cover. I don’t get all emotional over a particular performance, like a guy I once dated who played me Glen Gould’s “Goldberg Variations,” and kept murmuring, “Listen to that, isn’t that amazing? Well isn’t it?” and I’d feel at once inferior and annoyed because although I could tell, yes, that’s pretty, and maybe, that’s some phrasing! I didn’t feel moved enough to say, “Yes! That is amazing!” because worse than feeling like I should be into music is being told that I should be into music, which is the same as being told how to feel about anything, like when the same guy thought I should be upset when he “confessed” that his ex-girlfriend was half-Chinese, and I’m Chinese, so surely I should think he’s only dating me because I remind him of his ex, which I didn’t till he mentioned it.

Anyway.

As far as I can tell, music writing seems to be about not just music but the experience of it. My life changed the night I was at this bar and heard this band! When I read a sentence like that, my brain goes to sleep, because not only is reading about music boring, seeing it live is boring too.

Live music is boring.

There! I said it! I am officially uncool!

Unless I have my keister parked in a comfy seat, the show starts on time, and lasts no more than an hour (two’s okay with an intermission), I’ll be annoyed and bored. There’s nothing worse than standing around forever in some bar, waiting for a show that starts late, and then it’s really really loud, and it’s some band I never heard of, and you can’t talk because it’s so fucking loud. And I can’t even drink that much because I’m allergic to alcohol, which means I get really red, really hot, and have to pee all the time, and God knows, I don’t want to stand in line with a bunch of barely dressed girls who’re young enough to be my daughters (kill me now), and then pee in some pitch black bathroom that may or may not have something disgusting on the seat.

Someday if my boyfriend is ever in a band, I won’t be one of those cool groupie girlfriends, hanging on the edges, black lipstick, black nails, grooving coolly to the jams (is that even a thing?). So cool I’ll know about all the bands he knows, I’ll know the rehearsal schedule and their set (I’m pretty sure that’s a thing). So hip I’ll be able to argue who’s better, the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. No, I won’t be doing any of that because I’ll be too busy yawning my brains out, not because the conversation is boring but because it’ll probably be late at night, way later than I’m used to staying up. And I won’t even hear the conversation because I’ll be wearing ear plugs. I’ll be in my Gap T-shirt, Gap jeans, no makeup, picking the sleepy crud out of my eyes and wishing I was home in bed reading Gone with the Wind.

Don’t judge me.

It’s not that I hate music. It’s not that I don’t have an emotional connection. I do. Certain songs still prompt a visceral reaction in me: “The Tide is High,” putting on lipgloss with my third grade best friend Jennifer Harris; “Don’t Dream It’s Over,” riding home from school with my beautiful ninth grade friends, feeling very non-beautiful; “Wonderwall,” driving with my ex to aquarium stores all over wintry New England; “Shine,” walking alone up and down Park Avenue those first several months after my divorce.

With every song, give me a story. Better yet, give me dancing. Give me, yes, here it comes, a musical.

    I have a love, and it’s all that I need,

    Right or wrong, and he needs me, too.

    I love him, we’re one;

    There’s nothing to be done,

    Not a thing I can do

    But hold him, hold him forever –

Huh? What was I saying? Ah yes. Musicals.

Chicago!

Rent!

West Side Story!

Wicked!

Les Mis!

Showboat!

The Color Purple!

Oklahoma!

I’ll take a musical over a rock concert any day. I get tingles. I bawl my eyes out. I’ve seen Chicago five times (once with Bebe Neuwirth, Ann Reinking, and James Naughton!), and I’d see it again.

Those of you who don’t know anything about musicals have no idea what I’m talking. Bebe Neuwirth? Wasn’t she from Cheers? Who’s Ann Reinking? James Naughton? Who cares if I saw them in Chicago, live on stage?

Because they’re the original cast, mofos! Ann Reinking coreographed that shit. That’s like seeing some band that used to have these members but now have those members play again with the original “these members.”

Whatever band that might be.

Give me a movie soundtrack to a movie I’ve seen. Movie soundtracks make my music library seem cool.  Pulp Fiction. City of Angels. The Wackness. The Secret of Roan Inish. Jerry Maguire. Into the Wild. The Piano. Juno.

    If I was a flower growing wild and free

    All I’d want is you to be my sweet honey bee.

    And if I was a tree growing tall and green

    All I’d want is you to shade me and be my leaves!

Cue harmonica.

So while you cool kids are listening to live music, or reading about it, or debating it, I’ll be over here watching The Sound of Music for the billionth time, sitting on the edge of my seat as dancers “dance for their lives” on So You Think You Can Dance, and telling my boyfriend I can tell the difference between his bass and his bass six. I mean, VI.

He leaves his imprint on me still, six years later.

Laundry for instance.

I still toss socks and underwear in a pile, to be folded last. I still tie long socks into a knot rather than roll them in a ball since rolling them in a ball stretches out the elastic.

In sixth grade, the kids in Gifted and Talented went to Sandy Hook every week to look at sea life.

I was not in G&T.  “Didn’t you take the test?” people asked.

I hadn’t.  It seemed my window of opportunity to be either gifted or talented was gone forever.

Our teacher usually let the handful of us left behind do whatever we wanted, which sometimes meant free reading. One week, I grabbed from the dusty bookcase, The Moon By Night, by Madeleine L’Engle.

Till then I had only read Paula Danziger and Judy Blume. While I loved their books, the characters always seemed much savvier and outgoing than I could ever be.  Now in Moon By Night, I met Vicky Austin, shy, awkward, and spacey – two teachers had called home about my daydreaming (maybe that’s how I missed the test?) – just like me.

After that, I devoured everything by L’Engle. Meet the Austins. A Wrinkle in Time. A Wind in the Door.  One of my favorite memories is a winter Friday night, snuggling in bed with the comfort of no school the next day and A Swiftly Tilting Planet, the third in the Wrinkle in Time series. I thrilled over the story of Mad Dog Branzillo. Would he turn out good or bad? Would there be war or peace?

I didn’t know I was reading about chaos theory. A butterfly beating its wings in one universe could cause an earthquake in another. Charles Wallace had to give Prince Madoc the rune (by way of Gaudior, a time-traveling unicorn) to prevent the Might-Have-Been – or possible reality – of fighting between brothers, which would eventually lead to nuclear holocaust.

I wrote similar stories in Mrs. Williams’ seventh grade composition class.  The survival of the universe depended on the bravery of one girl! Writing was easy, unlike algebra.  I stayed up late scribbling about outer space, time travel, and unicorns.  I decided then, like Vicky in A Ring of Endless Light, that I wanted to be a writer.

* * *

I’ve seen L’Engle once in person. I was going to college in New York (partly because L’Engle’s characters did) and L’Engle guest lectured for one of our religious studies classes. We never-took-a-religion-class, Vicky Austin groupies packed the room to its gills.

L’Engle perched on a desk at the front of the room in long flowy clothes, her hair in its familiar gray crop.  Someone asked something about reincarnation. L’Engle smiled.

“I’ve always wanted to be reincarnated as a dolphin,” she said.

We squirmed with excitement. Dolphins! Like the ones Vicky communicates with in A Ring of Endless Light! Someone else asked about Vicky and her love interest Adam.

“What’s that?” L’Engle asked.  “Adam and Eve?”

“Adam and Vicky,” the girl repeated. “Do you think they’ll get married?”

L’Engle’s smile disappeared. “Oh, I don’t know,” she said.

She was here to talk about theology, not some kids’ book, even if it was her own. But we all wanted to know: would Vicky and Adam end up together? Would she live happily ever after? Would we?

* * *

I met my husband Joe senior year. We were at some party downtown, and when I first saw him, thought he was someone I knew. Later, I wasn’t surprised when he asked me to dance.

It was easy at first. We fell in love; he was my boyfriend. He’d drop by my dorm with little gifts: chocolate, a stuffed bear, kiwis. He admired my wish to be a writer, to already know what I wanted.

Then it was difficult. His parents preferred a Korean girl. My mother just didn’t like him. He had trouble getting into law school. I saw his moods, the beginning of his anger.

But it was fate. Joe was the one; this was how it was supposed to be.

* * *

To the consternation of my parents, I still wanted to be a writer. After a short stint in publishing, I applied to MFA programs. The one in Boston gave me a free ride.

My dreams were coming true. Not only was I going to writing school, I was going for free, and in the city where Joe was in law school.

Joe wasn’t as excited. Law school was a lot of work, he said. He might not have much time for me. I turned to my classmates. But I didn’t fit in. Woefully underread in comparison – Tolstoy who? – I fell behind in conversations in bars.

“What are you all talking about?” I asked one of the guys, a beautiful and brilliant poet.

He regarded me through his thick fringe of lashes. “Babel,” he said. “Isaak Babel.”

“I know who Isaak Babel is,” I said, or at least I had heard of him. But my classmate had already turned away.

During class I was mostly silent. I still wrote by instinct, imitating the voices of my favorite authors. The piece that got me a scholarship was an Asian American tough girl version of Holden Caulfield. But I couldn’t articulate my thoughts about other people’s work. I suspected the head of the department regretted giving me the scholarship.

I’d escape into Barnes & Noble. When I wasn’t writing in the cafe, getting fat on mochas and lemon squares, I was hiding in the children’s section, reading The Giver and other YA novels. I bought Troubling a Star, the fourth in the Vicky Austin series.

“Why do you want to read that?” Joe asked.

“She’s one of my favorite authors,” I said.

He didn’t answer, derisively eying the YA sign.

I was disappointed by the book. Vicky and Adam are both in it, but rarely together. I didn’t care about Antarctica or icebergs. I wanted Vicky and Adam to frolic with dolphins again, to carefully fall in love, to save each other from the stench of death.

* * *

By May, Joe and I had broken up. The pressure from his parents to date Korean women had grown to be too much. At first, we had a hard time staying apart, but after he graduated and moved back to New York, it was easier. Then he suddenly started asking about getting back together.

I was nearly over him by then. I had a wicked crush on a co-worker I had only talked to on the phone. David had a great voice, deep and sonorous. When we weren’t talking about work, we were flirting. Having no idea what he looked like, I conjured up the ideal guy: tall, lanky, and dark-haired. Vicky’s Adam in the flesh.

The summer I finally met David was the same one Joe proposed. David had finally come to Boston, and when he walked into the office, I was sorely disappointed. He was neither tall nor lanky. He was barrel-chested gone to chunky, pale and balding.

That August, when Joe asked me to marry him, I said yes.

* * *

I continued to write. While weekends were taken up with caring for Joe’s Parkinson’s-stricken mother, I managed to work on stories and novels at my “dumbhead secretary” job (as one of my co-workers called it).  I looked for an agent and entered contests.  While I never won, a magazine published two of my stories.

Still, Joe wasn’t satisfied. “What are they paying you?” he asked.

Nothing, I said, like most literary magazines.

“Your job has no upward mobility,” he told me. “It’s not a career.”

“What about my writing?”  Then I said what I had been suspecting: “You wish I’d give it up.”

He didn’t answer.

Without my writing, what was I? Someone who cared for a sick mother-in-law, who walked on eggshells because of her husband’s temper. Without my writing, I’d be nothing.

* * *

Of her marriage L’Engle said, “In forty years, we had something like four perfect minutes.”

This is shocking to me. The families in her books seem so perfect. Mr. and Mrs. Austin at most playfully bicker. The Murrys literally go to the ends of the earth to save each other. Love always wins in the end.

L’Engle’s husband was apparently an alcoholic who had had multiple affairs over the years. Her children supposedly hated her books and their mother’s depictions of them. Her only son, Bion, upon him Charles Wallace is based, died at 47 from complications of long-term alcoholism.  She never wrote about any of it.

After A Swiftly Tilting Planet was published in 1978, Charles Wallace disappeared from L’Engle’s books. In A House Like a Lotus (1984), it’s mentioned that he’s “off somewhere on some kind of secret mission.” L’Engle herself has said she doesn’t know where Charles Wallace has gone.

* * *

Four years into our marriage, Joe had an affair. Not only that: the woman was pregnant.

He begged my forgiveness but wanted to raise the child.  I couldn’t forgive him but couldn’t leave either. For months, I vacillated. Stay and be reminded every day of what he had done; leave, and be alone.

I took a writing class, but couldn’t write about what was happening. I wrote about the time I spent in China, my family, a hellish cruise vacation. But where was I? everyone kept asking. Where was I in my essays?

Finally, a year after Joe’s affair, I decided to leave.

* * *

That summer I began writing about Joe and what happened. I wrote about his mother, her illness, and caring for her. I wrote about Joe’s rages, the devastation upon learning of his infidelity, the weekend his child was born. I described how I fell apart, how I tried to hurt myself to bring him home, and how even that hadn’t been enough to keep him.

Unlike L’Engle, I had to write about it all to be rid of it. But also unlike L’Engle, I was no longer in the marriage. I had no children. While married, I had convinced myself that everything was fine, or would be very soon. Once we had more money, once Joe had a better job, once his mother had a special operation – better was always just on the horizon.

* * *

In 2007, L’Engle died in a nursing home. She was 88 years old.

We’d never know if Vicky and Adam would get married, or if Charles Wallace would return from his secret mission. We’d never know about any other Might-Have-Beens.

What would have happened if I hadn’t picked up The Moon By Night? If I were at Sandy Hook looking at horse shoe crabs instead? Would I have decided in Mrs. Williams’ composition class that I wanted to be a writer? Would I have gone to college in New York? Would I have met Joe?

I’ve imagined my own Might-Have-Beens. If I hadn’t said yes when Joe asked me to dance, if he had lost my number, if I hadn’t gone to the club that night.

But I wasn’t sure I’d have gone back and undone it. I knew more now because of it. I knew who I wanted to be with and what I deserved, the difference between compromise and losing myself. Undoing my marriage would have undone all that as well.

Did L’Engle ever wonder if she shouldn’t have written her books? Might her children have felt differently about her? Perhaps she simply couldn’t help it. She was a writer; telling stories was what she did. Without it, she’d be nothing.

We were supposed to move into our new house that summer. Our old house was already sold, but then we found out construction had fallen behind. September, they told us.

I was six and didn’t really understand what was happening. All I knew was my mother was suddenly packing all the time, and we were getting on a plane to stay with relatives in California, my father left behind.

This upset me more than anything. “Why can’t Baba come with us?” I’d ask.

“He has to work,” my mother would tell me in her gruff way: Stop fussing.

To save money, we stayed with my uncle in his two-bedroom apartment in Berkeley. It was a tight squeeze. My grandparents were already living there, which meant my aunt and uncle in one room, my younger brother and I in the other with my grandmother, and my grandfather and mother in the living room.

There wasn’t much to do there. My uncle would take us to the playground, and we’d always come home with our shoes full of sand, which we once dumped in the middle of the living room till finally the adults got smart and told us to de-shod at the door.

In the evenings we’d watch Chinese soap operas with my grandmother. That summer’s was set during imperial times – everyone decked out in colorful silk robes, the men’s hair as long as the women’s – and focused on a brother and sister with a fierce rivalry for their father’s kingdom.

In the final episode, the sister kills herself on her father’s grave. One moment she’s muttering something in Mandarin, the next she’s plunging a knife in her gut, blood trickling artfully from the corner of her mouth. Her two faithful followers promptly follow suit.

This scene both repulsed and fascinated me. I couldn’t stop thinking about it and felt the compulsion to act it out, over and over. I’d kneel at my grandmother’s bed, comb in hand, mutter some gibberish, then stab myself with the comb. I’d let a bit of drool run out of the mouth before keeling over.

Our relatives knew my brother and I were bored. One brought us a plastic bowling set, which we happily played with till the downstairs neighbor complained. The downstairs neighbor was always complaining about how noisy we were. Once he appeared at the top of the back steps, rumpled-looking in pajamas very much like my father’s. I thought it was strange that he was still in his PJs during the day. Maybe he worked nights.

* * *

My aunt’s house in San Jose was bigger and nicer, but also more dangerous in a way. My mother scolded me more often at my aunt’s. I’m not sure why. She and my aunt, who was older, didn’t have a rivalry, but my mother cared very much about Big Auntie’s opinions, and Big Auntie had a lot of them, like surely I touched the cake box because I was greedy and wanted cake before it was served, when really I just wanted the red string that tied the box together.

I always cried when my mother scolded me, which prompted another scolding, which made me cry more. So when, upon spotting my teary eyes and red nose, an aunt or uncle asked, “Aw, do you miss your baba?” I seized the opportunity: Yes, I was crying because I missed my father, not because I was a crybaby.

I really did miss him. At our old house in New Jersey, I’d wait outside for him to come home from work. Sometimes it seemed to take forever. Once I was staring at some ants on a tree, thinking, Wouldn’t it be nice if Baba called my name right now? And at that moment I heard it: “Little Gem! Little Gem!” That’s just my imagination, I told myself, but then suddenly it was real. There was my dad, walking his long loping walk from the bus stop.

I talked on the phone with him sometimes, which wasn’t like talking in person. I’d get shy and clam up. Much later I’d find a card I had made him: “I miss you, Baba!” half English, half Chinese. It disturbs me that I have absolutely no memory of making that card.

I also cried when Big Auntie made fun of my feet, which were apparently so wide and strange-looking, she had to do so daily. Finally, she promised not to tease me anymore. But one day she couldn’t resist.

The waterworks promptly started. My aunt laughed.

“Big Auntie’s sorry!” she said in a mocking tone. “Big Auntie’s bad!” She slapped her own arm.

Her husband had had it up to HERE. Silently seething, he picked me up and brought me into the bathroom. He sat me on the counter, and with a warm damp towel, cleaned the tears off my face. He never said a word, but I knew from then on he was on my side.

While Big Auntie teased me mercilessly, my uncle in Berkeley was too indulgent, or so my mother thought. He and my aunt always let me into their room, even the time my aunt got drunk accidentally on some kind of soup and lay in bed with a splitting headache.

I was very interested in the idea of my aunt being drunk. The only drunks I had seen were on TV.

“Did you walk funny?” I asked her when she was feeling better. “Did someone have to carry you?”

No, she had walked fine on her own. I was disappointed.

Once on a trip to an amusement park, my uncle said I could have one toy from the store.

“Any toy?” I asked.

“Sure,” he said. “But just one.”

He thought he was being strict. Little did he know, my parents never bought me toys for no reason. My head swam. Of everything in the store, what did I want? Not a yo-yo, not another stuffed animal. No: I made a beeline towards the dolls. A beautiful bride doll in an enormous white dress.

“Can I have this?” I asked. I held my breath. It would be okay if he said no. I was used to hearing no.

“Sure,” he said.

My mother was furious. How could I rope my uncle into spending so much on something I didn’t need?

“Don’t worry about it,” he told her.

I did. Somehow, some way, I knew I’d have to pay for that doll.

* * *

When we finally went home that September, my father met us at the airport. I was so happy to see him. “Baba, baba!” I cried, running across baggage claim. My brother followed me, as he followed me everywhere back then, though it turned out he didn’t recognize who we were running to.

Our house still wasn’t done.

We divided our time between two families. I already knew Glenn and Yvonne, one and two years younger than I was. I loved playing with them. They were both good-natured, though Yvonne cried more than I did, and liked to tell the story of how their hamster made a great escape and chased Yvonne to the top of the leather arm chair in the living room.

At the other house, the girl’s name was Blossom, which to me even then was strange. She was older than I was and played the violin terribly.

We waited and waited for our house to be done. My mother spent most of her time yelling at Reggie, the guy in charge of construction. He had red hair, wore the sleeves of his dress shirt rolled up, and always looked put upon, at least by mother.

“Reggie!” she yelled at him on the phone. “Reggie!” when we went visited the site. “Reggie!” when September came and went, and the house still wasn’t done. “Reggie!” when the leaves changed. “Reggie!” when the weather got colder and condensation collected on the long windows in the living room at Glenn’s house, when it was dark by the time my mother drove me home from school.

That November we finally moved in.

* * *

My mother spent a long time decorating. She was a genius, really, in furnishing our house on a budget. She found some clear plexiglass display cases for dirt cheap, which she used for her plants and flowers in the sun-drenched living room. She found on sale figurines and knickknacks that looked weird on their own, but worked placed together on the mantlepiece.

For months my room had just a bed, rug, and desk. I didn’t care. At least I had my own room. Then one day that spring, I came home to find it completely decorated.

I had new white dressers, a tall one and short one, plus two bookcases my father had made, one large and one small, rather rough-looking, but they worked and were painted white too. My stuffed animals sat on the lower dresser while on the taller one were a few ceramic figurines and, behold, the bride doll.

I had almost forgotten about her, but there she was, resplendent in her faux satin white ballroom gown, her sleeves as puffy as ever, her train halfway down her back. There was her long brown curling hair, her huge eyes with specks of pink and gold, her cloth hands folded demurely around a pink and white bouquet.

For several minutes, I stood in the middle of my room, agog.

“Little Gem!” my mother called from downstairs. “Start your homework!”

I sighed. At the time I didn’t realize the effort my mother had made, that, despite her protests, she had kept the doll, lovingly packed it for our trip from California, then displayed it for me.

The doll is still around now, more than thirty years later, in the room of yet another house. While everything around her changes, she stays the same – still beautiful, still braced on what will surely be the best day of her life.

Work

By Angela Tung

Rants

Il faut travailler. – Louis Pasteur.

I want a job.

It’s been six and a half months since I quit my job to write full-time. It’s mostly been a dream. Who wouldn’t want to be able to do what they love most in the world, all day, every day, with a significant other’s financial and emotional support? Mostly I love it, but you know what? Just between you and me –

I’m starting to get bored.

Not bored of writing. Being really into a piece is the best feeling. Struggling with one doesn’t feel great but it’s not boredom. Struggle is good. But everyone needs a break, even from what they love. So I run, do a bit of yoga (though perhaps for not much longer, you’ll see later), tickle the ivories on our electric keyboard, talk to my friends, and read. But do I, dare say it, want something more? Some other kind of work? Do I want a job to take a break from my writing?

Writing is all I’ve ever wanted, since I was twelve and decided, according to my diary, “I think I know what I want to be when I grow up. A novelist or something like that.” I’ve been struggling my entire working life to get to a point where I can write all day. Ten years, a nest egg, and a generous boyfriend later, here I am.

So what if my mother doesn’t think of writing as real work? “I worked all afternoon,” I told her recently, and she perked up.

“Work?” she asked.

I knew what she was picturing: a tall shiny building and her daughter, possibly wearing a big-ribboned blouse, typing away in one of the tiny windows. “I mean,” I said, “I wrote.”

“Oh.” I could hear the hiss of her deflating fantasy.

Six months later, I’m the one fantasizing about being in that tall shiny building. In an office. Possibly wearing a big ribboned blouse.

Yes, an office, with desks and cubicles, and people saying, “I wanted to give you a heads up,” and “Keep me in the loop.” An office where I’ll wear something besides jeans and Gap T-shirts every day, where I’ll talk to other people besides my boyfriend, the baristas at my favorite cafe, and the other regulars at the gym. Where I’ll get paid to do something completely stupid like add up columns in an Excel spreadsheet or make something in PowerPoint, or file papers, or stamp invoices PAID. From where, after a long trying day, I’ll come home and in great relief sink into my couch and turn on the TV.

Right now there is no relief because every day is a relief, and I’m starting to feel like I’m sink sink sinking to the bottom of my couch.

I know: I’m a big fat whiner. If only everyone had it this good. But would the weekend be as great without the work week? Would you want to eat your favorite food every day? The best massages are equal parts pain and relaxation. Pleasure is the absence of pain. What if there is no pain? Is pleasure possible? What if your life is one long, never ending weekend? What would happen?

Messed up ear crystals, that’s what. You heard me. Messed. Up. Ear. Crystals.

Let me explain.

In addition to constant casual Friday and near isolation, I have no health insurance. I could have health insurance. I could have opted into COBRA, but plopping down almost $700 a month for coverage I may or may not use, especially when I have no income, wasn’t too appealing to me. At least when it was coming directly out of my paycheck, I didn’t really notice, and therefore completely took for granted that I could get my teeth cleaned, my eyes checked, and a physical every year. Any unexpected problems, check. The cough that wouldn’t go away (allergies), hives (allergies again), and a UTI over Fourth of July weekend (a surprisingly quick E/R visit which cost me $200 out of pocket, with coverage, but at least my meds were free).

I thought I’d be fine without insurance, at least for a little while, though I did wonder, as I crossed the street, what if I got hit by a bus? But why would I? I never got hit by a bus in New York, jay walking like it was going out of style, the whole time I had insurance. Why would I the moment I had none?

Case in point. Patient X works at home, and has a lot of free time on her – or his – hands. Or at least a lot of flexible time. He – or she – can work whenever and wherever he wants. So this leaves a lot of opportunity to go to the gym, take yoga classes, and, what the hey, do even more yoga at home.

Yoga’s good for you, right? It stretches and strengthens. It increases flexibility and calms you down.

What they never tell you is that if you do it a lot, and, let’s say, do the bridge for the first time since you were 12, and then do a lot of sun saluting and downward dog and all that jazz, and if unbeknownst to you, you have a sinus infection brewing, and you’re getting older (goddammit!), maybe, just maybe, the otoconia, those tiny crystals in your ear that control balance, may slip into the wrong canal, so then when you, say, get up in the morning, your head starts spinning like your house is a giant merry go around, and you have to lie back down. You think it’s dehydration, but then it happens again when you’re doing yoga (damn you yoga to hell!).

From sleuthing on the internet, you’re pretty sure it’s the otoconia thing, and not a brain tumor (fingers crossed!), but you don’t know for sure because you don’t have insurance and therefore you don’t have a doctor, and so you try the “therapy” at home by yourself, you follow the diagram closely, and then you throw up.

You throw up several times.

This is supposed to happen, according to random people on the internet, you do the therapy and then you feel dizzy and sick, and sometimes you throw up. So you feel better for about two seconds before you remember that you don’t know for sure. These people have been to their doctors (“Luckily, my doctor. . .” “I found a great physical therapist. . .” “My doctor fixed me right up!”), lucky shits, so they do know for sure, unlike you.

So then what do you do? Do you pay out of pocket at that vertigo clinic (yes, a clinic solely for vertigo) that’s two blocks from your apartment? Do you apply for insurance and hope for the best, hope they will accept you, because applying for insurance should be just like applying for a job. Of course they can only accept the best, read: healthiest, candidates, although, um hello, don’t the sick need insurance the most?

The next day you feel much better, and wonder if maybe you fixed yourself (but of course you don’t know for sure), but still you think, I wouldn’t have this problem if I had insurance. I wouldn’t not have insurance if I had a job. I wouldn’t have all this free time on my hands to do crazy amounts of yoga, which dislodged those fucking ear crystals into the wrong tube, if I had a job.

Makes total sense.

Seriously, I know it was dumb luck and not joblessness that lead Patient X from downward dog to throwing up in a shopping bag, but it still might be time to join the working world again. I miss the contrast – work week and weekend, office and home, doing work I have to do and work I love, socializing and solitude, pain and pleasure.

And, oh yeah, health insurance.

I was once set up on a secret blind date.

I was in China and had been invited, along with the other English teachers, to a secretary’s house for dinner. Eileen worked in the foreign affairs office, or the waiban. Her taciturn husband went around the room, snapping pictures of me and Judy and Ron, a fiftyish couple from Oregon. Beside me sat Eileen’s nineteen-year old son.

I was 27 and secretly engaged. My mother had never liked my fiance, and his Korean parents were only beginning to accept my non-Koreanness. Because my engagement was hush-hush, I had no ring yet. “Pretend that’s your engagement ring,” Judy suggested, nodding at the star sapphire I wore on my right hand. I wouldn’t understand why till later.

At some point, I suddenly noticed Eileen’s husband was taking photos of just me and his son. From the corner of my eye, I saw the son remove his glasses and smooth down his hair. What was going on here?

“Are you accustomed to China?” the son asked.

He seemed to know a few English phrases, but when I answered too quickly, his face blanked. “I’m adjusting slowly,” I told him. “I’m still homesick.”

He looked confused. “How can you be homesick in China?”

Like many natives, he thought that since I looked Chinese, China was like a second home, no matter that I had been born and brought up in America.

“You’re lonely,” he murmured to me. “I’m lonely. We should be lonely together.”

“Um,” I said. “I’m kinda busy.” I wasn’t. Even teaching four classes, I had more time on my hands than I knew what to do with. Snap! Flash! More pictures. Here’s when my son met his American wife! She looks just like a Chinese, doesn’t she?

“Do you have any brothers or sisters?” asked Maggie, another secretary from the waiban.

“Yes, a younger brother,” I said.

“How old is he?”

“Twenty-four.”

“Your younger brother is 24?”

I nodded. She repeated this tidbit in Mandarin to the others. “Her didi is 24.”

Murmurs resounded around the room. Eileen’s husband lowered his camera.

Later when I told my cousin Huang Lei what happened, she was furious. “They just set you up like that without even asking?” she said. “Who do they think they are?”

Chinese people setting each other up was okay. That’s how my cousin met her husband Guochen. But setting me up, especially without telling me, wasn’t. I may have looked Chinese, but I was more than that. I had a weird accent, perfect English, and most of all, a blue passport.

* * *

China’s one child policy, established in 1979 and due to expire this year, was mainly aimed at cities to curb a booming population. Families in sparsely populated areas were often allowed a second child after five years, especially if the first child was a girl, since it was thought that daughters would marry and leave to care for their husbands’ families, while sons would remain and carry on the family name.

An unintended consequence of the policy is a huge gender gap. According to a 2009 New York Times article, there are “32 million more boys under the age of 20 than girls” in China, which means thirty two million bachelors, or guang gun, as the Chinese call them, literally “bare sticks.”

Where are all the missing Chinese girls? Sex selective abortions are one cause, as well as non-registration of female births. Abandonment is surely another. In 2006, a whopping 91% of children adopted from China were girls, though recently some Chinese parents have stepped forward to say that their daughters were actually stolen and sold into the lucrative business of foreign adoptions.

* * *

On my campus, male students clearly outnumbered females. I remember most of my female students because they were fewer and more vocal, while the back rows of my classes were filled with nameless young men I didn’t hear speak once all semester. “The boys in the back,” we called them. The shy ones who wanted to be anywhere but English class.

Ben was a handsome Chinese English teacher. I met him once, and never knew his Chinese name. Elizabeth (not her real name) was from Canada and taught English the year before me. The rumor was shortly after Elizabeth arrived, she and Ben had lunch, and the next thing everyone knew, they were engaged.

People didn’t believe it was love. How could it happen that quickly? Besides Elizabeth was fat. Obese, really. How could handsome Ben fall in love with her? He must have wanted a feiji piao, everyone concluded. A plane ticket straight out of China.

“He’s a dalu mei,” I joked to my cousin. A dalu mei, or china doll, was a young Chinese woman who married a foreigner, usually older and rich, for a green card.

Perhaps to Ben there were so few Chinese women to choose from anyway, why not go for a foreigner?

* * *

One of my students took a cue from Ben and decided to put the moves on me. Richard was a PhD candidate with excellent English. He was also skinny, smoked, and had terrible teeth.

One winter night, Huang Lei and I attended a dance on campus. Many of my students were there, and a few innocently took me for a turn on the dance floor. I was friendly with everyone, including Richard, who, I guessed, interpreted my American friendliness as something more.

He started trying to hang out with me during class breaks. Every class we had a fifteen minute intermission, during which I’d read or work on my lesson plans. Most students, still shy around a foreigner, kept a wide berth. Some asked me questions but kept a respectful distance. Richard would stand right beside me. Once he sidled up behind me while I was reading at my lectern. During free writing, while everyone bowed their heads over their notebooks, he’d peek up at me with little smiles.

The last straw was that December. During a break, as I pretended to be busy with my notes, he sauntered up into my peripheral vision. I tried to ignore him, but then he approached me.

“There’s a concert on Friday,” he said. “Did you hear? An American pianist.”

“Yes,” I said. “Very nice.”

“Maybe we could go. Together.”

I gave him a teacherly smile. “I’m already going with my cousin. Have fun!”

When I told Huang Lei, she shrugged. “It’s very common,” she said.

“It’s not right!” I cried. I knew teachers and students dated all the time, but I still felt violated.

I didn’t have to worry. Somehow I’d made my coldness known, and now instead of little smiles, Richard gave me narrow-eyed stares, as though I’d broken some silent promise.

* * *

After Huang Lei’s husband Guochen left for his sabbatical in Moscow, she missed him terribly. They’d been together eight years, since she was 22. They seemed like a good match. Guochen’s seriousness complemented Huang Lei’s more fun-loving nature. They were comfortably affectionate with each other. Guochen liked to tug gently on his wife’s long braid. As they watched TV, Huang Lei would prop her feet on Guochen’s thigh.

The only time I sensed any tension between them was right before he left for his sabbatical. Guochen was stressed while Huang Lei still wanted to socialize. She made him attend more than one hot pot dinner he’d have preferred to skip.

“I haven’t relaxed with a newspaper in more than a week,” I heard him complain once.

But after he was gone, Huang Lei was desperately lonely. We clung to each other even as she drove me crazy with her bossiness and I annoyed her with my constant complaining about China. She worried about Guochen.

“Are Russian women very beautiful?” she asked.

I assured her Guochen would never do such a thing. Not the bespectacled professor with his piles of books and papers, who reminded me so much of my father. Little did I know that he already had.

Huang Lei wouldn’t tell me this till much later, after she had left Guochen for Shane, Judy and Ron’s son who’d come to visit that New Year, after my own marriage had fallen apart from my husband’s infidelity. “Guochen did the same thing,” she’d tell me.

Before then we’d assume she was a dalu mei. Why else had she taken up with a foreigner she barely knew, although he wasn’t exactly rich and was actually younger than she was? He didn’t speak Chinese, and she barely spoke English – how did they even communicate? She just wanted to come to America, we said. Once she got here, she’d meet someone better and leave Shane too.

* * *

She didn’t. She stayed, and had her first American Christmas, her first American New Year, her first Valentine’s Day. She learned English and how to drive. She had a child, a girl. She and Shane can have more if they want, but their daughter may be all they need.

* * *

Of course I didn’t know any of this while I was in China, while at the Peking Opera, where I first saw Shane and Huang Lei together, Huang Lei so embarrassed to be near a young foreign man, I thought she’d fold into herself. Nor when I hugged her goodbye – “Ai ya,” she said, “don’t go – and watched her scurry to the road to catch a taxi. Nor when I called her from one of my stops home.

“Everyone misses you,” she kept saying.

I didn’t know as I returned to my American life, as easy as slipping back in line, and saw everything through Huang Lei’s eyes. The streets like a grid, the tall and shiny buildings – see, Huang Lei, this is America. (See Ben, see Richard.) See me in my small apartment, riding the same subway every day, sitting in the same cubicle, see as I can’t stop remembering – the vast and blue Gobi desert sky, the sun as red as a blood on frigid winter mornings, the twisted Chinese stars – see how my life is so small.

I need it. I want it. I must have it.

As a freelance writer, I don’t get it often enough.

When I don’t get it, I walk around feeling blah and don’t know why I feel blah.

Then I get it and I feel happy, and I’m like, Oh yeah, duh.

* * *

I know I shouldn’t need external validation, that depending on it does more harm than good.  I get some, and I feel great for about two seconds, and then I’m all blah again till the next time, and the next time the high is not good so then I need more, and more, and more, and then suddenly my whole life is about getting that next high.

Maybe I need an intervention.

* * *

As a kid, I got validation from my parents.

Well, I got it from my dad, and only sometimes from my mom.

Ergo, my mom’s validation was more valuable than my dad’s.

With my mom you had to behave a certain way. But sometimes she didn’t tell you what way. Sometimes it was a surprise.

* * *

In the eighth grade, I won first place in the Statue of Liberty bicentennial essay contest. (I wrote from the point of view of the statue.) I had an orthodontist appointment and walked into the assembly late. My science teacher, Miss McDonald – who was big and fat and kind of mean, and had long gray hairs that grew out of her double chin – beamed when she saw me, mouthing, “Where were you?”

“She’s here!” someone said, and the principal called me to the mike, congratulated me, and handed me the award. Everyone clapped.

It was one of the best freaking days of my life.

* * *

Jobs also give you external validation.

Not really.

Praise is relative. If you’re a secretary and you schedule some meetings or organize some files, and you’re told, “Wow, you’re amazing!” it may feel good for about ten seconds before you realize, I have a BA and an MA, what the hell am I doing with my life? But then you try to move up and work your ass off on some other project, and no one even knows. Then you realize praise is both relative and random.

Then maybe you get a raise or promotion, and then you’re happy for, I dunno, thirty seconds, but then you realize what you’re doing has nothing to do with the real world, and that if you don’t get whatever urgent thing needs to get done urgently, no one will die, no one will even get sick – if you don’t get this urgent made-up thing done, IT DOES NOT MATTER.

Maybe this is how all external validation works. Maybe all external validation is arbitrary.

Depending on external validation for your happiness is depending on something arbitrary, relative, and random.  You’re relinquishing control to something that makes no sense.

But I’d still like some.

* * *

You’re in trouble if you need constant validation. Like if you cross the street without getting run over, you shouldn’t need someone to say, “Good job!” Or if you leave a restroom and the person waiting says, “Thank you,” because you have done this favor for them, leaving the restroom, when you could have easily, I don’t know, camped in there all night, and they are validating you, and now they need you to validate them back by saying, “You’re welcome.”

Saying, “Get a life,” is not a viable substitute.

Or if you’re dating someone and you obviously like him. You’re spending time with him, and you listen and tell him things, and are affectionate, and yet he still asks, again and again, “Why do you like me?” till you want to smack him in the face because, for God’s sake, isn’t it obvious? Would you be sitting here with him at this boring movie? Would you be sleeping with him? And yet he keeps asking till you don’t like him anymore.

* * *

If you say I love you, and the person doesn’t say I love you back, that’s the opposite of validation.

If you marry someone with a sick mom and spend every weekend taking care of her, and he doesn’t say thank you, that’s also the opposite of validation.

If you marry someone and take care of his sick mom every weekend, and then he cheats on you and gets the woman pregnant, that’s the opposite of validation as well. That’s like if validation were the Big Bang, which was fifteen billion years ago, and the opposite is when the sun will die, which is five billion years from now (can you imagine what people will be like five BILLION years from now? will we even be people, or just microchips, or specks of light? or dust with brain waves?).

If you call the pregnant mistress and she never answers her phone or returns your calls, this is the “doorbell effect.” The doorbell effect is if you ring the doorbell and for a long time there’s no answer. You think, hello? What’s going on? Is anyone home? But if you hear, “I’ll be right there!” you feel better. You’ve been validated. You exist.

Or on the airplane, if you’ve been sitting there and sitting there on the runway, and no one is saying anything, there are no announcements, and you start to feel like you’re going crazy and that maybe you’re the only one noticing this situation, but then the captain comes on says, “Sorry folks, we’ll be just another few minutes,” even if he’s lying his pants off, you feel better.

The mistress never calling you back, or answering her phone, or saying, “I’m sorry,” makes you feel like you don’t exist, the situation doesn’t exist, only you’re crazy for being upset about all this. But why should she talk to you. She owes you nothing. At least she’s not like Rielle Hunter going to the National Enquirer and parading around her baby and getting John Edwards to buy her a house while he’s still married to Elizabeth. (Then again, if none of that happened, John Edwards would still be sneaking around, getting away with everything, and Elizabeth would still be home alone with her cancer, waiting around for him.)

If you’ve spent so many years with someone from whom you’ve received no external validation, it’s hard to know what to do in a new relationship. You think, Okay, he likes me now, but what can I do to keep him? Let me see what makes him happy, and I’ll just keep doing that.

But what about when he’s not happy? Is that because of you too? What did you do wrong? It’s not you, he says. It’s this, or that, but it’s not you. There’s nothing you need to do to keep him, except keep being you.

Keep being you? Do what you want, what you love, without wanting a pat on the head, an A, an award? Believe that someone loves you just because he does, not because of anything you’ve done? Believe him, and not ask over and over, Why do you love me? Why do you love me? Why do you love me?

Have no expectations, live in the now. Remember the lesson but release the pain. Don’t predict the future but hope for the best.

I see that now.

I see.

I’d still like a book contract though.

Last week was a momentous one for television. There were the Oscars (most of which I missed). There was the birth of The Office baby (the birth of a baby being the second in the three stages of impending sitcom apocalypse).  And we can’t forget the premiere of Jerry Seinfeld’s Marriage Ref, in which real-life married couples receive advice from such marriage stalwarts as Alec “Thoughtless Little Pig” Baldwin and Madonna “Crazy Arms” Ciccone.

But the real momentous event for me was the 100th episode of Ghost Hunters.

 

My parents married because of music.

They met at a mah-jongg party in Berkeley in 1967. Having come from Taiwan to study, my father was pursuing a PhD in molecular biology while my mother had just finished her Master’s in accounting.

At the mah-jongg party, they chatted and felt a spark, my mother’s liveliness a good contrast to my father’s more serious nature. But he didn’t ask her out. Nor at the next mah-jongg party, nor the next. Nor at a barbecue on campus.

“Are you sure he’s interested?” my mother asked the friend who hosted the original mah-jongg party.

“Yes!” her friend insisted. “My husband says he talks about you all the time. It’s Ai Li this, and Ai Li that. He’s just shy.”

Sometimes at get-togethers my father played the guitar. Finally, one time my mother asked, “How does that thing work anyway?”

My father brightened. “I can show you,” he said. He had been waiting for an excuse to spend more time with her. But, one thing: “Do you have your own guitar?”

She shook her head.

“You’ll have to get one,” he said. His, apparently, was too high quality for a novice.

She took out a precious $50 and bought a used acoustic. After they got married, she gave the instrument away.

To say they fell in love is a stretch. Maybe my father did. “The first time I met your mom,” he’d tell us, “I knew right away she was my match.” My mother would shrug.

While she was in grad school, she knew a young man interested in dating her. He was from Taiwan and nice enough, but he was studying to be a social worker.

“A social worker!” my mother cried, appalled. “What kind of money could he make doing that?” She hadn’t come to the States to be poor like they were in Taiwan, a family of seven surviving on her father’s meager teaching salary.

My father’s career choice seemed stable, if not highly lucrative. Plus he was tall. Surely they’d have a lanky kid or two.

They married in 1969, two days after Christmas. To save money my mother borrowed her friend’s dress and they held the reception in a church basement. There was no music, but there was lots of food.

* * *

When I was a kid in New Jersey, my father would still play his guitar once in a while. It was the same one from California, only now with the edges held together with masking tape.

“I left it in the window during a hurricane,” he’d tell us woefully. “So stupid.”

He always played the same song, “Spanish Romance.” To this day whenever I hear it, I think of my dad.

My brother and I learned the piano. For years we banged our way through Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart, till our parents were positively sick of whatever we were playing. They liked to watch musical variety shows: Lawrence Welk, Sonny and Cher, Donny and Marie, The Barbara Mandrell Show. I admired the Mandrell sisters because they could sing and play so many instruments – acoustic and electric guitar, lap slide guitar, the fiddle – except for the youngest who could only play drums.

None of us could carry a tune. I wasn’t bad in music class, but failed as a soloist, despite my wanting more than anything to be able to sing like the girls in Annie. My parents sometimes warbled Chinese songs as they did housework, but mostly kept their operatic pursuits to themselves.

* * *

The first fight I ever witnessed between my parents was when I was four. Hearing yelling, I came into the kitchen and found my father eating alone, every dish of food upended on the floor.

“Where’s Mommy?” I asked.

“In the bathroom,” my father said, continuing to eat. (Why was he so insistent on finishing his meal? Was he that hungry, or just a creature of habit?) “Be good and watch TV.”

Later, unable to keep away, I tiptoed up to my parents’ room. It was dark and the bathroom door was shut. I heard my mother crying and my father whispering to her.

I don’t even know what the fight was about. My mother could be overly sensitive and prone to silent grudges, followed by explosive rants. My father could be stubborn and impatient.

Another fight is known as the Chicken Argument because my mother threw, in anger, a whole raw chicken at my father. Horrified, I promptly burst into tears.

Inevitably they fought at the mah-jongg table. Back then it was their main activity. They’d play almost every Saturday, well into the night. My mother was one of those annoyingly skillful players who didn’t care about winning, while my father played nervous and lost hand after hand. Needless to say, Mom liked mah-jongg while Dad didn’t.

Again, what they fought about, they only know. I only remember how embarrassed and uncomfortable I was, overhearing them and their playing partners trying to get my mother to calm down and my father to stop baiting her.

At that time, a commercial for a divorce lawyer often played on TV. At the end, the gray-haired man would say, “Isn’t it time for a change?”

“Maybe it’s time for a change,” my mother would intone darkly.

“No!” I’d cry. I had read It’s Not the End of the World and The Divorce Express. I didn’t want to be like those kids.

My father would remain silent, either having not heard, or choosing not to.

Much of his frustration was silent then. Once during an argument with my mother, he punched at the air three times, he who’d never raised a hand to anyone.

* * *

This isn’t to say my parents never got along. Sometimes they did, too well. Once I was woken in the middle of the night by a high piercing call. I was only twelve, but I’d seen enough Cinemax movies to know what it was, and lay there trying to fall back asleep as wave after wave of horror washed over me.

But it wasn’t over. At dinner the next day, my brother, who was nine, asked, “What was the matter with you last night, Mom? Did you have a stomach ache or something?”

Faces burning, my parents stared down into their rice bowls. I held my head in fresh dismay while my brother (the poor kid) pinked, realizing his mistake.

* * *

The worst fight my parents ever had was after a mah-jongg party. I was in college and had a friend over. We were sleeping when my mother started screaming.

I couldn’t understand her, except for curses like asshole (si pi yan) and prick (hun dan). She shrieked them over and over.

“What is that?” my friend asked from her sleeping bag.

“My parents are fighting,” I said hollowly. I was eight years old again, and my mother was throwing a raw chicken.

“Oh, that’s all,” my friend said, and went back to sleep.

To her it wasn’t a big deal, but to me it was like the end of the world.

The next morning I found out why they had been fighting. While they were playing, my mother began to sing along with the stereo. Soon, one of the other players, a man, joined her. Together they sang, his better voice masking hers. As they finished, my father said, in front of everyone, “Ai Li, you really shouldn’t flirt with him.”

Dead silence. Even the music on the stereo had stopped playing. Thankfully, the round ended and they had to mix the tiles, the roar drowning out everyone’s embarrassment.

For the rest of the evening, my mother didn’t speak to my father. He tried to joke with her, but she’d only murmur a response.

Afterward, in car rides home or that very morning, I’m sure people gossiped about what happened, the way they, and my parents, did whenever any drama ensued. Like the time a woman threw her chips at my mother, after losing yet another hand, or when another woman, rumored to have mental illness, accused someone of making eyes at her husband, then called her a cunt.

“He was just jealous,” I told my mother.

“That’s what he said,” she said, red-eyed. “He still shouldn’t have said that.”

Things seemed to worsen after my brother and I left for college. I couldn’t put my finger on it – an air of unhappiness, of tension. My father began staying home while my mother went to play. He’d mow the lawn, work on his paintings, or read. He’d play his guitar, “Spanish Romance,” again and again.

* * *

My last year in college, my parents started singing karaoke. “Give it a try,” their friends said one weekend. They had their own machine.

My mother did, badly yet unembarrassed. Then my father, more hesitant but better.

“You’re pretty good!” the friends said. “And you didn’t even practice.”

My father was pleased, gaining confidence as each person gave the mike a whirl, some not bad but most just awful.

“I still say you were the best,” the friend told my dad.

After the evening was over and my parents were driving home, my father turned to my mother and said, “Maybe we should get our own machine.”

“Maybe,” she said. She had seen him brimming with confidence, had noticed he was more open and talkative afterward. “I’m sure we can find an inexpensive one.”

After they had their own set-up, my father became a karaoke aficionado. They joined two clubs, and he took his practicing seriously. He sang a little every day while my mother waited till the last minute and rehearsed just hours before the get-together. My father liked both Chinese and American singers. His favorites were Bette Midler (“The Wind Beneath My Wings,” “The Rose”), The Carpenters (“Close to You,” “We’ve Only Just Begun”), and Sarah MacLachlan (“Angel”). Occasionally he sang a duet with my mother (“Endless Love”).

“I know I’m not the best,” he liked to say. “But I work hard.”

He was indeed one of the better singers. He didn’t overdo it with impossible-to-reach Celine Dion notes, or undero it by mumbling into the mike. He stayed within his range, sang modestly, and with feeling.

“Who’s that?” a childhood friend asked during a Christmas party at my parents’. “He’s pretty good.”

“That’s my dad!” I cried, beet-red, more embarrassed than proud.

How good, or bad, you were didn’t matter, only that you had tried. People would always cheer, and in that way, everyone was a winner.

* * *

My parents aren’t perfect. They still bicker occasionally; once in a while, my mother still explodes at some invisible slight.

But they’re better. They’re balanced. They both have something they’re good at.

Sometimes my father still sits out of mah-jongg, but often the parties have both mah-jongg and karaoke. He likes being the DJ, changing discs and adjusting volume and frequency as people take their turns. Sometimes they ask his advice.

He discusses voice techniques with my mother, who mostly nods, the way she did when he was teaching her guitar. Maybe she’s only pretending to listen, but it doesn’t matter. The music is still holding them together.

Forced Fun

By Angela Tung

Essay

For ten years I worked for a giant New York corporation. It doesn’t matter which one, at least not for the purposes of this essay. But I will say that it made enough money for its employees to hold expensive and often questionable team building events.

Dumpling City

By Angela Tung

Essay

This began as an essay about the search for the perfect dumpling. The weeks before Lunar New Year – which this year is on February 14 – I always get a hankering. But now that I live in in California, I don’t have the luxury of hopping on NJ Transit for a short ride to my mother’s delectable eats.

Elise was new in the seventh grade. She was beyond nerdy. She wore little wire-framed glasses and braided barrettes (so elementary school). She favored white turtlenecks dotted with tiny strawberries; she always got straight A’s.

I used to get straight A’s. In elementary school, good grades were effortless, but in junior high, my A’s turned into B’s, then C’s, especially in math. I only did well in Composition, where we wrote stories and poems. My mother took away my radio and Olivia Newton-John tapes till my report card improved.

When you got straight A’s, you got a certificate that said Outstanding Achievement, signed by the principal. I had yet to get one, but Elise got one every time.

“That’s disgusting,” I said to her once, spotting the certificate on her desk.

She scrunched up her librarian face. “What?” she said.

I had been trying to make a joke. “Getting all A’s. It’s really disgusting you know.”

“Huh?”

I sighed. “Forget it.” What a nerd.

Since the first grade I had been friends with Susan, who wasn’t a nerd but was very smart. My father said she’d probably be a lawyer. Since the fifth grade, I had known Marie and Lauren. Marie had long curling brown hair and huge eyes; Lauren was blond, tall, and rather chubby. She played Dorothy in our fourth grade production of The Wizard of Oz.  People still talked about how well she sang “Over the Rainbow.”

It was Lauren who made friends with Elise first. I don’t even know how. Lauren was always making friends with new, seemingly quiet girls, and bringing them over to our group, like stray kittens. Aside from Elise, she had also brought over Marie V. (now the original Marie would forever be known as Marie R.), darkly beautiful, and Andi, who at 5’10” would later become a model.

By eighth grade, Elise had changed completely. She wore contacts now and had cut her hair into a cute bob. She had gotten ridden of the turtlenecks and upgraded her wardrobe to 1985. Big shirts, long sweaters, and oversized pearls. Gone was the mousy grind who didn’t get my sarcastic humor. In her place was a tall and willowy ballet dancer, a navy brat who had lived in Italy and Hong Kong, a wannabe writer like me.

I turned fourteen that April. For my birthday, we went swimming at the Y, then to my house, where we gorged ourselves on cake and my mother’s fried noodles, egg rolls, and wontons. After my parents left for an all-night mah-jongg party, we went wild – dancing, screaming for no reason, doing obnoxious imitations of our teachers and classmates.

Elise had come straight from ballet, and still had on her leotard and tights under her clothes. Overheated, she stripped off her jeans and ran pantless through the house. (Why she didn’t just take off her tights, I don’t know.) I have a photo of her in mid-run, giant sweater half-off one shoulder, a goofy smile on her face.

That was the last time I was happy. While my friends blossomed, I stayed the same. One minute Laura was in sweatshirts and jeans, her dark blond hair limp against her head, the next she was in tight sweaters and skirts, a chic short cut freeing her face. She wasn’t chubby anymore but voluptuous. Random guys stopped her in hallway. “Your legs go on for miles!” one said. “You’re so cute!” another remarked, pinching her cheek.

No one pinched my cheek except my first grade teacher when I ran into her at TJ Maxx. You could barely see my face for the glasses and braces. My legs didn’t go on for miles, which Elise was kind enough to point out at a pool party.

“I didn’t know your legs were so short!” she cried, stretching her lanky ballerina gams out to the sun.

I grew to hate my stubby limbs, round face, and small eyes. One of just a handful of Asian kids in town, I wished I were Italian, French, or Irish. I longed for big green eyes and a pert narrow nose, a quiet mother who didn’t yell out the door in Chinese, a name that didn’t sound like a body part.

The more insecure I grew, the less I spoke. The less I spoke, the cooler I thought I might be. At lunch I did math homework instead of joining the conversation. On car rides to and from the mall – where boys always eyed Lauren and Elise, never me – I stared silently out the window while everyone else chattered and sang along with Crowded House, Bon Jovi, and Madonna.

But instead of being cool, I became forgotten, like the night of the eighth grade dance when Lauren and the others neglected to pick me up. It was a misunderstanding, Lauren said, hugging me when I finally showed up. They had thought I was meeting them there. But I didn’t know that while I waited, sobbing, in my room.

Ninth grade was worse. There were even more boys to ignore me and hit on Elise, Lauren, and Marie V. One was a junior who sat behind me in algebra II.

“Hey,” he kept whispering to me one day. “Hey.”

I knew he wanted to ask me about Marie V., who had a crush on him. Bu I pretended not to hear him, too shy to talk to most boys.

When I continued not to answer, he switched his tactic. “Hey, ching chong,” he said instead. “Ching chong ching chong.” Face burning, I kept ignoring him, as I did the kids at the bus stop when I was younger.

Suddenly the teacher stopped mid-lecture. “Scott,” she said, eyes burning, finger pointing. “Get out of my classroom. Don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about.”

Chagrined, Scott picked up his books and left.

I didn’t feel grateful to the teacher, only embarrassed that she had heard.

* * *

That winter my father got a new job in a nearby town. He could commute, but my mother wanted a new house. We sold our old one – to the high school principal, of all people – and moved that summer.

I was excited. I’d be at a new school. I could be whomever I wanted – popular, athletic, student body president.

None of these things happened. At first I made friends with a couple of popular girls who were also new, but once they understood their standing, dropped me like last year’s jeans. But that mattered less at this school. What mattered was that I wasn’t the only Chinese girl. Far from it. Almost a quarter of the students were Asian, the children of immigrants. Having parents who spoke with an accent wasn’t weird; in fact some of the kids had accents themselves.

Boys looked at me. My braces and glasses were gone, and I felt more comfortable in my new preppy outfits. Was I – pretty? Dan Wagner thought so, and Ron Jones, but still skittish, I never said two words to them.

Later that same year, Lauren moved too. Texas. Unlike me, she was sad. She cried at school; she begged her parents not to move, but it had been decided.

After Lauren left, the group began to fall apart. We still saw each other sometimes, but mostly when Lauren visited. She had an older boyfriend who she lost her virginity to and who’d later kill himself. I couldn’t imagine such a thing. I hadn’t even been kissed yet.

Junior year, Elise suddenly decided she was a painter. I was surprised. In art classes, she had always struggled, or pretended to. Now she was producing picture after picture. I remember one: a woman with long tangled hair, painted in shades of blue. The word “blue” appeared throughout, in her locks, her lips, her arms folded over her bare breasts. Elise became so engrossed in painting, she switched to an arts high school in another town. She took photographs and started making films, often casting Andi in the lead.

Towards the end of high school, Susan and Elise stopped talking. I was never sure why. Perhaps Susan hadn’t liked the way Elise was behaving with her new artist friends; maybe Elise was tired of Susan’s judgments. Senior year, all three of us ran into each other at a piano recital. Susan and I had been taking lessons from the same teacher all those years, along with Elise’s sister. I talked to Elise and Susan separately while they gave each other cold looks above my head.

Once we all went away to college, I lost touch with everyone except Marie R., with whom I exchanged letters occasionally. From her I knew that Lauren was going to school in Dallas, Marie V. at Bucknell, and Andi at Baylor (later her whole family would move to Texas and become born-again Christians). Susan was at Harvard – studying archaeology, not law – and Elise was at NYU. Over the summers, she modeled.

I was in New York too, a hundred blocks north of Elise, but I never thought of contacting her. It had been too long. I called Marie R. once while she was still at NJIT earning her architecture degree, but the conversation was stilted. She didn’t seem interested in talking to me, and asked someone in the room for an exacto knife. That was the last time I talked to her, that I talked to any of them.

* * *

In the last decade, I’ve done my fair share of Googling my old friends. I know that Susan is a renowned archaeologist, and Marie R. a successful architect. Marie V. may live in London. Andi is married with kids, as is Lauren.

For a long time I couldn’t find anything on Elise. Surely she’d be famous soon – a filmmaker, a painter, a dancer, a writer. Whatever she wanted to be, surely she’d be.

Finally on a hot summer night in 2006, I found something.

By then I was divorced and living on my own in Manhattan. When I wasn’t dating disappointing men, I hid in my apartment, trying to write and surfing the internet.

I found it in a local paper in Virginia. Elise O’Connor Warren, 33, homemaker, died July 2 at her residence.

Elise? Dead?

Was is the same Elise? The age was right – she was a year younger than the rest of us – but her name wasn’t uncommon. Then I recognized her parents’ names and her sister’s.

Elise, dead. She is survived by her husband, Jeffrey Warren; children Isabel, George and Molly. Shocked I called home.

My father answered.

“Remember Elise?” I said. “My friend from my old school?”

“Elise,” he murmured. “I remember Susan.”

Of course he did. I’d known Susan since I was six. “Elise,” I pressed. I needed him to remember. “She was a ballerina. She came to our house.” She ran through it with no pants on.

“Maybe. Mom would remember. But she’s not here.”

“Elise died.”

“Oh no,” my father said, trying to sound aggrieved. But he couldn’t remember her.

The item didn’t say how she died, nor did a church newsletter I found. I called the church. A secretary told me it was cancer. I didn’t ask what kind.

“So many of her old friends have been calling,” the secretary said.

Elise O’Connor Warren, 33, homemaker, died July 2 at her residence. There was so much to reconcile. Elise dead, Elise a homemaker. It was shallow – after all, her husband was without a wife, their small children without a mother – but I couldn’t wrap my head around it. Elise O’Connor Warren, homemaker, not world-famous director, best-selling novelist, or genius painter.

Somewhere along the way, she had decided to shed her skin again. Enough with being an artist, she had thought. Enough with modeling and hobnobbing with celebrities in Manhattan. I want to marry this man and live in Virginia and have three kids before I’m 30.

I was 34 then and nowhere near having even one kid. I didn’t know if I’d ever have any. Was I that different from who I was back then? I was still shy and still wanted to be a writer. I was less awkward and more confident. I was proud of my Chinese self. The shedding and growing of my new skin took much longer than it did for Elise.

Almost twenty-five years have passed since we were friends. I don’t know if I’d recognize any of them, or if they even remember me. I don’t know if I have a right to grieve for Elise. But when I saw Elise O’Connor Warren, 33, died, it was as though I did know her, had never stopped knowing her, and we were who were back then again, laughing and running wild.

I had never considered myself a negative person. I thought life was good. I had no kids or property to tie me to my ex. I had a decent, though boring, job as a corporate writer, a cute apartment close to Central Park, and the time and money to take last minute trips around the world. I had friends I could rely on, family I loved, and all my limbs. I was a glass half-full kind of girl.

That spring, Graham told me otherwise.

Things started out well enough. Maybe too well. Our first date lasted eight hours, ending with us making out on his bed. For two weeks we couldn’t get enough of each other. He came up to my office and we made out there. We kissed on the street, at the movies. We hung out at his place on a Saturday and wrote all day, me on my memoir, he on a history book he needed for tenure. He cooked for me, and told me I was beautiful. He said that he had found me.

Then it started to get weird. His ex for one. He really wanted to be friends with her. I mean, really. They went to movies, and when it didn’t go well, he became very depressed.

“There wasn’t much to say,” he said.

He thought I should be friends with my ex, although I preferred not to, thank you very much. After he cheated on me and had a baby with his mistress, I decided he was probably not friendship material.

“It might help you move on,” Graham said.

Keeping someone from my past in my present wasn’t my idea of moving on.

When I asked if he was dating anyone else, he laughed and said, “I’m not kissing anyone else.”

That didn’t answer my question.

“Let’s live in the moment,” he said.

Still not an answer.

Finally he said, “I’m afraid I’m having a negative influence on you.”

Now. We had known each other fewer than thirty days. I doubted I was so malleable that he’d have a personality-changing influence on me. And what did he mean by negative?

The cases in point: we were on the subway, and a girl was leaning against the pole. Her whole body on the pole. You know what I mean. Since she was being so obliviously rude, I obliviously shoved my hand behind her to grab the pole. I looked at her. I did not apologize.

Two: we were walking down the street and caught up with slow walkers. Slow walkers who decided to take up the entire sidewalk. You know of whom I speak. I huffed, sighed, and rolled my eyes before finally speeding around them.

So this was negative.

Still, being a conscientious and growth-liking person, I thought about what he had said. Maybe I was making up for something with my toughness. As kids my brother and I were called chink and chingchong at the bus stop every day, but were always too timid to say anything. Our mother bossed us around. The bossing got worse as I got older. The yelling turned to screaming whenever I said anything back. I couldn’t even sulk without a scolding.

In high school I decided I was angry. An angry poet. I hated everyone, or at least pretended to. Secretly I wanted Bud Warner to pass me notes in class, to give me a rose on Valentine’s Day, to take me to prom, none of which, of course, happened. But being angry was easier. It gave me a nice coating.

In college I became an Asian American activist. Every racist was a kid at the bus stop saying chingchong. I went to a Miss Saigon protest and yelled fuck you to Cameron Mackintosh for not hiring Asian actors, for saying Asian actors were no good.

Then I fell in love.

I fell in love with an angry guy, only he didn’t seem angry at the time. At the time he was sweet and loving, funny and smart. The anger emerged later, after I was in deep and it was too late. We broke up, got back together, got married. He got angrier. I couldn’t blame him really. His parents expected so much. His mom was sick. They never thanked him for all he did, the way he never thanked me. Everyone was against him, everyone that is except his mistress.

So in comparison, was I really so negative?

Still, I would try.

Maybe I didn’t have to make my disdain so clear as some dim bulb yapped loudly on her cell phone. Perhaps I didn’t need to growl, “Watch it,” when a guy twice my size bumped into me. I might try not yelling, “Are you kidding me!” when someone came to a dead stop at the top of the subway steps. It shouldn’t make a difference that this was New York, and I was a petite Asian woman who looked younger than her years. I didn’t need to be a bitch to survive, did I? Survive yet have no soul?

Two tests. One, the NJ Transit on my way back from my parents’. At Newark an older man got on and sat next to me. Not right next to me, one seat over, but it didn’t matter because I could smell him from here. Cigarette smoke. Clothes reeking of it.

Seething, I pressed myself against the window and breathed into my hand.

Then at that very moment, on my iPod: One of Us. You know: What if God was one of us? Just a slob like one of us? Cheesy, yes, but true. And I thought, What if this guy is God? What if every annoying person put in my path was God in some form or another, testing me? What if I’ve been failing that test again and again?

I took off my iPod. We were nearing the city. Outside were the murky swamps of Secaucus. Unexpectedly beautiful egrets perched and flew.

Then I heard it: staticky music. Not even a song, a snippet. Cher: Do you believe in life after love? Over and over. Do you believe in life after love do you believe in life after love do you believe in life after love. Where the hell was that coming from?

Oh no. Oh yes. It was “God” next to me playing it on his cell phone.

Maybe he was preaching. Maybe he was saying life indeed went on after your best friend broke your heart.

Or maybe it was just some annoying dude with his phone.

Test two: On the subway to my apartment. A seat opened so I sat. An older woman next to me said, “Do you want to switch?”

Switch? Switch what?

She pointed at the Chinese guy on her other side. “Do you want to sit together?” she asked.

The “positive” scenario played through my head. “That’s okay,” I could have said. I could have smiled and thought, She’s just trying to be nice. She doesn’t know any better. It makes perfect sense that two people standing nowhere near each other would be together based solely on race. Haha, racism’s funny!

“I don’t know who that is,” I said. I did not smile.

She laughed. (Why yes, racism is funny.) She said, “I thought you two were together.”

You’re an idiot.

Graham and I broke up not long after, fizzling out as quickly as we had fizzled up. I quickly gave up on trying to be positive. Being bitchy was way too fun. And just because I got fed up with strangers didn’t mean I was soulless because yes, like Cher, I still believed in love. I believed in happiness even if I didn’t find love again because there were so many small things that made me happy. A peaceful morning with a cup of coffee, wandering museums with my pals, running in the rain around the Reservoir.

So maybe the guy with the phone and the woman on the subway weren’t God. Maybe there were no tests. No negative or positive, no glass half-full or half-empty. Maybe there was just a glass (or maybe there was no glass – whoa). There was just this moment, now; there was releasing the pain of the past but remembering the lesson; there was restraining from predicting the future but embracing whatever it might bring.

But if you get in my way, I’ll still think you’re an idiot.

The foreign affairs office was taking us out for Christmas.

“Where are we going?” I asked Judy, another teacher.

“I don’t know,” she said. “But I hope it’s a Peking duck dinner.” She paused. “Chuck’s going too.”

My stomach sank. “He is? I thought he was boycotting us.”

“I guess he’ll make an exception for Christmas.”

It was 1998, ten years before the Olympics, when bustling hutongs still snaked through the nation’s capital and the only coffee you could get was from McDonald’s. I taught English to graduate engineering students in Changping, a small town outside Beijing, and hated every minute of it.

I wasn’t sure which was worse, teaching apathetic students or being a foreigner with a Chinese face. Neither native nor foreign enough, I couldn’t blend in, nor did people believe I was American.

“But you look Chinese,” they’d say.

“I am,” I’d answer. “I’m Chinese American.”

Puzzlement. “But you look Chinese.”

My students could spot my long purposeful gait a mile away. (I tried to shorten it but didn’t have the patience.) Once in a store, some younger kids pointed at me. “Laowai!” they said, though I hadn’t said anything.

Laowai, old foreigner, referred to anyone, regardless of age, not from China. In The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan writes that when she stepped off the plane in China, she became Chinese. I became a laowai.

By December, I had been there four months and missed everyone: my boyfriend, my friends, my family. It wasn’t as bad as the beginning when I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat, and was so terrified of teaching, several hairs on my head turned gray. The terror had dulled to an ache as I imagined the holiday hustle and bustle back home: New York streets crowded with tourists and shoppers, the modest tree my parent put up in their house in New Jersey, the Heat and Snow Misers duking it out on TV.

Unlike the Lunar New Year with celebrations that lasted for weeks, Christmas wasn’t a big holiday in China. Even under the modern Communist regime, there were very few Christians, at least those who’d admit to it, and all Western religions tended to be lumped together. My students used the sign of the cross to mean everything from Protestantism to Catholicism to Judaism.

Although Beijing may have had a more festive feel, in Changping there was nothing. We had the day off, but it was like any other morning. In fact, with no classes and students hiding from the cold in their tiny dorm rooms, it was worse. The campus was like an icy ghost town. The waiban was doing us a favor by taking us out.

We met in the courtyard between our houses. Judy and Ron, a fiftyish couple from Oregon, had been teaching all over China for the past decade. They were friendly with foreigners and natives alike, unlike some laowai who preferred to be one of a kind. Judy looked nervous.

“Will he talk to us?” she wondered.

“Don’t worry,” Ron said. “We’ll have a good time no matter what.”

Chuck, like us, was an American English teacher. Middle-aged and skinny, he had a thick thatch of steel-colored hair and a beak nose. He had been ignoring us since October.

We weren’t sure why. We knew he wasn’t happy about how the school was run, and was always making suggestions to Mr. Sun, the head of foreign affairs. The first time Chuck and I met, at breakfast in the dining hall, he had talked at me for half an hour about how terrible the Chinese educational system was, and that it was up to us to change it.

Us, change the system? All I wanted was to get through my next class.

After that I avoided him. “I have laundry to do,” I said by way of apology if we crossed paths in the dining hall again. Or, “I have to prepare my lessons.”

“You’re a very solitary person,” he told me.

Since then he had been giving all of us the cold shoulder. “Look, another foreigner,” he said once to Judy as she rang her bike bell at him, then kept walking.

One rare warm day, as the three of us sat on Ron and Judy’s porch sunning ourselves, he walked right by us, his hood up like blinders, and didn’t say a word.

The week before Christmas, Chuck’s family had arrived. It was hard to imagine the lone figure marching across campus in his parka as being close to anyone. But they seemed nice. Heftier than her husband, his wife Debbie had short brown hair and rosy cheeks. In their early 20s, his son and two daughters rode around on bikes in the bitter cold. Whenever they saw us, they waved and smiled.

The waiban arrived in their shiny black van. Mr. Lee, a youngish guy with floppy hair and a missing incisor, was driving while Mr. Sun sat shot gun.

“Merry Christmas,” said Mr. Sun, stereotypically squinty-eyed and big-toothed, as we got in.

“Merry Christmas,” we chorused back.

“Where’s Chuck?” Mr. Sun asked.

We shrugged.

He muttered to Mr. Lee in Chinese, “That other guy hasn’t shown up yet. Go knock on his door.”

People always seemed to forget that I understood them. “What is this nonsense?” one of my students asked in Mandarin when I tried teaching similes.

“Do you have a question?” I asked him in English.

He froze, then didn’t speak for the rest of the class.

Mr. Lee hadn’t moved. Chuck’s grouchy reputation preceded him.

“I’ll go then,” Mr. Sun said. Then to us, smilingly, in English, “I will get Chuck.” He got out of the car and jogged up Chuck’s walkway.

“Maybe he’s not coming,” Judy murmured.

Mr. Sun returned with Chuck and Debbie in tow. I was surprised to see that Chuck was smiling.

“Cold enough for you?” Chuck asked, climbing in.

We all glanced at each other. “My thermometer said 10 degrees,” Ron said.

“Worse with the wind chill factor,” I said.

Judy rolled her eyes. “Wind chill factor. Made up by meterologists.”

Mr. Sun shut his door. “Let’s go,” he said to Mr. Lee.

Being driven into Beijing was a nice change from the cold and smelly bus. Every Friday Ron, Judy and I rode it to go on various excursions: shopping for knickknacks, visiting museums, trying different foods. The other week we visited a Taoist monastery, where the monks padded around silently in blue and white, their uncut hair wound in complex spirals around their heads. Afterwards we ate hand pulled noodles, slurping noisily against the bitter cold. Ron had invited Chuck to join us multiple times, but he never did.

“Here we are,” Mr. Sun said.

To my delight, we were pulling up to the Grand Hotel Beijing, one of the fancier places in the city. It catered to foreigners and I missed being catered to. I was sick of restaurants with bones on the floor and gristle on the table. Even if they were confused by my Asian features and perfect English, the staff would be too polite to say anything.

Mr. Sun led us to the dining room, clean and spacious with potted plants and white tablecloths. Tiny white lights twinkled from the ceiling while holly and mistletoe hung in every corner. Christmas carols played softly. “You can have anything you want,” Mr. Sun said of the elaborate buffet.

Judy glanced around. “I don’t see any Peking duck,” she said.

Tired of Chinese food, I nearly wept for joy at the sight of meat loaf, roasted chicken, green beans, mashed potatoes, and bread pudding. It would be a merry Christmas after all.

As we ate, we talked and laughed like normal people, like friends. That day Debbie and her daughters had gone shopping in Silk Alley.

“Did you haggle?” asked Judy, a champion bargainer.

She hadn’t. “Ten dollars seemed like a good deal for a silk scarf.”

“Ten dollars!” Judy cried. That was eighty RMB. “Highway robbery.”

“We also visited Embassy Row,” said Debbie, deftly changing the subject. “We saw a lot of parents with their adoptees.”

Judy nodded. “It’s one of the last stops before they can go home.”

I had seen it too: white men and women pushing strollers with Chinese girls. I always wondered if they’d think I was a grown-up adoptee, and I’d have to explain that no, Chinese people did raise their kids in America.

As we left, I was surprised to see that Chuck and Debbie were holding hands. The strange crabby man seemed to be gone. Maybe he had simply been lonely all this time. Sometimes foreigners went off the deep end in China, Judy said. I certainly had.

We were quiet on the ride back to Changping. My belly was full of good American eats yet I still yearned for home. I wanted to wake up to hear English outside my window, not Chinese. I wanted to speak and understand without effort, to see other colors in a sea of black hair. I wanted to sink back into anonymity and not stick out as the foreign girl with a Chinese face and soldier’s stride.

Back on campus, Mr. Lee let us out in our courtyard. “Good night!” Ron and Judy called as they disappeared inside. “Merry Christmas!”

Chuck and Debbie waved. Their windows were brightly lit; I could see their kids moving around.

“Think the munchkins fared all right?” I heard him ask his wife.

“I think they’re fine,” she told him.

Later, after he left Changping for good, we’d raid his house for extra supplies. His family had gone home right after Christmas, and he had had several weeks alone. We were flabbergasted by the state he left. The living room floor was covered in peanut shells, the toilet tank lid lay broken in half in the hallway, and inexplicably, a plate of sliced raw mutton was left out on the kitchen counter.

“He was worse off than we thought,” Judy would say, shaking her head.

But for now I didn’t know this. For now I was jealous that Chuck got to have his family around him on Christmas morning, and that they’d be together tonight. Maybe he and Debbie would talk about what they ate, and the kids would be jealous, already craving U.S. fare. They’d tell how they went exploring, and how everyone stared, and they’d laugh and shake their heads because there was only a few more days of this, not months on end.

If Chuck could have all that, I wondered as I unlocked my door, why didn’t he want it all the time? Why did he leave? Did he prefer to be alone in a strange country where Jews were the same as Christians simply because they weren’t Chinese? Maybe where he was from wasn’t good enough for him. There he wasn’t special. Here at least he was a laowai.

I went alone into my dark house. I turned on the heaters and changed into my pajamas. I flipped on the TV and watched an incomprehensible Taiwanese soap opera. Later, before turning in, I’d etch another scratch mark on the paper I had taped to the wall, counting down the days till I could finally go home.

Stalk.com

By Angela Tung

Essay

I was dating Mouse Man for six months when I began stalking him. Not stalking in a rifling-through-his-garbage, claiming-that-I-was-Mrs.-Mouse-Man kind of way, but invisibly, remotely. Online.

I started with MySpace. “Mouse Man” I typed, narrowing my search to five miles outside my Upper East Side zip code. After a few clicks, I found him.

Here for, he wrote. Friendship, Networking, Dating, Serious Relationships.

Dating. Serious relationships.

I began to freak out.

I was recently divorced after a long relationship that began in the ‘90s and ended with my husband cheating on me. I was angry, sad, and finally relieved when I left him. After several months of recovery, I was ready to get match-dot-com’d.

I was new to a dating world that orbited in cyberspace, where people hid behind picture-less profiles, fudged heights and weights, and despite my fluently written profile and fully clothed photo, mistook me for an English-language-challenged mama san who’d love them long time. In comparison Mouse Man was a catch.

Tall and good-looking with bright blue eyes, he, like me, was a writer who loved to travel. He had just moved back to New York from Japan, where he’d been teaching English and I had recently visited. After a couple of inbox exchanges, he asked me for my number and a date.

Our first few encounters were lovely – a sushi dinner followed by a long walk in my ‘hood, a stroll on a gorgeous April day through Central Park, and an inedible vegan meal (you say wheat gluten, I say balls of snot) followed by an incomprehensible French film. However, after we “interfaced,” some bugs started to show in the system.

Outside of our once a week sex-and-dinner dates, I discovered that Mouse Man’s preferred form of communication was virtual. Instead of calling or crossing Central Park from his Upper West Side apartment to mine, he’d email me ten times in a day. Once that May we spent an entire Sunday trading messages till finally I asked him if he wanted to get together.

No thanks, he wrote back. I’ll be staying in. That was the last I heard from him that weekend.

He seemed to have an aversion towards affection in general. No hugs or kisses beyond the bedroom, no pet names. On our first date he told me I was “much cuter in person” than in my ad, but that was the last of his compliments.

Still my feelings grew. I wanted to be in a relationship; I missed being married. Everything about him became endearing – his enthusiastic drumming to songs only he heard, the back of his sweet neck, his left-handedness.

His propensity for languages. Fluent in Spanish and Japanese, he liked picking up bits of French, Korean, and Mandarin. To impress him, I memorized a bit from a song I liked: Qu’est ce que tu me fait, cherie? Lying in bed one hot summer night, I said it twice before he responded in French goobledygook.

I stalked him because even after half a year, I didn’t know him. Why did he mutter in Japanese after a particularly rambunctious roll in the hay? Why didn’t he marry his girlfriend in Japan? Why did he say he didn’t know where he’d be next year?

Now at my laptop, my heart pounded. Did I have another philanderer on my hands? I went to the dating site where we had met, and where, after we started sleeping together, I had hidden my ad. He hadn’t, and in fact, had logged in a few days before.

My head whirled. Should I email him? Text him? Send him an IM? No. I went 20th century on his ass and picked up the phone.

“Are you dating anyone else?” I asked.

He wasn’t, he claimed. He had simply forgotten to change his MySpace. Hiding his personal ad had slipped his mind as well, and he went in because sometimes people wrote him.

Why people were still writing him, I didn’t ask, nor if he wrote back.  I needed to believe him, the way I trusted that my credit card numbers wouldn’t get into the hands of cyber pirates when I downloaded from iTunes, and even if it happened, in the worst possible way, I wouldn’t be afraid to browse the playlists again.

“Okay,” I breathed. “Just checking.”

“You could have just talked to me,” he said.

I knew that, but confronting him IRL about my status was too difficult.

“We should talk about that,” he said. He had trouble, you see, letting loose with his feelings. He could date a girl for a year and not be in love with her. He hadn’t fallen for anyone in a very long time, and after six months, he hadn’t fallen for me.

We broke up after that. A couple of days later, at the Bandshell in Central Park, he returned to me my Seven Samuri DVD. I gave him back the umbrella he had forgotten at my apartment.

“It was fun while it lasted,” I said.

“We’ll keep in touch, right?” he said. For once he sounded worried. “You don’t have anything against email, do you?”

He had always maintained communication with his exes, or at least their Yahoo! and Gmail accounts. But I didn’t want to be just another contact.

I realized later that while Mouse Man’s lukewarmth had been obvious, it took seeing it on screen to make me believe it. I had been distracted by chiseled cheekbones, occasional laughs, and the security of a date every Friday night. If his e-personas hadn’t tattled on him, he might have gone on virtually dating me for who knows how long.

Since then, expressiveness is a required field for me. Tell me how you feel – in fact, spam me with it. Give me emotions, not emoticons. I want real hugs and kisses, not punctuation marks.

As for me, I now know I need to go to the person for answers, not the persona. I have to stop Googling for love in all the wrong places. And while I’d date online again (and again, and again), I’d be ISO someone who’d want to spend a Sunday afternoon with me, not my email.