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.

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A long-time New Yorker, ANGELA TUNG is a writer in San Francisco. Her work has appeared in CNN Living, The Frisky, Dark Sky Magazine, Matador Life, The New York Press and elsewhere. Her Young Adult novel, Song of the Stranger, was published by Roxbury Park Books.

Her latest book, Black Fish: Memoir of a Bad Luck Girl, chronicles the failed marriage between a Chinese woman and Korean man, both American-born but still bound by old world traditions. Black Fish was short-listed for Graywolf Press' 2010 Nonfiction Prize.

In addition, she's a writer/editor at Wordnik.com, an online word source, and has an MA in Creative Writing from Boston University. Visit her at angelatung.com.

38 responses to “Displaced”

  1. Judy Prince says:

    angela, those fillips are a trademark of your writing. I wait for them, stalk them, and get a bright grin when they appear, always surprising in their magic turns. You’ve employed them well in your soooo perfect descriptions of kids’ reactions; e.g., ” I’d let a bit of drool run out of the mouth before keeling over” and “though it turned out he didn’t recognize who we were running to.”

    Your mom and Reggie—-perfect foil for your later loving tribute to your mom (happy mother’s day, mom! I’ll add here) for her wonderfully decorating your room and displaying the doll, having kept it carefully for that occasion.

    Lovely lovely writing, angela.

    Oh—-your aunt would get “accidentally drunk on some soup”??!!

    • angela says:

      thanks judy! though to tell the truth, i had to look up wht a “fillip” was (is that an example of one?).

      yeah, the alcoholic soup. i think this is what they told me. i googled “chinese soup with alcohol” and couldn’t find anything. i’ll be seeing this aunt in june and will surely have to ask her or my uncle.

      • Judy Prince says:

        I tend not to look words up, angela, I just ask dear Rodent who seems to know everything about words (I used to check his answers with the dictionary but quit bcuz he was right all the time). Anyway, he wasn’t available to ask about “fillip” so I went with my recollections that it means a little bit (at the end of something) that leaps up like a lightning bug and is surprising and exciting. Would I be great at Merriam-Webster or what?!

        Re your aunt’s soup, I thought they might have told you it was soup (even though she was inhaling a bottle of Scotch each day) Justin Case you might accidentally let the secret of her drinking out.

  2. Irene Zion says:

    This was a lovely tribute to your mother.
    You tried to slip that by us, but it was clearly shining underneath the whole story.
    I love your uncle, by the way, and I too would like to know how your aunt could possibly have gotten accidentally drunk on some soup.
    (You really are going to have to explain that, so if you don’t know, you’d better get on the phone and get the answer for us.)
    I have to say that the scene I loved the best was your repeatedly play-acting jigai for your grandmother.

    Oh, and I’ve been hidden behind the cubes for more than 24 hours, thanks for kicking me back on the page!

    • angela says:

      the soup again! i thought i could get away without explaining it. or i should have at least acknowledged the sketchiness of this explanation in the piece!

      . . .ah i see what you mean by “cubes”! sure, no problem. 🙂

  3. Jordan Ancel says:

    Angela, I want to read more! I love this portrait of your childhood. Very delicately painted. I’m a nostalgic person, and this really appeals to my love of fond memories.

    I’m also intrigued by the doll:

    While everything around her changes, she stays the same – still beautiful, still braced on what will surely be the best day of her life.

    I can only imagine the stories she would tell.

  4. angela says:

    thanks jordan!

    you know now that i’ve written about the bride doll, i really do hope it’s still sitting there in my old room. i’ll have to ask my mother about that.

  5. Zara Potts says:

    Lovely piece, so evocative of childhood, with all its fears and tears and instantaneous moments of happiness.
    I’d love to see the doll – she sounds like one I had. She was beautiful but alas, I gave her no name.

    • angela says:

      oh, zara, now i’m googling images of “bride dolls.”

      i didn’t name my either. names for stuffed animals and dolls just came to me. hence, most remained nameless.

  6. Wonderful piece Angela!

    Do you remember where the apartment in Berkeley was–street or area? (I lived there for several years, so am trying to visualize you with your feet and your doll, somewhere in Berkeley.)

    • angela says:

      thanks, jessica!

      i’m afraid i don’t remember where the apartment is. another question for my aunt and uncle! along with the alcoholic “soup.”

  7. Joe Daly says:

    Love the way your vignettes tell such complex stories. The part about your uncle wiping away your tears while your aunt mocked you immediately reminded me of “The Book Thief,” which has a similar them. Yours is just as strong.

    Well done, Angela!

  8. Joe Daly says:

    *similar THEME.


  9. Matt says:

    Aww, what a nice piece. Such a nice portrait of your mother–and kudos to your uncle for making a nice gesture to you right when it seems like you needed one.

  10. Marni Grossman says:

    Angela- particularly loved this:

    ““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.”

    You never fail to engage me completely.

  11. Don Mitchell says:

    Angela – I liked your descriptions of the interactions between your mother and your aunt. I’m wondering whether your mother consciously or unconsciously felt as though she had to show her big sis how tough she was, especially with you. I’ve been in situations like that, where you don’t want to be very harsh or even punish a child for a misdeed that doesn’t seem too bad to you, but you know that somebody else, especially somebody else who has power over you, won’t like it if you don’t. I can imagine that your mother felt vulnerable at her sister’s house, and that your uncle understood all this and behaved accordingly — the man who wasn’t caught up in sibling issues.

    And, like Marnie, I’m fond of that “Reggie! she yelled at him . . . . ” paragraph, which I think wonderfully captures the kind of frustration and response to it that most of us have learned is completely useless, but are helpless to avoid. I’m sure your mother knew perfectly well that no amount of yelling at a builder would make a complex task like house construction go faster, just as she probably knew, deep down, that no amount of scolding you would make life in San Jose any easier.


    • angela says:

      don, you really hit the nail on the head. because Big Auntie was so harsh, but unpredictably so, i think my mother felt she had to be extra harsh all the time. i think all the yelling is, in a a way, a defense mechanism for my mother: she thinks, well i yelled at them, if they don’t listen, it’s their own fault.

  12. Simon Smithson says:

    Hey, Big Auntie! Lay off Angela’s feet!

    “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.”

    We rarely do, huh?

    “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’m curious – did you try to explain this one and defend yourself, or did you have to wear the greedy label?

    • angela says:

      simon, i was too timid to defend myself and don’t think i wore the greedy label. i think my mother was overreacting to what she thought was misbehavior, which would have surely been judged harshly by Big Auntie.

      i was talking to my mom recently about my aunt and her teasing me about my feet. it seems she hasn’t changed: when her son brought home the woman who’d eventually become his wife, the first thing my aunt pointed out was how “big” the woman’s feet were.

      Big Auntie’s obsession with feet is weird.

  13. I was immediately drawn in — as I always am — when you tell stories of your family. This was so evocative of the feelings we have as children — really observers in our world who are powerless except for small victories the adults either do not see or choose to ignore. Yet you managed to also show the frailties of the adults as well — you and your brother may have had no real place in these temporary homes — but neither did your mother — and you show this so simply and beautifully that it made me shiver. When you came home to that decorated room and the bride doll— ahh — you pushed me over the age, Angela!

    • angela says:

      robin, thank you for your kind words.

      you’re exactly right that my mother also had no place in these worlds, and perhaps her scolding and harshness to put me “in my place” was sort of fear about overstaying our welcome, even at relatives’ homes.

  14. Mary says:

    Just. Beautiful. How long did you live out there with your family? Just a summer? It’s interesting how childhood summers seem like eons. So much can happen in those few months. You learn boatloads. This was such an enjoyable read, Angela. Great work.

    • angela says:

      mary, you’re so right that months can seem like years to a kid. for a long time, i thought it was the whole summer, but my mother informed me that it was barely two months.

      then as i was remembering more, i was surprised that we had lived at friends’ houses for so long – sept through november. it had seemed shorter, probably because there were kids to play with and i had school.

  15. Andrew Nonadetti says:

    Angela, this was awesome and made me chide myself for all my grumbling about parenthood, seeing your child-world through your child-eyes. Love the gibberish-hued “suicide”, btw, as well as the compassion shown by your uncle. You aunt, however…. Well, I don’t want to do anything “bad” per se but I wouldn’t mind finding some way to annoy her greatly for a little while.

    And, of course, I’d like to know more about this soup. Will you start a mailing list for the recipe? 😉

  16. Ronlyn Domingue says:

    What a charming nickname–Little Gem.

    You captured a child’s bewilderment as witness to familial history–relationships that get played out with no real context for the newcomers. Kids get stuck in the middle. Understanding doesn’t come until later.

    Within the past couple of years, I’ve slowly been purging mementoes from childhood. Two summers ago, it was all of my medals, ribbons, and trophies. My big stuffed puppy dog is still safe, though.

    • angela says:

      ronlyn, you’re so right. as a kid, you’re sort of just rolling through the punches, not sure what’s going on. only as an adult do you start to understand the different and complex nuances of such relationships.

      i think most of my toys have been thrown out by this point. the one thing i regret tossing were all the stories i wrote as a kid. i was feeling very “adult” as a 14-year old and didn’t want them anymore. my dad reluctantly threw them out – i wish he hadn’t!

      • Ronlyn Domingue says:

        I destroyed my childhood journal when I was 13, but I kept the stories and poems. Quirky little things.

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