Bon Mot II

A few days later in California, I sat with my parents in the waiting room of the Hoag Center for Movement Disorders, waiting for my mother's quarterly check-up. An obese woman walked by, her pumpkin-shaped butt undulating underneath a faded mumu.

My father, himself with an insatiable sweet tooth and a belly like a yoga-ball, raised his eyebrows, made a face. I was reminded of POI's conditions. 

"POI says I can gain ten pounds," I said in Chinese, though wondered if my phrasing was correct. 

It was not. My father lurched to attention and waved his hand at me, a wild urgency in his eyes. 

"No!" he said much too loudly for a quiet hospital waiting room, "Don't fall into his trap!" 

I laughed, wondering if he feared POI was a chubby chaser. For the past ten years, since I was sixteen and gained thirty pounds when I joined the badminton team my sophomore year of high school, my father has been not-so-subtly hinting that I ought to lose at least twenty pounds. 

"At least," he always emphasized, "At least." 

After college, I lost ten and tried in the way I try to do most things (not very hard) to lose ten more. But certain pants stayed very tight and... in the back of my closet. 

But my father continued to stress room for improvement. 

"Don't eat that," he would say, if he found me helping myself to coffee ice cream, "It's all fat." 

Or, if I got another bowl of rice at dinner, would tsk tsk and say, "Ten pounds? What happened to losing ten pounds? Don't you want to?" 

But my father is a conflicted man. He is strong and sturdily built, an athletic man even now, with that rotund abdomen. He sees the same in me and cannot help but take pride in my similar albeit more feminine build (minus the gut) - my wide knees and broad, square shoulders (my mother, though far from petite, has soft, weak legs and sloped, almost pointless shoulders) and my rather strong neck, which, when I showed up to the first day of a college seminar wearing a Cal crew neck sweatshirt, prompted the professor to ask, "And what sport do you play for us?" - all these are genetic gifts from my father. 

My father also likes to eat. No, he loves to eat. As much as he wanted me to lose ten pounds, he wanted more to eat with me and for me to eat. He cuts fruit at all hours of the day, including right before bedtime, unaware that fruit is fiber and sugar water, as capable of causing weight gain as ice cream. And because the Chinese savory crackers he likes to eat are "vegetable flavored," he thinks they are healthy and thus perfectly fine if downed twenty at a time. But he is most conflicted when he tries to stop me from eating something. 

"Don't eat the ice cream," he'll say, then see that I've already scooped it into a bowl. He will reach for another bowl, "Well, give me a scoop then. Or two." 

Or, seeing that I'm already up at the rice cooker, hand me his bowl, "I could use some more rice too, I guess. But you really shouldn't eat so much rice." 

But then he will put more of whatever dishes we are having into my bowl as well, because he's my father and that's what fathers do. 

------

"Listen to me."

My father sat up, the image of the fat woman still waddling in his mind. I turned around and saw that she was still in his line of sight, inching down the long waiting room. 

"You do not need to gain ten pounds," he said, "You need to lose ten pounds." 

I wanted to tell him that he had misunderstood, that POI had meant that there was a ten pound maximum, but my father's tone said he was not to be interrupted.

"You lose ten pounds," my father continued, "And Tom will come running."

I nodded that I understood but he wasn't finished.

"Not just your Tom, all the Toms..."

He paused to grin before his final, genius point,

"And Jerry too." 

Bon Mot

The day I left for California, POI took me to lunch at Buvette, one of my favorite cafes in New York.

I ordered the salade niçoise, planning ahead for the cafe's excellent chocolate mousse, served in the form of a decadent little mountain topped with a luscious dollop of house-whipped cream, an ice cap of chilled fat.

"I'm so excited to go home," I said to POI between bites, "I'm going to eat all the things I've been craving for the past eight months." 

POI nodded, his bites smaller and slower than mine, "Like what." 

"In n' Out, for one," I said. 

POI nodded his approval. 

"And..." I rattled off all the foods I associated with SoCal living and didn't even know I missed until I was heading back. 

Pho, Korean BBQ, simple Taiwanese Chinese food, Chinese desserts, my mother's home cooking, my aunt's home cooking, affordable Japanese food, Mexican food, Souplantation, Wahoo's Fish Tacos... it was not a short list. 

"I'm going to come back a cow," I said. 

His spoon paused mid-air, "No fat Betty."

It was an inside joke, tinged with seriousness. On our fourth date he'd made reservations at Jeffrey's Grocery - another favorite - and ordered an off-the-menu pork chop. It was big, as in, if two people with normal appetites split it, there might have been some leftover. But if POI doesn't exercise, he has a below average appetite and I, if I don't exercise, have an appetite bordering on excessive. We started at opposite ends of the chop and worked our way in, though I beat him to the middle. About ten bites behind, POI put his fork down.

"I am disgustingly full," he said, "I cannot eat another bite."

Great, I thought, more pork chop for me.

Eventually the meat was gone, save for the meat around the bone, which, if you know anything about meat, is the juiciest, tastiest part and often can't be excised satisfactorily with a silly knife. Angles, you know?

POI watched me watch the pork chop. I had not made eye contact with him in a while.

"You want to gnaw on the bone, don't you," He was learning something about me.

"No no, no no." I too, put my fork down and pushed the plate away, "I'm done, that was amazing."

A few minutes later POI excused himself to the restroom. An opportunity presented itself. I have never been one to leave meat on the bone. Why now, especially with a pork chop as delicious as this?

I figured I had about three minutes, maybe four, to clean the bone and have the waiter whisk away the evidence. I got to work, never mind that I was wearing a rather frilly sundress and had my makeup done by my friend Angie, a professional makeup artist who was staying with me that week for New York Fashion Week. She had worked on J. Crew models all morning then generously gussied up my hair and face for my date with POI - just so I could smear it with pork grease. I bit down and gnawed with concentration, thinking how in the future, I ought to carry floss.

I felt a tap on my shoulder.

Damn. Why wasn't there a line for the men's room?

"So."

I turned, still holding the bone to my teeth.

POI's expression bore bemusement with a shade of horror - something I like to think he saves just for me. "You didn't want to gnaw on the bone."

I grinned. No point in pretending now. I was two percent sheepish and ninety-eight percent satisfied. I doubt Jeffrey's Grocery had ever seen a such a sparkling pork rib.

-----

Since then, I've consistently eaten more than POI, except when we exercise. When endorphins are released, something magical happens. POI turns into a bottomless abyss for nacho chili cheese fries and pizzas and burgers with cheese. Anything with cheese, basically, and I turn into that girl at the restaurant who looks like she eats way more than the "Just a salad with the dressing on the side" she orders. For POI a revved up appetite is a biological function. For me the reverse that happens is largely psychological. Why undo all the hard work I put into ___(insert strenuous and unpleasant exercise POI coerced/tricked me into)____ by eating like I normally do? Better to wait a day, when I turn into lazy, sedentary Betty to eat tons.

A normal person would think, "This kind of thinking is great. I ought to exercise more, every day!"

But I am special.

------

We finished lunch and took a walk - my preferred form of exercise - towards POI's office. We stopped at a red light and I turned to POI. 

"Would you really break up with me if I got fat?" 

POI hesitated, then lied. 

"Probably not." 

"Good." 

"Well," he said, nodding that the walk sign was on, "I'll give you a maximum of ten pounds." 

First Impressions V

Two weeks before my arrival, friends - both POI's and mine - asked, "You ready to meet the parents? You nervous?”
"Yes and no."
I don’t let myself get nervous because when I do, I freeze. But I’ll get to that. Instead, I was excited to do what came easily because my mother had made me perfect it through years of practice: make a good impression.
That Friday, I left work early and walked to Penn Station, carrying a backpack heavy with a bottle of Chianti for POI's mother and two books he'd brought back from England for his parents but had forgotten to bring.
I hauled these items along with a mixed bag of Murray's Bagels and at 4PM, boarded the train behind a podiatrist who held the skeleton of a human foot and a slew of young professionals who seemed younger and more professional than I. They typed away on laptops, describing marketing plans on fancy power points until it got old and they realized they were on a train and their boss was probably not watching. As though in unison, a handful of them began to watch "Orange Is the New Black," except for the anemic-looking woman who sat in front of me. She watched "You've Got Mail” while chewing at a bland sandwich that didn’t seem to have much iron.
I slept for an hour and spent the rest of the ride looking between the magazine on my lap and the view out the window.
"The east coast is very lush," I noted.
"People in Delaware seem very poor. At least by the train tracks."
"People who get off in Baltimore look rather dejected."
The train was an hour delayed but I was communicating with POI, who instructed me to text by the time I got to Baltimore. He'd leave his place around then.
Baltimore slid by. I texted. Before long the train stopped in a drab terminal and I found myself standing in Union Station, setting foot in our nation's capital for the first time.
"What have I been doing that it's taken me twenty-eight years to get here?" I wondered. Visiting other capitals, duh.
POI collected me from the large roundabout in front of the station in a little blue station wagon, his father’s old car. We said hello with a tinge of strangeness - he was not home but he was "home," just as I, writing this from my Upper West Side studio am home but not “home.” His family – parents, brother, brother’s wife, sister, sister’s husband and their baby – were all waiting at home for my arrival so we could eat dinner together. I felt bad that my train had been late, but they couldn’t hold that against me. I wasn’t nervous at all. Not yet.
----
So, when do I get nervous? And what happens? Like many people, I get nervous when I’m put on the spot. When, say, I’m at dinner with a group of friends and someone asks me to do the math on the bill. (Once my calculation came out to be $100 more than we needed to pay). I got nervous when taking the GRE, when the writing portion came first instead of Verbal or Math, like in the five practice tests I took beforehand. I had not practiced taking the test in this order. I also get nervous when people ask me questions I’m not expecting and, like most people who ask you questions, they expect answers right away. This makes me especially nervous when there are other people around, watching or listening and they too, expect an answer.
I am not one of those hardy individuals whose brain adapts quickly to these situations. I would like to be able to take the restaurant bill home and figure it out at with my dad’s giant accountant’s calculator. I would have loved for the GRE essay portion to come at the end, where I expected it to be. I might have gotten a less embarrassing score of two (out of six), considering I was taking the GRE to apply to writing school. And I would have given anything for POI’s mother to have said, “I’ll give you some time to think about it,” after she asked me, “Why did you say that?” Actually, I would have preferred if she didn’t ask me at all, and understood that it’s just the sort of thing I say from time to time.
------
The family dinner went well. POI’s father ordered Indian takeout and I assumed they all ate with more gusto considering I had made them wait an hour. After, the family migrated from the dining table to the living room, while I stayed behind in the kitchen chatting with POI’s mother. She asked me the usual things: what I was studying (writing), if I liked my program (sometimes), what was I going to do after the program (Not sure, but probably babysitting and tutoring the SAT’s. Just kidding. Of course I meant writing…), my version of how POI and I met (I patted myself on the back for leaving out the racist bits), our recent travels and plans for the summer. I asked her the usual questions too: how did she meet POI’s father if she was from Australia? While she was studying English Literature in England, he was there too, a young American man in the foreign service. They married, moved to a suburb just outside DC, and had three children. A few years later, when POI was eight, his father’s job took them to Tokyo where they lived for ten years.
“It was a wonderful time,” she said, her eyes sparkling, and I could imagine it. I felt an immediate kinship with this petite skinny woman with countless laugh lines, bright eyes and short, curly red hair. We both loved to read, though judging by the well thumbed books I found all over the house, in every single room, she more than me. She was, from the way she talked about her meeting POI’s father, a bit of a romantic, though with practical leanings, especially now having been married for so many decades to POI’s father who seemed like a very practical man. We moved from the kitchen to the back patio, each holding a glass of wine, and continued talking for another hour or so until we decided that it was probably time to go in and join the rest of the family. Confidences had been exchanged. She liked me, I could tell.
As we walked into the living room POI gave me a wary look – what had I been telling his mother out there on the patio? Or worse, what has she told you? The smug smile I returned said, “None of your business.” I took a seat next to his mother opposite POI and listened as they told me stories about their neighbors. There was the young family next door, who had two ill-behaved little girls who often scared Smoot and screamed and shrieked. POI’s mother did not like them. She was a bigger fan of the friendly, quiet guy who lived upstairs and who had been a bachelor for many years – he was in his early forties – but was getting married tomorrow.
            “Congratulations to him!” I said.
            She nodded and smiled, “His fiancée’s name is Turquoise.”
            Nicky and POI both snorted, “What kind of name is that?”
            Nicky pulled out his phone and started scrolling – he lived close to POI’s parents and was apparently friends with the neighbor on Facebook. He found a photo of Turquoise and showed it to POI.
            “Is she a bus driver?” POI joked.
            “Oh,” I said, arriving at what I thought was an obvious conclusion, “Is she black?”

I remember a sudden outburst of laughter, which then died down almost immediately into an awkward silence. From the corner of my eye I saw POI’s eyes widen as his mother turned to me.
“Why did you say that?”
Defense mechanism one. Pretend you didn't say it and even if you did say it, convince yourself no one heard.
“Hm?”
POI's mother looked at me with wide eyes sparkling with earnest curiosity. She repeated the question.
"Why did you say that?"
This is when adrenaline is supposed to kick in, when your fight or flight instinct is meant to help you either a.) smoothly redirect the conversation to something more PC ("So why do you guys call him Mr. Chicken?" But I'd already asked this. Or b.) Come up with an elaborate lie beginning with, "Oh what I meant was _(insert the exact opposite of what you meant couched it flowery language and said with a sweet "mean no harm, absolutely no harm" expression)__."
But my glands don't work like that. I'm witty, but not quick-witted. I'll come back at you with a witty comeback or a “quick” save…tomorrow. Or maybe the day after. I am also not- nor have I ever been-a good liar. An on-the-spot liar? Forget it. I'm better at math. And that's saying something.
In the past, when I've been caught red-handed doing something I wasn't supposed to be doing or carelessly let mean (but often true) things roll off a blunt tongue, I have never been able to successfully backtrack and assuage the situation. Instead, I run through the options (listed above) and my ability to execute those options, which is very low. The inner dialogue goes something like this:
Dammit. I can't believe I just said it. Dear God, may I please rewind this moment? No? Dammit. Dammit. Dammit.
The entire thought process takes less then two seconds (in some ways I am fast) but in the end the only options are either to apologize for a mistake or own it. In this case, I had to own it. To apologize would lead to too much explaining, which, given the blankness of my present state of mind, would color myself a deeper shade of prejudiced. I was at a crossroads too – back down now and set an expectation of apologizing for all the potentially racist/politically incorrect/and general unkind things that were bound to come out of my mouth. I am just that level of inappropriate. POI knew this. My friends know this. My family, minus my parents who are actually racist in the way most older Chinese people are, know this. And they still love me. Better be up front.
Don’t worry, I’m a little racist. You’ll get used to it.
I turned to POI’s mother, my face wide open with an “I thought it was obvious” expression.
            “Well,” I said as matter-of-factly as I could, “POI asked if she was black. A lot of bus drivers are black.” (I wanted to add that naming your daughter Turquoise was also a total black thing to do, but remembered my college roommate named Teal who was one of the whitest people I ever met). 
            POI's mother blinked. Her smile seemed a bit strained then, and I sensed her beginning to register some doubt, which she didn’t feel during dinner or in the kitchen or on the patio. Is this girl…right…for my son… but I looked away and didn’t see her finish the thought.
----
A week after I’d come home, I remembered my old school manners and sent her a letter-press thank you card I’d bought some months ago while wandering through the West Village. It had four trolls on it – the kind we played with as kids, with tall, pointy hair, wide googly eyes that stare blankly at you over frozen smiles (so...just me?). They reminded me of my childhood and I bought them, not sure if anyone would get the train of thought that went through my head. Well, I had to thank his mother for a good time and I had a card with four trolls and the right two words on it.
            Two weeks after that a postcard with a frog, painted by Matsumoto Hoji arrived in the mail. It was from POI’s mother – she’s gotten it from the British Museum gift shop and had saved it, I imagine, to send to the rare creature her middle child would final decide to bring home.
            “Dear Betty..." She thanked me for my warm words, agreed that my next trip should be longer and that Smoot aka Mr. Chicken sends a “woof.” I smiled when I saw the postscript squeezed in under her signature: “P.S. I see your trolls and raise you a frog.”

Saturday

Thus far, everything has gone as planned.

I woke up, chatted with POI on the phone, went to the kitchen to have a bowl of Frosted Miniwheats then went to the driving range with my mother. We discovered that the golf club in the neighboring city is quite nice, and not too expensive. We each hit one hundred balls, mine going much further than my mothers' which prompted her to ask me for tips.

I have had exactly one "lesson" from my brother, who used to play semi-regularly when he lived in California. Bend your knees. Stick your butt out. Keep the left arm straight and your eye on the ball. Swing.

I swung a good twenty, twenty-five times before I ever made contact with the ball.

For golf, I had not beginner's luck but second timer's luck.

Two weeks ago I revisited the driving range in New York with POI, who likes the game, preferring to have a beer or two to loosen up. We biked to the waterfront driving range and I watched him play before hitting a few on my own.

"You're pretty good," POI noted.

"Hm," I said. I agreed. But as with most things I do (or eventually give up on) consistency was an issue.

My mother, I observed this afternoon, would like to be able to drive the ball out much further than she currently does. Her range hovers around 100 yards, usually just below.

"I'm terrible," she kept saying, but her shots were consistently straight. The sound her driver head made upon contacting the ball quite appealing.

I recorded a few of her swings on my iphone, saying things like, "Keep your arm straight," and "Lift the club higher when you pull back," in Chinese, but was aware that the entire situation was very blind leading the blind. I wondered if the more experienced people to our left and right were chuckling to themselves.

My first thirty or so shots with the driver were consistent too, until I discovered I was terrible on the irons and much better on the woods. I used the driver to hit the last twenty balls, none of which went as far or straight and flat as the first thirty. Consistency, where'd you go, I muttered to no one. Still, my mother was impressed and said it was a shame I didn't start earlier.

"I wasn't interested back then," I said, shrugging.

She thought my tips were good. I'm pretty sure we both imagined it, but she seemed to be hitting just a few yards further by the end of the bucket.

"Take lessons when you get back to New York," she said, when we were finished. I nodded. That might not be a bad idea.

We came home and had lunch. My mother fried a fish - scallions, soy sauce, sugar, rice wine - and my father suggested we finish off the coffee ice cream.

"Time to buy more," he said, "though no one eats it with me when you're not home."

Everything as planned, this Saturday afternoon. Then I went to my room, called POI. He picked up and I started to cry.
------

The vestiges of our morning conversation. In POI's words, I had tried to start a fight because I felt he hadn't called enough over the past two weeks.

"But we talk every day," he had said in the morning, though by "talk" he meant "text."

"It's not the same," I said, because it's not, "And remember. It's a privilege to talk to me on the phone."

Eventually we were laughing. We had hung up shortly before I left for the driving range, he feeling as though everything was resolved because there had been nothing wrong to begin with, and I feeling a hairsbreadth better, but mostly needy and uneven.

I spent the last two weeks telling my entire family that I was happy in New York, in my relationship, in school (which hasn't started).

"This time around it's very different huh?" my cousins asked, "So different from your first time."

"Yeah," I said, "So different and so good."

It's true, but I worry about my internal consistency, none of which is documented via the usual channels. What makes me feel happy and steady and at peace one minute and another, say, when I'm packing to leave one home for another, off-kilter and confused? I didn't want to pull POI into this monologue - the "home" question. The what are we how are we who am I what is the future question. What comes tomorrow and the day after and the month and years and incredible vortex after? I didn't want to pull him into the one-woman fray, but I had to, because it's sort of what you sign up for when you date someone with a lot of words.

"I feel strange," I said to him now.

"How so."

"I don't know," because at that point I didn't. But we talked and just a few minutes later I knew.

The fact that there were two sets of keys on my dresser, one with a Prius key and another with cards to the New York Public Library and Brooklyn Fare. The fact that I was packing again, taking a few more items of my room with me - things I had thought, when I set them down on whichever particular surface, would stay for many years if not forever. The fact that I spent several days mulling over whether to bring said items - because do they belong at this home or the other? The fact that I'd come back this time, filled with the comforting confidence one has when one returns to a familiar city with familiar, loving faces, only to arrive and feel as though I'd forgotten to bring something important.

I told POI so, though not in those exact words. When I cry the words seem to drip down my face and I often can't say anything for interminable minutes.

"I think I get it," he said.

And maybe he does. But more importantly, I got it.

Medusa, Mozart

Last Saturday, I permed my hair. A digital perm which is supposed to be not only better for your hair but also produce more relaxed, natural results. I had a regular perm back in elementary school. The same time I had braces and short hair. I went to school the next day and a jackass with poetic leanings called me Medusa. By lunch he had revised it to "Metal Mouth Medusa."

Alliteration. Gotta love it.

I avoided perms for a while until I was twenty-five, when I discovered digital perms. So that's why Korean and Japanese girls have those glossy, glorious looking body waves. I signed up for one and it was a big hit. A friend said, "Whoa, you actually look feminine for once." My mother said I looked very romantic, like Kate Winslet from "Titanic." "...Thanks mom." A guy I met online and went on two dates with said my personality was like my hair, "Bouncy." It was a nice thing to say. Unfortunately his personality was like his hair, flat.

I've had other perms since then, but spaced out to let my hair recover. Also, in New York these perms are crazy expensive. Instead, I've been patient, growing my hair out, trimming it every few months to keep it healthy so that I could damage it all in one go for a digital perm, all in the name of femininity.

I sat in a Korean-owned Irvine salon for five hours getting it cut and permed.  My stylist was pregnant and very pretty. She complimented the strength of my hair and told me about her husband who taught Tae Kwon Do. She was going to have another daughter and my goodness your hair is really strong I need to apply the relaxer twice. Set the temperature higher than normal. My neck got close to burning quite a few times and when it was finally done, I was running late for my cousin Angela's housewarming dinner.

I walked in, aware of how curly my right-after-perm hair was. I prayed that it would not stay this way.

"Be honest," I said, plunking myself down and feeling my hair swing up and down, "Do I look like Mozart?"

My mom paused a moment too long before saying no, but her eyes said, "A little bit."

"It's fine," my cousin Angela said, her eyes saying the same thing, "It'll relax."

I knew this. But my other perms had not taken five hours.

Later, we moved from the restaurant to Angela's new house. Grandpa, who'd sat at the other end of the table at dinner, came up to me now.

"It's time you got a haircut," he said.

I laughed ("Oh Grandpa, so acerbic and witty and sarcastic and funny"), and wandered off to see Angela's house, a cozy duplex in Irvine with a gleaming kitchen and hardwood floors.

An hour later, I readied to leave.

"Bye grandpa," I said, but he waved me over.

"Really," he said again, a shade of urgency in his voice, "It's time you got your hair cut."

"Oh you were being serious?"

"Of course!" he looked surprised, "Why would I joke about these things?"

I had assumed someone told him why I was late to dinner.

"I was just at the salon," I told grandpa, "I just got my hair cut and permed." For nearly two hundred dollars! I wanted to add, but decided not to. Didn't want to give a frugal man an extravagant nosebleed.

He leaned back with a bewildered look, "Then why does it look like that?"

First Impressions IV

"I'm being serious," POI repeated, "My mom is a hippie liberal who loves everybody. If you say anything racist in front of her, she will hate you." 

"Dude," I said, myself becoming serious, "Don't tell me how to behave." 

I had just made dinner for POI and Courage at my New York Palace and was clearing the table. POI's assumption that I lacked the self control to watch my mouth - especially in front of his parents - irked me. I washed the dishes, feeling my irritation grow. I clanged pots and pans for emphasis.

"Calm down," said Courage, "You know what POI means."

I threw her a raised eyebrow. Of course I knew what he meant. He had basically insulted my upbringing and called me a dumb racist heathen. But did he know what I meant?

I was more than polite; I was empathetic and kind and warm and tactful. All things my mother, who adhered to the same values, had thoughtfully beat into me.

When I was a kid, I threw a few temper tantrums at the usual places: Toys R' Us, the circus, the Forum Shops at Caesar's Palace Las Vegas, and consequently had some manners smacked into me in the restrooms.

Once, I gave a sullen glare to an auntie on my way out of Chinese school. I'd gotten a bad test score and knew mom would not be happy. Catching me glaring at the auntie made her even less happy and later that afternoon I learned: part of being my mother's daughter was smiling and being pleasant to people even if inside I felt wretched.

When my parents had guests over for karaoke parties and potlucks and old Chinese people tomfoolery - which was often - my mother expected my brother and I to be out of our rooms when the guests arrived, ready and waiting by the front door all smiles, house slippers in hand.

Would you like some tea, Mrs. Chen?

Hi Mr. Liu! Long time no see! How's your son/daughter/maltese doing? Dental school/MBA/second kidney surgery? Wonderful.

Ah Aunty Pang! It's so good to see you again...Yes, I am still single.

When you're young, these things seem like punishment and social drudgery. And they are...until they aren't. Your parents' friends notice and start praising your warm, bubbly demeanor and ability to hold not only interesting but also interested conversation with them, whose worlds are connected to yours only because they are your parents' friends.

The grand takeaway from my upbringing, some subtler and less painful than others, to be not only polite but also generous with one's personality, to have the right phrase for the right time, to know how to make talk both large and small, and to be genuine while doing so was, "Whoa, it makes me look and feel really good as a person," and more important, "I like being liked."

As a result, my parents' friends loved me. My friends' parents loved me. And the parents of all the guys I never dated but might have - well, they would have loved me too. Because it's really hard not to. 

And besides, wasn't everyone a little racist? But you grow and, if you're a regular human with heart and brains, discover your prejudices are flexible and ever-changing and sometimes directed at yourself and your own ethnicity, which occasionally clashes with traits tied to your nationality. You make friends with different people, even a few ________s and ________s and though sometimes you're like, "Jesus, you're so _____," or "That's such a ______ thing to do," you still like them as people.

AND ANYWAY, who was he to admonish me about how to act? He who'd been advertised as offensive? He who had offended me on the first date and then again and again in little ways, up to the present moment? He who called poor people "Poors" and fat people "Fats" and his female friends "Bitches" and his girlfriend "Ho-bag" (okay so a lot of people call me "Ho-bag", but still)?

Who was anyone to admonish anyone about decorum and decency? I had my own hesitations about him too, and how he might act when meeting my parents, most of them not unlike that one scene from that one terrible movie about repressed, submissive Chinese women stuck in bad marriages.  

But I had been, up until that point, willing to bring him home without a single word of warning because I figured I was dating a.) a well-adjusted adult who b.) I really liked and who c.) would care enough to want to make a good impression and thus know how to conduct himself.

Apparently POI did not feel the same.

You're not perfect either, buddy. 

Had I said this aloud POI would have said in his irritating tone of reason, "We're not talking about me, we're talking about you."

But I heard it anyway and slammed the last dish into the cabinet, hoping I hadn't cracked it because I had only bought four and Ikea was really far away.

"Simmer down, simmer down," POI said, leaning back into the folding chair (also from IKEA).

"Don't tell me to simmer down!"

"I know you know how to behave, I'm just saying...my mom would not find any racist jokes amusing."

This was back in early March, a full month away from our even broaching the subject and four months away from my actually meeting his parents.

Inside my head I continued to snarl at him.

You haven't even INVITED me to meet your parents and you're warning me how to behave? Thanks for the indefinite amount of time to practice acting like a non-bigot.

Which is to say, we worked it out. 

Which is why I ended up sitting next to his mother in his parents' cozy living room in the middle of a very pregnant pause.

I looked down at a fluffy white dog named Smoot but called Chicken sitting near my ankles, wondering not where my manners were but where in hell my brain had gone.

I did the thing I was not supposed to do.

I said something racist in front of his mother. 

Home, Alone

The toughest part about coming home is also the most wonderful part. Mostly, making time for everyone I want to see.

Except this time, people were expecting more than just me.

"Where's POI?" Aunt Angelina exclaimed when I showed up for dim-sum.

I shrugged, "He had plans."

"Is POI here too?" a friend texted.

"Plans," I texted back, "He had some."

"Your friend is welcome to come too," Aunt Jin-Feng said, inviting me to my cousin's fancy birthday party at Souplantation tomorrow night.

"My friend?" I was confused, then realized I was Chinese and my aunt was Chinese and I shouldn't have been confused because while the term "boyfriend" exists in Chinese, its application is like that of a pistol: just because you have one doesn't mean you should use it.

"Ah my 'friend' is not here," I said, "He had some family plans. But perhaps next time."

-------

The men were less fussed. POI included.

I texted him this morning, "My entire family is like, 'Where's POI?'

"Next time," he wrote.

"Yeah, otherwise they will think I made the whole thing up."

"You'd be a fiction writer then."

-__-

--------

My uncle Louis swung by and gave me a big hug.

"You're back!" he said, then nodding almost gravely, asked, "And school. How's that going?"

"I'm on summer break," I said, "I start school in two weeks."

"Great," he said, then looked around with an expression that said, 'Something's missing.'

I braced myself.

"Where's your mom? I'm supposed to take her to the car dealership."

Later that afternoon Uncle Jin picked me up for dimsum and asked how my boyfriend was doing in San Francisco.

"SF? He lives in New York."

He scratched his head, "That's odd. Why did I think San Francisco?"

I opened my mouth, ready to explain that E, the girl who'd set us up lives in San Francisco and perhaps facts had gotten scrambled while the details of my relationship were being passed from mom to aunt to aunt to uncle, but my grandpa came out of the house just then.

Grandpa waved to me, "Welcome back."

He gave no indication that he expected anyone else. Asked no questions. I smiled.

"Let's go," he said, "Lunch."

------

At dimsum, my aunt bemoaned the fact that two years ago my cousin had brought her then boyfriend to meet the grandparents. They broke up less than three months later.

"Had I known they wouldn't be together three months later I would never have arranged that dinner!" She put her hands to her forehead, "And at this very restaurant!"

I assured her, sitting atop the pile of wisdom I'd accrued in the last year, that she couldn't have known. No one does, really, until it happens.

"Still," my aunt said, putting her hand on her forehead, "Grandpa must think she has a new boyfriend every few months."

I looked at Grandpa, who didn't appear to be listening. He had eaten more than usual and was probably looking forward to his afternoon nap.

"Do you want to meet POI?" I asked him.

"Who?"

"My...uh, friend."

He sighed and shook his head, leaned back.

"You young people. It doesn't matter if I want to meet him. If you like the person and want to be with him, then I'll meet him."

"Good point Grandpa." I reached for another cream bun, a dessert we both loved, and asked if he wanted half.

"I'm good."

"No no," my aunt said, "just put it on his plate."

"I'm good," Grandpa said.

"Put it on his plate."

I put it on his plate. He smiled, and shaking his head, ate it.
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