Write this City: A New York Diary

On a whim, my professor changed the final assignment. 

We were reading "What I saw" by Joseph Roth and thumbing the pages during our class discussion, he revisited something valuable. 

"Why not let's do this," he said, waving his hands as though to stir up the proposal still taking shape in his head, "Yes, yes, this is much better than the original assignment I have planned." 

It's simple: keep a journal. An urban diary of life - your life - in the city. Write it longhand if you wish, and for God's sake don't agonize over it. That's what workshop is for. Try to write every day and at the end of the semester, turn in your best, your favorite 1500 words. 

A few of us groaned. More writing on top of the twenty to thirty pages we were already expected to churn out each week for our thesis workshops. Also, we haven't been asked to keep a journal since elementary school... 

"Dear Diary, 

Today at recess I kicked a girl in the stomach..." 

A girl from Egypt raised her hand. She is a journalism student with a concentration on arts reporting. What was the original assignment? 

The professor looked at her with a curious expression that said, "Does it matter?" 

He is a curious man with wild salt and pepper hair and a chin that protrudes slightly more than the rest of his face. He is well-dressed in a New York not-quite-young but not-quite-old professorial way: fitted, faded jeans, blazer, worn but probably expensive polo shirt in dark blues and greys. Sometimes he wears a narrow, striped scarf, the kind that makes me wonder: "Yes but...does it keep the neck warm?" It certainly does nothing to tamper the scratchiness of his voice. 

On his narrow nose rests narrow black framed glasses and always at his ankles sits a single, slim briefcase, probably hand-stitched, the leather on the handles worn as well as the bottom, from being placed then picked up on classroom and subway floors. He wears no wedding ring, though he is reasonably handsome and reasonably successful, and it is only after our third or fourth class that I go home and Google him - he's written two memoirs, one about his daughter's mental illness and another about his struggles as a writer. 

I once saw him reading on the subway, sitting between a fat black woman and a student not unlike myself, a young Asian woman with hair pulled back into a pony tail, wearing a light sweater and jeans, flats. She was reading a printout, dense with text. My professor, the briefcase now between his ankles, read a slim volume I couldn't see the title of but was certain it wasn't something he'd assigned for our class. 

I stood half a car away and wondered if I should walk over to say hello - there was space in front of him - but decided to stay put because I felt it would be awkward to tower over him, my belly in his face trying to make small talk. I guessed he would get off the train at 96th and transfer to an express train - the 2 or 3 to Brooklyn where I swore he lived. I wanted to know where he lived so I could pat myself on the back and say my assumptions were right. 

But he remained seated and I, disappointed, got off. I remembered what he'd said in class. 

"When you write this diary, see if you can put your assumptions away." 

I pushed through the turnstile, momentarily jostled by a group of young musicians and their sleek instruments made unwieldy by nylon cases and hard shells, and wondered if for me, that was possible.  

Sundays: General Malaise

Before I moved to New York I drank very little and had a naive if entirely incorrect understanding of what it meant to be hungover.

I remember asking one of my friends after a rowdy night out what it felt like. I had not had as much to drink and had driven us back to my house from LA. In the morning she woke up groaning.

"I have a headache," she said, "A huge huge huge headache."

And then she went to throw up.

The headache seemed to be common to everybody's hangovers and because I, even when I drank more than usual, never got the headache, assumed I was never hungover.

In New York, I started going out more, started drinking more. Some nights, I stayed out until three or four and was sober by the time I was showered and in bed. I would sleep fitfully, then wake not much later than usual the next morning, feeling slightly worn but never with a headache.

"I've never been hungover," I would say, proud that my body was so resilient.

But I'd walk around in a haze, be slow to speak and move, and by the mid-afternoon or early evening, depending on how much activity I did during the day, a colossal fatigue would wash over me and I would want to crawl into bed at seven or eight pm. Like a monk, but not.

One Sunday afternoon, Charlene traveled all the way from Jersey to hang out with me. We were supposed to take a walk and have dinner together. But I had gone out the night before, drank too much, slept too little. By the time she arrived I was in bed, no different from an ailing hospital patient.

"What the heck," Charlene said, "I came all the way over here and you're hungover!"

"No no, no no," I said, "I'm not hungover. I don't have a headache. I just slept really late last night."

She shook her head, "A hangover isn't a headache, Betty. It's..." she waved her hand at my pitiful, incapacitated figure, "It's this. This general malaise."

Since then, I have shared Charlene's phrase with other friends and Tom, who used it this afternoon to describe how we were both feeling. It's a hangover catchall phrase, one that aptly describes me and you and him and her, after a long night with many drinks.

Anyway. I've stayed up much later than I thought I would sharing this little revelation with you, but before I go: 12 Hangover Cures From Famous Heavy Drinkers ... most of which involve more alcohol.


A few summers ago in Taiwan, when my aunt had gently shook me awake. It was 9AM and she was about to leave for the office.

"When you and Karen go out today, if you turn left, cross the street."

"Hmm?" I blinked at her in the haze of sleep.

"Someone from the building next door killed themselves last night. She jumped from the roof."

I had opened my eyes completely and stared at my aunt's soft round face. She seemed not sad, but thoughtful. My cousin Karen slept next to me, unaware. My aunt smoothed some hair back from the top of my forehead.

"So when you go out, don't walk on our side of the street. Cross the street."

"Is she still there?"

"No," my aunt said, "but it's not clean."

Superstitious, she meant that there was now an air of death. She didn't want it lingering on us.

On the local news that evening, we learned the girl was an ABC (American Born Chinese), who had come to Taipei to live with her parents after graduation. She was twenty-three, just a few years older than Karen and I. She had been a successful everything, had seemed to everyone cheery and peppy. Had a good relationship with her parents and siblings. The authorities had found an iPod and a chair on the spot from where she jumped, nothing else.

We watched, paying closer attention than usual not because we knew the girl, but only because she had been our neighbor. In another building, but a neighbor nonetheless. She had fallen on the driveway leading to the underground parking lot where we and the neighboring residents parked their cars. The next morning, there would be a large light-colored spot upon the cement, where the driveway had been hosed off and bleached.

The news anchor moved on to the next story and my aunt sighed and shook her head.

"Young and foolish. What must her parents be going through right now?"


One morning a few weeks ago, I was alone in Tom's apartment when the buzzer rang. I went to the little wall panel by the front door that showed, via a tiny fish-eye camera, who wanted in and recognized neither the gruff-looking, middle-aged Caucasian man nor the two slender, tired looking Hispanic women standing behind him. They were dressed like social workers, he in an ill fitting collared shirt and they in faded blouses and frumpy light jackets. One of the women held a clipboard. All three had lanyards with badges of some sort hanging from their necks.

The panel has more than a few buttons with enigmatic icons and I wasn't sure which was for sound. The man turned and said something to the women, who nodded somberly. I wanted to know about what, but I didn't want to press the wrong button and accidentally let them in. I didn't want to be responsible for letting in an interesting combination of people who might or might not rob the entire building blind.

I hoped they would go away if no one answered, and so went back to the small round white kitchen table, where my computer sat. My fingers had resettled upon the keyboard when the buzzer rang again.

Suspicion had already kicked in but, as likely to racially profile as the next person, I reasoned that a middle aged Caucasian man with two rather benign looking Hispanic women (or perhaps Latina) made an unlikely criminal trio. And plus there was the clipboard. My finger hovered over the button with the Key icon, deliberating. The man was relentless. He pressed the buzzer a third time.

The clipboard, I decided, was some sign of safety. I pressed the button just as the man looked directly into the camera, as though purposefully giving the lens a clear view of his face.

I wondered why he was so persistent on pressing the buzzer for this unit, then realized Tom's was the first apartment on the first floor, usually where the superintendent or building manager lived. There was another door once they got through the front gate, opened by the same button. I decided to meet them in the lobby, unsure if this was a wise move, but at least I could ask questions.

I grabbed the spare set of keys and my phone, and stepped into flats rather than flip-flops, in case I had to run. They were standing behind the second set of glass doors, preparing to press the buzzer again, when they saw me.

The man lifted up his laminated badge as I opened the door. None of them smiled or said hello.

"I'm the medical examiner," he said, taking the clipboard from one of the young women. He looked at me expectantly.

I blinked. I had no need to be medically examined.

"I'm here about the guy who jumped this morning..."

He eyed my shorts, my general lounging-around-at-home-disheveledness.

"You're not the super or building manager, are you."

I shook my head.

He sighed, "A guy jumped this morning. Apartment 1D." He looked at the door from which I had emerged, and then across the hall, to 1D. "He lived right there. Do you know anything about it? Did you know him? Were you friends at all?"

"Oh..." was all I could say, and then very slowly, "...no."

He peered down at the clipboard. I could see an official looking document on top, and saw briefly part of the man's name (the rest covered by the examiner's hand), his ethnicity, (Korean) and his age (twenty-five).

"I don't live here," I said, "It's my boyfriend's apartment."

The man nodded, glancing down at the clipboard, "You know where the building manager would be?"

"No," I said, then motioning outside, "Is he...is the body still there?"

"No, they've taken him away, but we need to get into his apartment."

I nodded, unsure of what else to say.

"Well, sorry to bother you," the man said, "And thanks for letting us in. We'll go and find the building manager then."

"Okay," I said. I went back to the apartment and before closing the door, looked across the lobby at 1D. I had never seen anyone walk out of or into the unit, but now knew there had been a young Korean man a few years younger than I.

I closed the door, went back to my computer. I ate lunch, did the dishes. A half hour later, I changed and went to get groceries, the only thought to the dead being that I was glad to turn left once out the building because the body had been somewhere to the right.

A day later I sat on the floor of Tom's living room, watching the US Open with his two roommates and a few friends. 

A comedic commercial came on with a police officer and I was reminded suddenly of the suicide. I had thought, after the medical examiner left, to text Tom and his roommates to tell them what had happened, but it seemed gossipy and pointless. There was nothing to be done, so I kept it to myself. But now, hearing them laugh at the commercial (I don't remember what was being advertised), I thought they should know. 

"Oh yeah," I said, "I forgot to tell you guys. Someone in your building killed himself. He jumped off the roof." 

"Oh is that what happened?" Tom and his roommate had seen cops and police cars clustered around the side of the building that morning as they left for work, but they couldn't see much and had walked on. 

"He was a Korean kid in 1D." 

"That's right across from us," Tom said. 

"He was twenty-five," I said. 


"Again?" said one of Tom's roommates, "Someone jumped from the roof of my first New York apartment." 

We surmised about a young stranger's death for a few minutes during the rest of the commercials. What was he depressed about? What did he do for work? Did his roommates know? And his parents? We shook our heads. Who knows what anyone thinks before jumping off a roof. 

"What an idiot," Tom said, shaking his head, "Twenty-five." 

I sat on the carpet, nodding. Someone might have told the kid, "It gets better," but felt that someone might have been wrong. If it doesn't get better, one gets better at managing it. But. All easier said than done. The match came back on and we turned our attention back to Federer. 

That weekend, we went out for drinks with friends. We laughed over dinner, laughed at the bar, laughed, though a bit more tired, in the cab home. Tom and I smiled at each other walking up the steps to his apartment. 

"What a fun night," Tom said, the same thing he says every time we go out.

I nodded as we crossed the lobby, brightly lit and cool. Tom, a few steps ahead, was opening the door when I heard a woman's plaintive wail, followed by heavy, heaving sobs. I looked at the door of apartment 1D, indistinguishable from Tom's door. Her tone told me she was older. Someone's mother. 

I stepped inside, closed the door, and could still hear her crying, but faintly. 

"Did you hear?" I asked Tom, when our faces were washed and teeth brushed, ready to greet another day. 


"The woman crying. I think it was his mother." 

Tom rolled over in bed, already half asleep, "What a fucking idiot." 

A Preview of Coming Attractions

By this time next week, my parents will have been in New York for one day. They are coming to visit me en route to Canada, where they'll rendezvous with their retired friends to take in Canada's fall foliage.

"It's a good time of year," I said, when they first proposed the dates, "It won't be too cold, and there might be a hint of fall colors. And it's about time you guys met Tom."

My father grunted, "I don't need to meet him. I've seen his picture."

"Betty's right," my mother said. I could picture her smiling into the receiver. "It's about time we visited her in New York and met Mr. Tom."
The last time my mom came to New York was ten years ago, to help me move into NYU. I was eighteen and in New York for the second time ever. My brother and cousin Karen came with and the week before school started, we rented an old but clean two bedroom apartment near Greenwich Village. We bought breakfast foods from the nearby Morton Williams, made toast and fried eggs in the mornings and walked around the city, doing the requisite touristy things - we went to the top of the Empire State Building, saw the Statue of Liberty, took a photo or two in Times Square.

They accompanied me on multiple trips to the first two (or was it three) story Bed Bath and Beyond I'd ever been to, and made sure I had all the necessary dorm room items - scratchy sheets, a too-warm duvet, laundry basket, plastic storage bins, a desk lamp. There was also a shitty, three-cup rice cooker that always produced something closer to congee regardless of how much water I put in. For dinners, because there was no such thing as Yelp! and as I was coming from suburbia and emerging from an age where The Cheesecake Factory was a good restaurant, we ate at restaurants that have surely since been shuttered. There was however one Chinese restaurant we wandered into one evening, and which I continued to frequent after my mom, brother and Karen left. It was called Wok n' Roll. A quick Yelp! search tells me there are many Chinese restaurants in and around New York with the same name, but the one I, and my roommate too, after I'd taken her there one evening, returned to time and again in Greenwich Village no longer exists. It helped me through some hard times, but the abundance of grease, sugar and MSG in the delicious orange chicken - no doubt it made the hard times harder.

That first week in New York, I ignored the lineup of orientation and welcome activities NYU held for incoming freshman, telling myself my family was in town and my time would be better spent hanging with them. I could, and would make new friends later. This is only partially true.

What happened when they, my familiar cocoon left, is that I cried on the corner of Washington Square Park for a good ten minutes as their taxi drove off. I could see my cousin Karen turning around to look at me from the rearview mirror until my tears blurred her face. They turned left and out of sight. I was alone in New York City.

A few months later, after a tear-ridden telephone conversation with my parents about feeling depressed and directionless, my mother bought a plane ticket and booked a hotel room. She would come to New York, she said, and take me home. Unbeknownst to me, my brother told my mother to calm down. He'd come to New York alone and bring me home. He called me one chilly December evening, as I was trudging home from another mind-numbing astronomy class, and asked what I wanted for dinner. He was at JFK, and would be in Manhattan within an hour.

I screamed, then said I could eat whatever. I was very fat then.

"Steak," he said, because he always wants steak, "Let's get a good steak."

I forget where we ate that night, but I remember smiling across the table from my brother, feeling less anxious and happier than I'd been in a long while. I called my mother that night and told her I was coming home, that I was done with New York. For a while.

"Good," she said, so was she. For a while.

A few days ago my mother called to ask if I needed anything from home.

I was sitting with Tom in his room, deliberating what to read before bed.

"Nope," I said, thinking about all the unread books I had at home, "I've got everything I need right here."

"Good," she said.

"I've been thinking about your visit though," I said, "Is there anything in particular you and dad want to see?"

"No, not really."

"No like...scenic spot you guys really want to see?"

"No museums. And I doubt your dad will want to sit through any shows."

I smiled. My father's last trip to New York was some fifteen, twenty years ago, when he'd come with a friend cum business partner, Uncle Xia, and Uncle Xia's sister. They had had a few steak dinners and attended a concert at Lincoln Center, where both my father and Uncle Xia fell asleep, snoring. Some minutes later an usher tapped my father on the shoulder, politely asking them to leave.

My father was sitting next to my mother, who had me on speakerphone. "I want to see Columbia," he called out, "And that one park in the middle."

"Bah. Central Park. It's called Central Park."

"I just want to see you and your little apartment," my mother said, "And I want to meet Mr. Tom!"

"I know," I cast a sideways glance at Tom, knowing he was anxious about meeting them.

"I'm going to get my hair cut tomorrow," my mother said brightly, "I don't want Tom to think, 'My goodness Betty's mom is a slob!'"

I laughed, "He wouldn't think that. And besides, at least you have hair to cut."

Tom heard my mother's loud laugh and gave me a look. He hears his name enough amidst flurries of Mandarin to know he is often the topic of conversation.

"Don't poke fun at him," my mother said.

"He can handle it."

We discussed the weather ("I don't know. It might be cold. It might be really cold. It might not be cold at all. It might rain every day. It might be sunny.") then said good night and hung up. I turned to Tom.

"Did you hear my mom laugh?"

"I did," he said, putting down his Kindle.

"She said she was going to get her hair cut for you, because she didn't want you to think she was a slob."

He chuckled.

"I told her at least she has hair to cut."

He rolled his eyes, "Har har."

"They're very excited to meet you."

He groaned, suddenly looking very tired. "It's going to be awful."

I shook my head, patted his arm. There, there. I knew my parents and I knew Tom. I knew it would be anything but. 

Nostrand Avenue

You are here.  
This semester, I'm taking a seminar called "Writing the City." Before class started the professor gave us an assignment: to take the C or A trains to Nostrand Avenue in Brooklyn and walk "with maximum openness and attention, building a narrative out of what you see, overhear, actual encounters, your insights, responses... The chronicle of a writer's walk, however you choose to craft it." 

It's the sort of assignment that would make my father scratch his head, much like when I accidentally shipped home books I'd ordered for my Spy Novel class and my father learned that these books, many of which were made into blockbusters, were my "textbooks." 

I took the walk alone, as directed, on a hot September afternoon. I probably should have used my eyes more, taken in sights and smells, stopped to study little details here and there. That was the whole point. But I was tired and already sweating from walking up the subway steps. I was also wary - the crowd where Nostrand intersects with Fulton is very different from the Upper West Side, where people are mostly white and there's only a sprinkling of bums, most of whom retreat back to shelters when the sun sets. Also, in the Upper West Side there aren't usually long lines of police cars parked next to crumbling sidewalks just for the sake of deterring criminal activity. 

The essay I wrote was probably too honest. 

I'm from a small town in Orange County, California where bums, though I've yet to see one, get picked up by cops and are dropped off in other cities.

The professor is a kind, curious man who defines himself as being remarkably open - open faced, and open-minded. Open to all the bits - ugly, beautiful, strange - that make up the human condition because he asks questions and writes down the answers. 

A white, female classmate put considerably more effort into the assignment than I did. She wandered up and down Nostrand for a good three hours with a notebook and pen. A police officer noticed her wandering and after a time, asked her if she was lost. 

"A fair question," I thought.

I had walked down the street just once and elicited enough stares and catcalls to feel more than slightly out of place. I saw exactly one other Asian woman, older and more world weary, but even she walked much faster than I. I assumed she was hurrying to a place she felt more at "home." 

"Why would he ask if you were lost?" the professor asked my classmate, "What do you think he meant by that?" 

"I told him I wasn't lost," my classmate said, "I said I was here for an assignment and asked him why he would think that I was lost. Then he got really nervous and just...ran off." 

"See," the professor said, "Isn't that interesting. That the officer would approach you, a young white woman, and ask if you were lost. I think he ran off because he didn't want to get in trouble for assuming...you know." 

Several of my classmates nodded in agreement. I rolled my eyes.

Assuming what? That a young white woman wandering the streets of a mostly black neighborhood might be lost? If my professor thought the cop was being racist, I'd have to disagree. It seemed to me the cop was just showing concern. If I was in Monterey Park, CA and saw a well-dressed white guy driving around the same three blocks for hours on end, I'd probably ask if he was lost too. Had the officer approached me, I would have thanked him for his kindness, acknowledging that to any bystander, I was probably out of place. I certainly felt it. You, depending on where you grew up and what you're used to, might have felt it too.

Aside from the girl who grew up in the Bronx, most of them were like me, from safe suburban neighborhoods they now look back upon and see as boring. No diversity! No struggle! So sterile! Gentrification is the devil! Oh definitely. They come to class holding three dollar coffees, lunch on fifteen dollar kale salads and delight in little exercises like this, assigned by a man who probably lives in a Brooklyn brownstone in a mostly white Brooklyn neighborhood, who shops at the farmer's market and whose brown leather briefcase and shoes are weathered just so, as though he paid extra to have them look that way. Never mind they chose to come to a writing program at an Ivy League school where tuition causes nosebleeds. 

Of course it was a perfectly safe neighborhood! Of course the cop had no business assuming what he assumed. And that obscenely long line of cop cars and the nervous looking officers walking around? Hallmarks of every safe neighborhood. 

I did not feel unsafe, but I did not feel safe, especially, ironically, when I saw the cop cars. But mostly, it was unfamiliar. I'm sure it showed on my face. I was not familiar with the bums on the corners nor the idle, old men sitting in wheelchairs in front of pawnshops and barbershops. I was not familiar with the young shirtless black men who seemed just as idle as the old men, if a bit more anxious. They flexed and asked if I wanted photos of them, with them. I did not. I took my photos and hurried along. 

But here's the thing about photos. I took these ones below. Stared at them and played around with filters and colors. Revisited the original image and the actual place in my head. Revisited this post as it was a draft too, and now these little rectangles of Nostrand Avenue are familiar.
The only familiar faces in the neighborhood. 
Another wall. 
And detergent. 
Not so secret garden. 
Nails my parents would not approve of. 
A wall of memories. Note the man also known as "Chincky" in the bottom middle. 
Brooklyn recycles. And provides nuclear fallout shelters.  
Van Gogh would have appreciated this building. 
The kid almost ran over my foot. But he apologized and called me "lady." 
Dusk. And a Range Rover. 
Where I ate dinner sitting at the same table as a cop. 
If for whatever reason you're there and end up hungry, try these places: 
1267 Fulton St
Brooklyn, NY 11216
b/t Arlington Pl & Nostrand Ave in Bedford Stuyvesant
(718) 783-0316

1184 Fulton St
Brooklyn, NY 11216
Bedford Stuyvesant
(718) 230-1115


For the first year after my grandma passed away, my grandpa went to her grave at least once a week, sometimes twice. Now he no longer goes that often, but every two weeks or so, my uncle Jin will drive grandpa fifteen miles from Cerritos to the sprawling Rose Hills Memorial Park in Whittier, California, neither man speaking much in the car. On these days, my uncle's white Toyota Sienna, purchased over a decade ago and still in excellent condition thanks to my uncle's meticulous care, can be seen winding its way up the groomed, curved road of the cemetery, turning right just before the white, futuristic looking Memorial Chapel, where grandma's funeral was held two Novembers ago. My uncle always parks by a trash can and together, they walk carefully down three yards or so, to grandma's grave.

From atop the hill where grandma is buried, the view is pleasant. I'm not certain which direction the hill faces - it could be north towards El Monte, east towards Rowland Heights, or west towards Los Angeles - but the hill rises just high enough so you feel you're above the hazy line of pollution that hovers over the rest of the living. 

When we buried grandma, grandpa had nodded towards the view, commenting that it was a good thing my aunt Joannie had bought the plots early. 

"The early bird gets the view," he had said, or something to that extent. 

There were - there are - always flowers in the little metal vase provided by the cemetery. There's one in front of every tombstone, in a little hole in the grass so that the flowers appear to be growing from the ground. If the flowers were not left by Uncle Jin and Grandpa, then they were by Uncle Jimmy. If not by uncle Jimmy, then by Aunt Yang or cousin Angela or Wendy or Kathryn or whomever else took the time to make the drive, to spend a few minutes with a stone and a memory. 

After they refresh the flowers and take in the now-familiar view and say a few words to Grandma, Uncle Jin drives Grandpa home. But every three or four weeks, Uncle Jin drives further north, another ten miles to Temple City, a Chinatown comprised of dilapidated strip malls with stores and Chinese restaurants frequented mostly by the local elderly and their visiting children, some willing, some not. In one such such strip mall, there is a seafood restaurant with dingy tablecloths and mossy fishtanks filled with fresh but lethargic seafood. They offer an excellent lunch special: order three dishes and get another for just $1.99. Soup and rice included. Father and son dine on too much food - grandpa likes a whole fried flounder, uncle Jin likes the cold, slow-braised, chicken. They pack up the rest: for dinner, tomorrow's lunch and probably tomorrow's dinner too, and drive another mile or so to another strip mall where the Ever Beauty Salon is situated. 

A dim, run-down establishment with chipped mirrors, torn barber seats, and fading posters of chiseled eighties models with outdated hairstyles, the Ever Beauty Salon makes most of its money from Chinese men, mostly old, like my grandfather. Grandpa likes the price almost as much as he likes the price for lunch ($25 for a meal enough for four). A haircut for a man his age starts at $5. A slapdash dye job to hide white hair starts at $12, depending on how much hair the client has. A man might leave with more than a few missed hairs or more dye on his scalp than upon his strands, but for twelve dollars he's going for the overall effect. The, "don't stand too close to me and it looks fine" effect. The men who frequent Ever Beauty Salon are not vain. They are not looking for everlasting beauty; they are men well over the hill, heading for the bottom, looking for a good deal. They want to keep the hair off their necks and out of their eyes; they want to keep their comb-overs manageable. They want to look presentable for when their kids and grandkids visit or take them out to lunch. 

Those days are long, when Grandpa and Uncle Jin go from cemetery to restaurant to salon and perhaps to the Chinese Grocery Megastore. Uncle Jin prefers to leave grandpa's house by 10AM, be at the cemetery at 10:30. Lunch at 11AM followed by the salon and groceries and then the long drive back on the perpetually congested 5 freeway. If traffic cooperates, Grandpa can be at home, napping by one, one-thirty PM and my Uncle Jin can be at the Chinese school he runs less than five minutes later. 

A few weeks ago I was home in California with just two more days left - Friday and Saturday - before returning to New York, when my uncle Jin called. 

"Are you free tomorrow morning?" 

I hesitated, having an idea of what was coming. 

"What is it?" I asked.

"I wanted to see if you'll visit Grandma with me and Grandpa. After, we can have lunch together." 

I did not want to go. I had two days left in California, each hour of which I could think of a hundred things I'd rather do than go to a cemetery I'd been to too often. I wanted to swim and read travel magazines. I wanted to laze about in my bed. I wanted to play golf with my mother and walk around my big house because I had the space and hang out with my friends. I wanted to fix my own lunch. I did not want to drive nor be driven to an ugly inland city whose greatest expanse of beauty was a too-carefully groomed cemetery where even the grass looked sterile. I had been enough; I never wanted to go again. Mostly, I did not want to see my grandpa looking at his wife's grave. Mostly, I did not want to be sad. 

"Okay," I said.  

I did not know it was going to be one of those long days. My uncle Jin kept this information from me, knowing I would not have come along if he'd said, "After the cemetery we'll get lunch and a haircut and groceries." It wasn't until we'd replaced the flowers, when I'd looked very briefly down at Grandma's tombstone and then up at the view, and heard Uncle Jin said, "Hi Ma, Betty's home from New York and here to see you," and saw Grandpa standing on the empty plot next to Grandma's with his hands crossed behind his back. It wasn't until I heard him say, "In a few years, I'll be here," and I had wanted to tell him to step back, to not let his shadow fall onto that space because it was bad luck didn't he know - it wasn't until we'd all gotten back into the Sienna and Uncle Jin started the car and said, "We're going to get our haircut now," that I realized the cemetery was only the beginning and that the day had just started. 

"Is that okay?" my uncle asked, looking into the rear view mirror. 

I crossed my arms and looked out the window like a sullen teenager on a long road trip I didn't want to be on. 

"What am I going to do if it isn't?" I said. 

My uncle chuckled, wondering if he'd be better off not asking me to join at all. Grandpa said nothing. 

"The restaurant is very good," my uncle said, "I think you'll like it. And the haircuts, it won't take long." 

"They're very fast," grandpa said, "fast and cheap." 

"And the grocery store is right around the corner," my uncle added, "I'll just pop in and out. You can be back home no later than one or one-thirty PM." 

I doubted this, but I was already in the car, beginning to feel bad that my uncle felt bad. He had good if ill-communicated intentions. Also, no one would have guessed that I, family-oriented, old-people loving Betty, would be loathe to visit my grandmother's grave. No one likes going to the cemetery to visit people they know, just like no one likes going to the hospital - but lately, I've loathed it more than usual. I think about my grandpas and how different they were. My father's father, Grandpa Ho, who never went to hospitals unless he was the one who was sick, who never went to funerals - not his friends', not his wives', and had one of his elderly daughters passed away before he did, not hers either. 

"Why go," he had said before, "It's for the sick and the dead. I am neither." 

And I think about my Grandpa Leu, my mother's father, who went to the hospital almost daily when my grandmother was ailing, and who shows up dutifully at funerals of both friends and acquaintances and continues to go weekly to her grave with fresh flowers, to look at her smiling portrait lasered into the granite and stand on the empty plot next to her, mentally preparing for that imminent time.

My Grandpa Ho lived until he was one hundred, with very little wrong with him except an old heart. He had been selfish but hearing people talk about him, you would never have guessed. He looked ahead. Went to work. Kept busy. Made plans. Traveled. When a spouse died, he remarried. He was like a sturdy old stone and we, the river, flowed around his wishes. 

My Grandpa Leu cannot sit or stand or walk more than a few steps without wincing. He has pains in his legs, in his back, pains surgery can't fix. He still walks to the park every morning, but lately he sits more than he walks. He asks very little of his kids because he doesn't want to inconvenience them. He thinks a lot about the past. About grandma. He doesn't make plans. People make plans for him. 

Neither man is right or wrong, neither way of living is good or bad. They are just two men, two ways. But I am beginning to understand - or actually I've always known - which way I prefer and why. 

But I went along with Uncle Jin and Grandpa that morning. I quietly said hello to grandma, took in the view. I ate the fish, the chicken. I drank the soup. I took photos of my grandfather getting his hair cut and laughed when I found the long hairs on the back of his neck the barber had missed. 

"It's too dim in there," my grandfather had murmured, rubbing the back of his neck, "And it was five dollars. What can I expect?" 

I said very little the whole time, because the whole time, I was afraid of sounding selfish, or unfilial and still I am afraid. The whole time I wished I was somewhere else and the whole time I vowed never to be caught in one of these long days again. 

The traffic back was bad, and I wondered how Grandpa's waist was doing but pitied more my last Friday morning in California. By the time Uncle Jin pulled into Grandpa's driveway, it was nearly 2PM. I still had another half hour drive back home. 

"Thanks for coming with us," Uncle Jin said, "It's always nice spending time with you. And we appreciate your spending time with us old folks." 

Grandpa nodded, easing himself out of the car. 

"I'll nap now," he said, sensing my impatience to go, "You don't have to come in." 

I nodded, thinking for a minute as my uncle truly did: that I had done some great charitable thing and given them my morning. I thanked my uncle for lunch, just lunch. 

"Go, go," Grandpa said. 

And I did. I went home and swam and read travel magazines. I lazed about in my bed. On Saturday morning I played golf with my mother and walked around my big house. I hung out with my friends. In the evening, I helped my mother make dinner. I did all the things I wanted to do and thought about the things I had not wanted to do, but did anyway. I thought too, about thanking my uncle for inviting me on their long morning, a morning I'm unlikely to ever participate in again. But it would mean I was admitting to acting petulant and rude. Immature and selfish. So I said nothing. 

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." 

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