Ping, if I had only known.... I'm not sure what I would have done differently but I am sure knowing would have helped. It's so hard to go through these things alone. I was young but I thought I saw you. You were fragile, like a yellowed piece of paper that would crumble if you bent it the wrong way. In those days I never considered who might have written upon that paper. And who could tell? You wouldn't let anyone read it, even me.
You were at my tiny school for half a year before we became friends. I had been so anxious to meet you, the new exchange student from Hong Kong who was to be the only other person in the graduating class that year. But your standoffishness was hard to crack. That was until you set up programs to share your culture with us.
We taught origami together. Somehow, you and I ended up tackling the yearbook almost entirely alone. We were a good team. my scattered artistic whims paired with your organization and perfect penmanship. We became friends and I learned more and more about you. I accepted the fact that you fastidiously pealed your apple every day (even though I still say that that's where the vitamins are). I accepted that you hated dresses, wore white and other non-colors far to often, and still thought that your nearly transparent size one body was too large. I didn't know why these things were, but they were you and
I had grown to love you. You were rapidly becoming one of my best friends.
What I'd never thought about was that I had grown to love you in my context. I never considered that seeing you in yours would change how I viewed you. When you invited me to come stay with you the summer after we graduated I was interested in what kind of foods I would taste and what I would see. I needed new stories to take home to add interest to my boring small town America life. I got a taste all right. But it wasn't the flavor of exotic foods that changed my life.
I know that you feel bad, even guilty for what happened when I was with you. Don't. I don't know if I will ever have the chance to tell you this in person but that trip with all its vicissitudes was one of the best things that ever happened to me. It changed how I view people, how I view myself.
* * *
The hot, humid air was a palpable living thing that oozed into my lungs the moment I stepped off the plane. I was dazed. When I finally spotted you standing with your family, I squealed with delight and everyone turned to look. I didn't care, I was so glad to see you. I was more than a little nervous about your family though. You had told me little more than that you had a sister, and I was quick to realize that you were the most adept English speaker in you family. Your sister warmed up to it eventually, your father tried, but your mother, who stood noticeably aloof even upon first meeting, claimed she couldn't speak a word of it.
Your apartment, so sought after, so high. and with a perfect view of the postcard harbor, shocked me. On ground level was the main bus and trolley terminal for the city.
A sprawling bunker-like open space with a ticket to anywhere you could want to go. On the next several levels was a mall with everything from grocery shopping to Gap. On top of that was a terrace where taxis could drop off residents and then a garden and playground with a tennis court for the residents of the three skyscraper apartments perched on top of all of this. Call me provincial but I didn't know you could stack an entire town on top of itself like that. Another thing that amazed me was that there was still room in'the rural areas of Hong Kong for your family to have purchased (for less than you paid renting) a big house with a yard in a quiet neighborhood (like the cousins you would later take me to visit had done) and that this peaceful rural life was second best to you. Your building housed thousands of people but no neighbors. Every floor smelled like musky sage incense and boiled fish, a heady aroma that clung to everything like a fog that wouldn't lift. Your mother still had not spoken.
Your father tried to be friendly but I couldn't stretch the conversation far enough to figure out what your father did for a living, even with you translating. There just didn't seem to be enough words between us to cover it. Every day he would disappear and every night reappear. He did share his passion for tea with me though. Somehow he and I connected on this.
An outing that will stand jewel-like in my heart forever was the day we drove out to the country and saw where the tea was grown. After the grey shadows of the city I was dazzled by the radiant glowing green surrounding me. Again, as when I first arrived the air seemed palpable, except this time it was infused with a spirit of cleansing, as though you could breath health into your body through the spicy air. Your father showed me how to drink tea. The cups were tiny. A setting for one person involved a tray under a tiny cup and a petite tumbler cup. The tumbler was for smelling. Just smelling the tea. "This", your father said to me, "is how tea is supposed to taste. Smooth on your tongue." I believed him.
Unlike your father's daily disappearances, your mother never left the house. Somewhere in each day she would sneak off to buy fresh ingredients for dinner but the rest of the time she was home. I started to follow her soap operas. To this day I get the theme song from the one about ancient imperial China stuck in my head. I asked you how someone could spend all their time like this and you said that's just how it was. Maybe so but the only time I saw her look happy was at the monastery.
The Buddhist monastery, so serenely nestled in the mountain crevice we had to hike to reach was a world all its own. Somehow you never quite believe places like this still exist until you see them in person. I stared in awe at the massive hand carved pillars and the real live monks scurrying about. I also watched you and how uncomfortable you were. At every shrine your family would kneel and pray. All except you. As your mother knelt before Buddha shaking incense sticks that would tell her fortune, I remembered how violently you had hated the fortune cookies at the Chinese restaurants. I guess that bothered me at the time but I never realized that to you this was religion. And religion was something that, for the first time in your life, while you were in America, you could speak for or against openly.
That week for a special treat, because of their guest, they let you stay the weekend with your aunties so you could actually go to church. You had millions of relatives! They gathered together for a dinner, all the cousins and uncles and aunties. They seemed so nice and I wondered why your family hadn't come too. The next day they took us to church. Unfortunately though, they didn't feel they could be bothered translating for just one person and sent us down the block where they thought there might be another church with which we would have more luck.
We found the church, an obscure converted office space, and tried to sneak in unnoticed, to no avail. Where before no one could be bothered, this handful of people, almost all women in their mid to late twenties, stopped everything they were doing.
"Welcome!" the pastor, and the only male in the room, boomed. They got up and hugged us and kissed us, THEN they got our names and our stories. They were a fellowship of
Pilipino servants. Most of them had been brought from the islands under the pretense of living a comfortable life as a servant. They were to be housed and fed for their trouble, as well as paid. Instead of comfort many got a closet to sleep in, little to eat and not enough pay to get them home. In effect they were slaves. They were the most beautiful people I'd ever met.
It had been growing steadily worse. You said your mother was upset and that I needed to try more. I did what you said. I tried out my non-existent Cantonese on her.
She said I was a bad influence because I was encouraging you to go to church a whole two weeks in a row and that your mind would be warped. Your father said yes to church anyway. Nothing we did worked. As we traveled into the mainland the gulf only grew.
"Don't speak to them," she had you yell at me when I said hi to a group of farm boys in passing. "Why?" I asked. "Because you never know what they might do to you" she answered.
It was a horrible moment when you finally broke down. "Ping just tell me what's wrong. What more can I do?" "Nothing," you sobbed "there is nothing more you can do."
The Final Week
There was exactly one week to go and we were busily preparing for the festival of the moon which would happen that week. We had hung colorful paper lanterns, glowing with candles, all the way around the room. We had picked out our mooncakes, the pasty sweet-potatoish, intricately molded lumps that were the fare of the day. We went down to the mall to shop and when we came back your father met us at the elevator and stopped us. "You no can go up," he stammered in broken English. He explained to you and you to me that your mother would not let me back in the house, they would be bringing my things down. He had arranged for me to stay with your aunties for one night. Just one night. I had never seen you look so lost.
As we drove you finally explained to me that your mother had a mental illness. You never gave it a name but I have my guesses. Oh Ping, you must have had to be so strong to stand in your own faith against a mother who was not only religiously bothered but unhealthily obsessed with your differences and "failures." I'd always just thought you were stubborn but I guess stubborn was the only way for you to survive. Ping my heart aches for you to have lived with that separation from the world. I knew that your culture was private but for you that privacy was a special and personal kind of prison. How could I have known you all this time, lived in your house and not have it come together for me?
You cried the whole way there. Ping, I am such a clod.
As soon as you left they asked it. "It's her mother isn't it?" Your family had been imposing so much upon itself in not telling. Your relatives knew, of course they knew. I still have no idea why they could only keep me one day, perhaps they were traveling, I can't remember, but I only had one place to call. The Matabs (the Pastor and Pastora at the Pilipino church) took me in the very next day.
Their apartment was only two full rooms. They gave me the bedroom and wouldn't hear otherwise. Women from the church would bring them little things. They would collect sauces from the fast food restaurants their boss families would go to so that they could flavor the rice and dried fish that was the staple of these people. The ones among them who had a little bit more would always share it with those that had a little bit less. Amongst them they would all survive. It was a Utopia.
For the most part that last week deserves its own story altogether. But I will sum it up for you Ping. I guess I feel like you didn't really see the whole of what you lived in. Your family, locked away in its own high-rise world, never truly saw what went on in the street below. That's where I landed. With a group of foreigners showing me around back streets and markets few tourists ever saw. There was a whole other world there, with street people and cripples and peoples from countless lands all thrown together in a jumble that the mainstream population of the city just walked past as if they were invisible. In these back alleys, in this "ghetto," every face I saw was from a different place yet somehow they were not closed to me. These foreigners embraced and understood much about the culture that you couldn't see because they were living in it and apart from it at the same time. They had a unique perspective. Like grains of sand, it is easier to see the complete picture of the opposite shore than to see the bank of people we are a part of. It was one of the best weeks of my life. I owe them my life.
What I owe you Ping, is thanks for this experience. For taking that risk and letting me in even though part of you must have known what might happen. Seeing the forces that shaped you made me take a good hard look at my life and what made me what I am. You were my opposite shore. There are so many things I must just accept as a matter of course, so many things that must be invisible to me because I am, without realizing it, part of the system. Life had written its ways upon you and affected you in ways you did not realize. However, even though there were many things that limited you, you still stayed strong and remain true to who you are. You are a beautiful person and an inspiration. May I ever be so strong.
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Terra Price is an avid cultural explorer from Eastern Washington who currently lives, studies, and writes in Seattle. She makes her nest with her husband, Ryan, Ryan and their first child (a fuzzy interspecies adoptee) Lady Gwendalyn Von HeyuKat. Her message to the world: “Have courage. Even the worst times give the gift of experience.”