Saturday, September 22, 2007

Part Twenty Eight

The irony about coming to Chicago…
is that I spent more time with Americans back
when I was a tour guide in Beijing.

In Chicago. I felt confined to the small community of expatriate Chinese, mostly my age (or younger) who had come to the land of opportunity.

They were not , of course, ordinary Chinese. They all had the smarts, the persistence, the personality, the whatever it took to get a visa – and they were mostly among the tiny percent who had gotten a college education. They were all go-getters, and maybe a little self centered.

When my sponsor (the priest who was my uncle’s friend) returned to the city, he got me a place to stay in a much nicer neighborhood – upscale Lincoln Park – in the Chinese Friendship House, a building owned by yet another Chinese Catholic priest, Father Fu. It was a large building on a major thoroughfare, and served as a kind of boardinghouse for Chinese students who were attending adjacent DePaul University.

Young men slept on the second floor, young women on the third , and we shared the kitchen and living areas downstairs. There must have been about 20 of us altogether – and it felt like I had never left China.

Many of us were from the mainland, and one girl I met was accompanied by her mother and brother (he lived on the second floor). I thought how lucky they were to be here as a family, and it made me homesick. As soon as I said goodbye to my sponsor,
I felt so lost. I was sobbing in my own room for a while, and finally, despite the late hour, I knocked on their door. We talked for a while, but she had to get up the next morning to clean someone’s house. I returned to my own room, and did not sleep for several hours. . A few days later, she asked me how many siblings I had. I told her I was one of 5, but she said, the way I was crying the other night, she was sure that I was an only child.

The old priest , Father Fu, who was our landlord had a rather tragic past. He had been a priest back in China, and during the Japanese invasion, he was arrested, tortured, and castrated. America had been good to him. He had managed to buy a spacious town house in a declining neighborhood back in the fifties. Now the neighborhood had gone yuppie, he was the owner of some prime real estate, and he was helping the next generation of Chinese enter into American life. But he was, well, a little strange. He helped himself to the food we kept in the refrigerators – but he didn’t tell anyone about it – so we all suspected each other of taking each other’s food, and that did not make for a communal life of peace and harmony. We already had our share of gossip and bickering –so soon I was again looking for a way to live somewhere else.

But before I left, I met a woman who would end up changing my life – an artist from my parents’ generation who was temporarily serving as a kind of house mother for the women’s floor of residents. She was a professional, traditional brush painter from a distinguished family (her father had been a provincial governor) which fled to Taiwan after the revolution. She had been sent to Rome for an art education, where she had fallen ill and been nursed back to health by an order of nuns which she considered joining after she got better.(she became a lay member) That was when she got involved with the religious Chinese Catholic community in Rome – which included my father’s younger brother (remember him ?) who had become a priest and been sent to Rome for further study.

In a way, I think she had fallen in love with my uncle -- not like romantic lovers, but like young people who admired and cherished each other. Whenever she talked about him, it was with the most glowing words , and when she learned that I was his niece, her face lit up and her attitude towards me changed completely. She had come to Chicago several years before to teach brush painting at the Art Institute of Chicago, but after eight years, her contract was not renewed. She kept her town house in Chicago, but she leased it out and spent the winters back in Taiwan where she found a better market for her paintings. She was staying at the old priest’s house during this visit to Chicago because her home was still under lease to others.

She taught a brush painting class in Chicago, and when I expressed an interest, she was happily to offer to me private class in her room. She did not charge me for the class and I was very grateful.. Slowly I felt a bit closer to her, then I started to share own life story with her. She offered to introduce me to her marriageable students – and a few years later I would meet one of the who would eventually become my next husband.

But for now, I still needed a place to live, and my first opportunity came from a nearby family in Lincoln Park. At first, I just worked for them as a baby sitter to pick up some extra cash – but after their daughter injured her leg during a ski trip, they needed someone to live with them, and I became a live-in nanny and housecleaner. They were very nice people, and I was paid very well – but --- but their daughter needed more attention than I could give, and I didn’t leave China to become a domestic worker. Working/living with them was too time consuming for me to get my homework done.

When I told them that I had to leave to spend more time on my study, they were very sorry to see me go. I told them I would introduce them to another Chinese girl, and I kept in touch with them for a few years. They always told me that I was the best babysitter they ever had. I loved their kids.

So once again – is this the fourth time already ? -- I had to look for somewhere else to live – and this time the Asia Student Association helped me find a roommate in Chinatown – a young woman from Shanghai – the first of my many Chinese roommates in Chicago.

I’m sure this is a terrible thing to say – but did I tell you that I don’t like Chinese ? We’re just not honest – nobody could be honest and survive in the over-politicized world of the People’s Republic. And I especially don’t like people from Shanghai – they’re just so materialistic. So even though it probably wasn’t her fault, I just didn’t like my roommate – and I didn’t like the way she treated her devoted boyfriend, holding back sex to get whatever she wanted . I didn’t like her – so once again I moved out..

Just about this time , my brush painting teacher’s nephew showed up. I had met him at the Chinese Friendship House. He seemed like a nice guy and he told me that he was looking for a place to live, he was so fed up with father Fu’s place. So together we found a two bedroom apartment not to far from Chinatown.

He was about 8 years younger than myself, and he had gotten an engineering degree back in China – but this was before the Chinese economy had opened up, and he came to America for better job opportunities. He was also from Shanghai, but I thought he sounded honest.

At beginning everything was fine with us. He worked at a Chinese restaurant in the evenings, so we had a very limited time to chat, and when we did, I began to notice that our limited conversation was always how many tips he had gotten -- who were the good tippers and who were the bad ones. I was just hoping that when school was open, we would eventually talk more about our studies.

I liked and respected him – but there were no romantic feelings there -- and it’s not especially easy to share a kitchen and bathroom with a man to whom you’re not attracted. I can never be just “one of the boys”.

He seemed to have some good ideas about how we could get ahead – and he convinced me to drop my Business major at Roosevelt University and join him in a computer science program at DePaul. Yikes ! – I suppose that I was beginning to change careers almost as often as I had been changing roommates – but it made sense. I had only signed up for the Business major because I needed something, anything to get a student visa, and I really didn’t need just another bachelor’s degree. But I was attracted to the idea of learning a new technology, as a marketable skill where I could really use my mind, not just my smile and talk English.

So we both joined the program together, and the plan was to study together – or, actually, for him to help me study since he was already quite advanced – but something else I should have mentioned about Chinese students is that most of us don’t have enough money to stay in school. I was quite lucky – I had a sponsor, the friend of my uncle – who ended up paying $50,000 for my three years in school – but usually a Chinese student is desperate for funds, and this roommate was no exception. He was constantly applying for scholarships wherever he could – and suddenly he got one – a full scholarship to a university in Indiana – so suddenly I was left alone – without a helpmate for my new line of study – and without anyone else to pay half the rent on the apartment.

I hope, dear reader, that I’m not making this all confusing – or maybe too boring – since isn’t all this confusion just ordinary student life ?

The roommate that followed was also male – also Chinese – and also too broke to stay in school without some kind of scholarship – which did not seem to be forthcoming. He had studied photography at the Art Institute, but could not afford the tuition to graduate, so he was doing odd jobs like waiting on tables.
He was older than me – about the age of my older brothers – and I thought he was very knowledgeable, just like my older brother. whom I admired so much. I enjoyed his company, but again, there was no romantic feeling there. Maybe I am something of an extremist when it comes to affection – either I feel a lot – or I feel nothing at all.

I wasn’t in love –but one night, when both of us were feeling lonely and had drunk a few glasses of wine, we made sex – and that made for big problem the next morning when he wanted to do it all over again, but I was not interested.

Things started getting bad between us. Then he moved out without telling me and he owed me for the phone bills and rent, He became very nasty when I asked him for the money. What could I do? I just had to blame myself.

So my life was in upheaval yet again -- but the one thing that was constant during these times was the support I got from my sponsor, the old Chinese priest who was my uncle’s friend.

Every week he brought me a grocery bag full of chicken legs or whatever else was on sale and could be used for Chinese cooking, and I made him a big, old-fashioned Chinese dinner with noodles. (he loved Chinese food – but was too frugal to eat at restaurants)

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Part Twenty Seven

When I first arrived in America,
even though I had nothing in my wallet,
I lived like a queen,

... or at least like a queen’s best friend.

Indeed, during those first few months, I have never lived so well, before or since.

There was wealth – there was romance – it was just like life in the airport novels that the American tourists used to leave behind on their bus seats.

But first, let’s get me on the plane.

I spent my last night in China in my husband’s apartment (it was still OUR apartment) but the entire night, he never came home. I had hoped that at least he might show a little bit support or something, but no, he was spending yet another night with another woman. My older sister showed up early the next morning, and the first thing she said was “what had happened to you ? you look terrible !” I told her that I could not sleep at all --but I did not tell her why.

Then I went to the airport -- in the two-piece polka dot dress I had bought in Hong Kong, with my hair cut short and permed (so I could save time and money on hair care when I got to America. Money would tight there – because every dollar I spent would have to be borrowed)

My entire family joined me at the airport, and since we were a little bit early, we started talking. They were all telling me to be careful -- you will be all alone a strange country -- please take good care of yourself.

I was holding my tears back so hard, I was speechless.

All my young nieces were bouncing around, so happy to be somewhere strange and different. Then my oldest niece, Bing Bing, came up to my side, and asked me, “ Auntie, why were you crying?” As soon as she said that, I could hold my tears back no longer. I told everyone I had to leave, and I was the first passenger to get on the plane.

Everything ahead of me was unknown. I was 33 years old, and I had to start my life all over again.

When I was preparing to leave China, I had written letters to some of the American tourists whom I had met as a tour guide. I had shown them around my country, and maybe they would be kind enough to give a cheerful, sincere person a place to stay until my American school started in the Fall ? I sent three letters – and got two invitations.

Both came from San Francisco, and when my plane finally landed, I was met at the airport by a wonderful lady in her mid-forties.

Her name was Meg, and when she and her husband had visited China on a private tour, I had been assigned to be their private guide. They must have just come from a beach in Hawaii, because they were both very tan. (our driver thought they had come from the countryside) . They enjoyed their Beijing tour very much, and we enjoyed each others’ company, so we had promised to keep in touch. Back then, I had not been 100% sure that I would go to the U.S., but since I was already in the process of applying, they had been expecting me to come.

Meg and her husband lived on a hilltop just outside the city – well, actually, they owned the entire hill. They had a tennis court, swimming pool, guest buildings, and magnificent gardens that provided fresh flowers that were cut daily and placed throughout every room of the house.

Did I say that were wealthy ? Was this a lifestyle that every American could enjoy ? I was so glad I had come here ! (I knew this was not a normal Americans life style. But I did not know how much separated the poor from the rich.)

(and I have to mention their neighbor’s dog – a black, fluffy poodle that was the size of a small pony. At first, I thought it was some kind of statue – but when it began to move I shrieked. I had never seen a dog that large)

My hostess had been a school teacher, but after marriage to her wealthy husband, she retired to a life of shopping, traveling, and regular visits to the psychologist. She was a very thoughtful and generous woman, and it was a wonderful vacation for me to spend almost a month with her – tooling around the surrounding hills in her white, 1930 Mercedes convertible (which drew attention wherever it was parked)

Her husband was a wonderful and very gentle man – and very successful in business. When his oldest son , from a previous marriage, had gotten married, his wedding gift to him had been a $300,000 house.

Among his investments were 10 restaurants in Napa Valley – so they were into food. Every evening he came home and fixed us dinner.

Much of the food was unfamiliar to me – soft shell crab ? I had never heard of that before. How did I handle all this gourmet dining ? Somehow, I survived – including visits to what must have been some of the best restaurants in the world. I’m sure they were expensive – but for some puzzling reason, the waiter didn’t always bring her the bill , but sometimes she would just stand up and then we would walk out.

I think my hostess may have been a little lonely – she was pretty much on her own throughout the day. She told me that she had a college girlfriend with whom she kept in close touch. She hinted to me that they had been lovers, but I told her this was a concept I could not understand. This was a very different world for a girl who had grown up in the puritanical Peoples Republic !

Eventually, my hosts had to travel – so I had to find another place to live – and I accepted the second invitation that I had gotten from one of my tourists – a single man in his forties who also lived in the San Francisco area.

He was not as wealthy – but he had enough money to live without working. He had a large, hillside residence with 2 or three bedrooms and a newly built library - and he graciously offered one of those bedrooms to me.

He was also in his forties, and though not Chinese (he was Jewish) – he was a true Mandarin scholar who had never worked a day in his life. He lived on a trust fund – indeed he managed the accounts for the charitable foundation established by his parents – and he devoted his life to scholarship. He had degrees in literature and history from Harvard, Yale, and Oxford. His library was enormous, and every day, without exception, he closeted himself with his books for further study, filling the margins of selected pages with his thoughtful notes. He was truly a gentleman, and we had the kind of dreamy romance that fantasy books are made of.

He often arranged short trips for us – like to the redwood forest, or a winery. One day he drove me along the ocean to a very large, nice beach area. We did not swim, but we strolled along the beach, hand in hand , and we walked up to a famous lighthouse, with a small, historical museum on the top floor.

It displayed some old weapons and exotic things that had come from other countries, and I spotted some old-style Chinese characters on the top of a lacquered box. They looked to me like the Chinese characters for ‘hair’ ( but later, I realized they meant ‘silk’. I’m afraid that traditional Chinese learning had not been part of my education)

Even if we didn’t go out for a trip every day , we were at least hiking nearby. He showed me some raspberry bushes, and we picked and ate them right there on the spot. ( this was all very strange to me – since we had always washed everything before we ate it).

After a few days of settling into his house, I offered to cook for us. He really liked my cooking -- and so did I, since I missed Chinese food so much. We went to the supermarket, but I had difficulty finding Chinese ingredients (I did not know that they could easily be found in San Francisco) . I missed having my typical Chinese breakfast: i.e. porridge with salted vegetables. Toby did not cook, but whatever I made with the limited ingredients I could find, he always liked.

We had become lovers, but I never really fell in love with him. He was just too --- too self absorbed.

One time he asked me if I would like to bear his child –but I declined.

Before I left China, I had promised my family to call them as soon as I arrived, but I felt awkward asking my new friends to help me place a phone call to Beijing. After a couple of weeks, I finally I had the courage to ask for help, and my first call was received by my oldest brother. Everyone was worried about me and I wanted to talk to my parents, but they had gone to Tianjin to visit my uncle. I told oldest brother that everything was OK and that I would be all right. But after I hung up, I cried uncontrollably. I missed them all so much.

As you can tell, I was having a wonderful time in San Francisco -- but now the summer was ending, and I was supposed to be going to school in Chicago. Was I still sure that I wanted to go there ?

San Francisco was so beautiful – I was living the life of a fairy tale princess –and Americans were so nice to me. (this was something that really amazed me when I first arrived – people on the street are friendly in America ! Even on the bus, they smile and say “hi – how are you?” If someone did that in China – they’d be known as crazy.

Where would I live in Chicago ? The only person I knew there was the old priest who had gotten me enrolled in the university. He was my uncle’s good friend, but I didn’t really know him very well. So I made some inquiries – but it was too late for me to enroll in a California university.

So I was off to Chicago – and my kind friend from the hilltop mansion made all the arrangements – buying me a plane ticket and finding me a room in Evanston.

I was very grateful for that room – but it soon became apparent that it would not work out.

My landlady was a psychologist who had her office in the same building. Whenever she had clients, I was required to stay in my room and not leave until the client had left. But Chicago can get very hot in the summer, and my top floor room didn’t have any air conditioning. I felt trapped and very uncomfortable. The landlady was nice, but she was much older than me. I did not feel that we could become friends.

So I was desperate to find another place to live.

The Chinese student association set me up with a Korean girl who had a studio “garden” (i.e. basement) apartment in the Uptown neighborhood. Her current roommate was leaving, so she would have a vacancy – but the roommate still had a few weeks before she left. I was desperate to escape from my room in Evanston, so finally they let me join them – though I had to sleep on the floor.

For those of you unfamiliar with Chicago – the multi-ethnic Uptown neighborhood is a rather rough place to live. The rent can be cheap – but the neighbors can be very tough. I will never forget the first night that I spent there.

My two roommates were fast asleep on the bunk bed , and I was sleeping on the floor – when I felt something crawling over my covers.

It was a big rat and I swear it was a foot long !

I may have lived with millions of mosquitos and mice back at the big farm, but certain animals, like rats and snakes, continue to terrify me.

I bolted upright – the rat scurried off – and I stayed watchful and awake the rest of night.

The next day my roommate complained to the landlord. He gave us a trap, and we caught the frightful rodent.

I felt much better after that – but still -- everybody here had his or her own life.

For the first time in my life, I felt completely alone and did not know what to do. I was waiting for classes to start – and I was waiting in that dark basement room , with one, single window,
about two feet from another apartment. I felt scared and depressed.

This was quite a change from the romance and palatial splendor I had been enjoying just a few days earlier !

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Part Twenty Six

This is not last chapter of my life –
but it is the last chapter of my life in the People’s Republic.

*I wanted a different kind of job
*My marriage was dead
*I didn’t want to live with my parents (I could afford to live on my own, but apartments were simply not available in Beijing)

I wanted to divorce, but meanwhile I did not know how to tell my family. My family was very close , but we did not share all our feelings, and I especially did not want to share my sadness and tragedy with them. I was ashamed that my marriage failed and embarrassed that I would be the only one who was divorced. I was spending more and more time with my parents and nieces, and finding all the excuses not to stay at my own home. All my neighbors in that small guarded complex knew about my failed marriage. I felt so trapped and helpless. I shared these feelings with my closest friends, but nobody could give any better advise than the Chinese proverb: Out of 36 methods, leaving is the first choice. I did.

I had two choices at that time. One was to marry the man I loved and then wait 7 years to move to Hong Kong. The other was to go to America and start over again. I was 33 years old. I was not too old to start from zero, but it would not be easy.

I took the second choice because I knew it would be better for me in the long run. I never wanted to become a housewife like my mother, who was very bitter after she lost her government job. I did not want to be in her situation.

I was ready to move to America – if only an opportunity ever presented itself.

And then it did – thanks to an old friend of my father’s brother (the Catholic priest who had fled to Hong Kong in 1948, and who ended up leaving the church, getting married, and living in Taiwan.)

Since he lived in Taiwan, my uncle could never visit his family back in China. But he had a good friend – a fellow priest – who ended up in Chicago, and beginning about 1982, this friend began to visit China on an annual basis – looking up his own family – and visiting our family, on my uncle’s behalf, as well.

The first time I heard about my uncle’s friend was 1983, when my cousin from Tianjin came to Beijing to visit him. Usually there was a reason for our cousin to visit us, and at first, he did not tell us why he was in Beijing, But then, when he asked me to help him to find the hotel where overseas Chinese would stay, he had to tell me whom he was going to meet. I went to the hotel with him, but we were a day late, and my uncle’s friend had already checked out.

We did not get in touch with my uncle’s friend that year, but in 1985, the priest from Chicago returned, and I got a chance to see him. He was very happy to meet me and my family., and it turned out that his visit was perfect timing.

For many years, he had tried to bring his relatives to America . He was a lonely man in Chicago. How many other Chinese Catholic priests could there be in Illinois ? And who else could understand his life – from the desperate poverty of a peasant family during the revolution – to the hope for some kind --- any kind --- of redemption offered by the church – and then the exile from family and homeland after the revolution. His only family was in China – and he was desperately trying to bring a relative home to live with him in Chicago.

But none of them spoke English -- and the American embassy would not approve their visas.

So I asked whether he might sponsor me instead – and fortunately for me – he agreed.

He got me enrolled as a business major at Roosevelt University in Chicago – and he footed the bill for all three years of that education – nearly $50,000. (After I got a job, I wanted to pay him back, but he told me that was not necessary. I was very grateful for that.)

Before I went to the embassy to apply for a visa, I asked around to make sure that I had all the required documents. My biggest problem was that I already had a bachelor degree in China, and I was told that most likely I would be denied a visa just to get another bachelor’s degree. But I wanted to give it a try anyway since my second degree would be totally in a different field.

The day for the interview finally came. I dressed nicely and sat in the waiting room for hours, waiting until my name was called.

I remember my interview very well !

I greeted the official with a good morning, and then handed all of my documents to him. He was a young fellow and not very chatty. He begin reading the documentation, and then I asked him if I could tell him something about myself. He told me to go ahead, so I started telling him how I was an English speaking tour guide – how most of my tourists were Americans -- how nice Americans were, and how lucky I had been for the opportunity to work for American people. Meanwhile I was closely watching what he was doing, and it took him less than 2 minutes to get a blue form out and started writing on it. I knew at that moment I was granted a visa. (I had learned that from the guy sitting next to me that morning. He told me if the officer got a yellow form, that means you are denied – but a blue form that means you are going to the America.)

At the end of those very, very important 5 minutes, my interviewer handed me back the documents and said “Have a nice trip”

Coincidentally, the embassy was nearly next door to the office building where my soon-to-be ex-husband was working. (He had left China Daily, and moved up in the world to become assistant to a very important publisher who was the son of the one of the top 10 military commanders in China) I had never visited his office before, and though we were separated, I wanted to share my good news with him. So I called up to his office – he came down to escort me up – and later I learned that by coincidence, his new mistress happened to be in the elevator with us.( at the time, I did not know about the new mistress – only about the previous one who had been a photographer at China Daily.)

A few years later, when I was living in America, I got a letter from an unknown woman – reminding me of our meeting in the elevator – and telling me that she never knew my husband was married back when they first started dating. She was in her mid-twenties , ten years younger than my husband, and she asked me for advice concerning their relationship. She felt that she was working very hard to make their relationship successful.

She must have heard good things about me from my husband's friends to ask me for advice, but what could I tell her ? I just told her to use her own judgment – and then I sent a copy of her letter to my ex-husband’s parents. I had been very close to them when we were married – and I felt badly about ending our relationship – especially since my ex-husband had never admitted to his adultery. This letter was proof that his affair had begun many years before our divorce.

In response, I got a 4-page letter from my former father-in-law. He wrote that he still thought I was the best daughter-in-law they had ever had, and that if his son continued to have extra-marital affairs, he would disown him as a son. He also wrote that my demand for a divorce was one of the saddest days in my ex-husband’s life ( the other saddest day being when he learned that his father was diagnosed with cancer) His letter made me so sad --- I cried on and off for the next few days.