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)

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