Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Happy Birthday, Po Po

The story goes that my mother went into labor mid-morning, while standing in the kitchen at her parent's house, making my grandmother Po Po's coconut birthday cake. 

I wasn't terribly early, but I was a surprise, and so my parents piled into the car and drove to Group Health, leaving the cake unfrosted on the counter, and Po Po and Gung Gung to deal with the birthday party that would now have to be abandoned, as troupes of family members would now be visiting the hospital.

That was the first of our shared birthdays, and our annual, mutual celebrations lasted almost without break--only one year when I was stuck in a castle in Sintra, Portugal, out of money and eating liverwurst out of a can--until our final shared birthday, seven years ago. Every year today, I would call Po Po up in the morning to wish her happy birthday and she'd laugh, tell me the same thing, say that she was making us something special, which was code for custard. My mother would drive us over to my grandparents', and together we'd go down to Remo Borraccini's on Martin Luther King Way to get some horrifically sugary slab of a cake, spotted with yellow lilies and pink irises and blue roses in wheels of frosting, the cake inside gooey with jams. Dinner was roast beef, Chinese food on the side, cake, ice cream, and bowls of custard.

It's a strange thing to say that you were once very close to a woman you hardly knew, but that was the case for Po Po and me. Almost every weekend and holiday of my young life I spent with her, and I grew up hearing the familiar strains of her bickering at Gung Gung in Chinese. Po Po also spoke a melange of Chinese and English to everyone; in fact, it wasn't until later that I realized there was a real difference in the languages--being spoken seamlessly together seemed to suggest an essential connection; Chinese was just the other side of the English coin, I thought, a mistake likely reinforced by the fact that Po Po, unlike Gung Gung, didn't have an accent when she spoke English. Also, Po Po had been born in American--in Ellensburg, WA, actually--and had spent her childhood in Seattle before leaving for China along with her mother and ailing father. The other children in the family were sent to live with one relative or another; why Po Po was chosen to accompany her parents back to Canton was a mystery never to be solved.

There were a lot of mysteries never to be solved, actually, such as whether my great-grandfather had to leave because he was sick or because he was being targeted in a tong war, and whether Po Po's sister, Ruby, had been sent down to Mississippi to live in a normal or a very, very bad marriage. Regardless, Po Po stayed in Canton until her father died, and then her mother sent her back to the States at age 18 to become a hair dresser, after which she worked in an Alaska cannery, later collecting Ruby from Mississippi and the possibly bad or not husband to live together in Seattle.

These are the rudimentary facts of her life, and though whole days would pass in her company--learning to knit, or making Dohng Tay, or playing Chinese checkers with Gung Gung while she watched those eternal Chinese soap operas--I learned almost nothing about how she felt about them, what she herself remembered outside these details, whether or not she even liked those soap operas.

Probably like a lot of legal or not so legal immigrants, Po Po and Gung Gung had a tendency to keep secrets. Or to pass down secrets when you got older, and deserved them, like your first piece of gold jewelry. Then you also got to find out that Uncle X was actually a bigamist, and maybe so-and-so's name wasn't his legal one, and Auntie Z never had that many children biologically: that's just how they got those other people over. Po Po worked as a translator for the Chinese community, accompanying the newest immigrant down to City Hall or the court house or to the doctor's for treatment, so she was likely privvy to a LOT of other people's secrets, too, none of which--to my knowledge--she ever spilled.

Because the reason she never spilled is, I think, connected to the reason she would never talk about her life, such as how she met Gung Gung or what she thought about getting married, or what it was like to watch your Japanese neighbors get marched off to the internment camps (Actually, she did say something about that. She said, "I never liked the Japanese."), and what it was like to be the first Chinese American hairdresser in Seattle, which she was. She never had any answer for these questions, or no answer beside the same ones, which were, "Not much happened" or "I don't remember." Which were all the same ways of saying, "I will never tell you anything."

Po Po's reluctance to discuss her life verged even into the willingness to outright lie, which sometimes got her into trouble. Like the time we all got stuck at the US/ Canada border for three hours because Po Po told the customs officer we'd bought nothing in Vancouver, especially not food products, when the car trunk was literally jam-packed with groceries and gifts we'd bought in Chinatown. 

My mother--with whom Po Po had a famously combative relationship--always thought it was very Chinese, this reticence: outside of it being a crafty way to get around the law, the consistent refusal to discuss oneself or to express one's opinion was good manners. To do otherwise was vanity. 

So you can imagine what Po Po would think of this blog.

It was also, I think, dangerous. Not just socially, but emotionally. If one were to focus on the downsides of life--of which, for any recent immigrant, there are likely to be many--one might not prosper in the difficult times. So I also think this reticence was a survival tactic. This was confirmed in part for me when I was 18, and the Wing Luke Museum assigned a bunch of us to interview members of the Chinese American community, starting with our own relatives. By that time, Gung Gung was dead (Gung Gung, unlike Po Po, was a talker: he would have given me the dirt), so I called up Po Po, took the bus over to her house, and got to work.

The museum had given us a sheet to use as a guide. On it were all sorts of touchy-feely questions like, "Describe your first impressions of Chinatown," and "Did you experience any racism from the outside community?," "What did you think about your children's marriages?," "When did you first feel like an American?" and "Which politicians did you vote for?" Po Po's answers were, "Can't remember," or "Never" for everything. I went down the sheet. There were 50 questions in total. It was, as you can imagine, sheer agony.

Clearly, it was likely that Po Po had experienced racism at one point or time in her life. Clearly, she had complicated ideas of what it might mean to be an American, having spent significant amounts of time in China. Po Po had also tried to forbid my mother to marry my father, hating the idea of interracial marriage, especially after one of her sons married a white woman and had a child that came out red-haired, pale-skinned and blue-eyed. Obviously she should have one or two thoughts about her children's marriages. And clearly, Po Po's work with the Chinese community, and her own father's socially checkered past, would have given her some sense of the political landscape. But no. She would admit to none of it.

"Nothing," she said. "I can't remember anything like that."

Exhausted, I was about to give up, when I got to the final question. "What was the best day of your life?" I sighed, and practically threw the paper to the floor.

To my shock, Po Po began, very quietly, crying. "The day Kingsley came home from Vietnam," she said, referring to my uncle, her youngest, who had received the Purple Heart.

Po Po never made it a secret that Kingsley was her favorite. Still, I was surprised by the depth, the immediacy of her feelings. Here it was, all over again for her, the sight of her youngest boy, drained and shaky, sitting in her living room. The war--for him, and for her, too, now--over.

Sadly, that moment didn't make it into print. It couldn't carry on the page because the interview overall lacked the sense of who she was: one long, relentless self-negation. But here she'd slipped. And for a moment, I could really see my grandmother.

I thought about this again when Po Po got too frail to live on her own, and moved in for a time first with my parents, then with Uncle King's family. By that time, Po Po was in her 90's and had outlived her husband, her siblings, most of our extended family, all her friends from the community. Now she was living with her fractious daughter and the big white man whose name she could barely remember. I would come home for visits and holidays to find her, head slumped on her arms as she sat at the kitchen table, disoriented and depressed, unable to take interest in the soap operas I sat and watched with her.

"You know," she said one day. "I remember how I met your father."

I turned down All My Children and turned to her, but she was already drifting off. "Those long days in the canneries, " she said. "And he could play such good tennis. He's a very good tennis player. You should ask him now to teach you."

It was Gung Gung she was talking about. I'd seen the pictures of him, handsome in long pants and a t-shirt, clutching a tennis racket.

"Gung Gung is the one who played tennis," I told her. "Not my father."

She paused, then plunged on again. "And Ruby, what happened at church. You know how sick she is with diabetes."

"Auntie Ruby is dead, Po Po."

"She's 60!"

"You're 93," I told her. "She would have been almost the same age as you are."

Po Po got quiet, trying to process this. Finally, she turned back to the t.v. We sat together in silence, watching two blonde women yelling at each other at a cocktail party. A few minutes more, then Po Po put her head back down on the table. All those years of repressed memories had begun to crumble inside her, leaving the urge to speak to take hold, but her memory was gone, and along with it any ability to make a consistent narrative. All she had were fragments, and even these--the longer I talked to her, prodding tentatively--proved inconsistent. By the time she was willing to give the interview our family longed for, she--the real Po Po--was gone, and there was no one left to answer.

What would I have asked that day, if she'd still had her memory?

I took very few personal mementos with me for my trip around the world, but one thing I did was an old black-and-white picture of Po Po. She's on the deck of a ship steaming back home to Seattle, or away from it toward Alaska, maybe just going up to Vancouver for a visit. She's young, with long hair, her marceled curls whipped loose by the wind, her thick stockings white under a leather coat. She's looking away from the camera, but smiling, just a little. Still, it's the most enthusiastic I've ever seen her appear in a photograph. There is no date on the backside of the paper, no names to indicate who might have taken it, and when or why, if the camera was owned by my grandfather or a stranger or by a girlfriend whose name she long ago would have erased from memory. I keep the photo in my wallet, where I sometimes forget it, pulling it out in the hope that it's money. But it's only my grandmother, her long hair and thick coat, that shy, unusual smile. I concentrate on the wind whipping her hair as the boat sails ever onward, back from--or maybe ever toward--some place I can't imagine. 

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