Each and every one of us, as San Diegans, shares a common bond. Perhaps more accurately, we share a common role. It is a role most of us assume with a sense of pride. It is a responsibility we all bear by living in America’s Finest City.
You have chosen to reside in San Diego with all it has to offer, and by virtue of your decision you are now the Quasi-official tour guide to all of your out of town friends and family. When the barest of acquaintances calls to tell you they are coming to town, realize that you are what helped tip the scales in their minds when they couldn’t decide between San Diego and Orlando.
Still, we take our hosting duties seriously because we all want to show off our city in the best possible light. Who wouldn’t need to catch their breath when they first saw the dramatic cliffs off of La Jolla Cove? Who wouldn’t be charmed by the romance of Hotel del Coronado? Who wouldn’t want to try a fish taco?
I know all of San Diego’s landmarks. Whether the guests are from Boston, Los Angeles or any point in between, I can arrange a whirlwind tour of local attractions and get them back on their plane headed home, happy and most importantly, out of my hair.
The challenge comes when I host guests from Asia. For these guests, I seem to enter an alternate universe where the attractions I take them to draw blank stares while they inadvertently stumble across a seemingly innocuous matter that ends up being the highlight of the trip.
As their tour guide, you start taking things personally. How would a tour guide feel if I traveled to Italy’s Leaning Tower of Pisa and continuously admired at how straight and upright all the other buildings were? Or if I visited the Great Wall of China only to gush over how realistic the wall looked on the silk-screened T-shirts I bought at the gift stand?
I once took a family from Taiwan to an elegant Sunday brunch. They joked that this was the reason why Americans were overweight. On the other hand, when they found out how much they could save by buying vitamins in bulk, the amount they brought home could stamp out scurvy in several developing countries.
Then there was the time I took my father in law to visit Balboa Park to walk through all the beautiful gardens. Yet, when I asked him what he remembers of San Diego, he inevitably will say something like, “Oh…the hot dogs at Costco are so tasty and melt in your mouth.”
When I visit Asia, you see how fast the pace can be. Crowds await you at every turn and everyone struggles through, day in and day out. You wonder whether their value system, like my own, might be influenced by what we experience in our own environments. Perhaps, for those who live life in a constant rush, a simple, solitary pleasure can be the most fulfilling.
Come to think of it, those hot dogs are pretty good.
There comes a time when you look back on your life and recall the moments when you truly accomplished something special. For some, it might be a physical act, like climbing Mt. Everest or finishing a marathon. For others, it could be a creative act, like writing a best selling novel, or inventing a better mousetrap.
When I look back, I am proud of being a good father and husband. But, the more I contemplate my accomplishments, the more I keep going back to the one success that towers over the rest.
I finally beat my mother in law in a game of ping pong.
Immature, you say? Insignificant, you proclaim? Let me explain.
My mother in law was born and raised in Taiwan. Every day during lunch, as well as three nights a week, she gets together with friends to play ping pong. She is consistently the league champion.
As for me, I get as competitive as you can possibly imagine. I will risk serious bodily injury and humiliation in order to win a point.
When she arrived in San Diego, my first instinct was to play nice. After all, I was the future son-in-law, and the reason that her daughter was moving from Taiwan for good. Fairly early on, she suggested we play ping pong. Sounded innocent enough, and while I don’t play that much, I figured heck, I’ll even let her win.
The first match set the tone. Not only was she beating me, she was blowing me away, and to make things worse, I could tell that she was taunting me in Chinese as well.
“I’m sure you can beat me”, she said.
“Should I hit it softer?”
For the next few days, I knew my mission in life. No need for sleep or food. I became one with the ping pong paddle.
We played over 30 matches. I never won, but at least I heard some new taunts.
“Maybe you should try playing left handed…or maybe I should.”
“Where are my glasses? I can’t believe I’m winning without my glasses.”
The next day, she was gone, back to Taiwan. My official ping pong record was zero wins, 35 losses. With each day that passed, I muddled through with no purpose in life. A broken shell of a man.
Fortunately for me, a few months passed and she called to say she would be visiting us again. The clouds lifted. Time for a rematch.
She arrived, and after exchanging pleasantries, we got down to business. The first ten games were a replay of the last trip.
But then came the 11th game. I could do no wrong. I have never played so well, before or since. Final score: 21-18. Game over. My new record: one win, 45 losses.
She wanted to keep playing, but there would be no rematch. I would finish my career with a win.
Does it make any difference that she had jet lag from her 12 hour flight here, or that I’m twice her size, 20 years younger or that she still has a 44 game advantage over me?
Nah. A win is a win in my book.
I am witnessing a metamorphosis.
Like millions of other Chinese Americans, I grew up in a family where my parents were born and raised in China. They moved to the United States to find a better life and it was also where they met, fell in love, got married, and ultimately had me – their most “cherished and prized progeny”.
OK, maybe I’ve never heard them use the term “cherished and prized progeny”, but I digress. Let me get back to my point.
The point is, both my parents completely embraced the ideal that America was the grand social experiment, the place where the diversity of America is part of our national identity. It is the place where we would be both Chinese and American.
Despite having to learn English and the intricacies of Western culture, both my parents excelled in what they set out to do. My mother started out as a nurse before becoming the head of a library in a major University. Likewise, my father started out as a professor of Electrical Engineering at a University before starting several successful businesses.
Without forgetting their culture or values, they embraced Western culture. We rooted for our favorite football team every Sunday. We bought a station wagon with faux wood paneling on the side of it and went for rides on Saturday afternoons with no particular destination. On weekends, Dad would roast a whole side of beef just to feed the four of us.
If America ever had a melting pot, our family was swimming in the deep end.
Nowadays, my Mom is retired and my Dad is semi-retired. Yet, it has come as somewhat of a surprise to see the transformation I’ve observed over at my parent’s house over the last couple of years.
It started out slowly, when I noticed that the coffee table in the family room started getting stacked with piles of Chinese newspapers. Then I started noticing that nearly every evening that I dropped by, one or both of them were watching Chinese soap operas. The next thing you know, Mom and Dad cancelled their opera tickets and have become aficionados of Lang Lang, the Chinese pianist who plays mainly Chinese music.
This last week, despite the fact that Mom knows virtually nothing about computers or networking, she managed to install an internet service that connects to their TV and allows them to get Chinese programming direct from China and Taiwan.
What is going on here? It’s as if the melting pot is no longer stirring and all the ingredients have decided to “go their own way”. If America’s acculturation really is a grand experiment, apparently my parents have decided to “revert to their original state”.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m as proud as anyone of my Chinese heritage, and I’ve spent the last 25 years trying to understand where I came from and the history behind it. But, they brought me up in this country (Refer to “Cherished and prized progeny” above) and raised me to value both sides of my cultural identity. I don’t like seeing either side getting short shrift.
For a little while, I thought that I might need to alter my behavior to keep things in balance. Perhaps I could spend a little time savoring various aspects of Americana as the “yin” to the “yang” of my parent’s recent “re-calibration” to their roots.
I would do this by going on a road trip, driving a Chevy pickup, visiting various baseball stadiums on my way to Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of fame while only listening to CD’s of Woody Guthrie and stopping to eat only at roadside diners that served hamburgers, chocolate malts and apple pie.
In the end, I decided not to make the trip. First of all, it’s nearly impossible to find someone who will rent you a Bassett hound for a road trip, and secondly (and most importantly), I realized that even with all the Chinese videos and newspapers they have accrued, Mom and Dad remain quintessentially Chinese-American.
How do I know this? Easy.
Look at where they decided to live their lives.
I’ve been thinking about getting a new chair for my desk. I’m sitting here at my desk – writing – and thinking – I need a new chair for my desk. Nothing really wrong with the one I have, but after visiting a friend a while ago and seeing his state of the art desk chair with all it’s mesh supports and hydraulic lifts, it’s time for a new chair. Until now, I never knew that sitting in a chair without pneumatic back supports was akin to being stretched out over hot coals. How did I ever get through the day?
I’m not sure when it was that I became so attentive to my sitting needs. In fact, as I look around me, I never realized how much I’ve invested in accoutrements that provide the ultimate in comforts. My desk is right next to a window for fresh air, but if it ever gets stuffy, I have a fan. In fact, my office has two fans. Whenever it gets truly warm, I have a small air conditioning unit near my desk. On top of that, the office already has central heat and air conditioning, which makes you wonder why I really needed two fans and a separate air conditioner to begin with.
When did I first place an emphasis on having a cushy existence? Why do I only buy shoes without laces now so that I never have to go through the dreaded experience of tying shoe laces? Did I really need to buy a remote control that helps you find lost remote controls?
I suppose part of me says that I’ve worked hard in my life and I’ve earned a few creature comforts. Now that I’ve hit my middle age, I’ve reached a time in my life where I’m no longer concerned about other people’s perceptions. I no longer worry about whether or not I’m a “man’s man” and whether I can take a little heat.
That wasn’t always the case, though. When I was a teen, I had something to prove. I was a 16 year old with a mission.
I remember a trip I took to Taiwan years ago, where I met up with my cousin who was a year younger than me and was studying Chinese there over the summer. One day, we met up with my uncle who was a very successful businessman in Taipei. He was what we hoped to be someday – successful, respected, and in the prime of his life. He decided to take us out for a night on the town.
After dinner, my uncle decided he would take us to a private club to have a few drinks (martini for him, soda for us) and to treat us to a professional massage. For a couple of teenage boys, this was the life we thought we wanted, and we were determined to enjoy it. Dinner, private club, a massage – all we needed was a couple of cigars, a chauffeur named “Gibson” and a toy dog to sit on our lap and our lives would be set.
As we both laid face down on two adjoining tables, two masseuses came in, and started working their magic on two teenage backs that clearly didn’t deserve or need a massage. As they continued, the pressure from their hands became more and more pronounced to the point of being uncomfortable. Still, a little discomfort in the lap of luxury was nothing to complain about, and I certainly wasn’t about to show any displeasure in front of my cousin, who seemed to be enjoying himself.
Our masseuses asked us if we were comfortable and if we wanted more pressure. My cousin immediately agreed, and not wanting to be shown up, I nodded for them to continue.
Our masseuses responded by climbing onto the massage table to walk on our backs. You might not think that a 110 pound masseuse walking on your back would be all that bad, but you would be wrong. Especially when your masseuse seems to be deliberately walking on your back on her heels.
By now, I was sweating profusely and having some trouble breathing. I glanced over at my cousin to detect any sense of discomfort from him. Even though his masseuse seemed a few pounds heavier than mine, he wasn’t complaining, although our conversation seemed a bit labored.
“How are you feeeelinguhh..?” I asked, with the words being squeezed out of my body.
“Fineuhh…”, he said.
“Can you take a little more pressure?” our masseuses asked.
“Absoluooootelyehhh” my cousin said.
“Go forrrittttuhh…” I responded, not wanting to let on that that I suspected one of my lungs had already collapsed.
In order to put more pressure into the massage, our masseuses kept walking on our backs but now, raised their arms, and pressed their hands against the ceiling to exert more force on our backs.
I felt my spleen moving from one side to another. I heard cracking sounds with each step but I wasn’t sure if it was coming from the table or me. I wanted to scream but I couldn’t draw a breath to make a sound. I wondered whether the masseuses were trained in CPR and I started thinking about how much I missed my mommy.
The massage ended thankfully, with both of us relatively intact. Five minutes later, my cousin said, “Wow, to tell you the truth, I was dying but I didn’t want to say anything in front of you.”
So you see, my new chair really does need pneumatic back supports.
Anniversary – Part II
As someone who has now been married for 13 years, I am getting used to friends telling me that we have now officially joined the “Old married couple’s club.”
We don’t invite those people to our house anymore.
Every year, my anniversary reminds me of how my marriage came to be. It started with a proposal and asking her parents for their blessing. But my proposal was no ordinary proposal. If I recall, the circumstances around my proposal were that: a) I was proposing to a woman who was born and raised in Taiwan, 2) Her parents were still in Taiwan and did not speak a word of English, 3) They did not know I had proposed or even that I existed until my phone call to them, 4) Up until my call they had been insisting that their daughter come back home and not waste any more time in the U.S.
The objective of my phone call was to introduce myself, ask for their blessing, allow her daughter to “waste” more time and never come back to Taiwan to live, and most importantly, make the entire call in Chinese.
It sounds like the challenge in an international episode of “Fear Factor.” At least I didn’t have to eat any bugs.
I prepared for hours for that call. My fiancé Maya had coached me on what to say and how to say it. Since I was using a number of Chinese phrases I had never used or heard of, I memorized every word phonetically. The first line was the most important and I practiced over and over again the night before until I felt I had gotten it right.
Maya picked up the phone and dialed the number. All I remember hearing was Maya saying, “Dad, I’m getting married. Here’s my fiancé, Wayne.” She handed me the phone.
The moment of truth. “You can do this!” I thought to myself. I tried to pump myself up – “Eye of the tiger! Eye of the tiger!” Whenever I get nervous I start remembering old lines from Rocky movies.
“Mr. and Mrs. Hu, my name is Wayne Chan and I would be honored if you would be a part of our wedding.”, I asked proudly.
There was a moment of silence on the other end. It seemed like an eternity. Then, all of a sudden, her mother says, “DO…YOU…SPEAK…CHINESE???”
I had two issues with this. First, did she hear what I just said? I just asked her if she would be a part of our wedding – in Chinese! Doesn’t my asking her a question in Chinese imply that I speak it? Or could it be that since I had to memorize most of the line phonetically, I may have made a mistake and instead of asking her to come to our wedding, it sounded like gibberish, or even worse, that it came out as some bizarre question? Instead of asking them to our wedding, could I have inadvertently asked them whether they preferred to spread cream cheese or laundry detergent on their pet frog?
The second issue I had didn’t have much to do with the question itself – “Do you speak Chinese?” as much as the way she said it. The way she asked me the question – slow, deliberate, with long pauses in between each word for emphasis, seemed more suited to the way you might ask your pet dog a question: “Who…wants…a…doggie bone?!?”
In the end, everything turned out fine. They liked me, and I thought they were terrific too. For some reason, I’ve always been able to make a good impression with the parents of women I have dated. I still get Christmas cards from the parents of a woman whose name I have long since forgotten. I’m not sure it’s supposed to work like that.
Still, I wasn’t completely sure that we were going to hit it off when I picked up Maya’s parents at the airport and met for the first time. One of the first things her father said to me was, “You look better than I expected.”
That’s a good thing…right?