Monday, September 28, 2009

Downtown Class

"Ogay glass. Now let’s dalk about the dex boogs for this glass.”


After the teacher explained that we needed two books and one optional software in his heavily accented English, my neighbor raised her hand and asked, “But which one do we need? The first one or the second one?”

The woman in front of her turned her head to see who the idiot was. I tried not to look at her so she’d know it wasn’t me. She had a deep crease between her eyebrows. I made a note to myself not to sit next to her in future classes. She looked mean.

I asked a couple of questions about the books as well, since the syllabus wasn’t so clear. When I mentioned the school’s bookstore told me they didn’t have the book and I had to check on, he seemed to be a little defensive.

"It’s unduh another glass name.” he said.

Well, why didn’t you mention this in the syllabus? I wanted to ask. How would we know this? Then he said it would be okay to use another edition that didn’t have a CD to save some money.

I didn’t get either book before the class started, because these details were not spelled out in the syllabus. Now I would have to wait for a week for the books to arrive. It would be interesting to see how I could do the assignment without the books.

He probably had a deal with the author, I thought to myself grumpily. That was an unfounded guess, of course. I was just not happy about the extra work and delay he had caused. He is a college professor, and should be smarter than us. He showed off his extensive resume and work experiences before officially starting the class - totally unnecessary in my opinion. A great resume doesn’t guarantee a great teacher.

My neighbor didn’t have a clue what the class was about, or how it was going to be integrated with her work, or what her next step after the class should be, or her possible desire to take the test (no, you can’t take the test - the teacher said; because you didn’t pay for it - a student explained, since she didn't seem to realize there was a cost related to it) etc., etc., and asked a lot of questions. I had to look at the mean woman's face every time she turned around.

I ran out during the break just to make sure my car was still there (it was in the city of the highest crime rate in Bay Area) and that I didn’t get a ticket – sixteen quarters for two hours. It’s only free after eight o’clock. The city is in deep budget shortage, so parking fee is a good way to squeeze some money out of people who are short of it right now.

It seemed that my neighbor got herself a banquet during the break, and started to lay down the feast during the class, opening plastic boxes and wrappers and making all kinds of noise. Now I wanted to give her the dirty look. I already had a hard enough time trying to understand what in the world the teacher was saying without the noise. Thanks to the hard working air conditioner; I was able to stay awake for the entire class. How much I got from the lecture is another topic.

I stepped out of the building and the street had transformed into a deserted movie set of some ghetto scene. A couple of scary looking people were shouting to each other in the dark street. I did my best to appear brave and unconcerned while walking toward my car, praying that I didn’t look like a potential victim of robbery to them.

It's going to be a very long Fall quarter.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Dragon, Lions and Little Italy

It is said the dragon boat race began with the suicide of a famous poet and scholar, Qu Yuan, who jumped into the river when his country was invaded by Qin. This was more than two thousand years ago when China was divided by several smaller countries/warlords. Here’s the excerpt from wikipedia :

The common people, upon learning of his suicide, rushed out on the water in their fishing boats to the middle of the river and tried desperately to save Qu Yuan. They beat drums and splashed the water with their paddles in order to keep the fish and evil spirits from his body. Later on, they scattered rice into the water to prevent him from suffering hunger. Another belief is that the people scattered rice to feed the fish, in order to prevent the fishes from devouring the poet's body.

However, late one night, the spirit of Qu Yuan appeared before his friends (that is, he resurrected from the dead) and told them that the rice meant for him was being intercepted by a huge river dragon. He asked his friends to wrap their rice into three-cornered silk packages to ward off the dragon. This has been a traditional food ever since known as zongzi or sticky rice wrapped in leaves, although they are wrapped in leaves instead of silk. In commemoration of Qu Yuan it is said, people hold dragon boat races annually on the day of his death.

While dragon boat race has kept its form more or less throughout the years, we now eat the rice treat ourselves instead of feeding it to the fish. Why waste perfectly good food?

The race is held at Treasure Island by San Francisco every year, but I had never witnessed one myself. It seems to be a crime since I’m only 40 minutes away from San Francisco, so my friend and I made the trip this year. It was a good excuse for us to take more pictures – she with a seriously professional camera, and I with a dummy camera.

These rappers are rapping in Cantonese. I think my friend and I had a cultural shock.

The dragon is getting ready for a performance by some super women.

While the little lions are getting ready for their turn, the green one is trying to appear ferocious for the camera.

Ready, get set, go! ( The Bay Bridge in the backdrop is undergoing a bypass surgery) The race will go on for two days as there are numerous teams attending.

You can see San Francisco skyline by the finishing point. Most of the time SF is covered with fog and a cool temporature of 60, but we are having a glorious day of 80 degrees and clear sky for a change. Qu Yuan must be watching!

We have lunch at a very busily decorated Italian restaurant called "Cafe Sport" in Little Italy, then some gelato afterward. Both are yummy. You can't beat an outing that has dragon boat races and Italian food.

Friday, September 25, 2009


She had dark hair and dark eyes, and the lively eyes that were flanked by long lashes told me that she was focused and intelligent. Her face was the perfect shape of oval, and her nose and lips were small, cute and in ideal proportion with her face.

Everybody who saw her would say, “She’s beautiful.” Not only that - she was also at the top of her class. The only thing about her was that she was a little too serious for a girl supposedly at an age of innocence and laughter. She didn’t smile often.

May - that was her name. She made me feel like an awkward little duckling that had little idea about what to do with the unfriendly world around it.

She singled me out to be her friend. My classmates said we looked like sisters, but I knew better. She wrote me little notes, telling me my dreamy eyes reminded her of the glistening stars. I checked with the mirror that day, and couldn’t find anything about me that was “dreamy,” but my little heart was secretly elated. She was one of the very few people who were kind to me while growing up. Did she somehow sense we had an unspoken connection?

We didn’t spend a lot of time together after school. She either had to help her father, who was a doctor with his own practice in the same building where they lived, or she had to go back to "take care of things” as she put it. I didn’t question too much at first. We would either go out and take a walk around the neighborhood, or share some shaved ice at a food stand once a week, exchanging chitchats that were meaningful only to thirteen-year-old girls. Our time together was the much needed escape from my horrid stepmother.

Summer was always sultry and humid on the subtropical island. I repeatedly asked her why she was wearing long-sleeve shirts, as I could barely keep my short-sleeve shirt on. At first she said she didn’t like short sleeves. I thought she was crazy – and probably told her so. She hesitated a while, then finally lifted her sleeves. My heart stopped beating for a second. The skin on her arms was covered with whipping wounds from dry bamboo stems.

"Who did this to you?!” I was furious.
"My stepmother.” She said it calmly.
"Why?!” I demanded.
"It was my fault. I didn’t wash the dishes clean enough.”

I found out about her life in the house of horror.

She washed the clothes and cleaned the house for the whole family every day. Anything that was not to her stepmother’s liking was a reason for a good beating. She also told me her father used to slap her mother across the face in front of the family. She finally left him and remarried, but she didn’t want any visits from her daughters from the first marriage. What was more incredible to me was that she thought she deserved the beatings. Her father was perfectly capable of hiring a maid with his income, but he chose to let his own daughter be abused and did nothing to stop it.

I felt the worst emotion I ever experienced – anger combined with powerlessness. For the first time I connected the word “demon” with the face of a human being. And for the first time, I felt lucky to have a life that was as unhappy as mine.

I moved to another city a few years later and we kept our friendship by writing letters. I had to be careful with what I said, since she didn’t get to be the one to read them first. More often than not she didn't receive my letters at all. I was very happy to know that she was in the teacher’s college as she wanted. She had to move to the college town, and thus was freed from the abuse at last. I thought her happiness had finally arrived when she told me her boyfriend was going to marry her as soon as they graduated, and that he would make a happy home for her. She paid me a visit with her husband when she was very pregnant, and very content, a few years later. I thanked her lucky star, or fairy godmother - whoever was watching over my dear friend - for bringing her the life she deserved.

A few years passed before she visited me again, this time by herself, and shocked me again.

"Adam is having an affair.” She had the similar emotionless tone as the time when she revealed her wounds to me years ago.
"….With whom?” Was the only thing I could think of after pulling myself together.
"A teacher at the same school where he teaches.”
"How did you find out about it?”
"He told me.” She said, as if she was talking about someone else.
"He told you?” Did he set out to hurt her on purpose?
"I asked him what she would do that I wasn’t doing so I could get him back, but he wouldn’t tell me.”

Once again I wanted to ask her, “Are you crazy?” I think I would've had a big fight or two with the cheating husband if I were her. Then she said, "He doesn’t want a divorce. He doesn’t want to stop the affair either. He said they just wanted to have sex. She’s married, too.”

The nerve he had. I would divorce him, but that might not be the most rational thing to do. Maybe she was…right?

We shared a bed that night. I couldn’t sleep – I couldn’t stop thinking about her marriage. What happened to his promise to her? He would make a happy home for her, he told her. I remembered how pleased she was when she told me that. Had he no concerns about their family or their daughter at all? Again I felt the terrible emotion – angry yet powerless.

She tossed in her sleep and said softly, “Adam…” I sighed. As long as she loved him, she would put up with the affair just so he might come back to her one day. There was nothing I could’ve said. After all, she was brought up to believe she deserved very little love, if any. The "demon” may have made her strong in order to survive; but strangely, it had also broken her to irreparable pieces.

I moved again, this time to a different continent. We lost touch completely. I think about her a lot during many sleepless nights. Did Adam go back to her to be a truthful husband and father? Did she finally find the happiness she was looking for?

Sunday, September 20, 2009


I know this place. I live here, but I have never seen it before. I just know.

I walk into the bedroom. There are clothes everywhere. An open suitcase is sitting on the floor, half full. A sea of panic sweeps through me like a tidal wave: there isn’t time. I must go now. What do I do with the clothes? And all the other things I have?

I can only take one suitcase with me. I must leave them here and go now.

Are they watching me? I must go around the house. The kids. Where are the kids? Did they hide my kids? I can’t leave without them, and they know it.

Shhh…we have to walk quietly, or they will hear us. Quickly - we have to go before they find out.

Did we take the bus to the border? I can’t remember, even though it’s a three-day bus/car trip. We must have, right? It must have been too difficult a trip to remember: with kids, luggage, hotels, traveling in a country where I don’t speak the language, and all other details I had to deal with. I can’t think about it. It’s too much.

What about the border security? Did we pretend to be tourists? Did we get caught? Somehow we fooled them and passed the border, didn’t we? We are alright now. We are all together.

It doesn’t matter how we got here. We arrive at the airport now.

The airport is packed. Andy, where is your passport? Amy, follow me - don’t get lost. Watch out for the luggage, Andy. Where is my passport? I dig into my purse, but I can’t find it. Did I forget the passport at home? My heart is pounding louder and faster. I forgot my passport. What do I do? No, I can’t go back. They are going to keep my babies.

Please. I have to catch this plane. Please let us go before they catch us and take us home. Please…

Somehow we get through. The plane is leaving, they said, you’d better hurry. We run as fast as we could, dragging the luggage behind us. Hurry, Andy. We can’t miss the flight. Faster, Amy.

It’s too late. The plane had pulled away from the terminal and is dashing down the taxiway. It’s too late to catch it. We’ll never leave here.


I wake up, heart pounding and forehead clammy.

It has been more than twenty years, and the dream will not stop. I am forever trapped in the house in another country, can’t find a way out.

It all started when they asked me, “Why don’t you leave your son here and go back by yourself?”

I regret the moment I agreed to make the long journey to visit my in-laws. I’m paying the price repeatedly - in the form of the never ending nightmare.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Monkey Brains

(A story told by a friend)

So, I was working for a Chinese company a while back, and yes, all that you have heard about Chinese companies are true. This company, for example, deducted the minutes you overspent at lunch from your vacation time – and we are talking about salaried employees who came back from lunch five minutes late! While other small companies would distribute turkeys to their employees around Thanksgiving holiday, we had never seen one in our company. The closest thing to a turkey you’d see was probably the owner.

You shouldn’t be surprised to learn that the sales manager changed the commission structure to make it harder for anyone to make any decent money either. But that would be a different story.

That’s why we were very excited when the owner announced that we would have a New Year’s company dinner at this renowned restaurant one year. “The company must be doing very well!” We discussed among ourselves. A little something at the back of our heads was nagging, “I wonder what the catch would be…” I was sure we would never hear the end of this meal under all sorts of unpleasant situations, but for now, we were going to have a great meal with our fellow abusees. The catch could wait.

The restaurant was decorated colorfully and exotically. It was a Chinese restaurant, of course. We were told by the owner that they had the best Chinese food in the Bay Area, and he was right for once. Everything was delicious. I couldn’t recognize a lot of them, and could name none. But I didn’t mind – these were the dishes you normally wouldn’t order simply because you had never heard of, nor had any idea what they were. We are talking about banquet dishes, not your chop suey nonsense. We were so grateful, and so full. Everyone went home for the weekend very happy and very satisfied.

The meal was such a high point in our employment that we were still talking about it after the weekend. I asked a coworker what the name of a delicious dish I had was. It was a rectangular piece of something soft and white, wrapped with a thin piece of seaweed, then lightly fried to a crispy outer layer, but soft inside. I had several of them because it had great texture and taste.

"Oh that! Wasn’t it delicious?” She said.
"Yes. I loved it. What was it?” I asked.
"It was very rare, very hard to come by, and very expensive. It was mainly for rich people.” She said.
"Really? Wow, I can’t believe he would spend that kind of money on us.” I was flattered by this prelude. Imagine: we had been treated with luxury by Uncle Scrooge!

"You know what’s inside?” She taunted me with suspense.
"No. Tell me!” My curiosity was killing me.
"It’s monkey brains!” She declared with pleasure.

I covered my mouth and ran outside, trying hard not to hurl on the carpet in the process. While nothing really came out (it had been two days, after all) I did think for a second whether I should go to the hospital and have my stomach pumped. I gagged some more before it stopped.

I returned to the office with cold sweat and weak knees, and murmured to the coworker, “I can’t believe he did that to us.”

And can you believe what she said next?

"I was just kidding! Monkey brains are way too expensive. He will never treat us with that! It was just tofu wrapped with seaweed, silly.”

If I wasn't so weak from all that gagging, I think I would've strangled her.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Departure

"Mommy, I want another gravy egg!” Andy demanded. She spooned over an egg with some dark sauce, half listening and half annoyed.

"Why is she burying herself in the kitchen and treating this as a banquet?” She wanted to tell her, “Come sit by me, please. Could you hold my hand just once, please?” But she couldn’t mutter a word.

Remember: parents are always right.

Andy’s little sister Amy was fidgeting in her chair and, as usual, not wanting to eat anything. She let out a sigh and put the spoon down. Amy was too young to understand the starving children in China – the way she was told when she was a child.

The Guilt Trip is acceptable to make the kid obey.

James’ appetite was completely intact, and he was on his second helping - the man could eat the kitchen sink if you let him.

But not today! She silently screamed to herself. What’s the matter with you? Don’t you have a heart? Don’t you have any feelings at all?

Why should he? He was going to reunite with his family. The only family he knew and was connected to, but she didn’t know this then. She still had the illusion that the four of them were the family she and James needed to love and protect and fight for. So naturally, he couldn’t relate to her feelings even if he tried. It wasn’t he who was leaving his parents for good.

"Mom, come sit down and eat something.” She jumped on the opportunity when her mother came out of the kitchen to add one more dish to the table.

"No, no. Don’t worry about me. Go ahead and eat. Make sure Andy has enough!” She answered the same way as she did the previous attempts, and went back to the kitchen.

Don’t you have anything to say to me? I am leaving for God’s sake, and I don’t know when I’ll ever see you again! Is food more important than thoughts? She pushed away the unfinished lunch and gave up.

Children are never to challenge their parents.

Her mother thought of a few things to instruct on the way to the airport - she even told Andy not to tease his sister too much, and to listen to his mother. They waited at the airport with few words exchanged. How do you start something so foreign that you didn’t know what the first word should be?

It was time to board. There was a little shine in her mother’s eyes when they hugged.

Hold me tight and tell me you will miss me. Tell me everything will be OK and you will see me soon. Tell me Brazil is not too far and you will find a way to go there even though nobody could get a passport.

But she didn’t say it. They said goodbye as if they would meet again soon. Last chance, but it was gone too soon.

The force of the takeoff pushed her into her seat. She looked away from the window, and tears finally glided down silently.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Faded Country

She was about 10 or 11 years old when they moved to the country side. No one bothered to explain to her why—kids are not supposed to mind adult’s affair, or even be heard in most cases. Thinking back it could be for the lack of money.

It was one unit in a row of identical condos. The front doors faced a seemingly endless orchard. It quickly became her playground as there was nothing else to do. Rows of green vegetables with an outhouse in the middle of it; a big hole full of human sewage nearby that adults warned again and again not to get too close. It wasn’t the danger of drowning that kept her away--she could still revive the odor in her mind if she closed her eyes and concentrated.

A small stream meandered by the edge of the orchard and gathered to form a small pond near the row houses. There were small fish and shrimp she could sit and watch forever, sometimes trying to catch them unsuccessfully, but always fun to do. That was where he first tried to talk to her. It wasn’t hard – he made a net of some sort to catch the little fish. It was an instant success--with the fish and with her. He must be the smartest boy she had ever known. He was probably in junior high, but in her mind much bigger than her.

Summer and the strange place were no longer unbearable. She spent much of the time outdoors, either walking among the orchard carefully to spot unfamiliar critters, or playing in the shallow water to cool down--always with a faint hope to catch a glimpse of him. He sometimes had the funny idea of putting a chair over the tiny irrigation canal at a spot under a tree, and read a book that way. She was always too shy to initiate a conversation with him. Just the sight of him pleased her enormously.

Her father would sometimes buy vegetables straight from the farmers. She remembered how he rinsed the green bunches in the little canal before coming back to the house. Once the kids were told to get some clams from the stream for dinner. She was on her knees in the cool water, with both hands combing the sand lightly. The boy volunteered to help. He was so close to her that she could hardly breathe. He was talking and showing her the tricks to get the clams, but she couldn’t hear a word. It couldn’t have lasted more than an hour, but it was an hour she will forever remember.

They were from very different families. She saw a tree in his house with little lights on it when winter came. A sight that was both beautiful and strange to her.

She was not allowed to show any interest in boys, naturally. When he performed some stunts with his bicycle outside her front door, her father told her to go inside. She was disappointed, but nothing could come close to how she felt when her father decided to move. When the boy asked, “Are you moving?” she could almost cry. She didn’t know how to say good-bye to a boy she hardly knew, but held a special spot in her memories.

It was her first heartbreak.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Basque-ful of Bounty

My group decided to have a field trip. It's a farming community not far from San Jose, so we met at the train station that has very confusing machines to pay for the parking. I had to show another member how to use it after several attemps and fianlly figuring it out. She then went on to teach others. After two hours of listening to a couple of car mates' loud and tedious and sometimes nonsense (one of them couldn't speak English that well) blast of non stop talking, I was ready for a headache. I couldn't be any happier when we arrived at the fruit stand.
This is the inside view of the first destination - a gigantic fruit stand completed with an old truck.

They grow garlics so big that I had to take a picture. The ones in the pink bags are your normal garlics. One clove of the purple garlic can last me a month or two.

Outdoor band and a craft fair.

I haven't seen one of these in ages.

This will be a great plaque for Bob's backyard swimming pool that he was working on.
I guess this is the pond the plaque was referring to?

The place is littered with old farming tools, most of which I have never seen or could name. I thought this one looks pretty cool.
Somebody had to point it out to me that it was a fire engine!

A wind mill that's still turning.
We then moved on to a town 30 minutes away to have some Basque style dinner. Where are the pictures? Well I didn't take any.
The place is a bare minimum with long tables where you share with stranger. Aside from the main course, you share all the other dishes with your dining companions. I'm not sure why it's called Basque, because they look just like American food :) with potato salad and frensh fries! The lamb stew was delicious (I think I'll go have some right now) but the roasted lamb is a little on the bland side. They gave you so much food that many of us had to ask for doggie bags.
It's probably worth the trip if you have never been there, or if you went there five years ago. But it's a weekend to get out of the city and play tourist. Fun for a change.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Train of Guilt

(Inspired by beamingbalance)

"Hurry, mommy.” The little girl tugged her mother’s hand lightly. She didn’t want to miss the train. It was the rare occasion when she felt special. Her daddy loved and cared about her. Her sister was too young to tag along. Both parents belonged to her for a while.

"We have time.” The young mother reassured the little girl. She had a faint smile on her face. That made the little girl even happier. It was not often to see her mother in a good mood.

Her daddy worked in a different city. He came home once a week or every other week on weekends. They didn’t own a car, so he took the train for his trips.

The pavement rose to a slight slope. That was where they stopped and waited for the train. It seemed that they never had to wait long. She could hear the chucking rhythm getting close. Her heart was full of excitement that she could hardly wait.

The train passed with speed, loud noises and a hurl of wind, messing up her hair and her dress. In a fleeting second she thought she saw her daddy by the window, throwing something out.

"There it is!” She shrieked. The young mother walked over and picked it up. It was a variety of snacks in a plastic bag, thrown by her daddy as a treat for them. He was on his way back to work.

They walked home slowly, all the while the little girl examining the snacks and savoring how her daddy was thinking about her when he bought these treats. They tasted like candies for a princess in her memory.


The little girl grew up to know why her mother was not a happy woman - her father was having an affair at the time. That was also why he kept his family in a different city.

When the little girl, now a woman, had her own puppy and had to leave for work, she couldn’t bear the look in the puppy’s eyes.

"Why are you leaving me?” The round brown eyes said. “Don’t leave me here alone.”

So she threw some treats to the puppy. The puppy would be busy looking for them when she quietly closed the garage door to leave.

That’s when she realized it was not an act of love, something he was incapable of giving, when her father did what he did many times by the train track.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

You Have An Accent

I sometimes do crazy things like going out to dinner with a group of total strangers. This is to keep me from becoming a hermit during “between contract” period, and make me feel somewhat normal. You know, human interaction and all.

This is one of those gatherings where I picked up a lady from the same group and drove into the city for dinner and fireworks. The traffic was awful, and it didn’t help with her “you should’ve parked there,” or “you should’ve taken that lane,” as a side seat driver. But I made the bet effort not to say anything rude.

She was from another country and, in spite of having lived here for decades, still has a heavy accent. She was quite loud as well. I thought to myself, “Good for her. She didn’t think her accent was anything to be ashamed of.”

A guy from a different group joined us after dinner and got into lively chatters with us. Barely a minute or two into the conversation the woman with an accent announced loudly, “You have an accent!”

The ice tea I was drinking almost shot out of my nostrils. He did have a slight accent – he’s from New York.

She showed me again how easy it is to look at others but not oneself. I’m pretty sure I have done the same.


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