“Chicken was nineteen cents a pound,” says Aunt Mimi at our post-Thanksgiving lunch. “We would buy twenty pounds of it and fill our freezer. Then I had to cook it. Everyday we ate chicken –curry chicken, fried chicken, soy sauce chicken, garlic chicken, chicken soup…When we finally could afford to buy anything else, I didn’t eat chicken for ten years.”
“That was when we could only afford to spend $40 on groceries every month,” my mother tells me, moving my sleeve away from her famous sweet-and-sour pork ribs. “The rest of our paycheck went to rent and tuition. I also had to send $100 back to China every month for your grandmother to support you.”
That would have been a fortune with the exchange rate back then. Grandma always knew how to make a profit.
“Once, there was a sale on onions at Aldi’s. I bought ten pounds. We reeked of onions for a whole month and I never wanted to touch an onion ever again.”
The grown-ups laugh. It is funny I still think of them as “grown-ups”. I am now the same age they were when they left on their adventure.
When she was my age, my mother was a doctor in Shanghai. Her family owned a house in an old neighborhood where her father spent his weekends polishing their antique rosewood furniture until it shone like fire and gold. A personal seamstress made clothes my mother designed herself after studying fashion magazines smuggled from Hong Kong. Under her lab coat, my mother wore colorful silk blouses with extravagant puffed sleeves and dramatic shoulder pads. She had a collection of tight skirts and trousers that showed off her 20-inch-waist. And she never left home without her lipstick and stiletto pumps. Every night, she would read me one story from a children’s storybook and one piece of scientific trivia from a book called “1000 Answers for Kids”. At the end of the week, she would drop her paycheck into the top drawer of her dresser and then would forget about it because she never needed the money.
I was three when my mother left. She recorded a year’s worth of stories and science facts on dozens of cassettes. I listened to them until I had every pause and inflection memorized and the tapes themselves had disintegrated. She also emptied the paycheck drawer. With the exchange rate of the early 90’s, she had just enough money for a plane ticket to America and a new coat for the Chicago winters.
“I remember my cousin came to Chicago on a business trip. She was shocked at how we were living. ‘I understand why you couldn’t bring your antique furniture over,’ she said –we were living in a studio– ‘but can’t you at least afford a bed? You’re sleeping on a mattress on the floor!’ I didn’t tell her we got the mattress from a dumpster.”
When my mother arrived, my dad took her to the fanciest Chinese restaurant in Chicago. She thought they were there for dinner, but Dad only wanted her to get a job so she could help pay for grad school. When she showed up the next day ready to try this new American lifestyle, the boss’s wife took one look at her shoulder pads and skintight pants and fired her on the spot. Later, my mother found a plain white polo at a church sale and applied to another restaurant. The polo was lumpy and scratchy, but she looked like a waitress. Some of her nice blouses were later ripped up to line the cracks around our windows in the winter or to fill mouseholes.
She never stopped wearing lipstick though.
“There was this three bedroom apartment with ten students living in it. Two in each bedroom, two in the living room, and two in the dining room. They divided every room with a bedsheet so they could split the $800 rent ten ways. That’s how you made the scholarship money last.”
While my mother was raising me by herself in Shanghai, my dad was having the time of his life being a poor American grad student. He lived in a studio with three other guys, and they took road trips every weekend in a $200 Honda Civic they bought third-hand. The car was 50 percent rust and didn’t even have windshield wipers. When it rained, they would pull over and play cards in the back seat until the sky cleared.
His roommates loved to look at the vast emptiness of the Midwest landscape that was so different from the teeming towns and cities they had left behind. Dad loved to people-watch. He would sit in diners eating bad meatloaf just to chat with the waitresses and watch old couples crumbling saltines into their Sunday Soup Specials.
One summer he worked as an au pair for a family in Hawaii. He cooked three meals a day and used the pool whenever he wanted. He once came back from a swim and found the father and kids in his room staring at my picture taped above his bed. I was two-years-old and my teenage uncle had just taught me how to wink.
(I had quickly learned to ingratiate myself with the relatives who took me in after my parents left. In addition to winking, I could sing, dance, and tell anyone they were my favorite aunt or uncle, usually in exchange for a new doll or a cumin lamb kabob from the vendor at the corner.)
When I joined my parents in Chicago two years later, my dad’s friends would also stare at me as I slept on the broken living room sofa. Dad said they couldn’t believe something so beautiful was his.
It would be over a decade before his friends had children of their own.
“Of course, it didn’t work in the long run. A fight broke out. Someone picked up a knife, and the police had to come.”
“Dear god, what happened?”
“Your Aunt Linda was living there and two of the guys fought over her. Luckily no one was hurt. Just a few guys tangled in the laundry and clotheslines. It was the yelling that made the neighbors call the police.”
“They were fighting over Aunt Linda?”
“Yes, Aunt Linda. She had to stay with us for two weeks while the police sorted it out. That was when you met her, remember? We set up a cot in your room and you two got along really well.”
“But, Aunt Linda? ”
Aunt Linda had soft rolls of fat down her neck and a greasy face she covered with too much makeup. She was very nice to me, but her teeth were brown and smelled bad when she smiled.
“Well, there was a gender disproportion. Ten to one at least. There just weren’t that many women to fight over and she was young and unmarried.”
A few days after the fight, my mother took Aunt Linda to get an abortion.
It was rare then to find someone in their late twenties who was still unmarried. Most of the grad students, like my dad, left spouses and obligations back home. My mother realized back in China that my dad must be sleeping with someone else, but not everyone caught on so quickly.
Aunt Mimi, my mother’s best friend, arrived in Chicago to join her husband after a year apart. He picked her up from the airport and drove her to an apartment with five other roommates. She only realized he was leaving her when he carried her suitcases up three flights of stairs and then drove away. He lived across town with his girlfriend, another grad student whose spouse was in China.
Aunt Mimi cried for a month. Then she pulled herself together and enrolled in grad school. She found the gender disproportion worked in her favor too. She could hardly get a date in China with her dark skin and “un-feminine” engineering degree. But in America, she was suddenly swamped with propositions. She also showed up at our door eventually. My mother went with her to get an abortion and she spent the next two weeks on a cot in my room.
My mother found herself in much the same role she played in China. Whenever a cousin or a sister or a sister-in-law got pregnant while inconveniently unmarried, they would come to her for help. In Chicago, the close-knit Chinese ex-pat community turned to her for all kinds of medical advice, from pregnancies to sprained ankles to one guy getting a spider stuck in his ear. She found she could not complete the American medical residency process and take care of our little family at the same time –a decision she insists she does not regret –but she eventually got a nursing degree in between making discount chicken dinners and helping me with schoolwork.
We scrape the leftovers into tupperware boxes and load the dishwasher that my mother only uses on holidays. I am completely stuffed with sweet-and-sour ribs, pork buns, stir-fried noodles, and leftover turkey. They had barely touched anything. Aunt Mimi is trying to lose weight for her company’s New Year party and my mother is jealously watching her now 23-inch waist.
“You’ve gained weight again,” she says to me. She had wanted to say that all weekend.
“Here, have the last rib so I can clean the plate.”
Today, my mother rules the ICU in her polo shirts and lipstick.
Dad still lives in an apartment with three guys in their twenties. He doesn’t take road trips anymore, but he sometimes sits in greasy diners to people-watch. All his old friends live in the suburbs.
Aunt Mimi and Aunt Linda are elders at the same megachurch now. They live in cookie-cutter McMansions in the same very, very rich Midwest suburb. Their kids carpool to Chinese school and soccer practice on the weekends.
They even vote Republican.