The Line Of Immigrants

There’s something life-affirming about entering an immigrant space. That’s why, whenever I return from a long trip, I crave a stop at a local farmer’s market to shake off my jetlag and my dullness.

This morning at the Cupertino market, a pear-shaped Indian-American was covertly biting into a jujube to test its value-proposition. Two south Indian women, both shaped like a butternut squash, kvetched about finding no kenaf (gongura) leaves at the stalls.

A circuit of Chinese, Japanese, Indian, and Korean-Americans had grown roots by a stall selling vine-ripened tomatoes, flat beans, green peppers, winter melon, bitter gourd, okra, and broccoli flower.

“Where’d you get that lemon grass?” I asked of a reedy Chinese-American surveying okras. “There!” the woman snapped back, pointing to a nearby table. I was about to turn towards the lemon grass in slight irritation when I saw a smile grow in her eyes and she and I recognized, simultaneously, our common Asian heritage in which a smile must steep, even if only for two minutes, before it can be delivered.

Together the two of us began colluding for attention from the stall vendor. But the array of rooted customers in front of him crackled in irritation: “Hey, wait, the line begins here!” Bags in hand, I trudged to the end of the line and awaited my turn, chafing at the rudeness of immigrant-Americans on the matter of lines. In the countries we came from there were no vertical lines, only horizontal.

Before I headed home, I stopped to buy grapes. “I want the sweetest,” I said to the vendor. He pointed to the big, purplish black things in a basket. “But these have seeds,” he said. I popped one in my mouth and bit in. The skin was thick. Grape syrup sloshed over my tongue. Sweet. Sweeter-than-honey sweet. Then I hit seed, that stuff of life.

“That’s perfectly fine, I’ll spit the seed,” I said to the young man, handing him two dollars for a pound of the blackest grapes most redolent of all immigrants, old and new.

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White Lies

Every few months, I have a long conversation with this Chinese-American who lives a few doors away. This morning, I happened to run into her during the course of my walk. She told me she was juggling a lot. Her son was in the toughest years at school. Her mother was suffering from advanced cancer.

Figuring out doctors, therapies and schedules were only part of the family’s struggles. The big challege was coming to terms with her mother’s pressing need for secrecy. She didn’t want any of their relatives to know about her condition. When relatives called to chat, she evaded and prevaricated, fabricating new stakes of fibs to bolster her phantasmagoric tent of white lies.

My neighbor was embarrassed and exasperated. “Now, whether I like it or not, I have been co-opted into all the lies and cover-ups.” She was caught between her duty to her mother and her own conscience.

“Is it a problem only with folks in the Asian cultures, this need to lie about one’s health?” she asked me. I wondered about it. Where I was from, a broken leg evoked extraordinary sympathy. A disturbed mind? Well, we tied an invisible wrist-band to the patient and tagged it with markers like “past sins”, “stigma” and “silence”.

I told my neighbor about my emotional struggles with regard to family members, some of whom valued secrecy for today over wellness for the long term. We saw no solution in sight. People were all different, we decided. Who were we to say that one way was the right way to live? And who were we to tell someone, even one from whom life was leaking out, how he or she must think?

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The Water Flows Down

“Mom, do NOT make dinner. I won’t be hungry when I arrive,” the son had said in a clear text to his mother at 8.30 PM. Despite the message and in spite of knowing that her son would arrive home only at 10.30 PM, she had a whole dinner ready for him by the time he walked into the house. He didn’t eat the dinner she made. She chafed at his attitude.

I doubt I’d have done any differently from the mother; I may have made fewer dishes, perhaps, but I’d have felt the same minor hurt. The point I want to make is that sons and daughters rarely try to understand why their parents go on overdrive when it comes to nurturing them even well into their twenties.

For as long as parents continue to make children, they will go overboard and be blessed in return with spondylitis, heartburn and anxiety (with mild depression) for having made their children’s lives as comfortable as they possibly could. They will run to the store at midnight to buy poster boards for a project due in the morning. They will drive all the way back home from the airport (and back again) to secure a forgotten laptop that the child left charging where it could never have been seen, even by Google Earth. They will stay up for their son or daughter even when they turn 25 because the roads are not well-lit and who knows what’s out there?

The Chinese have a saying that conveys this eloquently: “The water always flows down.” Parents will serve their children, who will fuss over their children who will, in turn, cluck over theirs. That is the way of the world.

All we ask, kids, is for you to sit back, relax and enjoy the love until you cannot lean back anymore. Fast forward: Your child is on the potty. It’s a big job, this childrearing. And it’s a bad, stinky world out there.