WEST MEETS EAST, & MEETS EAST, &...
The Asian bug has bitten my younger son Jesse. I don’t mean the flu that comes around every year and gets blamed on that continent. He has been smitten by the mysterious East and, like Marco Polo, fallen under the spell of the Orient. He is dating an Asian girl. Not that there is anything wrong with that, as an old Seinfeld episode proclaimed, and I have no problem with his personal preferences. He’s twenty-two and the only girls he has ever been attracted to since his junior high school days have been inscrutable Asians. Although I can’t say for sure, I am relatively confident that he may have scruted at least one of them.
I think Jesse’s fascination might be something genetic, something hard-wired into his psyche. His grandfather on his mother’s side spent years in the South Pacific fighting World War II. And for a while, Ian, his older brother from another mother, also dabbled in the exotic when he was dating before he got married. Anita wasn’t Asian, but Columbian, Ecuadorian, Peruvian, or one of those other ians from one of those South American places, not that there’s anything wrong with that either.
I liked Anita, an intense and passionate little girl with white teeth, dark flashing eyes and a good sense of humor, who didn’t seem to mind that I put all the knives away and kept checking the hubcaps on my car whenever they came to visit. But Anita, by last account, moved back to Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, or one of those other places got married and has several kids.
Siu Lan was definitely Asian. She was Chinese, and I assume she still is. We called her “Siu Who,” though her last name was Wong, to differentiate between her and my niece Sue, who spelled her name differently but pronounced it the same way. I met Siu Lan at a party, a family gathering at my daughter Janine’s house on Staten Island. Weeks in advance of the event a nervous Ian had prepped everyone for the meeting in an attempt to head off any potential problems. But his grandmother, my mother, made it evident from her expression and attitude that she wasn’t very pleased when Ian led a foreigner into the thick of twenty-five screaming Italians all talking at the same time.
I watched the girl, head high, black hair radiating the light of Janine’s crystal chandelier, walk fearlessly or foolishly into the middle of things and the conversations dropped to a murmur and stopped.
It was my mother-in-law who barreled in and broke the ice. “So tell me,” she said with an innocent smile of simplicity on her face, “how come they took Kung Fu off the air? It was one of my favorite shows.”
Siu Who shook her head. “I’m not sure,” she said without a trace of sarcasm after barely a pause. “But let me get back to my people and I’ll tell you what I find out.”
For me it was love at first sight. From that second I knew I was going to like the girl! But their relationship didn’t work out, in part because there were other problems beyond the East/West thing. So eventually Siu Lan went the way of Anita, though I don’t think she moved to South America. She still lives in Brooklyn somewhere.
Soon after, Ian reconnected with Amy, his college girlfriend, the polar opposite of his previous choices, both geographically and physically. She was born in Syracuse or Schenectady or one of those other up-state New York cities. She is smart, beautiful, flaxen blonde and so white she might be mistaken for an albino. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. And they make the perfect couple. I love Amy, and that is a good thing because she is now my daughter-in-law. Her addition to the gene pool has made it possible for blue-eyed grandchildren to someday be born into this brown-eyed family.
The Asian bug bit Jesse somewhere around seventh grade when he met Jessica Park, a petite Korean with great lips who played horn in the middle school orchestra, where he played the same instrument. Well, they didn’t actually play the same one, but they both played trumpets. Their pairing had such possibilities. Jesse and Jessie. Two trumpets. No waiting. But both of them were so shy that neither one said a word to the other until high school graduation, just before they went off to different colleges, and by that time it was too late.
Then along came Amy. Not Ian’s Caucasian Amy, but one of the Asian persuasion, a Japanese violinist Jesse met in college. When he brought her around, the family, including my mother, had grown accustomed to Asians at the gates, although they still had trouble separating them according a specific ese. Just as the family had reduced pasta, everything from ravioli, to linguini and lasagna, into generic “macaroni,” there was a tendency to lump all of Asia together - Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese. It didn’t seem to matter. Some relatives even insisted that Asian Amy and Siu Who were the same person, mainly because they had never been seen together. But no one ever had problems telling the two Amys apart. And my mother-in-law never asked the new Amy her question about Kung Fu because, “I already asked her once,” she said. “I don’t want to be a pest and I don’t want her to think that I am being rude.” So for as long as Asian Amy was on the scene, the matter of Kung Fu’s disappearance remained a mystery.
We didn’t talk much, Asian Amy and I, when she and Jesse visited. She was shy and quiet, the very definition of inscrutable, the silent, brooding type, a person of many moods, most of them dark, like a rain cloud that she seemed to carry with her. We did have one conversation when she rang the front door bell and announced, “The chink is here. Isn’t that what they call me?”
“Certainly not!” I was appalled by her ignorance and her unfortunate choice of words, but determined to demonstrate my knowledge and set the record straight. “You aren’t a ‘chink’ or a ‘gook’ or a ‘slope.’ That’s what they call Chinese, Koreans and Vietnamese. You are a ‘Jap.’”
Their breakup, a protracted affair, wasn’t because of anything I said. Though painful for Jesse, she was his first real love, he finally reached the point of no return and had enough of the mood swings that overshadowed their romance. In the end, after many fits and starts, she went on to teach music in public school and Jesse transferred to college in Boston. He still maintains contact with Asian Amy’s mother, who gave him her old Hyundai Loyal, a Korean car, which he still has.
It didn’t take him long to hook up first with Kat, a tattooed Filipino, and then with Ling-Ling, a cute little Chinese girl whose last name is spelled N-g. I told her that I suspected she was really Vietnamese trying to pass herself off. But she assured me that she is really Chinese and rattled some off to prove her point. They make a cute couple, little Ling-Ling, who is barely five feet tall, and Jesse who measures in at a towering six feet four.
Jesse has been studying Japanese for about a year. In June he will graduate college and he plans to go to Japan for a year or more to teach English there. He has submitted his JET application, one of the few things he has completed on time without coaxing from his mother or me. He is there already in his head.
“I hope you get your wish,” I told him. “It is a wonderful opportunity. But what,” I asked him while we were watching Lost In Translation for the third time, “will you do if you are not accepted?”
He looked as though he had never considered that possibility. He just shrugged and sat there, inscrutable.
“And what will you and Ling-Ling do if you are accepted?”
I am making plans too, to take a trip to Japan when Jesse is there. I am fortifying myself in Asian culture by ordering lots of Chinese take out, and I am desperately trying to develop a taste for sushi.
Books by Joseph E. Scalia:
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