CRAZY AMERICANS by Stephen Ling
By way of introducing this book…
I have always wanted to write this book since I was an aspiring journalism student at the University of Texas, Austin campus, USA. Many moons ago. Many anecdotes in this memoir are recreated, some are revised, and they are not intended as an objective recording of actual events. Only the juiciest or salacious parts got served to whet my guests’ appetites at small, intimate dinners at my American home in Puyallup, Washington. Invariably they begged for more. Not the food, but the juices. This was in addition to char siu (Chinese barbecue), hot sweet-sour-egg-drop soup, fried green beans, and white rice. Of course, some names in the stories have been changed for obvious reasons.
CRAZY AMERICANS is about the Americans, some “being out of the ordinary” by words or deed, I met on the stage of my life. It’s also a story of self-discovery; that I could be one of the crazy Americans I first encountered in my life’s journey from a poor Chinese village back to American soil.
The skeleton of this particular literary exercise is absolutely true to the core of its bone. I am not fluent in lying or faking something. Friends said I’d never be an effective politician. However, like the contemporary movie-making industry—Bollywood or Hollywood or Moneywood—I will go after special effects or embellishments (like adding blood and flesh and extra padding?), wherever necessary, feasible, and conscionable, to add color, sound, vivacity, brilliance, excitement, magnetism, and sheer realism to my authentic composition.
I remember it was the celebrated French chef extraordinaire Julia Child who shocked and delighted the bored, jaded American housewives when, on a national television show, she injected with abandonment fats into bloody meats because oven-roasted lean meats, she proclaimed, lacked the smooth, delicious, juicy texture every male stomach yearned for. One sure way, we all know, to get close to his stomach, if not his heart. Lean meats, without visible marbling, are not delectable to your taste, she would preach unabashedly to anyone, claiming to be a consummate cook, or a voracious eater in America!
But how far will I go with the so-called special effects to achieve my desired goals? How much “fats” am I willing to inject into my lean anecdotes? Wait and see. Most writers would like you to believe we don’t really know where the book will lead us…I wonder what motivates a writer to write, using a yellow pad or a computer. A Chinese sage might say: what is the purpose of writing with head but no tail. Hmm!
I remember a 60 Minutes episode about a country in South America where both the young and the not so young went under the knife because plastic surgery, free or subsidized in that generous country, was the guaranteed ticket to better or higher paying jobs. I remember I was repulsed instantaneously by a few, new, finished faces that appeared rubbery, tight, distorted, fake, and, worse, were now seemingly devoid of elasticity, youthfulness, tone, and color that one expects from a normal, seductive, charming face—one that is soft and smooth to human caresses.
Neither can I erase from memory one Sunday afternoon when a wealthy old lady (senior citizen, sir) took me to lunch in a country restaurant after a church service somewhere in rural Texas, her way, I presume, of showing she cared for a visiting, emaciated-looking, starving foreign student. She was sweet and charming and soaked in exotic perfume. She was a true Christian, in my eyes. I thought she was practicing her Spanish (Texas was once a part of Mexico, did you know that?) when she casually introduced me as “He is my gigolo for today” to her many curious, prying old friends at the rustic diner.
Gigolo was as adorable as savory hors d’oeuvres, but utterly Greek to me. Of course, I was cute and charming and young and irresistible then (for heaven’s sake, I was a hot, virile, desirable, college freshman!), but I didn’t know what the word gigolo meant, but surely sounded musical to my years. I was fresh in America. All the heads turned—like those tall, wobbly sunflowers bewitched by the sun—to my presence, as we slowly meandered through the diner to our table. I did my innocent waves and a few perfunctory nods, like a pope or a celebrity in a parade.
I remember thinking as we sat down face to face, dear lady, who the hell in the world did your face or make-up! Her eyebrows were unevenly painted. One higher and less curved than the other. She must have had an inch thick of some perfumed rouge, with two distinct patches of something red or pink on her cheeks. Her sight (or make-up) was unsettling to me. Most faces—not hers—achieve near perfection and perfect symmetry on the magazine covers you would spy at grocery check-stands. Thank Allah it did not mar my taste for the mashed potatoes and the chicken-fried steaks. I loved thick gravy—southern gravy, the kitchen announced.
Every woman, I said to myself, should learn how to age gracefully from America’s beloved actress Helen Hayes. My host could learn something from her, to restore some of her natural skin color and radiance, and sanity, in her golden years.
What did I know? I was not a veteran Hollywood make-up artist. I questioned my authority.
That evening back at my apartment, I immediately consulted my most trusted and respected friend, distinguished lexicographer Noah Webster, and he indicated a gigolo is “a man supported by a woman usually in return for his attention” or a male escort. What? That stinky old bag! How dare she degrade and parade me—innocent as a babe—in front of a gaggle of country bumpkins? I became fresh fuel for the cheap rumor-monger mill. Old hag!
So, who am I? Or, what am I? A newly-decorated, self-righteous gigolo?
Kurt Vonnegut was “…at the top of his form,” Newsday proclaims, when he wrote “They can take a flying fuck at the moooooooooooooooon,” blasting with the force of sixteen “o’s” at the University of Chicago, for rejecting his master’s thesis in anthropology (Palm Sunday, Delacorte Press, 1981). You see, Mr. Vonnegut happens to be my literary hero, someone worthy of emulation, especially his zaniness and irreverence, which make his writings so titillating to me. Except I am a Mr. Nobody, no kin to Mr. Vonnegut by any stretch of your imagination, unless he had Chinese blood coasting through his veins.
In conclusion, yes, I will use the special effects as far as they will allow me to preserve my original voice, my personal integrity, and the truth about my eventful life. I will definitely use the special effects as an enticement or bribery to get you to read the rest of the book and spread this personal tale—peppered with fine grains of human endeavors, sweats and tears, joy and sadness, eye-opening experiences, and hopes—to those who are less adventurous and enlightened than you are.
You are my sunshine!
Enjoy your literary adventure!
Life would have been much smoother, easier, and simpler if only I had been a dutiful Confucian son. If only I had adhered faithfully to Mother’s version of it: be content and follow what every decent young man in my benighted village was doing. In other words, kowtow to Mother in total obedience. Obey her commands religiously. Stray not from filial piety. Her words were like a mandate from heaven. And worship her, like one of the ancestors at a family altar, minus incense burning and sacrifices, because that would be for the dead. But I wanted no part of it. Not even an iota. In her eyes, I was far from being a Confucian son. More like an untamed, annoying dog.
So you might ask, “What exactly is every decent young man in your village expected to do?” He was not expected to take a Rorschach test, designed to reveal one’s “intellectual and emotional factors.” He was expected to execute a list of imperatives. Number one on the list, her list at least: be fertile and produce many grandchildren for your parents. It didn’t matter if there were only two grains of rice left to feed the howling babies. And equally important, be attentive to your farm (you might as well be married to it), especially the rubber trees and the pigs because your livelihood depended solely on them. Read: rubber trees and pigs. Your happiness depended on them. No kidding. I was there. I should know.
Sorry, Mother, eking a living out of the soil wasn’t my notion of a good life. That would be for the rubber trees, pigs, chickens, squirrels, dogs, and cats in the village and not for an intelligent young man like me, one with an active imagination and relentless drive. Not just the libido. Sorry, I wasn’t the Confucian son you adopted.
I admit I was a different kind of kid from day one. I mean, from the day I was taken away from the city and adopted by a family in a faraway remote village, I wanted no part of Mother’s blueprint for my future. It wasn’t what I had expected, even at a young age. Some people adopt children to provide them opportunities for a better life denied by their biological parents. I was not one of the lucky ones. I was surely adopted for my hands only. Brawn, not brains. I didn’t rebel for rebellion’s sake. Outwardly I did everything to get along (or to pass the time) with Mother and the rest of the family. But inwardly I was growing impatient daily with myself. By age fifteen I knew I’d no choice but to cut the umbilical cord once and for all. It wasn’t as painful as I thought.
I knew I had two more years of high school to finish, but running away to live with Father, an opium dealer—with more downs than ups—and his mistress and a covey of unruly offspring in a nearby small town was my best plan. What I wanted desperately and more than anything else was some peace of mind so I could pursue my education full-time. Getting up at wee hours in the morning to tap rubber trees twelve months a year before bicycling to school, or being forever tied to chores because the pigs had bottomless stomachs, wasn’t exactly my definition of a hundred-and-one percent dedication to the pursuit of education.
Time at school away from the farm wasn’t Mother’s top priority. She wasn’t educated, her defenders scolded me. The writing was clear and loud on the wall. Get away as far and as fast as you could from the cycle of poverty Mother was spinning. Run to the ends of the earth—to Shanghai, China—or be smothered to death by Mother’s soiled blanket of backward village mentality. Life with Mother meant the demise of my ambition and creativity. The ardent pursuit of education would vanish like steam from a hot pot.
My inner voice was getting louder each day: If I am not for ME, who is? I was my own crusader.
Lucky me, someone had surreptitiously sown a few seeds in the fertile soil of my being, planting in me a profound desire that a good education was my ticket to the fabulous world out there. Education was the ticket to many opportunities, as well as social and economic betterment. And so to hell with the village, I said. And I boldly stomped out of the village, trying not to peek at the rearview mirror again. I never did.
One out-of-the-blue impediment to my complete devotion to my studies at Father’s house, I must confess, was the nightly conflict I had with Father’s mistress’ mother. Every time when I heard her footsteps downstairs in the house, especially after nine o’clock (that was when she returned from her nightly rendezvous), I would cower and cover the light bulb with a thick blanket because—according to her unrelenting accusation—I was wasting too much electricity staying up late, burning the midnight oil to do my homework or studies.
What did she know about being a student? She was a common laborer all her bloody life. She would bang on my bedroom wall to amplify her quiet displeasure, or curse abruptly into night air. I tolerated that for two years because I had no other place to go. The choice was between the devil and the deep sea, meaning here or back to the village.
It seemed I was given two choices in every difficult situation in my life. Forget about the multi-choice answers. The yin and the yang seemed to control my life and my decision making.
Yes, I wasn’t a dedicated student. I did screw up my newfound freedom away from the rubber trees and the pigs. Instead, my best high school friend and I were engaged chasing after a girl, who had decided he (my friend) was less desirable and amorous and shamelessly sold her body and soul to a haggard older man (a teacher in the school), with none of the winsome and seductive characteristics of a Romeo. In fact, this teacher had the physique of a grandfather in the making, betraying a slight hunch.
I had to believe love, for some, is blind. Irrevocably blind. While he (my friend) moaned and groaned about his loss (buckets of tears to prove it), I was sent out spying on her every move, especially during and after school hours, before she boarded a bus to return home to another small town. Deplorably, we never spent a minute volleying between us about what we should be doing with our lives after high school graduation. That stupid girl was our life for close to a year in our final year of high school.
My teachers. Well, they were good for nothing. Most of them. Like robots, their primary interest was to ensure we could regurgitate the fodder they had been feeding us for different examinations. “It’s none of our business to tell the kids what to do with their lives or what is out there waiting for them. We are here to teach them.” That was their attitude. Their cardinal goal as teachers.
They were totally detached from the real world out there. Never a word ever spoken about how to chase after the stars. Or how to muster and develop our individual potential for greatness. Strictly pedagogic. Forget about being mentors to any one of us. No small wonder that most of us were not attuned to what the real world out there was all about. Or what we should be aiming for after our high school graduation.
That is none of our business, some teachers said. We’re here to teach.