Nov 09

Next memoir post: Slither-in-law

New memoir post is up.

Whenever I think about my ex sister-in-law, Olivia, even after all these years, I still feel amazingly catty.  Was it the fact that she got the bigger ring, or that she got out of helping with our mother-in-law, or that she didn’t give a shit about getting to know me?  All three.

When I tell the story of how she thanked me for helping my mother-in-law, some people don’t understand why I was so offended.  “Oh, she thanked you!” they say.  “How rude!”  But here’s what it was:

  • I had already married into the family and was the wife of the older son.  I had been part of the family and spending time at my in-laws’ house for a couple of years by then.
  • She was still only engaged to my brother-in-law and was a visitor.

Thanking someone like that in that type of situation shows that the thanker thinks she has power over the “worker.”  Maybe it’s an Asian thing, but you’d never wander into the kitchen and thank your mom for cooking dinner while she’s cooking it.  Then what, wander back out and put your feet up?  No, you show thanks by offering to help.

My sister-in-law thanking me like that made me feel like a servant.  I could have been the maid coming in to drop off fresh towels while she sat back and did her toenails.

You’d thinking coming from Korea she’d understand this.  But either a) she just couldn’t get past my not being Korean and treated me the way she thought an American would want to be treated, b) she thought because she was older that this was proper behavior, or c) she really did look down on me.  Probably a bit of all three.

Her disrespect didn’t end with me.  At my father-in-law’s 70th birthday party, my parents were in attendance and sat with my ex’s uncle and aunt.  Olivia, still just engaged at that point, came over to say hello to the aunt and uncle, and COMPLETELY IGNORED MY PARENTS.

She knew who they were.  I had been hanging out with them for much of the party, and they were obviously not the ex’s family, or their parents’ friends.  My mother, usually the to take offense, didn’t even notice, but my father, typically the easy-going one, did.

“I didn’t like that,” he said.

And my dad likes EVERYTHING.

I know I shouldn’t have cared what this random person thought, but unfortunately I wasn’t receiving much positive reinforcement at the time to balance out her, at best, ignorant remarks.

At the same time, I was fascinated by her vast array of beauty products.  A cosmetics junkie myself, I’d examine the slew of bottles, jars, and tubes she’d leave strewn across the bathroom counter when she visited.  She was big on anything whitening, and, freckled girl I am, so was I.  She had brands I had heard of, like Shiseido, and others I hadn’t, like Pola.  I actually ordered some (it was very nice).

But of course I didn’t tell her this.

After she had her kid, she seemed to mellow out.  Her son was very cute, and she had no problem letting all of us hold and play with him.  She even seemed to notice me more.

“I hope it fits,” she said of a Christmas sweater.  “You’re so tiny lately.”

The truth is she probably didn’t give two thoughts about me.  When she got engaged, she was already thirty-three, positively ancient in Korean culture.  She was probably getting a lot of pressure to hurry up, get married, and have babies.  By cooking instead of helping with my sick mother-in-law, and buying expensive gifts instead of being there more often, she was doing what she thought was right.  While Joe had no problem correcting my behavior, his brother never said anything.  With no one to tell her what was really “right,” how was she supposed to know?

Oct 09

Very Superstitious

Next memoir post is up.

My ex-mother-in-law was very superstitious. She regularly visited fortune tellers and believed that dark colors brought bad luck, like the black fish I gave my ex one year for Christmas (hence the title of my memoir and this blog).

It wouldn’t have mattered except my ex believed it too, blaming me for everything from his not getting into law school to his mother’s Parkinson’s-induced falls. He even took our highly incompatible Chinese signs, the horse (him) and the rat (me) – described as “disastrous” and simply “no no no” in horoscopes – and invented a story of the rat eating the horse’s grain. The funny thing was that his mother was also year of the rat, as well as, I think, the woman he had an affair with.

I, however, have never been superstitious. My parents were never into rituals like hanging a mirror opposite a window to ward off negative spirits, or taping a fou character upside down on their door (upside down so it’s easier for good luck to slip in). The most they believe in is eating long noodles on your birthday for a long life, though they don’t think no noodles = sudden death. More like, it doesn’t hurt to try.

I remember the first and only time I tried believing in good luck. I was taking the SATs and convinced myself that my jade necklace would help me do well. The opposite: I was so distracted by rubbing the stone that I lost my ID, had to go back in the parking lot to find it, and couldn’t. The facilitator let me take the test anyway, and I completely screwed up, scoring 200 points lower than the first time I took it.

When bad things happen to me, I never think, I have bad luck. Yesterday when I went out to meet MB for lunch, it was sunny. Afterwards I popped into Macy’s for a bit (yes, ANOTHER trip to Macy’s, must stop!) and when I came out it was pouring. Like, end of the world, rapture rain. And of course I didn’t have an umbrella. But I didn’t think, I have bad luck. I thought well of course I didn’t have an umbrella because it was sunny when I left, and everyone waiting in the lobby had also been caught off guard. Did we all have bad luck, or was it just a freaky storm?

Then of course when I finally bought an umbrella, the rain slowed to a trickle. But did my action actually CONTROL THE ELEMENTS? I don’t think so. I probably unconsciously waited the right amount of time for a rainstorm to pass.

The most I believe in is an energy we can’t see, like if several electronic items break down at once, I assume Mercury must be in retrograde. I believe that everything happens for a reason, that every step (and misstep) we take leads us to something, even if it’s just knowledge, or even if that something is very far away. That something is important, but the path there is important too.

Believing in luck, good or bad, makes people feel like they have control over uncontrollable situations, and in a way relinquish responsibility. I left my purse on the train, spilled my coffee, and got splashed by a puddle because I have bad luck or I must have done something wrong, not because these things just sometimes happen to anyone. When my ex was studying for his bar, he asked me to think positive thoughts for him. Instead of worrying about what was going in my head, maybe he should have been studying more. He passed, but if he hadn’t, in his mind he’d have had the luxury of blaming me.

I don’t believe making a wish will ward off death. I’m trying to believe worrying doesn’t do shit.

But when weird things happen, I can’t help but wonder why. Is it fate, some bigger force pushing us down a certain path, making certain decisions? If I hadn’t gone to China that particular year, my cousin would have never met the man she’d leave her first husband for; she wouldn’t have her daughter. But I wouldn’t have gone to China at all if my grandmother and mother hadn’t returned the year before. They wouldn’t have returned at all if they hadn’t left in the first place. Why did my grandmother leave and my cousin’s grandmother stay? Because my grandmother married a really rich guy, and my cousin’s grandmother didn’t?

If you get right down to it, my cousin’s husband can thank the Communists for bringing him his true love. Their baby Mia exists because of the Communists! My brother and I, my cousins, and their children wouldn’t have been born if all of our parents hadn’t met in Taiwan or the U.S. We all exist because of Mao! Thank you Chairman Mao!

Crazy.  Makes your head spin if you think about it too much.

Oct 09

Next memoir posts: The Korean mother-in-law

Next two memoir posts are up.

A while ago Papa2Hapa wrote about his oma and her behavior to his girlfriend.  The post and the comments reminded me a lot of my own experience with my mother-in-law.

It seems to be a common theme for older Korean women to treat their daughters-in-law like dirt.  The commenters on the post wrote about being ordered around, and being expected to cook, clean, and wait on their MILs and their precious sons.

My ex-mother-in-law rarely exhibited such behavior, at least to my face.  The only time was the day after the wedding, when she told me I was “no longer a Tung” (clinching my decision to keep my name) and told her other son not to worry about the lunch dishes because “Angela will clean all this up.”

“Leave her alone, Mom,” Billy said, the only time anyone ever defended me.

My MIL was never quite so bossy with me again.  But I don’t know what she said to my ex.  I’m guessing she thought I should have been cooking and cleaning, not only for him but for her and her husband as well, and instead of saying, “Look, I know you don’t cook but my parents are expecting this of you, and if you don’t do it, they’ll give me a hard time,” my ex acted in an annoyed way that I somehow should have known to be doing these things after we were married.

He knew what he was getting.  I never pretended to be a domestic goddess, but for some reason he thought not only that I should change, like magic, after the ring was on my finger, but that I would know to change without his telling me.

Because I was afraid of his disapproval, I did my best.  Over the years, I learned how to make simple dishes like pork chops and steak.  I even branched out on my own with grilled salmon in a soy sauce-brown sugar marinade (which I still make now).  At his parents’ house, the most I did was fry up some ready-made kalbi, make rice, and chop vegetables.

I had been making rice since I was 12 but in my ex’s eyes I didn’t do it right.  When cleaning the rice, I’d use a rice spatula to stir it around, but this annoyed him.

“Use your hand,” he commanded.

What was the difference?  Even his mother said, “Let her do it her way.”

Because of this, cooking was always a nerve-racking experience.  Thanksgiving, when we’d prepare food for a dozen of his relatives, and Joe and his parents would inevitably fight about something trivial, was especially so.  Days before my right eye would start twitching.

It didn’t help that my Korean sister-in-law could cook up a storm.  Instead of keeping our MIL company and helping her to and from the bathroom throughout the day, Olivia would sit downstairs and make a million kimbap that would quickly spoil as my in-laws couldn’t eat them fast enough.

“Maybe you should help her,” my ex said.

Which was it? Should I be helping with his mother, or should I be making some kind of show for this random Korean woman? Besides, I didn’t want to feel like an idiot next to Olivia, who I was already insecure around.

It’s easy to say my mother-in-law was nice to me because I didn’t hear what she said to my ex.  Who knows what she was saying behind my back.  But I wonder what it would have been like if she wasn’t sick.  Would it have been better or worse?  Would the ex have even cheated, and would we still be together?

The other night YP asked me was everything I went through worth it because it led me to MB.  “Yes,” I answered, without hesitation.  I suppose everything happens for a reason.


Sep 09

Next memoir post: Weddings suck

Or wedding planning, that is.

In my next memoir post, I’m still in the fairy tale stage of my wedding.  “Joe” and I have just reunited after my six months in China, and we feel hopeful.  I remember thinking then that anything was possible: I could have the exact venue I wanted, the perfect dress, my favorite music.

That didn’t last long.  You’ll read in upcoming posts how wedding planning quickly became about the most un-fun experience possible.  Of course I couldn’t have the wedding in New Jersey, my home state – did I realize how tough that would be for my future mother-in-law to travel?  A Chinese banquet was out of the question.  “We’d have to do Korean stuff too,” Joe said, if we were to have Chinese traditions.  In the end, we found a place in Westchester we both loved, but then his parents backed out of paying their half.

“Pay for it yourselves,” his father had barked. “Other kids do.”

I understood their financial difficulties, but they could have told us before we signed the contract.

I actually would have preferred to pay for everything myself.  Something small that we could afford on our own so that we wouldn’t be beholden to anyone.  But something small wasn’t enough for Joe.  He had to show his parents’ friends that I was as worthy as a Korean girl.  He had to show that although I was Chinese, I was still okay.

His parents made suggestions of places that were more affordable, such as a Korean banquet hall they often frequented.  I shook my head.  If I couldn’t have a Chinese banquet, they certainly weren’t going to get something 100% Korean.

The conflicts didn’t end there.  Joe’s mother wanted me to wear her wedding veil while my mother flipped.  “Why do you want to wear that old thing?” she asked.  My mother flipped about a lot of things: for instance, did we seriously want to serve pate as an appetizer? 

“It’s what we like,” I told her.

“What you like?!” she yelled.  We were in the parking lot at Macy’s.  “It’s not about what you like.  What about your guests?  You think anyone will want to eat that?”

I did what any bride-to-be being pushed around by her mother, her fiance, and her fiance’s parents would do: I sobbed like a maniac and ran from the car into the store. This actually surprised my mother, who was rarely surprised by anything.  By the time she caught up to, she was considerably calmer.

“Pate is just not something a lot of people like,” she said.  “What about a seafood?”

I’d have to freak out more often, I told myself.

Which I did.  Joe’s parents pushed like crazy about the engagement party (my parents’ responsibility), but then dragged their feet about the rehearsal dinner.  My mother kept asking about it, so I tentatively approached Joe.

“What about the rehearsal dinner?” I said.  “My mother is expecting – ”

She’s expecting something?” he snapped.  “She’s always going around expecting things.”

“One time!” I screamed, throwing down a pile of bridal magazines.  “My mother has asked your parents for this one thing!  Your parents have asked us for a million things!”

“I don’t tell you half the things they ask for,” he mumbled, as though doing me a favor.

It’s easy to say now: I should have known.

Wedding planning often brings out the worst in people.  I mean, have you seen Bridezillas?  Not that every experience is bad.  If people are in agreement about what they want and are laid back about the whole thing, I’m sure it could be fine.  Not for me though.

Although I don’t want to get married again, sometimes I still fantasize about the wedding that would be 100% mine.  Not too many people, like a Chinese banquet but much more low key, somewhere pretty and close to nature.

And all the goddamned pate I want.

Aug 09

Next memoir post: More misery in China

My next memoir post is up.

In this section, I don’t go into too many details about the visit to my cousin’s relatives in Dalian. All that stuff, it seemed, didn’t have a lot to do with the story at hand. In reality it was one of the worst weekends I had in China.

1) My cousin’s relatives were completely freaked out by me. They weren’t related to me – they were cousins on Huang Lei mother’s side – but I still approached them as family. Homesick up the wazoo, I thought one cousin was so much like my younger aunt, while another was like my younger uncle. The eldest reminded me of my mother’s older sister. But whenever I tried to engage myself in their conversations, they froze and backed away. One teenager even left the room whenever I came in. I felt so lonely and alienated that I went into the bathroom and cried.

The only ones who were normal were two younger cousins, both in their early 20s. I hated the girl at first. “Ni hao,” I greeted her when I met her, like any normal Chinese.

“Ni hao!” she repeated, giggling, as though she couldn’t believe this foreigner was speaking Mandarin.

I wanted to smack her.

But when she discovered I wasn’t so different, she was friendly and normal, as was her male cousin.

2) When they weren’t running away from me, they were trying to stuff food down my gullet. This is a normal Chinese practice. At home my mother always puts food on our plates, whether or not we ask, and if we even THINK we might be hungry, she’s there offering treats.

At Huang Lei’s cousins’, it was a billion times worse. You’d be sitting there minding your own business when here came the food. No thank you, you’d say, but they’d think you were just being polite, and would ask a million times more. We kept telling them that since I was American, I didn’t know that kind of politeness, only directness, but they didn’t believe us.

3) The apartment was a 1000 degrees and all the men who smoked. One afternoon, after much insistence that we could take care of ourselves, Huang Lei and I finally made our escape.  The cool sea-tinged air was a tremendous relief.

4) I got terrible food poisoning. “You weren’t supposed to eat the shellfish!” Judy said after my return. Now you tell me. We had everything from mussels, to shrimp, to oysters, to clams. The next day I had dizzy spells, followed quickly by diarrhea and vomiting. Violent and often simultaneous diarrhea and vomiting. It was the worst night of my life.

Everyone assumed it was because I was a foreigner. “She’s not used to eating so much seafood,” they said repeatedly, although I had grown up eating shrimp and fish every week, and had lived in Boston for three years, and even Huang Lei had gotten a little sick herself. But at that point I didn’t even care. They had finally stopped forcing food on me.

Don’t get me wrong. My cousin’s relatives were perfectly nice, and perhaps if I had been more outgoing, they wouldn’t have been so afraid of me. But by then I had had it up to here with China and being seen as different. And it would be YEARS before I could eat mussels again.

Aug 09

Buffy or Bella moments

A friend of mine who is reading my memoir has also started reading the Twilight series.  Someone she knows commented that Bella is the anti-Buffy – whereas Buffy is an active, kick-ass vampire killer, Bella is extremely passive, and basically spends almost the whole series pining after Edward and getting rescued.

Reading my memoir, my friend said, “Gosh, I hope Angela has a Buffy moment soon.”

I think my next memoir post from earlier this week is indeed a Buffy moment.

I guess you could say a lot happens to “the character” in my memoir – she’s swept up by her first love, she endures all the shit that Joe’s going through, she endures the sleights from his family.  Even in China, stuff is happening around her.

I don’t think I’m a passive person.  I’ll speak up about bad service, or if I think an idea is dumb (at least with my current cool boss).  But I’m more passive than aggressive.  Saying directly that I don’t want to do something is relatively new to me.  Before I’d hem and haw, but now I say, “No, I don’t want to do that,” without shame of feeling unadventurous, and lemme tell you, it feels so much better.

But I wonder if we all wrote our life stories down, if we’d more often be the ones in the eye of the storm, we’d be the Bellas simply enduring the shit that’s thrown at us.  I wonder if those “Buffy moments” are rare for any of us.

Maybe that’s also why fiction is in some ways easier to write than memoir.  In fiction, the main character is separate from the writer and easier to put into action.  That character says and does things you might never do.  “I wish I had told that shoe salesman off!”  In fiction you can.

In memoir the challenge is to make yourself seem like a character, and to remember that you do things too, you’re not just an observer.  At least that was the challenge for me.

But if I had my choice, I’d be neither Bella nor Buffy.  I’d totally be Willow, at least when she was bad ass enough to destroy the world. ;)

Jun 09


May 09

Drag Me to Hell

May 09


The first thing she tells me is where I cannot go.

Continue reading →

May 09

Terminator Salvation