I was telling someone the other day about how my parents met here in Berkeley, and how I was born in Oakland.
“You’ve come full circle,” she told me.
My parents were born in China but left during the Communist Revolution. My father was about ten, and my mother eight. While their families had been well off on the mainland, in Taiwan they were poor. My mother always talked about how there was never enough to eat – no milk, no meat. Her father was a teacher and didn’t make much money, and there were five kids to raise.
My father had just one sister, seven years his senior, but I don’t know if they were worse off. His father had stayed behind in China. I’m still not sure why. Something about his job being government-related. When I was kid, my mother told me how my paternal grandparents’ marriage had been arranged, the handsome engineer and the plain, even ugly, farm girl, and that eventually my grandfather would marry someone else and raise her daughter as his own while his wife struggled with their two children in Taiwan.
I don’t know how she did it. She wouldn’t have gotten a job. Maybe her daughter, already 17, was the breadwinner, while she and her mother told my father to concentrate on his studies. I knew he felt guilty. My grandmother stayed with us for a while and once used old magazine pages to wash a dirty pot.
“Why use that garbage?” my father yelled, which he almost never did. “We have perfectly good paper towels.”
Now I think, What a good idea to use recycled magazines. What a waste to use paper towels.
My parents came to the States in the mid-60s, part of the wave of Taiwan folks going to American grad schools. My mother went to accounting school in Utah, where she also worked as a nanny. What culture shock that must have been. When I was crazy with homesickness in China, my father told me how my mother had been the same way, crying every night to her mother that she wanted to go home to Taiwan.
But she got used to it here, discovering things like chocolate. A sweet tooth, my mother would eat bags of it while riding the bus to and from work. Little did she know it was fattening, and promptly gained twenty pounds.
My father came to the States to go to UC Berkeley, and I know less about how he adjusted. In the Bay Area he probably fit in better, and was busy with school. The only story he told was how one of his professors didn’t like him. She had asked her students to order their own lab coats. My father didn’t understand, and when next class he showed up without one, she took personal offense and from then on, held a grudge against him.
After finishing grad school, my mother moved to the Bay Area too. Her older sister lived nearby, and she had lots of friends from Taiwan there, including one who thought the tall, quiet PhD student would be a perfect match for her. The friend and her husband held a mah-jongg party, where my parents first met.
It took a while for my shy father to ask my mother out. In fact, she had to pretend to want guitar lessons to spend time with him. “Pretend?” my father said, twenty-five years later when I relayed the story my aunt had just told me.
A year or so later, they were married, and a few years after that, I was born in Oakland. Now here I am again, over thirty-five years later.
I don’t know how long MB and I will stay here, but it would be funny if we stayed long enough to have kids. Then I’d have truly come full circle.