Friday, August 14, 2009

A Midwestern Memoir

We lived in a dingy duplex on the outskirts of Columbia Missouri for half a decade or so. My dad had been teaching at the University, where he was denied tenure for the second time. He told us it was discrimination, and started holing up in the utility closet with the water heater, where he read Chinese newspapers, laying on a cot. We called it the rat hole. Later, after a short stint of grant-writing at a community college, he was recruited by an Irish company in Beloit, Wisconsin, and he decided we would settle in Rockford, Illinois, because it had good schools. Movers came and packed up our dingy furniture and we left behind the matted carpet, the brick and aluminum-sided box we lived in, and our next-door neighbors in the box, the Jones family.

The Jones half of that duplex was the mirror image of our half, and in an odd way so was their family. They were the only other Asian mixed-race family in the neighborhood, though this never occurred to me as a unifying factor. Their mother was Korean, their father was white trash, and both wore vacant stares. They didn’t work and my sister told me they were on welfare. I didn’t know what that meant but it sounded shameful. I remember the mother squatting in their front doorstep, smoking cigarettes in her flip flops. They didn’t speak Korean at home, unlike our Mandarin-only household, and their kids were a wild bunch. The boys were especially mischievous and unkempt – the youngest entertained himself by putting snow in our mailbox. The only girl, Angie, was in my grade. I judged her as childish and dull, although I knew she was honest and wanted my solidarity. She later adopted my ex-best friend, then estranged after having moved to North Dakota for a year, and I kept my distance from the both of them from fourth grade on.

Before all of that, the three of us used to practice hand-stands and cartwheels in our front yard after school, which was an unseparated rectangle of grass in front of the box, each side of the yard with the same young (maple?) tree planted squarely in the middle. During thunderstorm season one year, while we were at school, a tornado tore through our neighborhood, ripping the roof off a garage down the block and tossing their jeep out into the meadow beyond. When we came home, our tree greeted us in triumph, while the Jones tree had been snapped in half, length-wise. Maintenance people came to remove it the next school day. My dad laughed and said that’s what they got for the mailbox snow – tornado discrimination.

We left behind the endless humid summers for northern Illinois, a two-story white house with a red door, hardwood floors, a lush and shady backyard, and quiet streets of “well-established” neighborhoods. When we first saw the house, it had a single large oak tree shading the front yard. I looked forward to tackling that tree and making it up as high into the branches as my nimble spirit dared, which was pretty far considering thunderstorms, loneliness, betrayal, and biking the hills of Missouri had weathered me. But, between seeing the house, making the down payment, and moving in, a storm came through, doing enough damage to the tree that the city had it removed before we arrived. “Discrimination!” Dad said. And to rub it in, Mother Nature blew the rich neighbor’s leaves into our yard, so that we had to rake the front yard despite our lack of shade. “Discrimination!” he joked.

Not long after moving into our dream-house, Dad had a bad dream one night after falling asleep in the master bedroom with his Chinese newspapers and shortwave radio. He dreamt that the Jones family had followed us to Rockford, and moved into the house next door. We laughed about it in the morning, but now I understand another dimension to the comedy. A few years ago my sister revealed that, while Dad was unemployed in his rat hole in Missouri, we had been on welfare too. I wonder what it must have been like for him to go to Aldi alone, and pull out the food stamps in line. At the time he had told me how the unemployment officer said he could at least get a job at McDonald's. He’d answered that he didn’t come all the way from Taiwan for a PhD just to get a job at McDonald’s. He reasoned to me that perhaps she was right. Did I want him to work at McDonald's? Should we move into a trailer? They’re cozy - remember like Heather Jo’s in Indiana? White trash and Asian trash and discrimination. He was haunted by the Joneses, and Heather Jo haunted me.

I think of those last years in Missouri as Columbia, Misery. But it was during that time of bitter defeat that he started taking me on the nature trails, where I would ride miles ahead of him as he jogged, through downpours, along the Mississippi, where the trains used to pass – down a tunnel of trees. One Spring, on Arbor Day, he forced me to go with him to a park and plant a maple tree with other community volunteers. It has been 14 years since we lived together as a tiny family. We don’t have a house anymore, no rights to land, arbors or foliage. Recently he talks about going back to that park to find our tree in the park, and wondering how tall it is now. I imagine it shading passers-by, untouched by discrimination.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009