An Unlikely Friendship: Three People, Two Cultures and a Single Bond

In the summer of 1994, after four years of studying and living in the US, I invited my parents to visit me for the first time. First time for my Mom to come out of China; first time for my Dad to come to this side of the hemisphere—he had only taken business trips to Japan in the past. So before they arrived, I had prepped them with a few “Don’ts,” things that Americans were typically uncomfortable talking about but we Chinese never shied away from.

“Do not ask people how much they make.”

“Do not ask woman how old they are.”

“Do not ask people whether they are married or not.”

I told them. “Do not describe people as ‘fat’ but use ‘big’ instead,” I also warned them, “because unlike in China where ‘fat’ is a neutral word, in America it is a bad word; it borders on moral judgment like ‘stupid’.” For whatever reasons, Chinese had been intrigued and even fascinated by why Americans often looked taller, larger and stronger. We were so convinced that it was the cheese eating that did it. So I thought if they knew these unspoken social norms, they would ultimately avoid unnecessary awkward situations with my friends, my professors or people they might meet. After all, when in Rome, do as the Romans do.

I lived in a small house, one of the few house-turned dorms for graduate students on a quiet street in downtown Princeton. The University owned them all. Each house had three floors, and each floor 3-4 rooms. The students shared three bathrooms and one kitchen in each house. My room was on the top floor, like an attic, enough to fit a single bed, a desk and a chair. Small but cozy.

We had a janitor take care of the common areas of our house. His name was James, a tall African American man with very dark skin complexion, a bit on the heavy side, maybe in his early 40s. Gentle and friendly. Every morning around 7 o’clock he would pull up his beaten-up Pontiac into the driveway promptly and stayed until 6 in the evening. During the day, he would go around the houses cleaning the kitchen, hallway and bathrooms, mopping the floor, mowing the lawn and taking away the trash. He would also do some light repairs for our rooms. When he walked around, a long string of keys dangled from his hip would give away the clicking sound as if to announce his arrival. Sometimes he would heat up the lunch he usually brought with him in the microwave and eat with us: white rice and black beans. Same food. Every day.

My communication with James was quite minimal. As with every graduate student, I went about with my crazy schedules, rushing in and out of my room like lightning. I would cook up simple meals quickly and return to the library. But whenever I saw him in the hallway, on the street or around the house, I would politely greet him, sometimes cracking a couple jokes here and there. That was about it.

Then my parents’ arrival changed everything.

During their visit in the summer, my parents stayed with me in my cozy little attic. I shared a bed with my Mom, and my Dad slept on a mattress on the floor. Don’t ask me how we did it, but we did. My parents were early birds. They got up before 6 o’clock every day and went about with their morning exercise routine, often doing Tai Chi, walking and strolling around the blocks. My Dad, being a quintessential extrovert, was charismatic, outgoing, curious and not afraid of making mistakes (I am anything but that unfortunately). He could read some English but did not speak much of it. Nonetheless, he often carried conversation with people he met with his halting English. My Mom on the other hand, an introvert and observer, was more on the quiet side. She did not speak or read English.

At the beginning, as with any new acquaintances, James and my parents were friendly and cordial with each other: they would wave, smile and nod whenever they met. But within a few days, quite remarkably, my Dad and James had become like old pals, often laughing and talking with manly handshakes and bear hugs. To help him better communicate with James, my Dad often brought with him an English-Chinese dictionary to look up for words and expressions that he might not fully understand. My Mom on the other hand, was not so quick to embrace such warm gestures. She continued to smile and nod at James but kept a healthy distance from him.

One time after greeting my Dad with a bear hug, James tried to give my Mom a hug, too. Visibly uncomfortable and guarded, my Mom had quickly pulled herself away even before he pulled her closer. Unfazed by the moment of awkwardness, James hugged my Mom anyway. I watched them on the side, part embarrassed and part amused, but I was not surprised. Apart from her personality as an introvert, cultural inhibition was also a key in my Mom’s reaction. Like many Chinese of her age, she had never known a single person whose skin color was different than hers, let alone stood so close to one. Besides, she was only 5 feet and 110 pounds, and James 6 feet and over 200 pounds. I could imagine what went through her mind, but I knew all this would change with time.

One evening after dinner my Dad casually said to me: “James is a good man. He works really hard.” He continued, “You know, he didn’t have a father growing up. He lived with his mother and grandmother as a child, and now lives alone in Trenton. Is that the place we accidentally ran into the other day?” I knew exactly what he talked about. A few days earlier on our way back from Longwood Garden, while looking for a gas station, I accidentally made a wrong turn into, shall I say, a not-so-desirable neighborhood. It was the first encounter of urban poverty for us, a family from the other side of the world. Though my parents had been through a lot in their own lives under China’s Communist regime, this experience was still quite dramatic for them. I remember we sat quietly the entire time afterwards until we reached Princeton. If I were to guess what was on their mind, it was the despair in people’s blank stare that shocked them the most. It was also the sharp contrast from the beauty, grace and affluence of Princeton, the not-so-far-away picturesque town they were first introduced to. In their mind, hunger and poverty should be rare in this country.

So I told him: “Yes. It’s the same Trenton.” My Dad then said: “Well, since I have nothing else to do, maybe I can give him a hand. What do you think?” Having known my Dad all my life, I knew even if I said “No” to him he would offer his help anyway. So I said: “Sure, but don’t overdo it.” Just like that, my Dad started a self-appointed pro bono job as a janitor’s helper in a country thousands of miles away from home. Initially he helped clean the kitchen mess, like wiping the table, washing the stove, and gradually, he started taking away the trash and sweeping the floor. The two men’s friendship had also deepened. My Dad even picked up a few slang terms from James. Don’t ever “get high” was one I still remember vividly.

I bumped into James on campus one afternoon. He was very complimentary about my parents, saying how lucky I was to have them. Then he said, “I have been thinking about this. It must be uncomfortable for your Dad to sleep on the floor. There is an empty room on the same floor as yours and no one is going to move in until in the Fall. If you are OK with it, I will unlock the room before I leave in the evening and your Dad can go sleeping in there. Lock it back on in the morning.” Wow, that was a very generous offer and would be of tremendous help to us, I thought. But I said: “It is so very kind of you, but I don’t want to cause any trouble to you.” “No trouble at all.” He said, “The room is empty this summer anyway.” With that, my parents were finally able to have a couple months of comfortable living arrangements during their short visit. What a wonderful gift from James!

As with international students studying in this country, one common thread we all shared was our constant homesickness. The smell of a familiar dish sometimes could quickly trigger a mysterious and overwhelming nostalgia. So it was quite a treat for me to have my parents’ company in the summer that year. My Mom was a great cook who could whip up some delicious hearty meals in authentic Sichuan style that I had not had for a long time. I felt like a princess. Every day. There were two other Chinese students living in the same house at the time. Knowing how I missed homemade meals, my parents often invited them to join us when we made dumplings, steamed buns and other delicious dishes together to share. Always a happy occasion.

James was curious about Chinese food and often watched my Mom cook. She would patiently explain to him through my Dad what ingredients were needed and why they were needed. Gradually they had built a nice rapport. Each time she made some delicious dishes for me, she would save some for James. One day she said to me: “James seems to eat the same food everyday for lunch—rice and bean. How awful. Maybe you can ask him if he wants to join us for lunch.” Ever since then James had become a frequent guest at our lunch table during the summer. My parents were very happy to have him eat with us. To use my Mom’s words, it was just “a matter of adding an extra pair of chopsticks.”

Three months flew by quickly, and by the time my parents were about to go home, they had become a big fan of James. My Dad not only continued his pro bono janitorial work, but he also appointed himself as a house inspector, frequently reminding my housemates to clean after themselves. The two men continued to exchange laughs, jokes, hugs, and even fist bumps. My Dad’s English seemed to improve quite a bit, often chatting with my housemates on subjects like politics or China and US relations. Perhaps the biggest transformation was from my Mom. Though she was still on the quiet side, she had completely let her guard down. She was more receptive to James’ bear hugs, and on occasion, she would reach out to James with handshakes. She even started to greet strangers on the street. From time to time she would invite James to come with us to the Chinese grocery store, so that she could show him a few Chinese dish ingredients that he might be interested in later.

On the day when my parents were heading out to the airport, James gave them a card. I forget the entirety of what he wrote, but one thing has stuck in my mind all these years. He told my Dad that he was like a father to him that he had never had. The two men stood there holding each other’s hands for a long time, their eyes welled with tears. An unforgettable scene.

In 1998 when my parents came to see me again, I had already graduated from the University but still lived in an apartment in Princeton. When they knew James still worked in the same houses, they asked me to invite him over for a re-union dinner. We made dumplings together. Just like the first time they met, my Dad and James carried a lively conversation with the help of an English-Chinese dictionary, and my Mom listened quietly, smiling and occasionally pitching in. Just like that, three people of different ages, different races, different cultures, different languages, and different skin colors, shared a single thread—a beautiful friendship across continents.

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When I write this blog, my mind travels far back to these hot summer days, with a mixed emotion of nostalgia and sadness. Now my Mom is gone, my Dad is slowly finding solace in the loss of his lifelong partner and I lost contact with James quite sometime ago. And yet the thought of their unlikely friendship has brought heart-felt warmth to me. I marvel at how people transform in the process of building a friendship, moving away from the place of fear to the place of bond.

In Yoga practice, we believe in the teaching and spreading of kindness, non-judgment and mindfulness. Indeed, we don’t have to be the same to be human to each other; we can be different but still be human. The fun of human interactions is to celebrate and relish the differences. We let our guard down, we embrace the unknown, we open up to endless possibilities, and then we find a common thread. The friendship between my parents and James reminds me the importance of celebrating what bonds us rather than what divides us.

Summer’s First Family Letters

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Dear Ben,                                                                                                                                                             

                 By the time you read this letter, you may have already settled in with your awesome summer camp: you may have made cool friends, done cool things, and been to cool places, but you may still miss home–Daddy, Ollie, Ducky, and me. I miss you tons already!

                  I am super proud of you, buddy! Remember I told you? Being able to do things on your own and away from Mommy and Daddy is part of your growing up. It is not easy at the beginning and being homesick is part of the process. I totally get it. Right now you may only see the bad part of this whole thing, but I can guarantee you that you will have lots of fun at the camp. By the time you are ready to come home, you may not want to leave your awesome camp at all.

                  I hope you will write to me a lot sharing your experience at your camp. I will also write to you everyday letting you know what is happening on the home front—how Ollie is doing, what and when I feed him…I cannot wait to receive your letters and hear your adventures. I miss you tons and wish you were here, but remember I love you!

                  Buddy, I love you!!

P.S., I wish I could draw as well as you do to show you how much I miss you!!

                 XOXO, Mommy

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Monday, June 27, 2016

Hi Buddy!                                                                                                                                                             

                  Right now, it’s early morning on your first full day at camp. You should be waking up right now and looking out there the trees at the rising sun. I’ll bet that it’s really pretty. I hope that your first night at camp went OK. I’ll bet that it was a bit tough to be away from home. I wish that I were there to give you a good morning hug!

                  Mommy and I had a pretty good trip home last night. There were no events like flat tires and police cars on the way back (Author’s note: we had both on our way to the camp)! We got home about 8:30 in the evening, and it felt very quiet in the house without you—not nearly as much fun as it is when you’re around.

                  I cleaned out Ollie’s cage last night and gave him a very long scratch. He liked that—happy bunny! You’ll be glad to know that we also clipped his nails, so he’s in good shape now. I gave him a treat, too!

                  I thought that you’d like to know that finally after all of our searching, I saw my first firefly last night! I was bummed that you weren’t with me to see it together, but I’m happy firefly season has finally arrived. When you get back, we’ll have to do some good firefly catching together. I hope that you can see and catch some fireflies at camp, too!

                  I was really happy to get a chance to see your camp yesterday when we dropped you off. I thought that the setting was really beautiful. I liked your cabin—you’ll have to tell us which bunk you’re in so that I can picture you there. I think that the best part of the camp for me is the lake front area with the dock, the boats, and the swimming. That looks like so much fun! I can’t wait until I hear about some of the things that you do there! I also think that everyone that we met was really nice—the camp directors, nurses and your counselor Jeremy. I’m sure that they’ll all take really good care of you!

                  I have to tell you, Buddy, that I’m really proud of you. I know that it was really hard for you to have Mommy and I drop you off and then leave you there by yourself. Like everything that you do, though, you handled the challenge of it incredibly well. I’m sure that it’s going to be hard sometimes, and sometimes you’ll be missing home a lot, but I know that you can handle it. You’ve also got a lot of people there with you who want to help and support you any way they can.

                  In a short while, Robert will be here to pick me up and take me to the airport. By the time you get this letter, I’ll probably be in Hong Kong. I’ll take a Star Ferry ride for you! I’ll also take some pictures, and I’ll send them to you since we won’t be able to do our usual Skype calls.

                  Again, Buddy, I miss you so much, and I love you even more! I hope that camp goes great and that you have tons of fun! I’ll write again as soon as I land in China.

                  Love always, Daddy

IMG_3056Monday, June 27, 2016

Dear Mommy and Daddy,                                                                                                                         

                  I am having fun at camp so far. We have done archery, baseball and swimming. Later we will see the horses. Sleeping in the cabin is okay. The food is great, and it’s sort of like Hackley. I miss you a lot, and I’ll write to you a lot more. One thing I forgot we also made a fire and we heard a loon singing. Tell Daddy I am on the Yule Ball in “Harry Porter.”

                   Love, Ben (Heart and smiley face drawn by him)

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These are the first sets of paper-pen letters my husband, my son and I wrote to each other as a family. What a treat to still be able to communicate the old-fashioned way!

Last Sunday we dropped off our 11-year-old son, for the first time, at a sleep away summer camp, five hours away from us. We would not be able to see, hear or talk to him for 3-5 weeks. The only way to keep in touch with him was through mails. It was hard for all of us. Before we started the journey, we had promised him that we would write to him every day and hoped that he would write back to us whenever he could. Then on the fourth day into his camp, we received his first letter to us. Short yet sweet, his letter gave us a glimpse of all the activities he did on his first camp day. Just like that, our son has set out for his first solo adventure, away from us, away from home. I am proud of him more than I can say!

IMG_3058While I am writing this blog, my thoughts are scattered, searching for the right words to describe our motivation to send him away. Like many other working parents in this country, the summer’s long break has created both a bliss and trepidation for us. On the one hand, we are extremely happy that we don’t need to rush out of the door every morning to send him to school, and I am particularly grateful for not being like a time bomb sometimes to storm out of my office, run to the subway station only to watch the train slowly pulling out of the station right in front of my eyes. But on the other hand, in a culture that everything happens with an incredible velocity and competitiveness, summer has lost its magical touch where doing nothing means doing everything. Parents are inundated with the infinite choices of summer camps, from sports camps to music camps, from art camps to pseudo outdoor camps. Many still feel like an extension of the already cramped school year, highly structured and hurried. Don’t all our children these days already have enough of a programmed life, from academic classes, to organized sports, to music lessons?

So our primary motivation to send our son to a sleep away camp is not to cultivate a strong character in him—of course, self-reliance, resourcefulness, corporation will come with the experience; but rather, we want to send him to a place where he can have real adventure and fun—out in the woods, get hands dirty, and learn by participation. To us summer should be winding down time when life is dynamic and purposeful, yet unstructured and unhurried. Children can find their own style and self-worth without excessive competitive tension. They develop their skills and interests at their own pace. If gazing at stars, catching fireflies, hatching eggs, riding horses, jumping in and out of water are all that our son wants to do, that’s wonderful. If by the end of the summer, he forgets that 1+1=2 or adverbs modify verbs, so be it. There is always time to catch up, but creating unforgettable memories comes and goes. I believe we have found what we are looking for in the camp we send him to. Though too early to tell how he feels about the camp, I hope he will have the time of his life!

Of course, I miss him terribly, constantly wondering what he is doing or how he is coping with his homesickness. I then think of the many trips we have taken together as a family:  all these long lasting happy memories we have created with him—the sparkle in his eyes, the ear-to-ear grin on his face, his looks of wonder, his giggles of joy…I trust that he can handle any challenge well, because he knows by heart that we have his back, as always!