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.

*************************************************

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.

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