Transcript

22:

Adult Children
Transcript

Originally aired 05.03.1996

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/22

Prologue.

Ira Glass

When I picked up the phone, it was my mom. And it had been about a month since we talked, which is not unusual and certainly my fault. Anyway, my mom said that she had been invited to speak with a group of women at the local Hadassah. My mom's a therapist in the Jewish suburbs outside Baltimore.

And these Hadassah women had this group that met regularly. All of them were women in their late 40s through early 60s. And when the group first started meeting, they apparently discussed all sorts of things. It was wide ranging. But as time progressed, they realized that there was only one topic that they wanted to talk about and felt like they needed to talk about all the time, that they felt traumatized enough to have to talk about. And that was their relationships with their adult children.

And at some point, this became the only thing that the group talked about, its official reason for being. And they had invited my mother to lead a discussion about how to get along with your adult children. So my mom is a big preparer. When she gets invited to talk on various psychological topics, she looks up articles, calls experts, talks to people. And as part of her preparation, my mom decided to call her own three adult children to see what advice they would give to the group about communicating with your children, about having a good relationship with your adult children.

So my Mom had already talked to my older sister Randy out in California by the time she called me here in Chicago. And she explained to Randy, "It's a thing about communicating with your adult children and how to be close to your adult children." And she asked my sister what advice she would give to the group.

Randy's advice was direct and to the point. She said, "Tell them to get a different leader."

Adult children, supposedly adult children, and their supposedly adult parents in this addition of This American Life from WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass, back for another week documenting everyday stories in these United States.

Today, Act One, Me and My Mom.

Act Two, Sandra Tsing Loh and her father.

Act Three, Sandra Tsing Loh, Her Father, and His Mail-Order Chinese Wives. Stay with us.

Act One. Me and My Mom

Ira Glass

So in this conversation with my mom, I was in the unusual position of being able to look like the good child in the family for a change. My older sister, for a change, looked like the bad kid. And I was able to say to my mom, you know, "Even if Randy thought that you weren't handling your relationships with us in the very best way, surely there was a way to express that that was a little less cruel."

And my mom asked me, OK, so what advice would I have for this group? And I suggested that in the families of a lot of my friends and I think in my family, I thought that one cause of a lot of tension is the fact that as a family, we don't have a story that we agree on about the past. The kids, my sisters and I, we have one version of what happened when we were children. And that version tends to be kind of dark, actually. Not completely, but there's a lot of darkness in it. And our parents have a completely different story.

And you know, I don't even think we need to come to a consensus. I don't think families need to agree about this stuff. I'm not even sure if they can agree. But I think there has to be some kind of mutual understanding that each side sees the past the way that they see it. So today's program will not be an attempt to find this common story, but it will be an attempt to define that gap as it exists in a few families. The holiday season is just ending and for so many people, the drama of the holidays is the drama of parents and grown children struggling to get along without disappointing each other or getting on each other's nerves.

So to begin our program right now, I'm pleased to welcome to our show, telephonically from Baltimore, my mom.

Shirley Glass

Can I say something?

Ira Glass

I was just going to say, feel free to amend or correct.

Shirley Glass

Yes. When I told your sister what you said, she said, "Oh, I was just kidding. I didn't mean to be mean."

Ira Glass

Oh. Pfft.

Shirley Glass

So I don't want her to be [UNINTELLIGIBLE].

Ira Glass

But you're a professional psychologist. Now, don't you think often-- don't you think that there was a note of hostility in what she said?

Shirley Glass

Oh, absolutely.

Ira Glass

OK. There, you see? Are you and I can agree. And frankly, she's not on the phone. So mom, the thing I wanted to ask you about is, OK, so you had this seminar with all these--

Shirley Glass

It wasn't a seminar. It was a discussion group.

Ira Glass

Discussion. The discussion group, excuse me.

Shirley Glass

And I was the facilitator.

Ira Glass

And how many women was it?

Shirley Glass

Around 30-some.

Ira Glass

Oh, so a lot. Now, if you had to characterize in a phrase people's relationships with their children, would you describe them as being very good, somewhat OK, generally kind of yucky? I mean, how would you describe it?

Shirley Glass

I would say that there were a lot of people whose dreams haven't been realized, whose expectations haven't been met. And so there's a sense of disappointment, although there were some people there who were pleased with all aspects. And then, of course, the question was, "Well, why are you here?"

Ira Glass

To gloat? Was that the answer? To gloat and show you pictures of grandchildren?

Shirley Glass

A little bit.

Ira Glass

A little bit. Yeah, OK.

Shirley Glass

More to connect with the other women, I suppose. But these are the criteria for satisfaction. Do you want to hear them?

Ira Glass

Quickly.

Shirley Glass

Whether their children were married, so that having single children was a disappointment.

Ira Glass

I'm just going to make a little checklist here. Taking [INAUDIBLE] my own--

Shirley Glass

Whether their children lived close by of far away.

Ira Glass

God, I'm shooting 0 for 2 so far. Keep going.

Shirley Glass

Whether their children appreciated them.

Ira Glass

OK. I got 1 for 3.

Shirley Glass

Whether they had grandchildren. Somebody announced that one of their children was pregnant with the first grandchild, and everybody went "Ooh," and they clapped. So that's the epitome. Whether their children were successful in their lives. How much they liked their child's spouse and got along with them.

Ira Glass

You told me on the phone earlier something interesting about this.

Shirley Glass

Yes. I told you that there were several people there who did not like their child's choice of a partner at the time that they got married but had grown to love them very much and in some cases even liked them better than their own child.

Ira Glass

See, now I wonder if that is because there is an inherent tension between children and their adult parents, that the child sometimes wants to be treated as the child and sometimes wants to be treated as an independent adult. And for the parent, it's pretty much a hellish guessing game. And then-- yeah?

Shirley Glass

Yeah. A lot of people talked about walking on egg shells. And several people said, well, what's the right way to give advice? And of course the answer is, you don't give advice unless somebody asks you for it.

Ira Glass

Do you think that this relationship is harder, the relationship between adult children and their parents, is harder on the parents than on the children?

Shirley Glass

Yes. Because the parents have a dream of how they thought it was going to be, and it seldom matches the dream. One person said that her children are all single, all live far away, and she said she and her husband are very lonely. And what's happened, the good part, is that they've gotten much closer to each other because they realized that they were all that they have.

Ira Glass

Right. Well, Dr. Glass, I'm afraid that this would be about all the time we have for this particular segment of our radio show.

Shirley Glass

Look, I'm glad for any time I can get with my children.

[LAUGHTER]

Ira Glass

All right. Touche.

My mom, Shirley Glass, a therapist in Baltimore. Coming up, a septuagenarian dad hitchhikes.

[MUSIC - "PARENTS ARE PEOPLE" BY MARLO THOMAS & FRIENDS]

You know, I've just got to say. I'm just going to interrupt here. When you get into the genre of music about parents, you get into a real sorry lot of music, just a lot of bad music. I mean, we went on a little collection. We're talking about Cat Stevens' "Father and Son." Let's just-- I don't think I can take this song anymore. Let's just go for something else.

[MUSIC - "PISTOL PACKING PAPA" BY JIMMIE RODGERS]

Act Two. Sandra Tsing Loh and Her Father

Ira Glass

Act Two, Sandra's Dad.

Sandra Tsing Loh

I insist that this be the last radio commentary about my father. OK, maybe I've never talked about him on the radio before. I just don't want this to become a habit.

Ira Glass

Sandra Tsing Loh is a writer, composer, pianist, and columnist for Buzz Magazine in Los Angeles. And we're actually going to bring you two stories from her about her father today, about how the adult children in her family deal with her father. This first story began as a column in Buzz Magazine. It also appears in Sandra's book, Depth Takes a Holiday. At one point, she and I adapted it for radio, and a shortened version of this story on NPR'S Morning Edition. Here's the whole story.

Sandra Tsing Loh

Understand that for years, stories about my father, anecdotes that I thought were throwaways were the only thing anyone would ever remember about me. There I'd stand at parties, one hip jutted out, trying to tell amusing yet compelling stories about myself, at which point the dark-eyed man I was speaking with would lean forward, rest a hand lightly on my arm, and murmur, "You know, I've been wondering for years."

"Yes," I'd breathe.

A flame would leap into his eyes. "How is your dad? Does he still wear his underwear backwards and do the Chinese snake dance on Pacific Coast Highway?"

I'd close my eyes in pain. "No. Of course not. Well, yes."

First, let's take a step backwards. Forget my dad. Immigrant parents in general tend towards eccentricity, don't they? They arrive from the old country, now they have VCRs and Cuisinarts, their children are growing up to be monsters, and worse, the local Ralph's stops carrying pig knuckles. For the record, my father does not wear his underwear backwards, only his sweaters. When the elbows wear through, you just turn them around and keep going. And yes, for the record, he did perform the Chinese snake dance for us kids, naked, armed only with a fluttering beach towel as he leaped and twirled, imparting his ancient Chinese folk song with a mournful howl. I know this may sound strange, but I've brought my father into the studio today to sing it. Papa?

Eugene Loh

OK. This so-called snake song, actually, I borrowed from old Chinese shepherds. So it sounds like this. [SINGING IN CHINESE]

Sandra Tsing Loh

Dad's lived in Malibu for some 30 years now, threatening to cause property values to tumble along with him. Papa, I'm going to tell this story now the way I tell it. So I hope you're not embarrassed, OK?

Eugene Loh

OK. What choice do I have?

Sandra Tsing Loh

Once a neighbor called the police to complain. My father was hanging out his old underpants to dry, Shanghai-style, on clotheslines strung out in front of the garage. The underpants had holes in them. The complaint calls eventually stopped, but questions remain. Does my father, a retired aerospace engineer with science degrees from Stanford, Purdue, and Caltech, have to wear old underpants with holes in them? Is this a person who can afford, say, new underpants and a Maytag dryer, perhaps? "Why, yes," would have to be the answer. Right, papa?

Eugene Loh

Yeah.

Sandra Tsing Loh

My father is one of those people who have untold stocks, bonds, mutual funds, IRAs, whatever, that they are continually shifting from one account to the next. For all his money, though, my father has always transported himself in and out of Malibu via hitchhiking. Yes, he owns his own car. He even bought me one, a Hyundai. He had to shelter income. But he doesn't like to drive. Say why.

Eugene Loh

Oh, because the pollution. Also, the [INAUDIBLE], they only have 50 years. So we have to save this for the next, next generation.

Sandra Tsing Loh

But your particularly like hitchhiking.

Eugene Loh

HItchhiking, you can meet lots of people.

Sandra Tsing Loh

Mm-hmm, especially in Los Angeles.

Now, beloved listeners, this is my commentary, so I'm going to try and give you my point of view, what I see. Usually I'm driving through Santa Monica and I'll come by, let's say, the corner of Wilshire and 4th. And there my father will be standing, clutching his lucky grocery bag of scientific papers trying to flag down a ride. I'll never not pick him up. That would be a little too how-sharp-the-sepant's-tooth. But I have been tempted to just put my foot on the gas pedal and race towards the Pacific happy and free like somebody who's 75-year-old dad is not still copping rides from the public.

Sandra Tsing Loh

OK. This is your section. OK, let's talk about the day you got the really good ride. And where were you standing?

Eugene Loh

Well, I always get good rides. But that was an especially good ride. I had just come from the dentist's office in the late afternoon on Wilshire Boulevard near Western. And the first car stopped. A very gracious lady looked like Loretta Young, she drove up--

Sandra Tsing Loh

Looked like who?

Eugene Loh

Loretta Young. You don't know, because very old movie star, very gracious lady. Loretta Young.

Sandra Tsing Loh

Oh, like a Chinese movie star?

Eugene Loh

No, it's American. Loretta.

Sandra Tsing Loh

Oh, Loretta Young.

Eugene Loh

Loretta Young, I'm sorry.

Sandra Tsing Loh

I thought you were saying Lori-Tai Young. OK, Loretta Young.

Eugene Loh

Loretta Young.

Sandra Tsing Loh

OK, OK.

Eugene Loh

And she was very gracious, without no hesitation let me in the backseat of her four-door Mercedes sedan. Because in the front seat, the passenger seat was occupied by a young man. So then we talk of different things. I say, what kind of business you people in? They say movie business. Ah, I says, that's exciting.

Sandra Tsing Loh

You said she had known a lot about Chinese opera and film?

Eugene Loh

Oh, yes. We discussed many Chinese movies. So she knows quite a lot. And then somehow we talk about the Clintons. And the lady said, "Yeah, I like both Hillary and Bill. We were in The White House recently."

Then I say, "What's your name?"

She say, "Anjelica Huston."

I say, "Wow. I don't go movies so I don't know much movie stars. But I do know Huston family. Because your father, John Huston passed, a few years, away. I haven't kept track on your family's story."

Sandra Tsing Loh

Note that that's an important point for my father. Because unlike Ms. Huston, I didn't go into my father's business, science, and it's been a little disappointing. But she gave you a letter, right?

Eugene Loh

I asked her, "Can you give me your autograph?" So finally, she turned an envelope back. It says like this-- "To Mr. Loh. It was a pleasure to have you in my car." Then a heart with two wings. Then "Love, Anjelica Huston." Then down there "XXXX." Being Chinese, I don't know what the "XXX" means. Then later, I asked my friend. They said, "That's kissing, kissing, kissing."

Sandra Tsing Loh

OK. So there's the story. Here's the way I remember my dad first telling me and ending this. I remember you said that while Anjelica Huston was a good ride, she wasn't a dream ride. Because she had this friend to drop off in Beverly Hills, which took you a little out of your way. And at that point, it would've been quicker for you to take the crosstown bus because you had to transfer. But by then, I remember you lowered your voice, you're an expert in such delicate matters of decorum, and you said that you thought at that point, getting out might be a little rude. Papa, why don't you just take us out with a song?

Eugene Loh

Another song?

Sandra Tsing Loh

Yeah.

Eugene Loh

This song, usually I sing it with my wife. Since today Sandra didn't invite my wife, I have to let her stay in the kitchen at home. This song describes some young woman longing for her lover. Sounds like this. [SINGING IN CHINESE]

Ira Glass

Sandra Tsing Loh and her father in Los Angeles. This music, by the way, is also by Sandra. She composes and performs. This is from her album, Piano Vision. They play this music sometimes on Morning Edition. After the little news breaks, sometimes you can hear these little piano riffs from this record. Anyway, more parents and adult children coming up.

[MUSIC - "ALL APOLOGIES" BY SINEAD O'CONNOR]

[MUSIC - "BE A FATHER TO YOUR CHILD" BY ED O.G. & DA BULLDOGS]

Coming up, Sandra Tsing Loh, her father, and his new mail-order Chinese brides. That's in a minute from Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act Three. Sandra Tsing Loh, Her Father, and His Mail-Order Chinese Wives

Announcer

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week, of course, on our program, we invite a variety of writers and performers to tackle some theme that we choose. Our theme today is families in which the parents and the children see the story of their family in radically different ways. And rather than have a whole big bunch of different kinds of performers, actually we're only having one performer on the show today, Sandra Loh.

And we have arrived at Act Three of our program. This is a story called "My Father's Chinese Wives." Sandra has performed this a lot around Los Angeles and, most recently, in New York City in a show called Aliens in America.

Sandra Tsing Loh

My father has decided at age 70 to take a Chinese wife. He has written his family in Shanghai seeking their help in locating likely candidates. He has good confidence in this project. He's hoping to be married in six months.

Let's unpeel this news one layer at a time. Question, is my father even what one would consider marriageable at this point? At age 70, my father, a retired Chinese aerospace engineer, is starting to look more and more like somebody's gardener. His feet shuffle along the patio in their broken sandals. He stoops to pull out one or two stray weeds, coughing phlegmatically. Later, he sits in a rattan chair and eats leathery green vegetables in brown sauce, his old eyes slitted wearily.

At times, he almost seems to be overacting this lizardy old part. He milks it. "I am old now," he'll say with a certain studied poignance. "I am just your crazy old Chinese father." If he's that old, why does he still do the same vigorous daily exercise regime he's done for the past 10 years? 45 minutes of pull-ups, something that looks like The Twist and much unfocused bellowing. This always performed on the most public beach as possible in his favorite Speedo, one he found in a dumpster.

No, crazy old Chinese father is, in truth, a code word, a rationalization for the fact that my father has always had a hard time spending money. Why buy a leather briefcase to take to work when an empty Frosted Flakes cereal box will do just as well? Papers slip down neatly inside, pens can be clipped conveniently on either end. Why buy Bounty paper towels when at work he can just walk down the hall to the washroom, open the dispenser, and list out a stack. They're free. He can bring home as many as we want. If you've worn the same sweater for so many years that the elbows wear out, turn it around. Get another decade out of it. Wear it backwards. Which is why, to this day, my father wears only crew-neck, not V-neck sweaters.

"Terrific," is my older sister Kaitlin's response when I phone her with the news. Bear in mind that Kaitlin has not seen my father since the mid-80s, preferring to nurture bad memories of him independently via a therapist. She allows herself a laugh, laying aside her customary dull hostility for a moment of more jocular hostility. "So who does he think would want to marry him?"

"Someone Chinese," I answer.

"Oh, good," she exclaims. "That narrows down the field to, what, half a billion? No. As usual, he's doing this to punish us. Think about it," she continues, with her usual chilling logic, "he marries a German woman the first time around. It's a disaster-- you and I symbolize that-- because he's passive-aggressive and he's cheap. But no. To him, it's that rebellious, Aryan strain that's the problem. You take an Asian immigrant just off the boat, for example. Here's a woman fleeing a life of oppression under a Communist government and no public sanitation and working in a bicycle factory for $0.10 an hour and repeated floggings every hour on the hour, every day of every week of every month of every year. After that, living with our father might seem like just another bizarre incident of some kind."

"It could happen." Kaitlin scores some compelling points, but nonetheless, I'm bothered for a different reason. Because in describing the potential new wife, he has used only that one adjective, "Chinese." He has not said, "I'm looking for a smart wife," or even "a fat wife." He has picked "Chinese." That word is meant to stand for so much. Asian. Asian women. Young Asian ladies.

It is a month later and, as if in a dream, I sit at the worn, Formica family dining room table with my father, photos and letters spread out before us. Since my father has written to Shanghai, the mail has come pouring in. I have to face the fact that my father is, well, hot. "You see?" he says. "Seven women have written. Ha." He beams, his gold molar glinting. He drinks steaming green tea from a chipped laboratory beaker which he handles with a Beauty and the Beast potholder.

Remarkably, my father doesn't make the least effort to mask his delight, no matter how inappropriate. He is old now. He can do whatever the hell he wants, is how I now understand it. With a sigh, I turn to the photos. And in spite of myself, I am wowed. Tsao Pa, Ling Ling, Siu Pai. 28, administrative assistant. 47, owner of a seamstress business. 39, freelance beautician. The words jump off the pages, both in English and Chinese translations. These women are dynamos, achievers, with curly black hair, in turtlenecks, jauntily riding bicycles, seated squarely on cannons before military museums, standing proudly with three, full-grown daughters. One thing unites them. They're all ready to leap off the mainland at the drop of a hat.

And don't think their careers and hobbies are going to keep them from being terrific wives. Quite the opposite. Several already have excellent experience, including one who's been married twice already. The seamstress has sent him shorts and several pairs of socks. There's much talk of seven-course meals and ironing and terrific expertise in gardening. Super achievement is a major theme that applies to all.

But the biggest star of all, of course, is my father. He clears his throat and gleefully reads from a letter by one Liu Sun. It reads, "Dr. Loh, your family has told me of your excellent scientific genius and your many awards. I respect academic scholarship very highly and would be honored to meet you on your next visit."

"You see," my father chuckles. They have a lot of respect for me in China. When I go there, they treat me like President Bush. Free drinks, free meals. I do not pay for anything."

"He had his chance. He got married once for 25 years. He was a terrible husband and a worse father." Kaitlin is weighing in. All jokes are off. Her fury blazes away, further aggravated by the fact that she is going through a divorce and hates her $50,000-a-year job. Her monthly Nordstrom bills are astronomical. MCI is positively crackling.

"He's a single man," I say. "Mom's been gone for 12 years now."

"And now he gets a second try? Just like that?" Kaitlin exclaims. "Clean slate? Start right over? Buy a wife? It makes me sick. He is totally unqualified to sustain a marriage. A family structure of any kind collapses around him. Do you even remember one happy Christmas?"

Twinkling lights and tinsel suddenly swirl before me. And looking deeper, through green foliage, I see my mother looking beautiful and crisp in lipstick and pearls, her wavy, auburn hair done. Except for the fact that she is hysterical. And my father, his face a mask of disgust so extreme it is almost [UNINTELLIGIBLE], is holding his overpriced new V-neck tennis sweater from Saks out in front of him like it was a dead animal. "I try to block it out," is what I say.

"Well, I was six years older than you so I can't." Kaitlin's pain is raw. "Why does he deserve to be happy now? He made Mama miserable all her lifetime. He was so cheap. I think she was almost glad to go as soon as she did. A $70 dress, leaving the heater on overnight, too much spent on a nice, steak dinner. He could never let anything go. He could never just let it go. He just could not-- let-- things-- go."

Meanwhile, on its own gentle time clock, unsullied by the raging doubts of his two daughters, my father's project bursts into flower. And 47-year-old Liu, the writer of the magic letter, is the lucky winner. Within three months, she's flown to Los Angeles. She and my father are married a week later. I do not get to meet her right away, but my father fills me in on the stats.

And I have to confess, I'm surprised at how urban she is, how modern. Liu is a divorcee with, well, ambitions in the entertainment business. Although she speaks no English, she seems to be an expert on American culture. The fact that Los Angeles is near Hollywood has not escaped her. This is made clear to me one Sunday evening three weeks later via telephone.

"I know you have friends in the entertainment business," my father declares. He has never fully grasped the fact that I am a typist and that Swanson's Films clients include such Oscar contenders as Kraft Foods and Motorola. "Aside from having knitted me a sweater and playing the piano," my father continues, "you should know that Liu is an excellent singer." Turning away from the phone, he and his new wife exchange a series of staccato reports in Mandarin which mean nothing to me.

"I'm sure Liu is quite accomplished," I reply. "It's just that--"

"Oh, she is terrific," my father exclaims, shocked that I could be calling Liu's musical talent into question. "You want to hear her sing? Here, here. I will put her on the phone right now." Creeping into my father's voice is a tremulous tone that's sickeningly familiar. How many times had I heard it during my childhood as I was pushed towards the piano kicking and screaming? How many times?

But that was 20 years ago. I gulped terror back down. I live in my own apartment now, full of director's chairs, potted ficuses, and Matisse posters. I will be fine. My father has moved on to a totally new [? pushy ?] who picks up the phone, clears his throat, then bursts out triumphantly [SINGING IN CHINESE]

"I have left you, Dr. Loh, and taken the Toyota. So there." Five weeks later, Liu just packs her suitcase, makes some sandwiches and takes off in the family Toyota. She leaves her note on the same Formica family dining room table at which she'd first won my father's heart. My father is in shock. Then again, he's philosophical.

"That Liu, she was bad, that one. [SPITS] She says I do not like to give her gifts. She says I do not like to go out at night, and it is true. I do not. But I say go. See your friends in Chinatown. It is OK with me. I like it better when she leaves the house sometimes. It is more quiet. But Liu does not want to take the bus. She wants to drive the car. But you know me. I am your crazy old Chinese father. I do not like to pay for her auto insurance." And then he actually says, "As with many Asians, Liu is a very bad driver."

"Ha," is Kaitlin's only comment. "Isn't it interesting how he seems to repel even his own kind?"

Summer turns to fall in Southern California, causing the palm trees to sway a bit. The divorce is soon final, Liu's settlement including $10,000, the microwave, and the Toyota. Never one to dwell, my father has picked out a new bride, Zhu Ping, 37, homemaker from the Guangzhou province. I groan.

"But no, Zhu Ping is very good," my father insists. He has had several phone conversations with her. "And she comes very highly recommended, not, I have to say, like Liu. She was bad, that one. [SPITS] Zhu Ping is very sensible and hardworking. She has had a tough life. Boy. She worked in a coal mine in Manchuria until she was 25 years old. The winters there were very, very bitter. She had to make her own shoes and clothing. Then she worked on a farming collective where she raised cattle and grew many different kinds of crops by herself."

"I'm sure she's going to fit in really well in Los Angeles," I say.

Zhu Ping, indeed, is a difference sort. The news, to my astonishment, comes from Kaitlin. "I received--" Her voice trails off, the very words seeming to elude her. "A birthday card from Papa and Zhu Ping." My sister continues in a kind of trance of matter-of-factness, as if describing some curious archaeological artifact. "On the cover, there is a clown holding balloons. It's from Hallmark. Inside, in gold lettering, cursive, it reads, 'Happy birthday, love Zhu Ping and your Daddy.'"

"Your what?"

"I think Zhu Ping put him up to this. The envelope is not addressed in his handwriting. Nonetheless," Kaitlin thinks it over, concurs with herself, "yes, yes. I believe this is the first birthday card I've ever received from him in my life. The first. It's totally bizarre."

A week later, Kaitlin receives birthday gifts in the mail. A sweater, hand-knit by Zhu Ping, a box of moon cakes, a bunch of orchids. She is flipping out. "Oh no," she worries, "now I really have to call and thank her. I mean, the poor woman probably has no friends in America. Who knows what he's having her do? We may be her only link to society."

Kaitlin finally does call, managing to catch Zhu Ping when my father is out on the beach doing his exercises. Although Zhu Ping's English is very broken, she somehow convinces Kaitlin to fly down for a visit. It will be Kaitlin's first trip home since our mother's passing and my first meeting of either of my father's two Chinese wives.

I pull up the familiar driveway in my Geo. Neither Kaitlin nor I say anything. We peer out the windows. The yard doesn't look too bad. There are new sprinklers and a kind of intricate irrigation system made of a network of ingeniously placed rain gutters. Soil has been turned, and thoughtfully. Cypruses have been trimmed. Enormous bundles of weeds flank the driveway, as though for some momentous occasion.

We ring the doorbell. Neither of us have had keys to the house in years. The door opens. A short, somewhat plump Chinese woman in round glasses and a perfect bowl haircut beams at us. She's wearing a bright yellow "I Hate Housework" apron that my mother was once given as a gag gift and I think never wore. "Kat-lin! Sand-wa!" she exclaims in what seems like authentic joy, embracing us. She is laughing and almost crying with emotion.

In spite of myself, giggles begin to well up from inside me, as if from a spring. I can't help it. I feel warm and euphoric. Authentic joy is contagious. Who cares who this woman is? No one has been this happy to see me in ages.

"Welcome home," Zhu Ping says, with careful emphasis. She turns to Caitlin, a shadow falling over her face. "I am so glad you finally come home to see you daddy," she says in a low, sorrowful voice. She looks over her shoulder. "He old now." Then, as if exhausted by that effort, Zhu Ping collapses into giggles. I sneak a glance over at Kaitlin, whose expression seems to be straining somewhere between joy and nausea.

I jump nervously in. "It's so nice to finally meet you. How do you like Los Angeles? I've heard so much about your cooking."

My father goes off to put some music on his new CD player. "That bad Liu made me buy it," he exclaims. "But it is nice."

Zhu Ping bustles into the kitchen. "Dinner ready in five minute," she declares.

Kaitlin waits a beat, then pulls me aside into the bathroom and slams the door. "This is so weird," she hisses. We have not stood together in this bathroom for some 15 years. It seems somehow different. I notice that the wallpaper is faded, the towels are new. But no, it's something else. On one wall is my mother's framed reproduction of the brown da Vinci etching called Praying Hands which she had always kept in her sewing room. Right next to it, in shocking juxtaposition, is a green, red, and yellow Bank of Canton calendar, featuring a zaftig Asian female in a bikini.

"I can't go through with this," Kaitlin continues in stage whisper. "It's too weird. There are so many memories here. And not good ones." And like debris from a hurricane, the words tumble out. "I go by the kitchen and all I can see is me standing before the oven clock at age five with tears in my eyes. He is yelling, 'What time is it? The little hand is most of the way to 4 and the big hand is on the 8. It was 3:18 22 minutes ago, so what time is it now? What's 18 plus 22? Come on. You can do it in your head. Come on. Come on.' I go buy the dining room and I see him hurling my Nancy Drew books across the floor. They slam against the wall and I huddle against Mom. Screaming. 'Why do you waste your time on this when your algebra homework isn't finished? You good for nothing! You're nothing! Nothing! You'll never amount to anything!' I go by the bedroom--"

"Please." I have this sickening feeling like I'm going to cry, that I'm just going to lose it. I want to just sit down in the middle of the floor and roll myself into a ball. But I can't. Kaitlin's rage is like something uncontainable, a dreadful, natural force, and I am the gate keeper. I feel if I open the door, it will rush out and destroy the house and everything in it. "Please," is what I end up whispering. "Please, let's just eat. We'll be done in an hour. Then we can go home, I promise. You won't have to do this again for another 10 years. Or maybe ever."

At dinner, endless plates of food twirl their way out of the kitchen, Zhu Ping practically dancing underneath. Spinach, teriyaki-ish chicken, shrimp, some kind of egg thing with peas, dumplings packed with little pillows of pork. And amazingly, there is no want of conversational material. Photos from Shanghai are being pulled out of envelopes and passed around of her family, his family.

I do recognize three or four Chinese relatives, a cousin, an aunt, a grand uncle. Their names are impossible for me to remember. We had met them in China during our last trip as a family. I was 15. It was right before our mother started to get sick. Shanghai is a distant, confused memory for me of ringing bicycle bells and laundry lines hanging from buildings.

What I do remember is how curious my father's family had seemed about Kaitlin and me, his odd American experiment, ooh-ing over our height and touching our auburn hair. There were many smiles but no intelligible conversation, at least to our ears. We probably won't see any of these people again before we die.

But Zhu Ping will have none of it. Hearty Manchurian builder that she is, she is determined to use the crude two by fours of her broken English to forge a rickety rope bridge between us. "You, Sand-wa, you. You play the piano, no? Mozart, he very nice. You will show me. And you, Kat-lin, you. You are a teacher, no? That is good, Kat-lin, good. Kat-lin, you are very, very good."

My father puts his spoon down. He is chewing slowly, a frown growing. "This meat," he shakes his head, "is very, very greasy." He turns to Zhu Ping and the lines of both sides of his mouth deepen. His eyes cloud. He says something to her in Chinese with a certain sharp cadence that makes my spine stiffen. Zhu Ping's face goes blank for a moment. Her eyes grow big. My stomach turns to ice.

How will she respond? By throwing her napkin down? Bursting into tears? Running from the room? Will she knock the table over, plates sliding after each other, sauces spilling, crockery breaking? Will we hear the car engine turn over as she drives off into the night, leaving us here frightened and panicked?

It is none of these things. Zhu Ping's head tilts back. Her eyes crinkle. And laughter pours out of her, peal after peal after peal. It is a big laugh, an enormous laugh, the laugh of a woman who has birthed calves and hoed crops and seen harsh winters decimate countrysides. Pointing to our father, Zhu Ping turns to us with large, glittering eyes and says, words which sound incredible to our ears. "You Papa, he so funny."

My jaw drops. No one has ever laughed out loud at this table ever. We laughed behind closed doors, in our bedrooms, in the bathroom, never before my father. We laughed sometimes with my mother on those glorious days when he would be off on a trip.

But Kaitlin is not laughing. She is trembling. Her face is turning red. "Why were you always so angry?" she cries out in a strangled voice. It's a question she's waited 30 years to ask. "Why were you so angry?"

There is a shocked silence. My father looks weary and embarrassed. He smiles wanly and shrugs his thin shoulders. "No, really," Kaitlin insists, "all those years with Mama. Why?"

"I don't know," my father murmurs. "People get angry." And I know in that moment that he doesn't have an answer. He literally doesn't. It's as if rage was this chemical that reacted on him for 20 years. Who knows why, but like some kind of spirit, it has left him now. The rage is spent. He is old now. He is old.

Dusk is fallen and long shadows fall across the worn parquet floor of the dining room. After a moment of silence, my father asks Zhu Ping to sing a song. The house frau from Guangzhou opens her mouth and with an odd dignity, sings simply and slowly.

My father translates. "From the four corners of the Earth, my lover comes to me playing the lute. Like the wind over the water." He recites the words without embarrassment, almost without emotion. And why shouldn't he? The song has nothing to do with him personally. It is from some old Chinese fable. It has to do with missing someone, something, someplace, that perhaps one can't even define anymore.

As Zhu Ping sings, everyone longs for home. But what home? Zhu Ping, for her bitter winters? My father, for the Shanghai he left 40 years ago? And what about Kaitlin and I? We are even sitting in our own childhood home, and we long for it.

Sandra Tsing Loh

Papa, why don't you just take us out with a song?

Eugene Loh

This song, usually, I sing with my wife. Since today, Sandra didn't invite my wife, I have to let her stay in the kitchen at home. This song describes a young woman longing for her lover. It sounds like this. [SINGING IN CHINESE]

Credits.

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Peter Clowney and by myself, with Alix Spiegel, Nancy Updike and Dolores Wilber. Contributing editors, Paul Tough, Jack Hitt and Margy Rochlin.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

"My Father's Chinese Wives," was first published in Quarterly West. Sandra's own book is called Depth Takes a Holiday-- that's "depth"-- Essays from Lesser Los Angeles. If you would like to buy a copy of this program, it's only $10. Call us, WBEZ in Chicago, 312-832-3380, 312-832-3380. Or you can write us at WBEZ, 848 East Grand Avenue, Chicago, Illinois 60611. Or you can email us. Our email address radio@well.com, radio@well.com.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia. I'm Ira Glass.

Sandra Tsing Loh

Papa, I'm going to tell this story now the way I tell it. So I hope you're not embarrassed, OK?

Eugene Loh

OK. What choice do I have?

Ira Glass

Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Announcer

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