Comrade Anna

Chinatown Blues

Katherine invited me to meet her parents in Chinatown. I was apprehensive. It was Saturday morning in November, 2002. We had known one another for months. I was hoping it could last forever-a relationship with no parents, that is. It wasn’t what I expected. I thought Mrs. Lin Ming Lu, Katherine’s mother, would be warm and inviting, that she’d welcome me into her home, fawning over me and her daughter and pestering us with offerings of Chinese delicacies.

comrade_anna_cover_for_kindle2 (1)I feared meeting Katherine’s father, Mr. Pei Da Lu, as I felt certain he would see me as not good enough for his daughter and too old for her. Two of Katherine’s sisters were at home-Chin Ling, 13, who wanted to be called by her American name, Susan, and Jen, 12. Katherine’s two brothers-Kenny and Robert-were both at school at New York University.

The apartment-located in the basement beneath a laundry-was very small. The two girls shared a bedroom while the two boys shared a bunk bed that was partially concealed behind a colorful silk rose and black curtain in the living room. The parents had their own bedroom. They owned the laundry above and all of the children at one time or another worked there to help support the family.

Lin Ming Lu met us at the doorway which was situated behind a gate down the stairs off of a busy street. The smell of rotting garbage from the bags and cans on the sidewalk penetrated the nostrils even as I tried to hold my breath. The wrought-iron gate was padlocked and the woman fumbled with it awkwardly for a few seconds, scowling. The smell was nauseating. Then the lock clinked and the gate opened.

Lin Ming Lu was not pretty like her daughter. And the slight, perpetual scowl around her mouth detracted from the possibility of her being beautiful. She was not warm, not even gracious like Katherine. My immediate impression was she did not like me and was sitting in judgment when she knew little about me. Lin Ming Lu hugged her daughter and welcomed her inside but said nothing to me, nor did she even look at me. She wanted her daughter to marry a Chinese man of wealth.

“Why you never bring your friend Robert to our house anymore?” she asked Katherine when we got inside. “You no like him no more?”

I saw where this was going. The urge to get this over with rapido was powerful. I needed a cigarette.

“Mother please, you know that we are no longer seeing one another and that ended long ago. This is Julian, my new friend,” Katherine said.

“Your new friend! Why you no like your old friend?” the mother replied. “Mom don’t start that again please,” Katherine said. The mother scowled and said something under her breath about talking to her disrespectfully.

We sat on the couch in the meticulously-kept living room. Lin Ming Lu drew the curtain that hid the bunk bed and in doing so the room suddenly darkened as the only window in the room was behind the bed. Lin Ming Lu illuminated a large stained-glass table lamp. The soft babbling of water was heard from one corner of the room where a garden of plants and little Ming trees containing lots of mossy growth was enlivened by a little river that washed through smooth black stones and fell from several little waterfalls under some black lights. I remarked that the garden was very beautiful but Ling Ming Lu acted as though she had not heard. She had still not said a word to me.

The sardine-packed subway train we rode down on was a pleasure garden compared with sitting in that cramped ultra-clean little room with that finicky, indignant little woman shooting out shards of glass from her cold black eyes. Then she went into the kitchen after letting out a long stream of disappointment and venom in Chinese to Katherine who apologized to me.

Able to breathe a little at least, I looked at several family pictures and my eyes zoomed in on the one showing Katherine at about twelve years old, her long black hair in two pigtails with little red bows the way she sometimes wore her hair now.

“That’s me,” Katherine said. “Wasn’t I a cutie?”

“You still are!” I said just as the two girls entered from their bedroom.

“Hey! How are you sir?” said Susan, shaking hands with me. Jen also introduced herself and shook my hand, then began conversing with Katherine about why she seldom came home anymore when she only lived about ten blocks away.

“Where’s papa?” asked Katherine.

“Working upstairs right now. He’ll be down when I go up to take over,” said Susan. “I wanted to meet your new boyfriend first. He seems different than the other one. Seems nice but isn’t he a little old for you?”

“No, she’s too young for him dummy,” said Jen. “Julian how come you like young girls like Kathy? Can‘t you get someone your own age?” The girls laughed.

“Jen and Susan! I’m very surprised at you that you would treat a guest with such disrespect. Where is your respect? Huh? Now you apologize to him right now!” Katherine scolded.

“No that’s unnecessary,” I said. “They’re just naturally curious. I’ve got the same question myself, girls. You know I think sometimes you just meet someone in life who has all of the qualities that you think you want and things just happen from there. You end up really liking one another and wanting to be together. Before you know it you’re in love-could happen the same way to one of you some day. Sometimes the person you’re in love with isn’t in your age bracket. As you get older age doesn’t matter as much. It’s who the person is that counts. But to some people it matters a lot. Of course when you’re very young like you two it can seem strange but you know, it’s not so strange. There are beautiful women in their twenties who marry men in their seventies.”

“Yeh they marry them for their money,” said Susan. Both girls giggled.

“It’s okay that you’re older,” said Jen whose face looked very much like Katherine’s. “You don’t have to be defensive. We can still accept you maybe.”

“Besides, he’s kind of cute,” said Susan. “You’ve got a wrinkle right here,” she added, pointing to her forehead, “just like daddy. I bet you are older than daddy. How old are you?”

I had never really broached the subject of the age disparity with Katherine who apparently didn‘t feel it was important. But now it was out there in sharp focus so that I was feeling self-conscious. I said I wondered if they‘ll next do an analysis of my receding hairline. The girls laughed again.

“Well girls I think you’ve had enough fun. It’s time you went upstairs to relieve papa so he can visit for a while. Now go! Okay? Go ahead now! Go!” said Katherine, now completely embarrassed and agitated.

“Okay Kathy,” said Jen, “chill! Either that or Mr. Julian might not continue to think you’re such a-what’d he say Susie-a cutie.” The girls had another good laugh. “It was nice meeting you. Don’t worry, you’ll get used to our teasing. That only means we like you.” And she gave me a brief hug.

“No problem,” I replied.

“I get to have a hug too from Kathy’s cute boyfriend,” said Susan, who added, “Don’t be a stranger now Mr. Julian. Come and see us soon because, if you don’t, we will be harder on you next time.”

“Okay girls,” I said laughing. I’ll try to remember that. It was uh … fun …and uh … refreshing meeting you both. Bye!”

When they left Katherine apologized for their behavior but I insisted there was no problem and had enjoyed the conversation. “It was refreshing after the big chill with your mom,” I whispered.

Ling Ming Lu brought in a tray with little tea cups, a pot of tea and some crackers with some kind of a brown spread on them. She smiled at me, nodding her head affirmatively and thus acknowledging my presence for the first time. I felt greatly relieved and suspected she was going to be nice to me now that the girls had picked on me. I guessed she wasn’t going to be so bad. But she instantly proved me wrong.

“Biscuit with the pork sauce, you like?” she said placing a cracker with brown goop under my nose.

“Mama I told you Julian is vegetarian!” Katherine snapped. It was the first time I’d ever seen Katherine become angry with anyone.

“Oh nonsense! Pork is good! Make you strong! You eat pork when you a kid! You come to my house, you eat what I give! You know my rules! Why you be vegetarian anyway? I never taught you to do that! Now please do not offend me in my house!” the mother said with an air of authority.

“Please Mr. Julian, have some pork crackers,” she said meekly as though she were pained at our reluctance. Feigning gentleness, the dragon lady added, “It taste so good. You like, I sure. I make it special for you. My daughter, she don’t know what good food is for her. She have crazy idea because she go to crazy school and now she no like pork.”

“Momma he is not going to accept …”

Just then Pei da Lu entered extending his hand and warmly shaking mine.

“Nice to meet you. Very, very nice to meet with you. I hope my daughter and my family are treating you well. You are most welcome. Most welcome in our house. My daughter has told me so much about you that I liked you before I ever seen you. My daughter has good sense. So I know that if she likes you, I will too.”

Pleasantly surprised by this reception, I immediately liked Pei da Lu who was so much like Katherine because he didn’t hide what he felt but put it right out there.

“I’m very glad to meet you finally,” I said. “Your daughter speaks so highly of you.”

Ling Ming Lu was about to snatch the tray away before Pei da Lu noticed the pork. But she was too late and he likely overheard the conversation about the pork from the kitchen.

“What you doing woman bringing Mr. Julian meat? You crazy or something? He vegetarian! You know he vegetarian you mean woman! Go now and take away! Bring back vegetarian food and never ever again give Mr. Julian meat again in my house! You crazy woman! Crazy woman! She a crazy woman sometime. I so sorry Mr. Julian. She have no respect sometime.”

The dragon lady disappeared fast.

Her head slightly bowed in silence, I was intrigued to find that Katherine, who usually said exactly what was on her mind, had not a word in response. She took the diplomatic course instead.

Katherine glanced at me and raised an eyebrow, then quickly cast her eyes downward again. “My dysfunctional family,” she thought to herself, now completely infuriated with her mother. She wondered if Julian would ever want to be with her now that he saw her family at their worst.

“Wow, this family is going to be a real trip,” I thought. “Well at least it seems their cards are on the table.”

I tried to make excuses to Pei Da for his wife by saying I was sure that her bringing in the meat was accidental and that people get accustomed to certain kinds of hospitality and are not used to vegetarians.

“It’s easy to forget,” I said.

“You don’t know my wife. She don’t forget. She want a Chinese man for her daughter and she don’t like a vegetarian man. She think they sissies, not a real man. The last man Katherine brought here, he too was a vegetarian man and she no like him either. And he was Chinese,” said Pei da Lu, adding, “Don’t take my wife seriously. She will behave next time I promise you. If I don’t stop her she serve you meat until you stay away forever. She’s usually a good person but sometime she a bad person and do crazy things. She will like you better next time. Give her a chance.”

“So that’s the game,” I thought. “I was right. She didn’t like me from the get-go.”

“I sorry Mr. Julian,” Ling Ming Lu said. “I make you something you like. I sorry.”

“Thanks. It’s okay. No problem,” I said.

Katherine greeted her father and they hugged one another. He kissed her on her forehead and said, “I hope you taking good care of Mr. Julian. He nice man and so you treat him nice and show him respect.”

“Yes papa, we have a relationship based on mutual respect. He respects me and I respect him.”

“I understand,” the father replied. “In America the woman gets respect too. It’s okay. That’s good. How is school? Why you study Russian when you don’t know Chinese enough? Tell me that!”

“I’m learning both papa. It’s good to know languages.” “But you live in America not Russia. You going to live in Russia?”

“No. We’ve been through that many times. To study chemistry one must learn German or Russian-it’s part of the program,” Katherine said, annoyed.

“Okay. Well. You must not forget your Chinese.” After finishing our tea, Katherine said we had to leave as we were planning to meet with friends for brunch at the Angelica Kitchen on 12th Street in the East Village.

“You really have to come with us there sometime papa,” she said. “I will. I will. Now that your mother has insulted Mr. Julian we will take both of you out to dinner there soon, on us, I pay. And your mother will eat the vegetarian food too. Maybe she learn something new. She have a hard head though. Isn’t that the expression for the stubborn person in America? Hard head?” And he laughed.

As we left, Pei-da Lu made me promise that we would return for a Sunday dinner within a month.

“I will make you big vegetarian meal. We become good friends. I so glad you be with my daughter and taking good care of her. I can see this. I know it. Thank you so much. I worry about her when she not around because she in this big city by herself until you came along. Thank you Mr. Julian.”

“Thank you for such a warm welcome. I like you very much too and all of your family,” I said, stretching the truth to be polite.

“Oh yes. My wife you really like. I see that!” said Pei Da who roared with laughter. So did I. And then Katherine laughed too.

Outside Katherine again apologized.

“I had no idea she would do that or I wouldn’t have brought you. She was such a witch! I can’t believe it-my own mother. I’m so sorry. But she can be sweet once you get to know her. She’s hard on people she doesn’t know. You have to crack through the surface and then you’ll see, you’ll actually like her.”

“Hey. I’m glad I had the chance to meet all of them. Now I have a better understanding of you and that’s what counts isn’t it?”

“Are you okay with them then? I thought you might hate them.”

“No they seem to be quite nice and the girls are very funny and your father is great. I like him a lot.”

“You’re just saying that,” Katherine said.

“No I’m not. It was very interesting and I’m looking forward to seeing you in that context again. It was quite humorous for the most part.”

But I was thinking, “Christ I couldn’t wait to get the hell out of there. The great escape. Now I can’t wait to have a vegetarian meal with Mrs. Pork chops.”

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