Frank Chin. I don’t expect to be ambushed by the fans of Maxine Hong Kingston, David Henry Hwang, and Amy Tan in Portland.
My first novel is in the bookstores. My name and, here and there, my picture pop up in newspaper book reviews and Asian-American weeklies. “Are you famous?” Sam asks. What is fame to a five-year-old kid? How am I, the almighty daddyisimo, to explain it to my son? Someday he’s going to leave home—for college, or to go to war, or take a job, or marry a woman out of state or on the moon. If he grows up thinking I'm famous, he might not want to go.
I don’t want to be famous, I tell Sam.
And when the time comes for Sam to set off to fight the monsters on his own, as it came for all the little boys in all the stories I told him — even the little boy who was one inch tall when the old couple found him, and when he was five or six inches tall and it was time for him to take to the river in a rice bowl for a boat — I want Sam to go. Short, skinny, fat, deaf, dumb, or blind, when it's time for him to go, I want him to go. Till that time, I can do my best to see he doesn't hit the road stupid.
A year or so ago, Ishmael Reed called to tell me Kingston was talking this crazy stuff, and I didn’t believe him.
I’m not famous. Yellow writers who get famous are afraid of offending whites, who buy their books and make them famous. They’re overawed by whites and their acceptance by whites. My first play was about to open in New York. My name, the name of my play, the name of the theater about to open it were in the New York papers. Betty Lee Sung, the famous Chinese-American author of the moment, with her book of Christian white racist stereotypes cast in sociological jargon, Mountain of Gold, called me at the theater. More a preacher than scientist or teacher, she pounds away at the moral necessity for Chinese to lose their culture and acculturate, so they can be accepted by the dominant society. And as we are accepted so shall we be absorbed, and once all absorbed we shall be assimilated, meaning racially extinct. American at last!
Amy Tan claims to have found a source of Chinese misogyny in the story of the Kitchen God and his wife.
At the time she wrote, the majority of Chinese Americans alive were American born. The old immigrants were very old or dead. The Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1925, combined with the Chinese Exclusion Act, limited to 105 the number of Chinese entering the United States from any part of the world. The number of new immigrants was insignificant. The white racist laws designed to accomplish the extinction of the yellow races in America made it possible for us Chinese Americans born after 1925 to become the adult majority by the ’70s. To the generations of American-born, the acculturated, Betty Lee Sung mounts the pulpit of the church of acceptance, absorption, and assimilation and tells us to shut up and lay low, playing the role of the stereotypes, and disappear from view until that great day of assimilation.
David Ishii, bookseller, Seattle. David won’t let you starve while you’re in town.
“Much to their credit,” she writes, “the Chinese view prejudice with a very healthy attitude. They were never overly bitter. They have gone into occupations which command respect and which lessen conflict from competition. The Chinese are not concentrated entirely in one section of the country. More dispersion away from the vortexes of San Francisco and New York should be encouraged. This ought to be the long-range goal of the Chinese because distribution reduces the degree of invisibility.”
She’s so positive and cheerful about showing her contempt for everything Chinese. The morality of despising the Chinese and cherishing the stereotype in the name of white acceptance got her published by a “big,” and the book made her the queen of the Asian-American studies university programs and departments emerging around the country in the late ’60s and early ’70s.
Mike Powell, owner of Powell's City of Books. Powell’s is where books come to survive Armageddon.
The stage manager called me out of a rehearsal to take a phone call from Betty Lee Sung. She congratulated me on succeeding in getting a play mounted in New York and said she expected I would now stop saying terrible things about her book because “you’re on my side now.”
“Which side is that?” I asked.
“The Americans have accepted you. You are now in the mainstream.”
I don’t want to be famous, I tell Sam.
Tom Stout, owner of Blue Door. The Blue Door is the most ascetic, the most quixotic bookstore ever to invite me to read.
I’m well-known enough among the American yellows to make the famous nervous and think I want their fame for myself. I don’t want to be famous. Is fame the only reason yellows write in America? To be famous is to be TV, even if you’re not on TV. The only way Asian Americans become famous is by ornamenting white fantasy. The only way yellows get to be TV is putting their faces and bodies to Charlie Chan-Fu Manchu, Gunga Din cute, sissy, sexually repulsive men and to the sexually and personally unfulfilled pathological white supremacist women with an infinite number of weird, cute, and strange ways of saying, “Hey, sailor, wanna date?” over and over and over.
Grow up with the movies and TV as your storyteller and you can’t blame a kid growing up to believe yellow men are so unmanly they can’t even play themselves in the movies. TV and Hollywood prove the point by giving us movies with Asian-American actors playing the same Imperial Japanese naval officers, Japanese actors like Toshiro Mifune playing in Tora! Tora! Tora!, the Hollywood-Japanese co-production that recreated the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Compare an admiral played by Toshiro Mifune to the same admiral played by James Shigeta. Case closed. Asian-American men not only can’t cut the mustard, they can’t even lick the jar. That’s Hollywood. That’s TV. Those are the most famous Asian Americans in the world. But TV is our friend. There are exceptions.
The actor George Takei does not play Sulu, the helmsman of the Starship Enterprise, as the stereotypical yellow kissass sissy, nor, thanks to genre fantasy science fiction, as either an Asian or American creature. It’s not for nothing science fiction is called escapist. George Takei, along with Pat Morita, of Karate Kid fame, and Mako, the definitive Hollywood Asian heavy, were exceptional among Asian-American actors for lending their names to the Japanese-American campaign to redress the constitutional damages the Nikkei — people of Japanese ancestry — suffered in the American concentration camps of World War II.
Other Asian-American actors begged off. Their acting careers, their standing in the industry, their fame demanded they avoid controversy and stand for no greater cause than acceptance by the industry. Echoing the Betty Lee Sung tactic of not being overly bitter about racial prejudice, the actors in my plays who have TV credits and writers with book contracts tell me they learned from the blacks that “anger doesn’t work,” as if blacks marched, went to court, went to jail, went to church, got out the vote to be famous and seen on TV. In the chicken-hearted world of Asian-American Hollywood, George Takei, Pat Morita, and Mako were brave men, indeed.
Sam’s seen him on Star Trek and knows he’s famous. I can talk about George as if I know him, because I do. He played the lead in a TV production of my second play, so he didn’t bolt and run off with his dark glasses on when Sam and I encountered him in Little Tokyo one bright, gray L.A. day. I introduced him to Sam. George Takei was gracious — famous and leery of me. “That’s the difference between being famous and well-known,” I told Sam. “He has to be gracious and bright. I can be sharp and nasty.”
It was the first two weeks of the Chinese New Year. There were friends and bookstores up and down I-5 waiting for me to visit and read. It seemed like a good time to introduce Sam to the road. The Tao that Westerners found so mystical was just “the way,” as in “path,” as in “road.” The Tao was nothing more and nothing less than the road. Jack Kerouac wrote about the road. His road. Robert Frost wrote about the Road Not Taken. Lao Tzu’s notes on the road are no more and no less mystical than Kerouac or Frost or Paul Bowles or the AAA guide or any other book on the road. Everybody’s road is different.
The history of the Chinese in California is written in miles of old mining roads and the railroad. My main road was Interstate 5 built along the Southern Pacific, and Union Pacific Railroad’s main line, and old U.S. 99 from Bellingham, Washington, to San Diego, California. A Chinatown, a Japan Town, the remains and reminders of World War II concentration camps that interned Americans of Japanese ancestry in every town. Red brick and granite buildings with cast-iron facades all the way. Pioneer Square in Seattle, Old Town in Portland, the Gaslamp Quarter in San Diego. All the windows of all the hotel rooms full of old retired seamen and railroaders in all these towns around Christmas time have the shades drawn up to little Christmas displays of lights and trees and plastic candy canes and snowmen. When it rains and the streets are wet and the brick and stone glow in the shadow of clouds, these places are beautiful, and I enjoy standing around and watching and daydreaming.
The road was going to be an adventure, with father and son discovering the deserts, valleys, mountains, volcanoes, birds, cities, and friends, especially the friends, some people I would like to take on the stature of heroes in Sam’s memories, on I-5, the road. Asian-American writers born and raised in America without feeling split between two incompatible cultures. That’s the orphan in the boat, that’s Momotaro, and the boy born from a lotus, and Moses.
One reason we friends became friends was the Asian-American identity crisis didn’t exist for us. We knew Chinese or Japanese culture, and knew white American culture, and knew we were not both, nor were we the best of the East and the best of the West. We knew we were neither. Being neither did not mean we contemptuously ridiculed and stereotyped every culture we were not. We did not believe that more than a century after the arrival and settling of our people, that we, our generation, were the first to produce writers like us. We simply did not believe our people were that stupid for that long. The reason no one knew anything about Asian-American literature was not that there was nothing to know. No one had bothered to look for Asian-American writing before us. For us the adventure in Asian-American writing was not just in the writing, but in the study, the discovery, the history.
We all had published in small literary journals. Jeff Chan was teaching Asian-American studies at San Francisco State and had read my work when he found me hacking for a TV station in Seattle. Jeff Chan got me together with Shawn Wong, a poet protégé of Kay Boyle. Shawn Wong and I found Lawson Inada while thumbing through a collection of Fresno poetry at Cody’s Books in Berkeley. Inada was teaching in the English department at Southern Oregon State College in Ashland, land of the fantasy Shakespeare Festival. All four of us met for the first time in San Francisco, at a party for Ishmael Reed’s new book, an anthology of writings by Americans of many American races, colors, and cultures. Ishmael Reed’s personality, his curiosity, his appetite, his mind was a multicultural, international marketplace.
Lawson Inada became the first Japanese American to publish a volume of poetry with a “big,” in 1971, and together we dug through used-book stores, libraries, garage sales, old Japanese-American newspapers, and Chinese-American magazines looking for writers and writing. We learned about the Asian-American identity crisis reading the soul-searching sections of’30s Charlie Chan mystery novels.
From Earl Derr Biggers’s 1926 Charlie Chan novel The Chinese Parrot: “ ‘It overwhelms me with sadness to admit it,’ Charlie answered, ‘for he is of my own origin, my own race, as you know. But when I look into his eyes, I discover that a gulf like the heaving Pacific lies between us. Why? Because he, though among Caucasians many more years than I, still remains Chinese. As Chinese today as in the first moon of his existence. While — I bear the brand, the label Americanized.’ Chan bowed his head. ‘I traveled with the current,’ he said softly. ‘I was ambitious. I sought success. For what I have won, I paid the price. Am I then an American? No. Am I then a Chinese? Not in the eyes of Ah Sing.’ He paused for a moment, then continued: ‘But I have chosen my path, and I must follow it.’ ”
Earl Derr Biggers’s Charlie Chan exists in a Christian Hollywood universe. In the Christian universe, all individuals are born sinners. Translated into Hollywood, all individuals are born losers. Both ideas are alien to Asian moral thought. In the Asian universe, all individuals are born soldiers. In Jeffersonian American thought, all individuals are born legislators. Those who suffer the stereotype of the dual identity crisis and enjoy the benefits of writing it in Christian autobiographies and playing it on the screen are playing ignorant of both Asian and American culture.
The identity crisis was the monster of Asian fairy tale to whom corrupt parents sold their children for the benefits of the good life. The grand historian of the Han, Szuma Chien, who set the grammar of the mandate of heaven in Chinese writing, said that Confucius’s great accomplishment was the restoration of knowledge that was lost and recovery of ways that had been abandoned.
And we found the yellow writers whom our own people had cast off and condemned because their grammar or their portrayal of Asian-American life might offend whites and pose a threat to the dream of acculturation, white acceptance, absorption, and assimilation. Toshio Mori, John Okada, and Louis Chu embarrassed the Chinese and Japanese Americans of the ’50s who craved to be assimilated by and disappear into whiteness. In the ’70s we brought them back, and with them, a little history. The young Nisei writers and thinkers found Toshio Mori embarrassing because of his sweet and willfully ungrammatical English. The World War II vet John Okada was embarrassing to the Japanese Americans for casting a No-No Boy and draft resister as the hero of his novel No-No Boy. Louis Chu wrote Eat a Bowl of Tea in a kind of literary Chinese accent that embarrassed Chinese-American English majors of the ’60s.
John Okada of Seattle died in California, and Louis Chu died in New York before we found their work, reprinted it, and saw thousands of copies of John Okada’s No-No Boy and Louis Chu’s Eat a Bowl of Tea sell and become the first of Asian-America’s lost literature to return and be recognized. At a time when Asian-American studies was inventing itself on university campuses up and down I-5, No-No Boy and Eat a Bowl of Tea became the first classics of Asian-American literature. Their children, now in their childish 40s and 50s, still have never read their fathers’ work. Blame the East-West identity crisis. But the identity crisis is fake, it’s phony. It’s a belief, not a fact. All they have to do to prove the cause of their self-contempt is a fraud is read their fathers’ work. But they can’t do that.
Where was Toshio Mori? Was he still alive? No one had heard from him in more than ten years. His stories were set in Oakland and El Cerrito. We started with the obvious, looked him up in the phone book, found a number, and called him up. Toshio Mori was still alive.
Toshio Mori’s son read his father’s work, and still Toshio Mori and his volume of stories, Yokohama, California, were forgotten. No one had gone looking for him till we found him in El Cerrito. Now we who found Okada and Chu and Mori have children and books of our own. Our kids have grown up reading Asian-American writing, and now I’d like Sam to learn the lessons of the road these old writers have taught me. Along this road we too can be read and forgotten. That’s the mandate of heaven. That’s the Tao. That’s the Rashomon of I-5.
My friends — artists, writers, musicians, booksellers — up and down the road, are like the loners, orphans, failed scholars, and the Monkey King who travel the road of life in the fairy tales. Being a stranger, an outcast, an outlaw, an immigrant does not make the boy born out of a peach or Br’er Rabbit a victim or a criminal. I tell Sam the stories from the heart of Asian and Western lit, the myth, folk and fairy tales of Asia, the Greeks, and Hollywood. If I don’t, who will? The schools will teach him to feel incapacitated, inept, and morally constipated by the Asian-American identity crisis instead of teaching the stories Asian and American cultures tell their children, while they’re children.
So before he can talk, I raise my boy, Sam Chew Chin, on a children’s-book version of Momotaro, published by Island Heritage of Hawaii. I like the pictures by George Suyenaga. They’re well researched, well drawn, and dramatic. I show my baby the pictures and make sound effects to him. I point at the boy in the boat and say “Momotaro”; at the waves of the inland sea and I make whooshing noises; point at the dog and I bark; at the pheasant, say “bird” and whistle; at the monkey, say “monkey” and yip and whoop. Sam learns to whistle and whistles around the house before he learns to speak.
The peach is a boat, I tell him. In the story of the boy born inside a lotus, the lotus is a boat. Somebody, their mommy and daddy in another world, put their boys in the peach, in the flower, to escape the end of the world, the flood, the fire, the last war. The boat takes them to a world where the people have made a deal with monsters. Life is war, we are all born soldiers. All behavior is tactics and strategy. All relationships are martial. Love is two warriors standing back to back, fighting off the universe. That is as mystic as Asian culture gets; the rest is white Christian fantasy. Asia isn’t mystic and static. It’s martial and migrant. Not migratory, but migrant. Nah Jah, and Momotaro, and Monkey are orphans. They exactly fit in. They travel a lot. They cross borders.
The old couples who find the girl in the node of bamboo, the boy in the giant peach, the tiny boy inside the lotus in the new world promise to raise these children as their own. That promise is a military oath, a contract. In the course of the stories the oath will be challenged, and the adoptive parents will keep their word or break it.
In return for the monsters giving the people no flood, no famine, no drought, no disease, no crop failure, no tidal waves, no poverty, no crime, in short, the good life, the people give the monsters children. What do the monsters do with the children? They eat them. “This is a bad deal!” the boys say in their Chinese and Japanese stories. “You don’t understand politics, son,” their parents say, but the boys insist on setting off to kill the monsters and free the children.
The Japanese boy born out of a peach, Momotaro, goes with his parents’ help. They keep their word. The Chinese Nah Jah’s father, the commandant, sides with the monsters, ties up his son, and raises his sword to strike him down. Nah Jah breaks his bonds, snatches the sword out of his father’s hand, says, “I give you back your flesh and blood,” and cuts his own throat and dies. He turns into a lotus seed. A crane flies down from the mountaintop, picks up the seed, and carries it to the teacher on the mountain. The teacher plants the seed in his pond, out of the pond grows a new lotus, and out of the lotus is born a new Nah Jah with new powers and new weapons to fight the monsters. He has the power to sprout two extra heads and two extra sets of arms. With three heads and six arms, he can fight in all directions at once when he’s surrounded. His new weapons include a red ribbon, hoops of heaven and earth, a tasseled spear, and fire wheels under his feet to give him speed and flight.
The Japanese Momotaro, instead of being reincarnated with new powers, meets the dog. “Take me with you, Momotaro, and I’ll help you fight the oni. Just give me a cookie,” the dog says. “No, I won’t give you a cookie, but I’ll share a cookie with you, dog.”
Momotaro meets the monkey, and the monkey says, “Take me with you, Momotaro, and I’ll help you fight the oni. Just give me a cookie.”
“No, I won’t give you a whole cookie, but I’ll share a cookie with you,” Momotaro says and splits a cookie and gives one half to the monkey and eats the other half himself. The shared cookie is an oath of alliance.
Next he meets the bird. “Momotaro, take me with you, and I will help you fight the monsters, just give me a cookie.”
“No, bird, but I will share a cookie with you,” Momotaro says and splits a cookie. The shared cookie is an oath of blood brotherhood. They are allies. Both boys kill the monsters and free the children. Momotaro and his allies go home, and the people in this part of Japan have to keep their children and work for a living again.
Nah Jah, the boy born from a lotus, never goes home again. The man who had promised to raise him as his own broke his promise. Nah Jah is not the commandant’s son. The commandant’s son is dead. The moral of the stories: It is wrong to sell your children to monsters for the good life. The people who told these stories for a thousand years, even when these stories were banned, did not come to America to sell their children to monsters for the good life.
I hoped Sam would see that every stop we made on the road was like a trading post on the Congo River in a Discovery Channel documentary. The people who came out of the forest to trade by the river in the documentary might be at war with each other, just out of sight, but here at the trading post on the river, they use a pidgin language of trade, a language of civil trade, they are here to do business, check each other’s goods, and make a fair trade. Check your guns, your drugs, your prejudices and grudges at the door. All shootouts and fistfights off the premises. No exceptions.
The river in Africa was like Toshio Mori’s Japanese-American vision of America as a depot and American Standard English as a pidgin language of trade in his short story “The Old Woman Who Makes Swell Doughnuts.”
This modern Nisei story, published in the ’40s, appears to be a reminiscence of a childhood in a house in Oakland, near the Southern Pacific passenger depot. In this house lived an old woman everyone in the neighborhood called Momma. She deep-fried doughnuts, and all the kids in the neighborhood liked the doughnuts so much they behaved with a natural civility and politeness in this house that shuddered whenever a Southern Pacific train moved by, shifting its weight from one rail to another. William Saroyan, the Armenian-American playwright and fictioneer who refused the Pulitzer Prize, both admired Mori's writing and flunked him in English. His Japanese-American Nisei contemporaries were embarrassed by both Mori's English and his wistful, childish sentimentality.
In all the years since 1949, when he had published his collection of stories, Yokohama, California, we were the first people to come looking for him. And only now, years after he’s died, do we discover that deep down inside Mori’s story lives a Japanese fairy tale. “The Old Woman Who Makes Swell Doughnuts” is deeper, richer, more eloquent for being modeled on the traditional Japanese story “The Old Woman and Her Dumpling.” He was no hick primitive simply mimicking Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. Mori was an artist of his time. He knew his Freud and Jung as well as Hollywood.
“The Old Woman and Her Dumpling” is a folk vision of the marketplace crossroads, a vision of civility born of the necessities of the road. I tell Sam the story, on the road. Old Japan: An old woman makes and sells dumplings at a crossroads marketplace. One of her dumplings drops and rolls. She chases it down the road. It rolls into a hole onto a road in another world and keeps on rolling. A stone Jizo, the god of travelers and children who died in miscarriages, tries to hide the old woman from the demons known as oni. The oni find her, take her across their river, give her a magic rice paddle that fills an empty pot with rice merely by stirring, and make her their cook. She steals the rice paddle and a boat to escape home to her world.
Halfway across the river, the oni come down to the river and start drinking it up to beach her boat and walk out and capture her again. While the oni drink all the water out of the river, the old woman stands in the boat and makes faces and tells jokes, and the oni laugh, and they laugh gushes of water they’ve drunk. The more they laugh, the more water gushes out of them, and they drown in the waters of their laughter. The old woman gets to the other side of the river, returns home to the crossroads marketplace, and makes rice with the magic paddle and dumplings and sells them.
Mori’s inspiration for using this story may have come from an English translation by Lafcadio Hearn, the American weirdo who became Japanese enough to be accepted and respected by the Japanese as not merely a Japanese, but a Japanese authority on the Japanese folk tale. This volume of Hearn’s translations was in print and popular when Mori was a young American-born Nisei writer with a sense of being the first of his kind.
I wanted Sam to see that America was the road. America was a depot, a marketplace. Everyone came to America as a migrant and has been moving on, sometimes forced to move on, but moving on ever since. American culture was not a fixed culture. American culture was a pidgin culture. American Standard English, the language of newspapers and TV news, was a pidgin English, an ever-changing marketplace-depot language. What we called American culture, like American English, was a pidgin marketplace culture.
When we took to the road in our little red Honda CVCC, the air war, the U.S. Operation Desert Shield in Kuwait, had been going on a couple of weeks. We rolled down the Grapevine in our 13-year-old Honda CVGC. Our ears popped. Then we were out of the clouds and on the flat valley floor. The light was different. All the shadows and shades and reflections of the mountains were gone. “What’s that?” Sam asked and pointed to something out his side of the car. I was as surprised as Sam. A raggedy-looking coyote loped, head down, tail down, across a bare field. I had never seen a coyote from a car rolling I-5 before. The coyote is a character in stories the people of many American Indian nations tell. The stories of coyote are a trade-good between the Indian peoples, I tell Sam. Sam knows. Yeah, the trickster has nosed his way into American culture as known by TV.
I take this opportunity to sing an old folk song, “The Buffalo Hunters.” It’s a long song about a young man hired on a buffalo hunt in Jacksboro, being armed and provisioned and crossing the Pease River to hunt the buffalo, and being picked off by Indians. There’s shooting the buffalo, and skinning the buffalo, and smelling the skins of the buffalo, and smelling worse than the buffalo in the song. At the end of the hunt, their boss, Crego, cheated them at cards and “we begged him, and we pleaded / But still it was no go. / So we left his damned old bones to bleach / On the range of the buffalo.”
The folksy old poet Carl Sandburg, known for saying “Chicago! City of the big shoulders!” before anyone had gotten up the nerve to say the obvious, the big city had shoulders, said “The Buffalo Hunters” was American epic poetry, the Odyssey and Iliad of America. Sandburg was a collector of American folk songs and recorded them, and if he could sing ’em on record, in his scratchy old voice, I could sing ’em in the car in mine. Sam likes the song. We talk about the fur trade leading to the near-extinction of the Native American race.
The scariest thing about a strange road or staying in a strange town is choosing a place to eat. No part of a man’s body shows fear faster than the stomach. No, not even the swelling and shrinking dangling dangler shrivels up faster than the guts at the sight or smell of something strange in my food. But at the counter of Harris Ranch, at the junction of I-5 and state 198, Sam jumps on the Harris Ranch beef as soon as he smells it and sees I’m about to put a piece of it in my mouth.
“What’s that?” he says. I’m glad. He hasn’t shown an interest in eating meat till now.
“Steak,” I say.
“Can I have a piece?” he asks. He has several. He also has his first baking powder biscuits here.
Sam’s first soup and salad bar at his first truck stop first time out on the road isn’t what I expect. A big man steps up to our booth, wearing a white T-shirt with a red, white, and blue American flag over a map of Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Kuwait, with the words “THESE COLORS DON’T RUN!” in red over the map. He sticks the shirt in my face. He points at his chest.
I think it best to act as if he is selling T-shirts and not picking a fight.
“These colors don’t run!” I read out loud, “Amen to that, brother. Hand silk-screened on 100 percent cotton. I like that — 100 percent made in America! Where can I get one of these righteous T-shirts?”
In a truck stop near Medford, I look up from my salad bar and sirloin into an American flag, red, white, and blue, on a black T-shirt, and in belligerent red across the chest the legend, “Try Burning This One, Asshole!”
I had an urge to introduce myself as an Iraqi cab driver on vacation from New York with my grandson but chickened out and said, “Boss T-shirt, brah! You think they got T-shirts like that in my son’s size? Oooh, make my boy look sharp!” So to not identify me and my boy as Iraqi, I do a Don Ho, Hawaiian pidgin impression. Sun Tzu, the strategist, take note.
In Portland, the TV tells us the ground forces of Operation Desert Storm are moving fast. The ground war has started.
Portland is a beautiful little city. A collection of unmatching salt and pepper shakers, soy sauce bottles, steak sauce bottles, and ketchup bottles bunched together in a postmodern table setting downtown, along the Willamette River glows like arcade machines at night. Off the road. Out of the world. Brick. Stone. Cast-iron facades. Sam does a couple of drawings of a steel drawbridge over the river.
We are admiring the hollow bronze man with an umbrella in Pioneer Courthouse Square in Portland. Sam has discovered sculpted animals, beaver and ducks in the planter boxes. Now he counts the nails in the heel of the bronze man’s shoe. I look forward to stopping in the coffee hut on the corner for a cappuccino.
Then a kid in a black leather jacket, earrings, and no hair walks by and grumbles something.
“What did he say?” Sam asks.
“I don’t know,” I say. I think back to the grumble. “I think he said ‘foreigners,’ ” I say. “Poor kid doesn’t know how to cuss.” Then I see we’re surrounded by these funny-looking white kids who mean to be offensive but don’t know how to cuss. As with the college kid who’d sneered “literary conservative!” at me for saying texts do not change and the Marxist who’d meant “cultural nationalist!” to wither me with contempt, I wanted to take the fuzzheaded boy aside and teach him how to swear. You want to provoke me, kid, you call me a Chink! Or you might call me Jap! I’m not a Jap, but I’ll know what you mean. But “foreigner”! Come on! That’s too intellectual to really get me on the proper emotional level.
Then I see we’re surrounded by these Clairol kids in black leather. I forget about the cappuccino and say, “Let’s walk on out of here, Sam.”
I hate it. What am I teaching my kid, letting white racist brats who don’t even know how to cuss like proper bigots run us out of a public park in the shadow of the federal courthouse? It’s another story I tell Sam, “Rumpelstiltskin.” And we are the ugly little foreigners driven away by ugly visions of white idealism.
At a coffeehouse in Portland, I read a section of the novel where the Chinese herbalist diagnosing the son of a Chinatown big shot goofily says the kid is suffering from a bad case of “Gotta dance!” And I burst into song, singing “Gotta daaaance, gotta dance, gotta dance, gotta daaaaaaance!” The people sucking on espresso smile warmly and chuckle.
I don’t expect to be ambushed by the fans of Maxine Hong Kingston, David Henry Hwang, and Amy Tan in Portland. They show up to vent their moral outrage and save my soul. They show up to whisper in my ear that Chinese culture doesn’t deserve to survive, according to the Gospel of Kingston, Hwang, and Tan, as I autograph books.
They know me only by word of mouth, by rep. They’ve never read a lick of me, only heard of me. What they’ve heard was enough to bring them grinning out of the West Coast night, calling me a misogynist, a homophobe, a yellow macho maniac obsessed with Asian manhood. This is what they’ve heard, they said. “Oh,” I say. They don’t know what I wrote or said or when or where I said it, for other Asian-American writers to call me those things, maybe I know what they’re talking about. “No,” I say, “I can’t talk about talk I haven’t heard.”
Instead of the heroic boys off to fight the monsters, the road is treating me like the Ugly Duckling going from bird to bird looking for acceptance.
This is my punishment for being a yellow man daring to call Maxine Hong Kingston, David Henry Hwang, and Amy Tan frauds, ornamental Oriental writers of the white racist stereotype of Orientals as ornaments of white supremacy. Chinese culture is neither as misogynist nor weird as they portray it.
People writing for the papers, interviewing me on the radio ask me why I say such terrible things about the most accepted and most famous yellow writers in America. I tell them: Text. Text? What has text got to do with literature? Literature is text and the reading and comparison of text. Oh, is that so? What is text, then? Text is a specific arrangement of words on a page by an author. No magic, no mysticism. Text.
Text: Maxine Hong Kingston and David Henry Hwang claim that two popular works of Chinese children’s lit celebrate and encourage abuse of women. “The Ballad of Mulan” and “The Romance of the Three Kingdoms.” I say the texts Kingston, Hwang, and Tan describe and quote do not exist. The titles are real, and every Chinese scholar and Chinese kid agrees the works bearing those titles have influenced Chinese culture for a thousand years, but the texts Kingston, Hwang, and Tan cite are fake. Amy Tan claims that “The worth of a woman is measured by the loudness of her husband’s belch” is a common Chinese saying. I say she made up that saying herself, and it cannot be found in any Chinese fairy tale, children’s story, or book of sayings from the beginning of the Chinese language to the present. Text.
Amy Tan claims to have found a source of Chinese misogyny in the story of the Kitchen God and his wife. She asks why the Kitchen God’s wife was not honored. The answer to her question is: She is! The Kitchen God is the Kitchen King, and his wife is the Kitchen Queen. It’s a matter of text. Don’t take my word for it. Just a little time in the library on your own will turn up the traditional pre-New Year double poster of the Kitchen King and the Kitchen Queen. Amy Tan’s question is phony, like asking “Why isn’t water wet?” It’s a matter of text, not personalities, not interpretation, not philosophy. For asserting text, Amy Tan and Obie- and Tony-winning playwright David Henry Hwang call me “a literary fascist.”
“Don’t take my word for it,” I tell the Asian-American journalists who wake me up to ask what right I have to say what is and is not Chinese. “This is common Chinese culture. You can find it for yourself in Chinatown.” But there is no such thing as checking text, checking facts, in Asian-American journalism. Whether or not Far Mulan, the girl warrior, is tattooed or the Kitchen God’s wife is honored as the Kitchen Queen are not matters of my word against theirs. It’s a matter of text.
One yellow scholar-critic actually says “texts change, even the text of the Bible....” These people teaching Asian-American lit may actually know how to read and write, but they are preliterate. Texts don’t change.
“Aren’t you ashamed to be a Chinese man telling us what is and is not Chinese culture?” a white man, an editor of a literary review, asks me in Portland. It’s a popular question. Sam hears people pop that question at me in Sacramento, San Francisco, Los Angeles.
“Why do you yell at people?” Sam asks in the car.
“I enjoy it.”
“Good question,” I say. “The point of reading is, the reader can test the knowledge of a book without the knowledge or approval of the author. I write books. They’re good or bad books because of the way I play with knowledge and language, not because people like my personality. I’m not famous. I’m not a star. I’m not going to act like I want to be famous or a star. The famous, the star is the story. I am just a writer, not divine visionary bearing higher truths, not a prophet, not a messiah, not a higher being or sacred cow. My writing is good because it stands up to all the testing and kicking around mere mortals with access to a library can devise. A writer is not the story. A star has to shine and dominate the scene. A writer has to fade into the shadows and watch the scene and write.”
First stop in Seattle off the road is David Ishii Bookseller, in Pioneer Square. Brick buildings. Brick alleys. Stone. Cast-iron facades. We’re stopped at a light on Jackson Street, in sight of the two brick railway stations and the Wonder Bread factory Okada described in his novel. In my side-view mirror I see a biker in a faded Levi’s jacket with no sleeves and patches and bullet holes in it, a bandana tied over his head, silvered shades, looking at my rear license plate and walking his personalized monster Harley toward me.
“Oh, no,” I say to baby Sam. “Seattle people don’t like California people moving in and making crowds in their nice little city, and this guy knows we’re from California because he just looked at our license plate and made a face.”
The biker pulled up to my window and looked in. “You really drive this thing all the way up from California?” he asked. “Yeah,” I said, trying not to show fear.
He dismounted his bike and walked around it while slipping his right hand out of its glove. “I want to shake your hand,” he said.
David Ishii Bookseller is the model of the depot on the road. The books of mutual enemies are on his shelves of Asian Americana. Any writer of any race from anywhere knows, when they’re in Seattle,
He used to show up at Tom Robbins’s apartment in the University District with bags of groceries. He once bought ten pounds of clams in Pike Place Market, put them in a plastic bucket in his Porsche, and drove them ten hours south down I-5 to Ashland to cook them up in vermouth for poet Lawson Inada and his family, by way of introducing himself.
Writers as diverse and sometimes mutually repugnant as the late Barry Pritchard, a TV writer burned out from writing episodes of Run for Your Life, the old Ben Gazzara, perhaps the only Ben Gazzara series on TV; to Garrett Hongo, poet and director of the creative writing program at the University of Oregon; Leslie Marmon Silko, Laguna Pueblo author of Ceremony and The Almanac of the Dead; and Ishmael Reed and writers I don’t know all speak of David Ishii with a certain affection and wonder. Mike Woo, the former L.A. city councilman, stopped by David Ishii’s bookstore and chatted a few times when he was in Seattle. Now he hopes the sons of Lawson Inada or Sam drop by in the summer so he can take them to see the Mariners play in the Kingdome.
Every bookstore we visit is a temple to books, serious business, and so unique as to be strange. Each is a model of Western civilization in books. Every bookstore that invites me to read is like a monastery fortress in the Dark Ages where monks keep, copy, and decorate books. Every monastery, every bookstore reflects the personality, the vision of its abbot. Their bookstore, their empire of texts is as artistic as it is empirical in the way they place the books next to each other; how far into the back of the bookstore does someone have to go to find an illustrated dictionary of science for kids? How far is it to the nearest cappuccino?
The staff, the monks of the bookstores, take on the personalities of the empires of books they serve. At Powell’s in Portland, the woman who invites me to read has the tattoo of a rose on her arm and matter-of-factly talks of tattoos elsewhere on her body. Tattoos are art. I heard that in Japan there is a museum where tattooed human skins are displayed as art. That’s what I heard. I don’t want to hear it again. Powell’s is one of the three bookstores in the country with a legitimate claim to being “the largest” in the nation. The bookstore takes up two stories of an entire city block. It feels like a bunker of books. Powell’s is where books come to survive Armageddon. The owner of Elliott Bay Books in Seattle’s Pioneer Square wears a moustache and beard combo from King Arthur movies. Elliott Bay Books is red-brick walls and wooden staircases and wooden balconies of books. It’s a mountain lodge resort for books and readers. A t Elliott Bay, I pick up a copy of Carl Sandburg’s collection of folk songs, American Songbag, for Sam.
A journalist, at Amy Tan’s request, puts a question to me. What do I think of interracial marriages? This is a serious question? I’m no marriage counselor. I don’t care who Amy Tan marries. Who she marries has nothing to do with her work. I don’t think her work is white racist in form and content because she married a white man. I married a white woman, and she is no less a Christian, nor I less a Chinaman for it.
The young immigrants, the new generation of artists and writers, believing their looks and talent and being, unlike any Asians who have come before, will make them famous, look on fame as a civil right and look on all yellow writers who’ve married white not as racial traitors but literary cheats: Asian-American writers as diverse and opposed as Amy Tan (The Joy Luck Cluby, The Kitchen God's Wife); Maxine Hong Kingston (The Woman Warrior, China Men, Tripmaster Monkey); Jeffrey Paul Chan (The BigAiiieeeee!); Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston (Farewell to Manzanar); Lawson Inada (Before the War, Legends from Camp); Bette Bao Lord (Spring Moon); Pardee Lowe (Father and Glorious Descendant); C.Y. Lee (Flower Drum Song); David Henry Hwang (F.O.B., M. Butterfly); Fayenne Mae Eng (Bone); Diana Chang (Frontiers of Love); Hisaye Yamamoto (Seventeen Syllables); Milton Murayama (All I Asking for Is My Body), and the list goes on and on — it’s as if the new generation believes the only reason we are published is because we married white.
Statistically, yes, the rate of out-marriage seems a fair indicator of racial extinction. The Japanese Americans came out of the World War II concentration camps encouraged by their government-approved leaders, the Japanese American Citizens League, to abandon all their Japanese ways, become Americanized, and marry themselves white out of existence. Assimilation for the JACL was racial extinction. In the ’70s the Japanese Americans numbered almost a million and a half. They were also marrying out—both men and women — at the rate of 70 percent. Today there are fewer than 350,000 Japanese Americans — every one of them the product of a behavior modification program that worked. The proof that it worked is the fact that the JACL looks on the fade into extinction as a triumph of American patriotism. The object of the camps was to indoctrinate the Japanese Americans into hating their race and everything that made them appear different from whites.
Whether or not Japanese America is culturally dead and historically lost won’t be reflected in the marriage or census stats. How dead the history and culture is is found in the works of Japanese-American writers and thinkers, not their numbers or their husbands and wives. Some are shocked to hear that my wife is white. They want a yellow man to hate whites so much he would never be sexually turned on by a white woman and have a kid with a white woman. They thought they found satisfaction for that want in my work. No. I can be angry without hating whites. I can do addition and subtraction without hating spelling and grammar.
Sam has always been taken for Chinese because he looks like me, and I’m Chinese. He looks like his Scots-English-Irish mom, too. But his skin is more my color than hers. Does Daddy the storyteller and TV pal teach his son to despise his mother’s people? No, Mom’s taken him to church. We watch documentaries about archaeologists digging for the stories of the Bible. Charles Laughton, as the hunchback Quasimodo, swoops away with Maureen O’Hara into the bell towers of Notre Dame cathedral and shouts, “Sanctuary! Sanctuary!” and Sam doesn’t understand. So we talk about Christianity and the church state, state religion, and the separation of the church from the state as inventions and ideas of Western culture leading to Western democracy.
Chinese morality was never founded on faith in a mysterious higher power; Chinese civilization was never founded on religion. Chinese politics never had the problem of separation of church and state. Church was an idea introduced to the East by whites. In Chinese the word “atheist” exists only as a translation of the Western word. I want him to know everything before he leaves home. 1 don’t want to set him loose blind with prejudice and unable to see the difference between the real and the fake in a fast marketplace. I don’t want him to be an easy mark, a sucker for scammers, charlatans, and demagogues.
We all write from specific cultures, times, and places. And let’s admit it. We non-whites are all ignorant of all cultures not white Christian European or our own. That’s why we do biz with each other in English. So, here we are, brilliant writers of variants and violations of American Standard English in all the depots and variants of the American marketplace telling the world who we are, where we come from, how we see, how we do, what we live for, what we die for, what we tell our kids in our books and bookstores, and the books adopted for use as textbooks by their school districts.
Why should you take my word for it? And why should I take your word for what is and is not black or African-American or Latino or Chicano or Puerto Rican or Jewish or Native American? Who would you trust to tell stories of another culture to your children in your home?
Like horse trading in the marketplace, the value of any information we buy in the marketplace must be able to be independently corroborated. Cultures are bodies of knowledge, histories and their varied facts, artifacts, and texts.
Shawn Wong reminds me that I found John Okada’s novel No-No Boy on a shelf in David’s store. The book had lain in obscurity for years, condemned by the Japanese American Citizens League, which the U.S. government had accepted as the leaders and representatives of Japanese American will without any form of Japanese-American approval or consent in World War II “to lead Japanese America out of their homes on the West Coast into desert camps,” as one leader of the JACL put it. This JACL leader called himself “Moses.”
The Japanese Americans themselves saw that the racially selective evacuation and internment were violations of their constitutional rights. Why didn't the Japanese Americans resist the internment in court? For 50 years, everyone who asks the obvious and looks tor answers goes to the I ACL. And the JACL says Japanese America had no choice but to cooperate without protest or resistance because the Army threatened to round them up with tanks and guns if they didn’t. It wasn’t so, but even if it were, that too is a violation of their constitutional rights.
The JACL idea of a Japanese-American hero Was a volunteer for the all-Nisei 442nd Regimental Combat Team. A Nisei who had proved his American loyalty with his blood. Their control of the public image of Japanese America is obvious in the war movie Go for Broke!, the story of the not quite all-Nisei 442nd; true to the JACL vision, the 442nd was led by white officers. The movie starred Van Johnson as a prejudiced officer who learns in combat to respect and admire the Japanese-American soldiers. Then Van Johnson teaches a fellow prejudiced Texan to call them “Nisei” and give the battle cry “Go for broke!”
No one dared say the obvious: The heroism of the 442nd did not address the constitutional violations of Nisei civil rights. The 442nd won Japanese America a little good publicity they parlayed into a movie and nothing else.
Okada chose to explore the effect of the constitutional issues raised by the evacuation and internment with a Nisei protagonist who faced the issues directly. Okada’s Nisei everyman violates the obnoxious rules and laws to create a case in court to test those laws. Okada’s novel led us to the discovery of an organized resistance movement inside the camps. The official histories of Japanese America by JACL writers such as Bill Hosokawa say nothing like an organized resistance existed. A close reading of the novel led inevitably to members of the resistance, now old men, who’ve lived as pariahs in Japanese America up and down the towns around 1-5, and to James Omura, the only Japanese-American writer of the time, of any form, to write about the resistance movement as it spread inside individual camps and from camp to camp.
I wrote the story on the organized resistance at Camp Heart Mountain. It emerged from a mass of FBI reports, army and naval intelligence reports, government documents from the camps, and the prolific pen of the master of the Japanese-American public image, Mike “Moses” Masaoka. The Los Angeles daily newspaper Rafu Shimpo printed it with generous quotes from the documents. And year by year for 15 years, James Omura, Frank Emi (a leader of the resistance organized at Camp Heart Mountain), and a few resisters come, pried loose from the silence of the despised, and talk to me. Very gingerly Frank Abe (a Sansei who entered journalism by writing press releases and organizing events for the redress campaign), Lawson Inada, and I put together events with the Asian-American Studies Association and with Nikkei groups to restore the resisters to their hometown Japanese-American communities in San Jose and Los Angeles.
Redress was won. The meetings of the men who resisted the draft to test the camps in court and the community in San Jose and Los Angeles were well attended, informative, feel-good family events ending in loud potluck suppers. Kenji Taguma, the son of a Japanese American who had resisted the draft from Camp Amache in Colorado, and his Asian-American studies instructor, Wayne Maeda, put together a panel of resisters telling the history of their movement, reading from contemporary documents and the Presidential Proclamation of pardon in Sacramento. At the end of the program, an old white man stood up. A cowboy. The stooped-over old man had to be helped to his feet by his daughter. He had a nice, freshly pressed cowboy shirt with pearl snaps instead of buttons. He wore blue jeans and boots. He had a big tooled-leather belt and a macho Cadillac bumper of a belt buckle covering his navel. “I was drafted in the war and I answered the call,” he said. “I met the boys of the 442nd over there and I liked them.”
I expected the rickety old vet to jitter us right into the JACL party line: The Nikkei owe the end of camp and everything they enjoy today to the all-Nisei 442nd who threw themselves into battle to prove Japanese Americans worthy of the civil rights they’d been stripped of when imprisoned in concentration camps. But, no, the old cowboy said something else. “I didn’t know about camps till a long time after the war. And when I heard about them I didn’t believe it. I was shocked. I wanta tell ya I didn’t fight in World War II to put you people in concentration camps. And what you boys did was right.”
It was a rare moment. The resisters were stunned with acceptance. There were moments like that at every meeting of the resisters and the Japanese-American community. But still the community is dominated by the JACL. And still the resisters are pariahs in the community. And still Japanese-American art hasn’t caught up with John Okada’s No-No Boy and Japanese-American history.
The land war was declared won a couple of days before we left Seattle. It rained all the way out of Washington. The wheels of the big tractor trailers are taller than our little red Honda. In Oregon they roll two trailers, and there’s no seeing past the water spinning off their wheels. The wind whips the trailers slithering all over the road. Sam holds his bear.
Then on the road home, we walk back into the real world, a crowded resort restaurant around Lake Shasta in Northern California, to get out of the nasty wind and rain.
“Did you tell them we’re closed?” a middle-aged, crinkled-up woman said to another taller, less crinkled-up white woman.
“We’re closed,” the taller woman said. For an instant I didn’t believe my ears. This hadn’t happened to me since the South in the early ’60s. Never in California.
“We’re closed,” the taller woman said again; and I could see she saw from the look in my eye, I didn’t believe they were closed at all. I wasn’t about to punch either of these old white ladies in the face. I looked around for a customer to catch my eye, and none did. Then I remembered Sam, my five-year-old boy about to start school, was with me.
“They’re closed, Sam,” I said, took his hand, walked out, and wondered what I was teaching my kid, letting skinheads and ’60s-style white racists in California run us out of town. The winning of the Gulf War seems to have released an ugly brand of American patriotism that expresses itself as righteous white supremacy such as I have never seen before along the road between Seattle and L.A. that I’ve called home for 30 years. I would have thought a nice cathartic victory would have released more winning sentiments on the road.
“It’s like the story ‘Rumpelstiltskin,’ ” I tell Sam, “except in this version, we’re Rumpelstiltskin. I’m the one stamping my foot and angry. I’m the one run out of the place where I expected we’d be welcome. And those people in there laugh. Let this be a lesson to you, son: Do not spin straw into gold for a girl out to marry the prince, no matter what she promises you.”
What has Sam learned from this trip? What will he remember?
I’m at a lectern, in Pasadena, at the Pacific Asia Museum, once again reading the herbalist diagnosing the opera master’s son scene. “This boy has a bad case of Gotta Dance!” I read, and Sam jumps from his seat and onto the platform and sings, “Gotta daaaaance,” and another song “Make ’em Laugh,” from Singin’ In the Rain.
And we come home to the story of L.A. cops caught on a home video camera beating up Rodney King.
It’s five years later. I have a new book. It’s time to hit the road, hawk the book, and make a moving target of myself again. I’m the Asian-American writer other Asian-American writers love to hate. Sam is nine now and starting the fourth grade. I’d like to take him with me again, but he doesn’t like seeing me yell at people. And I expect people I will enjoy yelling at to appear here and there, on what my publisher is calling “a ten-city tour.”
I tell him a Cambodian story I heard recently. A pair of young parents are not doing well and have a son they don’t like. They try selling the boy, but no one wants to buy him. They try giving him away, but no one wants him. They try to drive him away by making life at home tough, but he won’t leave. So they take the little boy deep into the jungle and lose him. They leave him in the jungle and run out of the jungle, and after a while their life gets better. They have money. They have a nice house. They have everything they want, but they begin to miss their little boy.
They go into the jungle to find their little boy. After a long time in the jungle, they find him. Long hair grows all over his body. He has become a wild beast. He doesn’t want to leave the jungle. He wants nothing to do with his parents and runs deeper into the jungle. The parents leave the jungle and spend the rest of their lives in sadness. The story seems to me another gentler, more melancholic way of saying what Momotaro and Nah Jah say: Do not sell your children to monsters for the good life.
San Francisco, Palo Alto, Bellingham, Seattle, Portland, Eugene, San Francisco, Berkeley, I wish Sam were on the road with me. The car my publisher rented me is big and white. It’s like driving my rich aunt’s living room couch. Sam would love it. But he has to start the fourth grade, and two weeks on the road would blow his fourth grade career. The last stop before L.A., Capitola, was a cute little scene out of Hitchcock’s The Birds. Cute little cottages along the horseshoe lagoon. Yeah, Sam knows Hitchcock movies too. The Birds; North by Northwest, with the big fight on the big faces of Mt. Rushmore; Saboteur, with the big fight on the outside of the Statue of Liberty. Rear Window, with the wall of windows by Norman Rockwell. A vignette in every window.
The bookstore’s in a shopping center. There’s a theater marquee over the bookstore. My name is up there with my book like a movie. “Frank Chin’s terrific new Gunga Din Highway” up in lights. The illusion of fame. Stardom. If this were New York and not Capitola, I might be fooled. I’ve seen my name up in lights. I’m not a star. I am not famous. I’m glad it’s Capitola.
My host at this bookstore wears a long-sleeved black turtleneck. He has a moustache. He treats me like royalty as soon as I walk in. He shows me to the cafe. He offers me a book as a gift for reading at his store. I see Lawson Inada’s picture on the end of a bookcase facing the children’s book section. I take the collected Hans Christian Andersen and sit down to a cappuccino.
I am introduced as a writer other writers read for my licks and chops. I’ve never been introduced that way before. Don’t be suckered by your own hype, the strategist says. But I can listen.
I come home, and Dana tells me a black kid pulled up the corners of his eyes with his fingers and went “ching chong” at Sam at school.
“What did Sam do?” I ask the obvious.
She tells me Sam asked the kid if he liked him. The kid said, “Yes, Sam, I like you.” “Do you want to be my friend?” “Yes, Sam, I want to be your friend.” “If you want to be my friend, you can’t do that to me anymore. You should remember you were slaves, and white people did to your people what you’re doing to me. And your people didn’t like it and didn’t like being slaves. And you’re not slaves now, and you shouldn’t do that to me. You should think about your history.”
She asked Sam why he had said that, when the kid made a face at him. Sam said he did what he thought Daddy would do. He learned something on the road besides baking powder biscuits and good steak.
The Santa Anas are blowing hot and nasty from the south. The sex life of plants, pollen of all kinds, flies straight for my nose and eyes and gets on my nerves. My nose dribbles like a leaky faucet. My eyes feel like a layer of skin’s been ripped off. I’m building a stick-and-paper balsa wood model again. A Comet kit P-38 Lightning. Yes, this is the plane. A little bean-shaped pod rides on the center of a wing supported by twin boom fuselages with rudders, connected at the back with a long horizontal stabilizer.
The P-38 was a hot plane. I used to see them fly overhead when I was a kid in the country. They were silver jewelry flying formation in the air. I had a bow and arrow from the Woolworth in Placerville. I shot at them. All the arrows came down. I shot again. This arrow did not come down. Whoops. Did I shoot down one of our P-38s? I picked up the arrows and my bow and walked back into the house.
This is the same plane, from this same kit, I built when I was a kid in my room above the restaurant kitchen. It was the largest, most complex plane I’d ever built. Two of everything. Little dinky parts to cut out of thick sheets of balsa with an X-acto razor knife. Saturdays and Sundays I’d get up early with my mother to fire up the stoves and set the tables in the dining room to open up at 7:00 a.m. for breakfast.
Breakfast from 7:00 to 10:00 a.m. I’d go upstairs to my room, open the window, turn on the radio, and tune it to Big John and Sparky, a variety show for smartass kids. “Hey, kids! It’s Saturday, and there’s noooo schooool tooooodaaaaaay!” The theme music was “The Teddy Bear’s Picnic,” 6:30 in the morning to 10:00. Interesting show. Big John was a kind of Arthur Godfrey. How to explain Arthur Godfrey? Arthur Godfrey was a kind of Johnny Carson of radio. Big John and Sparky hosted a variety show. Big John was an adult. Patient. A wealth of knowledge on all subjects. Sparky was a being, puppet, or a helium-voiced ventriloquist’s dummy. (Who could tell? This was radio.) An alien. An orphan. They got along like Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon. They had adventures in time and space together. They did the news. News on a Saturday kid show. They did a geography thing. They did an adventure in an adventure classic, like “The Count of Monte Cristo.” Big John and Sparky was worth getting up early for. Good show.
I worked on my Comet P-38. It was big. It was rubber-powered. It was cheap. No molded plastic parts. No die-cut pieces. All the parts and all the slots and notches and curves on the parts have to be cut by hand. Everything is stick and paper, and the noses and spinners have to be carved from balsa wood blocks. Breakfast service over. Ma shuts down the kitchen and checks the perpetual flame under the big stock pot and goes home or visits some of the family or runs errands, and I stay in my room working on my planes. The Buster Brown Show, with Smiling Ed and Froggy the magic toad, was a weekend radio show, with kid acts, stupid games, and episodes of “Bomba the Jungle Boy.”
To give Sam a taste of the road, we’re going to San Diego for the last reading of my ten-city tour; and to make it an adventure, our friend Al from San Francisco is coming along to hang out. We’ll explore the flavors and bodies of one-barrel and small-batch bourbons in the dining rooms of Fio’s, and Kenny’s Steakhouse, the Dakota Hotel, the U.S. Grant. Good food, good booze, blue skies, crisp sunshine. The zoo. San Diego will be fun.
I promise Sam and our pal Al from Frisco good eating in San Diego. I’m bringing my passport and Sam’s birth certificate so I can give him a first. The first trip across the border.
In the meantime, my 31-year-old daughter has started teaching beginning anthropology at Occidental College. All of the incoming freshmen have been given a copy of Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior, and the climax of their orientation is a talk by Maxine Hong Kingston, live. Betsy goes and tells me Kingston’s new book is called The Fifth Book of Peace. Kingston told the freshmen there are three lost Chinese books of peace. The fourth book of peace is Kingston’s manuscript that was lost in the Oakland Hills fire. The Oakland fire was God’s revenge for what America did to Iraq, in Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm. Kingston said this, according to my usually reliable daughter.
A year or so ago, Ishmael Reed called to tell me Kingston was talking this crazy stuff, and I didn’t believe him. He had to be exaggerating. No one would be so stupid as to so obviously fake an influential Chinese text. There is no Chinese Book of Peace, lost or found. The Oakland fire being God’s revenge for Iraq is too goofy: A friend in Berkeley says Kingston really said it. She was quoted in the Daily Cal. Now Betsy says Kingston said it for a fat fee, speaking at Occidental College.
Then Michelle Huneven reports on Kingston’s talk at Occidental in the L.A. Times Book Review of Sunday, September 4, 1994. Huneven reports as fact that there are three lost Chinese Books of Peace and joins Kingston’s hoax. She reports with a straight face that Kingston sees the Oakland fire as an expression of God’s displeasure with America’s behavior in Iraq. Even after seeing it in print in a reputable newspaper, it’s hard to believe Kingston really said it. That people take her seriously with fat speaking fees is harder to believe.
The fairy tales and books that shaped and influenced Chinese culture don’t get lost. All have been the target of state censorship, revision, and banning. The Chinese state has tried to appropriate, revise, censor, and ban the books that shaped Chinese culture for centuries, and failed. The people keep the books, not the state.
The last time the Chinese state tried to wipe the slate clean and rewrite Chinese culture from scratch was the Cultural Revolution, from 1966 to 1976. All of Chinese culture — including all of the stories I told Sam — was banned in China. In Cambodia all books were burned, all literate beings were killed, the presses smashed, the written language banned. The people — including the people who came to America with the culture and the language in their heads and re-create it now with grade school textbooks handwritten and hand drawn from memory, photocopied and bound into books — keep the texts that shape the culture, not the state. The state will fall. That is the mandate of heaven.
If there was a Book of Peace that had any influence on Chinese history and culture, signs of its influence would show up as citation and allusion in other popular and influential works, and somebody would have found it by now, as surely as the citations and allusions to history in John Okada’s No-No Boy led us to the organized resistance at Heart Mountain concentration camp. No, no Book of Peace in Chinese history. Don’t take my word for it. Check it out. Call your local Chinese language and lit department.
I take my son and my friend to the red brick and stone of the Gaslamp Quarter to show them where we’re going to eat tonight. I don’t want them to walk into Fio’s with their stomachs scared. I do a little restaurant reminiscence. All that red brick, stonework, cast-iron faces, and Victorian dental work are reminiscent of downtown Bellingham, Pioneer Square in Seattle, Chinatown-North Beach in San Francisco. The scariest thing about a strange road or staying in a strange town is choosing a place to eat. My first night out walking San Diego, with nothing to do but find a place to eat, Fio’s was filling fast. Everyone looked happy. I walked in.
The greeter-seater was a Chinese-American young woman, longish hair, a green gown thing with a long skirt with a slit. Basic Amy Tan-Suzie Wong “Enjoy your dinner.” The water glasses are square, with round corners. No butter. You drip olive oil onto your bread. Or you dribble some onto your bread plate and dip. Fio’s is Italian and won’t let you forget it. Big murals of the annual horse race with colors and flags in Sienna take the place of windows around the high walls. The waiters all wear black. Black pants held up with black suspenders. Black shirts with black buttons. No tie. And black aprons. I didn’t see black aprons in Seattle or Portland or San Francisco. Black aprons. The place crackled.
Four well-dressed, effeminate men in ties, with their jackets off, sat at the table across from me pushing a piece of paper back and forth in their animated talking. One had a cellular phone and was using it.
At the table next to me was a larger party of six to eight men who kept their jackets on. Cops? To my right was a table with two men and a woman, all in their gray years. Conventioneers. Name tags on their lapels. The married couple was from New York state. And the man accompanying them was from Rochester. Somehow these New Yorkers discovered each other at the convention and set out to New York this town together. Then they silently read the menu. Fio’s menu is an old book copied by monks in a monastery. Then they read bits of the menu out loud to each other. Fio’s menu reads well. It sounds good read out loud. This menu is written with the understanding that hungry people do not want to eat scientific experiments for dinner. There’s a new-age eclectic tech post-ethnic nouvelle Franco California Japanese Chinese place down the street with a Jekyll and Hyde menu. Items with attractive, yummy titles sound like acts of cruel and monstrous revenge in the descriptions underneath. Fio’s writes a menu with a hand on the heart and an ear to the stomach.
But before the food and booze expedition, I’m reading at a bookstore called the Blue Door.
We grab a taste of sushi to fortify us till dinner, just as Just Sushi opens. I know Sam will eat sushi and miso soup. If he eats up the bread and buns and doesn’t eat any dinner after the reading, I won’t feel bad. The oyster sushi is great. The oysters are fresh, crisp, sweet. Sam has an order of salmon eggs. I have salmon eggs with Sam and sea eel with Al to be sociable. The garlic clam appetizer attracts our attention. If anybody comes to the reading, I won’t stand close to them when I read. The food is good, but the feel of the place, the service, the waitress out front Windexing the windows are listless and groggy. It’s five in the afternoon, but they move like it’s five in the morning or an eclipse has totaled the sun.
We drive over to Hillcrest and find a parking space just beyond where the police are in serious conversation with a young man with a skateboard.
The Blue Door is the most ascetic, the most quixotic bookstore ever to invite me to read. What’s an arty bookstore doing here? This bookseller is in it for the joy of reading. He has no coffeehouse on the premises. Just books. Not a lot of books. He doesn’t have so few books as to be one of those weird little cult stores. But he doesn’t have so many that somebody who reads fast and constantly could not have read and skimmed every title in the shop. People like this don’t need TV. For them the words flow into their eyes and dive into the brain like movies.
I don’t remember the robot piano player at Fio’s, but there it is a few steps inside the door. The silver dummy sits at the baby grand. All through dinner and the rest of the night, all Sam talks about is the stupid dummy seated at the piano. “What do you think of the paintings on the walls?” “That dummy looks stupid.” “There’s a horse race in Sienna every year. Whadda think?” “The dummy’s arms and hands don’t move.” Forget the dummy and piano act. This is a class joint, Sam. The piano keys don’t even sink and spring in the keyboard like a player piano. Yeah, the kid’s right. The dummy seems pointless.
Maybe it’s because of Sam, or because they put us in the nonsmoking section, but tonight Fio’s looks and feels a lot like California Pizza Kitchen. Sam has a pizza. It’s another night. It’s quiet. It’s, half empty or half full, who cares. It’s another place. There’s a healthy young 30s couple who look like they’ve just parked their bicycles.
Al takes the young women sitting at the next table down the banquette to be a high school foreign exchange student and her host. They’re not drinking booze. Yes, they might be high school. The blond has an American accent. The freckled redhead has an accent. She’s from Iceland. They’re not here to chow down. They have salads. Where are the Mexicans? Al wants to know. Where are the blacks? Kids? Sam is the only kid in the restaurant. I think two guys bringing a kid to dinner and having a couple of drinks is easier on the help than one guy bringing a kid to dinner.
I got my first taste of single-barrel bourbons on this trip at Harris Steak House in San Francisco. Blanton 93 proof. Smooth. Tasty. David Ishii Bookseller had a bottle of Wild Turkey Rare Breed, 109 proof. The bookseller had literature on the late-blooming post-Prohibition renaissance of single-barrel and small-batch bourbons.
One interpreter of the poetry of booze, the wine writer for some wine-and-cheese magazine, likes Wild Turkey Rare Breed the best. It’s the single-barrel masterwork of Wild Turkey. It is good. He tastes fruit and nuts in it and describes start, taste, and finish, which I take to mean the difference between the swallow and the plunk. The writer in the December Atlantic tastes apples and cinnamon and nutmeg and vanilla. I like Blanton’s myself. Smooth. Tastes good. Nice slow plunk. The plunk is a spreading warm sensation that oozes on down from the belly to the ends of the toes and slowly bounces back up to the top of your head. The box has a silver horse on it. And the stopper on the bottle is a horse. To call your sour mash whiskey “bourbon,” you used to have to make it in Bourbon County, Kentucky. Now you have to make your whiskey in Kentucky. That’s the law. That’s why Jack Daniel’s does not call itself bourbon. It’s “Tennessee sour mash whiskey.”
The guy in the Atlantic liked Rock Hill Farms the best of the small-batch bourbons. I haven’t tasted Rock Hill yet. Fio’s has Knob Creek. We do a shot of Knob Creek. Al takes a water back. I take soda. The Knob Creek is okay. Just okay. Next we try a double shot of Booker’s. Booker Noe the bourbon is 125 proof. Booker Noe the man is Jim Beam’s grandson. The writers taste orchards of ripe fruit and all the spices of Christmas, but one sip of Booker’s and I taste meat. There is sippin’ whiskey and then this stuff. This stuff you bite off and let melt down your tongue.
The La Pensione. Our room is a living painting by Matisse. He can’t paint it from the dead, where he is, but every time I stay in this room, I see a painting by Matisse. Matisse would like this room. He would paint it. He did the insides of a room with a violin, the insides of a room with a violin case. This would be the insides of a room with overhead fan and TV set. Familiar channels and familiar faces on the TV make the TV our friend, gives the room a sense of home. Sam likes the room. Sam likes the trains. He likes this room because he hears the trains, the bells, and flashers, the hoot and moan of the air horns tuned so they won’t thrill a male moose out onto the tracks to challenge a rival he can’t beat. Railroaders don’t mind splatting a stumblebum cow but take it personally when they crunch a charging moose. Sam runs to the window and looks out, with his camera. He’s there in time to see the locomotives nose into view and cross the intersection. Matisse might not have painted the train crossing the intersection. But he might have painted the tracks as seen through this window. And if he didn’t, I’d buy a cheap print of the painting and paint the tracks in myself, and a train too.
The walls are white. A Kandinsky print over the bed is the only splash of color on the wall. We have the same print at home. The decor is several cuts above plastic plates nailed to the wall.
“We cross the border into Tijuana. Keep up with me,” I tell him. “Stay in sight of Al and me. If you get lost, you’re gone. We’ll never find you. This is another country. Our laws don’t count here. So when I ask you to do something, do it, save your arguments for the other side of the border.”
Sam has never seen steel construction rod sticking out of the tops of walls before. He can’t read the road signs. The street lights make no sense to him. He looks enough like the people here that, yes, he could get lost and never be found here. He’s never seen buildings made out of Rice Krispies and crackers before. The stainless steel sidewalk-vendor’s cart deep-fries crackling old oil. The stacks of battered and fried chicken parts and fish are at his eye level. He’s never been warned about fire hydrants in the middle of the sidewalk before, never seen whores standing around before. Never seen so many people on so many streets. When they walk, and they’re walking all the time, they kick up more than dust. Some are only a couple of inches taller than Sam. That seems to bother him.
I’m not ready for Sam to be this turned off by Tijuana. He refuses to eat here. He’s not comfortable in our friend’s office in the back room of a little grocery store. Our friend has phones like cockroaches all over his desk. He hustles tour packages, in English, with tourist agencies in the U.S. into a phone in one hand and hustles Mexican hotels and restaurants and buses to house, feed, and carry the packaged tourists, speaking Spanish into the phone in his other hand. And spins the tale of his Chinese grandfather to us in between phone conversations.
A woman in a car with Baja plates honks, and we see her face muscling and clenching, apparently shouting at me behind her closed windows. She’s not going to let me cut in front of her in the line of cars pointed bumper to bumper at the border. She honks and shakes her fist, and her face goes through the muscles of shouting.
She inspires me! I jump into waving my arms and silent shouting. She honks some more. She must be really shouting in there. The insides of her car are starting to fog up. She turns on the air conditioning and comes back into view through the fog looking steamed and deep-fried. Sam is not sure what she is doing. He has never seen cars as close together before. He is not sure what I am doing. I am his daddy, and I am driving the family car and acting crazy. A one-legged man hobbles between the lines of cars selling piñatas.
She clenches her teeth and curls her lip. Her eyes go beady. I put my thumbs in my ears, wag my fingers, roll my eyes, and stick my tongue in and out at her. This really offends her. She jogs her car around my intrusion, and I tuck myself in behind her.
After Tijuana, the room, the TV is family. He doesn’t want to leave the room. How about a hot chocolate downstairs in the coffeehouse, while I have an espresso? Okay, just let’s not drive anywhere. The hotel with the coffeehouse downstairs is our friend.
We watch a little TV together before stepping out to eat San Diego clean. Sam wants to stay in the room. No more going out. No hurry. Enjoy the room with TV set by Matisse.
John Wayne shoots an elephant in Hatari? No, he fires a couple of shots in the air from his big gun and scares them away. Sam looks forward to the zoo.
Hey, it’s Wings on the Discovery Channel! “Soar high with the Lockheed P-38!” All right. There’s Kelly Johnson. He and his team of engineers designed the P-38. He looks a little like Boris Yeltsin. By God! Kelly Johnson is Boris Yeltsin’s father! Yeah, the P-38 had a problem with compressibility. In a dive, the air over the top of the wing and the air moving under the wing approach the same speed, the plane loses lift and goes into a spin. Kelly Johnson and the Skunkworks fixed it. In a dive, a little flap opens up on the underside of the wings, slows the air moving under the wing, and restores lift. Here’s a flight of P-38s returning to an air base near Sacramento from a training flight in 1944. One lands with an arrow stuck in its left fuselage. There’s a closeup of the pilot holding the arrow and laughing.
Dakota Hotel. Sam is impressed with the words “Spit-roasted chicken” in the menu.
“It’s the way the Pilgrims used to cook chicken,” Al says. “They stick it in the fireplace, and when it sizzles cuz it’s starting to burn, they spit on it.”
“No,” Sam says. Nobody’s fool. Tonight it seems to be old married couples, grandma and grandpa’s night out on the town. An old Japanese-American couple sits at a table for two against the wall. An old white couple sits by the window.
“You remember Norm Abrams’s wood lathe on The Yankee Workshop on PBS? Instead of a block of wood, you stick a chicken between the points of the lathe, tighten it up, and turn it round and round in front of a flame. That is a spit.”
The Dakota Hotel serves Booker Noe. Booker’s doesn’t do the single for the high proof. Go for the indescribables of taste, warmth, and sentiment of a good booze. There’s art in this booze. McRory’s in Seattle has all the makers in Kentucky and Tennessee, all the single-barrels and small-batch American sour mash whiskies on their shelves.
The bar at Kenny’s Steak House is large and expansive like McRory’s. And they have a selection of single-barrel and small-batch bourbons. At Kenny’s I don’t experiment. Blanton, 93 proof. Fio’s, the Dakota Hotel, the U.S. Grant don’t serve Blanton.
Sam doesn’t want a whiff of the fine whiskies in our hands. He’s still recovering from Tijuana. The decor looks like enlarged ’50s diner. Plastic pudge with stainless steel trim. Barbie and Ken colors.
“You’re crazy,” Sam says.
“Huh? Me, El Daddyisimo?”
“Why’d you make faces at that woman?”
“In the car.”
“So what’s bothering you about Tijuana? We weren’t going to leave you there. And we didn’t get so far in we couldn’t find our way out.”
“The signal with the walking man that’s red, and the walking man that’s green,” Sam says and as soon as he hears himself, he understands the red and green, stop and go lights of the walk signal.
“She was angry at me. I was angry at her. Making faces was better than getting out of the car and beating on her windshield with a hammer. Nobody gets hurt. Nobody’s car gets hurt. Nobody gets arrested.”
“Excuse me, sir, I don’t mean to bother you,” the old white man says by our table, looking from face to face. “But what are you?” He’s more polite than a T-shirt in my face. His wife stands a few steps away, toward the door. This is the depot. This is the border.
“We’re Chinese,” I say.
“All of you?” he asks, a little surprised.
“Yes, we’re all Chinese.”
“I thought so,” he says.
“How was your dinner, folks?” I ask. I nod at the wife.
“Fine,” they say.
And we say “Good night,” smile our depot pidgin lingo smiles. They leave and we stay.
“When’s the last time someone asked you what you are?” I ask Al.
“Years, man. I couldn’t believe it.”
“Most of the time they ask who the hell you think you are,” I say.
“This is California.”
“No, this is the border.”
Breakfast at the U.S. Grant. The hostess waitress who serves us is so flustered Al won’t consider coming back for dinner, no matter how well written the menu. Maybe this just isn’t a breakfast place. This room is designed to be dim. Breakfast is sunny and light, not dim. Sam likes the paintings of famous thoroughbred horses and hunting scenes. Sam loves the bacon. He takes a picture of himself, then a picture of Al and me with his disposable camera.
Waves of Spanish-speaking grade school students in uniforms and their Spanish-speaking teachers pass us in all directions as we trudge our way around the San Diego Zoo. The crowds and the Spanish don’t bother Sam here. Maybe all that bothered him about Tijuana was the mystery of the red and green walking men. He doesn’t share my attraction to San Diego and the border. What attracts me is hard to share, even in the restaurants and places I like. Why did Fio’s and the Dakota Hotel and the U.S. Grant all turn into plastic Denny’s when I show up with Sam and our pal Al?
I come to the U.S. Grant for dinner, alone. “I probably shouldn’t say this, but I think I’m in love with you” resonates from a booth. I overhear that a lot when I come into places like this alone. San Diego is a city for loners, a city for strangers, for lovers on the sneak. That’s the dream in dreamy bars and grills like this that don’t quite fill up.
Every booth is a pudgy, high-walled leather scallop shell. Privacy. It’s like sitting in the belly of a buffalo. The waiter appears and disappears efficiently without sneering or lecturing or becoming personally acquainted or phony small talk. This is the service Al missed. The menu, the good food, the booze, and the service, especially the service, the well-groomed, well-oiled waiter, expertly noncritical, authoritatively nonthreatening, a specific waiter, and anonymous human being work to make everyone who sits in the bellies of these booths escape. There are no crises here. No questions of identity here. In this booth, I am king. And on the road, reading from my book, spending the night in San Diego because I’m not ready to take my pants off and sleep in Tijuana, the stories I tell Sam about the boy born in the peach, the boy born in the lotus, the old woman and her dumpling to ready him for the road, seem to be about me. The peach is a car. The lotus is a booth in the Grant Grill, and I am the boy in its belly.
The hotel room is a painting by Matisse. The walls are white, and the room is full of reflected light. Through a window there’s a bit of the outside world buttered with sunlight.