The following are notes on a Chinese immigrant in the Land of Elsewhere. American correspondent to Elsewhere Department of Immigration, signing off.
Huan-Yue practically screams when she's making a point, comes up to you while you're in the middle of a difficult task, just when you've nearly cracked it, to shove paper in your face and demand that you learn some arduous process RIGHT THEN, explains things to you and when you've told her you completely understand, goes ahead and explains it 3 to 7 more times, and when she's discovered a minor oversight on your part, won't accept “oh, yeah, I was just distracted, I'll fix it right now” for an answer and laughs nervously while pointing it out to you another 6 to 23 times until you have to say, much more forcefully than is really acceptable, “MHMM, GOT IT” and rudely break eye contact with her to end the cycle.
She also has a habit of coming up behind you like a ghost and standing in your blind spot clutching papers, so that when you finally notice her you almost jump out of your skin, and before you have time to catch your breath and recover from the horror, launches into a tirade you then have to rewind back a few minutes in your brain to understand what the hell it is she's even talking about before later shivering and wondering, “how the fuck long was she standing there?” or “was I muttering to myself again?” and running off to the bathroom to stare deeply into your own reflection in perturbation.
Today she ran up to me in shock and nervous tension to tell me all about how someone had used an old address on a form, while I was working on the most anxiety provoking and painstaking task of the year with a deadline looming tomorrow after which the apocalypse will happen if every missing dime isn't accounted for. (Seriously, I spent hours looking through spreadsheets and queries for a misplaced dollar.)
It would be easy to think that maybe people wouldn't like Huan-Yue or would find her a bit difficult to take, but that's simply not the case. Everyone loves Huan-Yue, screams and neuroses and quirks and all, because she's one of the brightest, happiest and most caring people most of us have ever met.
Huan-Yue has lived in the U.S. since the 1970s, which puts her at right about 30 years old when she moved here. She was born in Taiwan in 1949, the same year Taiwan was born. She told me this with a wide smile. “Taiwan will always be same old as me!” Despite that, Huan-Yue doesn't buy all of the pleas for Taiwanese independence. She was born and raised there, sure, but they were always Chinese culturally and ethnically, and learned Chinese history and language in school. After all, Taiwan was only born when she was. China is an ancient cultural behemoth. No, she thinks. It's not good for Taiwan to gain its independence. They are China, and always will be. But, when people debate it, she remains silent and listens and nods her head. “They have opinions, me, I don't really care!”
Huan-Yue doesn't really care about a lot of things. Which is to say, she cares, but at the end of the day she'll shrug her shoulders and let things be what they will.
Huan-Yue is an atheist, but a devoted member of a Chinese Buddhist group which she visits with every week, and which does video conferencing with other Buddhist groups around the country, and with prominent Buddhist thinkers. She clearly thinks a lot of the Buddhist lifestyle and beliefs are impractical and silly, and simply not true, but something about it attracts her. Most people in Taiwan are Buddhist, and cultural identity must be a big part the draw for her. Still, she laughs about her Buddhist friends who live life with such docility that they literally won't hurt a fly. Bugs make her feel uncomfortable and she'll kill them with impunity. She feels no guilt about this, and thinks the other way of living is just bit baffling. Show her the fly-swatter. She's also not a big fan of the vegetarian aspect of Buddhism. I'm a vegetarian and she takes it as a personal challenge to find and deliver to me things I can eat, often throwing her hands up in frustration and demanding of me, “what you can eat?!” Huan-Yue admires Buddhists because she thinks living the way they do means they have a “soft heart”, and she says she would love to do it, but she's just not ready. So, she goes to just be with them, learn from them, create a community with them, and to use the teachings of Buddha “for reference.” Right now she's donning a five color Buddhist bracelet along with the rest of the members of her group. Someone asked her what the significance was for the five colors and she just kind of looked away and ignored them before saying, “but it's pretty, isn't it?”
Huan-Yue is always looking after the people around her whether it be her husband, who she says she doesn't much care for and it doesn't much matter, her sons, who she says don't much care for her and it does matter, people in her neighborhood and larger community, the Buddhists, and, of course, me and the other people she works with.
Every afternoon Huan-Yue reminds me that I should eat lunch, without fail. Every evening she reminds me that I should go home. If I don't eat lunch soon enough, she'll remind me again. If I don't leave work soon enough, she'll remind me again, and when I tell her it's fine, she'll worry that I'll venture out into the night a vulnerable young woman and wind up with a knife in my chest. She's always sticking around to give people rides home, because she has to be certain they will get home safely. Whenever I'm sick, she tells me of some Chinese remedy I should try, usually involving boiling things for an hour, things I don't have, like fresh ginger or sweet onions, and drinking the broth. She brings things for me to eat, like purple sweet potatoes and daikon patties she's made herself, and she drops bunches of packets of green tea on my desk at least twice a month.
Green tea is a major component of health for Huan-Yue. Take your pills, take your vitamins, throw in some acupuncture for the occasional allergy, and wash it all down with near constant consumption of green tea, the best of which, of course, can only be found in Taiwan. At this point, I have a drawer half full of green tea packets and Huan-Yue has purchased an electric kettle for her desk to encourage the habit in herself and others. Not only does she supply me with tea, but she doles it out to most of the office so that now she's cultivated a minor tea addiction in a good portion of the staff, and people are shuffling back and forth from her desk all day in search of their next fix. I think this makes Huan-Yue feel much better about everyone's general health. She's always complaining that Americans like ice in everything, and that it's an awful habit that over time will completely fuck you up internally. The other day someone offered her a popsicle and she practically screamed, “too colorful!” and shook her head furiously in answer. Popsicles fail the health test on two levels, cold that will inevitably ruin your body and your life, and colors, because... just fuck colors.
Speaking of colors, Huan-Yue is slightly racist. I don't like to say this, because saying someone is racist is pretty much as bad as saying someone is capable of baby murder, and Huan-Yue is a genuinely good person, whose racism is mostly well-meaning and harmless. I never really used to understand people who made excuses for racists, but here I go, I'm there now and I kind of get it.
Huan-Yue has a grandson who is half Mongolian, and who is the apple of her eye. Last week it was his birthday, and she told me excitedly how she was going to Skype in to his birthday party in Mongolia over the weekend. She is constantly showing me new pictures and videos of the kid doing cute things, like playing with his cousins, or taking his first wobbly steps, or his first wobbly horse-ride with mom. She also sometimes brings up pictures of him, closes in on his eyes and proclaims, “see?! Mongolian!” and shakes her head sadly in distaste. She really does not like the fact that her grandson looks Mongolian, and no matter how much I insist that he's really and truly the cutest, and that his eyes are fine, she won't believe me and thinks I'm just saying it to make her happy. I like to think this has less to do with an ancient Chinese hatred of Mongolians, and more to do with the fact that he'll grow up here in the states and have to deal with racism from the asian community and racism from the rest of us, constantly dealing with not looking like anyone he'll go to school with or ever see around, barring his own mother. I like to think that it's a protective instinct toward a grandson she obviously adores. Still, it's disquieting and must be mentioned.
Despite all of the green tea, last month Huan-Yue had a health scare. It looked like she might have cancer. It scared the hell out of me, but didn't seem to bother her much. She opted to postpone further testing until she had gone on vacation and enjoyed herself because she didn't want to be thinking about it the whole trip if it didn't turn out in her favor. I spent a bunch of time reading about our insurance and what would be best were she to be diagnosed with cancer, and she shrugged and said she didn't care much cuz she'd signed up for a good life insurance plan, not too high mind you, because she didn't want her sons having too much money and becoming lazy. But she said she was fine with dying, she'd lived long enough, and that she would never do chemotherapy treatments because it was a waste of time and money.
Her cavalier attitude to cancer and dying blew my mind. She wouldn't budge when I pleaded that treatments might be able to really change her life, and she should consider the possibility that she could live many more years even with cancer, or even be cured. She just frowned at me and didn't see the point in bothering so much about it. I watched her over the weeks, and nothing about her demeanor changed. She was still focused and cheerful and thinking mostly about others, bothering me to drink tea and eat lunch, the same as ever. If anything happened to the woman, it would break everyone's heart. But luckily, she was fine, and seeing the way she handles things she may even outlive me.
Everyone here loves Huan-Yue because she's always genuinely enthusiastic and honest without being mean or shaming about things. She doesn't beat around the bush, both because she doesn't care to and her command of the language doesn't allow for a lot of softly put fuck yous. She's just got her way, and fuck popsicles and vegetarianism, the American obsession with living forever (although she does dye her hair black, so the youth cult may have claimed her to some degree), and, regrettably, Mongolian facial features. So, even when she's openly rejecting the deeply held beliefs of her Buddhist friends or American food and customs, or screaming a little bit about a forgettable piece of office documentation, she does it so openly and with such innocence and total lack of malice that you just can't help but love the woman.