Back in engineering school, the make-up of the student body I interact with contains 90% of Asian men, the other 10% belongs to Asian women, Indian, and white men. As a result, American women remains a mysterious demography to me. I often found myself at a loss of words at parties when I ended up standing next to a group of American women. The topics were way beyond me: makeup, hair-dos, fashion, William-Sonoma, pop-singers, etc. etc.. In a similar fashion, I’m not a fan for Oprah’s Book Club, either. Next to the red label of Oprah’s Book Club on any book cover, every sentence printed was punctuated with an exclamation mark. It reminded me of revolutionary slogans from Chinese Communist Party. “Worship the women hero Liu Hu Lan! Die for Your Party Is the Ultimate Honor!”
Maybe it all has nothing to do with what I studied in college. Maybe I distance myself from celebrity’s book choices because Oprah’s choice represented the “in crowd,” while I always belonged to the out-out non-crowd. I have no need for support groups. Let it be Jesus or Oprah.
I picked up “White Oleander” half-heartedly. Partly inspired by my love for “The Lovely Bones.” They seem to belong to the same category : “chick-lit.” I hoped it would be entertaining, at least.
“White Oleander” had the misfortune of coming after “The Third Man” on my listening list. Comparing to Greene’s masterful voice and effortless precision of word choices, “White Oleander” seemed clumsy and cluttered. Fumbling for the right expression as if a child fumbling in the dark for a light switch.
As the story unfolds, I glue to my tape player closer and closer. This very biographical sounding first novel maybe written by a novice, but it is also blessed with the originality of a novice. We were shown one foster home after another as the main character, teenager Astrid, made her way through the child foster care system. Unlike what I’ve seen on tv, her foster families weren’t monsters. They were remarkably ordinary. They were no angels, nor geniuses, but they weren’t devils, either. I’m about half way into the book and have met two of Astrid’s foster mothers : Starr, an ex-topless dancer, and ex-alcoholic, gave Astrid a home in her trailer; Marvel, a Mary-Kay sales person lives in an ugly tortoise-colored suburban house; Claire, an ex-actress led a sheltered and fragile existence. In each household, Astrid sees people and the world around her with curiosity and keen eyes. I like her frank voice and I grow to love her sensitivity, her vulnerability and her slowly acquired courage and sense of self.
Life is not fair. She does what she can to survive. A child without family, a child that no one really cares about, she instinctively follows her heart, which is her only compass, navigates the madness and cruelty of the world, and struggles to hope, and to dream. Through all these, she grows up.
Traditional Chinese community values self-sufficiency and hard work. We were taught since we were young that as long as we work hard, we would be independent and strong. We are almost natural born Republicans, especially the first generation immigrants. We came here without money, background, and couldn’t even speak the language. Working part time, going to community college, getting good grades, studying practical majors in college, then we graduated and started earn ourselves a living. Car, house, family. Then we looked at the homeless on the street and say, if I could do it why can’t you? You had so much more advantage than us in this society. Why did you choose to do drugs and to be lazy? Why should I give up my hard-earned money so you could have a roof above your head? Go earn it, man! If I could do it, so could you.
The first person that managed to stop me continuing down this road was a ski instructor in Aspen. Astrid in White Oleander reminds me of him. Clay, that was his name. There is far worse misfortunate than being poor or speaking broken English.
Two co-workers and I joined a skiing program in Aspen. Our instructor was Clay. He followed the three of us around all day, correcting our skiing poses, pointing out our weaknesses, and giving us individual lessons on how to improve. Clay was outgoing, talkative, a great skier and really understood physiology. On the second day, I complained that my back hurt. He pulled out a pair of small rubber wedges and inserted them into the heel of my boots, below the linings. “I’ve noticed that when you ski, your body naturally hunched forward.” He explained to me as he was working on my boots. “That means the center of your body is slightly leaning forward. These wedges will act like a kind of high-heels for you, so they will help you lean forward without putting so much pressure on your back.” It worked like a miracle. My back pain vanished. I still have those two pieces of wedges in my ski boots till this day. Needless to say, we all loved him.
One day we were in the wood cabin on the mid-mountain, having lunch. Clay suddenly turned shy and asked what we did for a living. We started talking about computers and college. He started telling us shyly that he wanted to sell a particular kind of screen door on-line since being a ski instructor only pays half of the year. He has a family to support and so he has been doing some carpentry work around town during summer time. With a web site, he probably can do carpentry all year-round. “Skiing is too dangerous.” He shook his head, “I’m dreading of hurting myself one of these days. The health-care package from the resort is not that great.” Our conversation somehow trailed to getting an engineering education. I said lightly, “It is easy. Anyone could do it. You can start with community college and work your way up.” “It is not that easy if you had an alcoholic mother and a womanizer father.” Clay snapped back. “It sure isn’t easy if you had to fend off a beating every night just because they had a fight.”
I was silenced.
It turned out that Clay started skiing when he was in the youth correction program. He fell in love with it. “Skiing is one sport that rewards aggressive behavior.” He smiled. He joined the local skiing team and later started working in the resort as an instructor. He fell in love with a fellow-skier, who happened to be the local Sheriff’s daughter. His eyes beamed whenever he talked about her. He was still so in love with her. And recently they just had a baby daughter. His eyes turned so tender, “She is an angel.” His voice trailed off and he fell into some deep thought. He looked up to us and said seriously, “I’m going to give her a life, a childhood and stable family that I’ve never had.”
Clay’s story left deep impression in my mind. Yes, there is far worse misfortunate than being poor or speaking broken English. I have been fortunate to be blessed with a stable childhood and loving parents, I have been blessed with a strong will. Some people are not so lucky.
Clay and Astrid are still the lucky ones. They are strong. They had strayed on their paths but they made it back all right. As Clay has pointed out, the misery stopped with him. He would not propagate irresponsibility and misery to his children.
My life has been like a dream, under comparison. I wonder if I could be as strong and adaptive as Astrid or Clay if life one day decides to deal me a tougher set of cards.
“(suicide)… is against my religion.”Astrid said to Claire.
“What religion is that?” Claire asked.
“I’m a survivalist.”