Strings Attached

Fred and I are only a few weeks away from our inaugural trip to Hong Kong as a couple, and I’m in the Hale Manoa lounge listening to my Chinese friend Annie recount her first visit home to Malaysia with her fiancé. Her story is a cautionary tale that strikes terror into my introverted American heart, especially after three months of cohabitation with Fred in a dorm room. First up for her was the language barrier. Annie had to translate between her fiancé and her extended family because her fiancé, a fourth-generation Chinese in Hawaii, speaks only English. “To make matters worse,” she says, “he doesn’t act Chinese either.” When he disappeared from family gatherings, her brothers took Annie aside and asked, “Who is this guy? We don’t like him.”

When she found her fiancé curled up in another room reading comic books, she told him he needed to get out there with her family and pronto. He protested that it didn’t matter if he were present because no one was talking to him anyway, to which she replied, “That’s not the point! You have to show you’re part of the family, so smile and act interested even if you don’t understand anything!”

“Wow, I don’t think I can pull that off! I don’t speak Cantonese, and I don’t do communal,” I tell her. “I need sanity tips!”

Annie has a brilliant suggestion: “Plan a retreat in the middle of your trip, a romantic hotel for a couple of days. Then you can get away, just the two of you, and come back and hang out with his family.”

I do some research online and come up with Macau as the solution. It’s only an hour away from Hong Kong by boat, so I figure we can zip over and back. I make a list of hotels. When Fred gets home from the music department that evening, I explain the plan while he cooks dinner. He doesn’t even stop to consider before he shrugs and says, “It won’t work.”

“What do you mean it won’t work? I think it’s a great idea. Just explain that we’re taking a break to sightsee because it’s my first trip and we’ll be back.”

“I can try, but I’m telling you it won’t work. I know my family.” “Promise me you’ll at least try.” I can see that I will have to take charge of our travel plans.

* * *

We arrive in Hong Kong late on the evening of December 25. Fred’s younger brother, Bernie, meets us outside the baggage claim area. Slight, quiet, and earnest to Fred’s round, loud, and boisterous, Bernie greets me in British-inflected English. I would never suspect that they, the financial specialist and the musician scholar, are siblings. I climb into the back seat of Bernie’s BMW and gawk at the city’s vertical landscape while we navigate a series of winding and ascending roads that twist like ribbons suspended in midair, all from what I can only think of as the wrong side of the road. Bernie asks me a few polite questions in English before they lapse into Cantonese. Exhausted, I lean back into the leather seat, relieved to disappear for the time being.

Halfway up the steepest hill, Bernie turns into a driveway that leads to a garage under one of the many spire-like buildings stag- gered up the mountainside. We climb out and wheel our suitcases into a glass-encased vestibule, past a uniformed guard who nods, and into an elevator that whisks us up twenty-something stories to a polished marble hall with a door on either end. A sweet-faced Filipina woman opens the door.

“Hey, Stella,” Fred says. “This is Heather.”

“Hello, ma’am,” she says, smiling and then ducking back into what I glimpse is the kitchen.

While we remove our shoes inside the foyer, I meet Bernie’s family: his wife, Amy; her mother, Auntie Po; and Michelle and Jeffrey, Bernie’s pre-teen children. They wear pajamas and robes, waiting to greet us like the receiving line at a wedding. Hello, hello. How was your flight? Did you sleep on the plane? Have you eaten? Fred high-fives the kids and launches himself at the adults for hugs. I, as usual, try to follow suit and end up somewhere between a stiff embrace and an awkward handshake. From their peremptory back pats, I can tell that these are not hugging people. Neither am I, although I would like to be. Hawaii is a huggy, kissy culture, but some part of me — a cheek, an arm — seems forever in the wrong position.

Amy points to a row of neatly arranged hotel slippers, and I slip on a pair that’s so big I must ski-walk to keep them on. At home in Hawaii, we go barefoot in the house, but maybe bare feet are considered unhygienic here. I don’t see any Christmas decorations and feel a bit sad to miss my favorite holiday. Amy wipes the wheels of our suitcases with a cloth before we roll them across the shiny wood floor of the entry and down the hall. She opens the first door on the right; we deposit our suitcases between the bed and the closet, filling the only space left in the room except a sliver between the single bed and the desk. Amy and Bernie duck out, leaving Fred and me alone. “Look,” I say, “It’s my dorm room, only fancy! Well, except for the Mickey Mouse comforter. Whose room is this?”

“It’s Jeffrey’s room,” says Fred.

“But where is Jeffrey going to sleep?”

“In Michelle’s room. They both have two beds. See?” He pulls out a lower trundle.

“Is that OK?” My sister and I once shared a room twice this size and fought like ferrets. I’d never considered sleeping in a room with either of my brothers.

“Don’t worry. This is what they always do. They don’t mind.”

Oh boy, I’m thinking. Trundle beds. I already feel like a child, and the tight accommodations are not helping.

Fred says, “You can use the bathroom and go to bed first. I need to stay up for a while and talk with Bernie.” He sets the desk chair aside so the bottom trundle can be pulled out completely. We’re now wall-to-wall in beds. “The hot water switch is outside the door,” he says, pointing down the hall as he heads back to the dining room.

Dismissed from family duty, I gather my toiletries and walk down the dark hall to the bathroom, where I confront the mystery of multiple light switches. Unable to figure them out and unwilling to re-enter the knot of family at the dining room table, I take a cold sponge bath in reflected light from the window and then eenie-meenie between the two flush buttons on the Toto toilet. Back in Jeffrey’s room, I look down from the bay window to see what looks like a toy racetrack, street, and cars far, far below. I stretch out on the top trundle, Mickey comforter pulled up to my chin. Couldn’t we have stayed in a hotel? This is not at all how I imagined our trip.

When I emerge in the morning, I find the adults already sit- ting around the table. Fred, Bernie, and Auntie Po share sections of the South China Morning Post and drink tea or coffee. I don’t have a robe, so I’m dressed, but everyone else is still in robes and slippers. Fred wears the same shorts and T-shirt he sleeps in at home. Breakfast is a quiet affair, with Stella flitting in and out, serving us coffee, square white bread, butter and jam, boiled ham slices, and oatmeal. Jeffrey and Michelle appear one at a time, and within minutes individual breakfasts appear before them: eggs for one, oatmeal for the other. I skim the front page of the paper, marveling at their calm indifference to being served. Unused to being waited on, I flinch each time Stella calls me “ma’am.” I feel guilty when she picks up my dishes and when I’m told to leave out my dirty clothes for her to wash and iron.

Midmorning, we all head for “Number 10,” as Fred and Bernie call their parents’ house, for the Lau family’s annual Christmas party. Fred and I leave our suitcases behind at Bernie’s and bring only our backpacks for staying on Cheung Chau, the island where Fred grew up and his parents live. The first stage of getting to Number 10 requires piling into two taxis that whisk us to down to the harbor and boarding a crowded hydrofoil passenger ferry that bounces us for thirty minutes across the choppy channel and makes my stomach churn. Fred explains that the older, larger, more stable ferry (the one I will much prefer in the future) takes closer to an hour. Then we weave on foot through streets clogged with people and bicycles because, with the exception of miniature emergency vehicles and delivery carts, there are no cars on Cheung Chau. When I complain that even old ladies refuse to yield to pedestrians headed in the opposite direction, Fred says only Americans expect to walk in a straight line. “You have to weave,” he says. Finally, we climb up a series of ramps and staircases that leave me huffing for breath.

At a break in the stairs, Fred opens a metal gate into a tiled courtyard overhung with laundry. A din of voices grows louder and louder as we walk past an outdoor sink and through a tiny kitchen before we plunge into a sea of relatives and noise. I am four again, hiding behind my mother’s legs from looming adults as I clutch Fred’s arm. There must be thirty people in a room the size of my double dorm room, people calling out greetings to Fred and pumping my hand, shouting questions in English and Cantonese. When Fred’s mother hugs me, I am startled at how much she and her son look alike, with their square shoulders, broad faces, and round, merry eyes. His father shyly nods at me, and in him, I see Bernie’s leanness and seriousness. I meet Fred’s sisters Susanna and Mimi and their husbands, his cousins, and his nieces and nephews. Fred presents his aunts and uncles to me by numbers rather than names — Big Aunt, Second Aunt, Third Uncle — and I vaguely remember a lesson in my Chinese class about kinship terms for paternal and maternal relatives. The aunts and uncles all look similar to me, and I wonder first if I’ll ever be able to tell them apart, then if I’m being racist to think that. Fred tells his second uncle and aunt, who lived in Beijing, that I’m taking Mandarin classes, and they fire questions at me in Mandarin. I freeze and can’t think of a single phrase I’ve learned beyond “Ni hao.”

Over the commotion, I ask him, “Why is everyone so loud?” “Renao! ” he shouts in my ear. “Hot and noisy! It’s festive! Happening!” He has explained renao to me before, but it’s my first immersion. As usual, I’m better at theory than practice.

Soon I am relegated to the role of negligible moon as Fred is swept up in the planetary mass of his family, the electromagnetic field of Cantonese. I catch the eye of Josie, the Filipina maid who has whisked away our bags. She smiles widely in what I take as sympathy for a fellow outsider. I smile back in gratitude. Macau is looking like salvation, my secret talisman to get me through the upcoming two weeks.

When everyone leaves at last, we retreat. We get the room at the end of the hall because I am Meigwokyun (American). I hear him talking to his mother in Cantonese but using the word “privacy” in English. She looks puzzled then says, “Hóu, hóu, hóu” and leads us to the room that Fred explains once belonged to his paternal grandmother. Being at the end of the hall means that we have a bathroom to ourselves, at least in theory. Also, we have mothballs.

“How can they stand it?” I ask once the door is closed. “Stand what?”

“This room smells like I’m inside a mothball! I’m pretty sure it’s toxic to be breathing this.”

“They think it smells good. You’re too sensitive.” He says this with a smile, but I sense it’s time to rein in my complaints. I imagine my former students with their horrendous immigration stories, my Peace Corps friends with their tiny backpacks and linguistically talented tongues, Jenny with her internationally stationed parents, my Hale Manoa classmates with their happy communalism. They could all do this. Despite my wishful thinking, I’m still a middle-aged woman steeped in my mother’s germ phobias and my Texas-sized sense of space. My sensitivity to smells, noise levels, and crowds exasperates even me and is not helping me to fit in. My sister, the special education teacher, says there are clinical terms for hypersensitive people like me.

Although everyone has treated me with kindness and warmth, I’m painfully aware of not being the first “wife” Fred has brought home to Number 10. I search for traces of his marital past in the photos that appear under glass and in frames on every surface, finding nothing. His past has been excised.

A dark, heavy dresser, an armoire, and oversize bunk beds crowd the room. The top bunk is stuffed from mattress to ceiling with stored blankets and clothes, impermeable to moths. I sink onto the lower bunk and land with a thunk. “Whoa! This bed is like a rock!”

He laughs, patting the bed. “Chinese bed. I love it.” “You grew up sleeping on the floor. I like soft.”

“Spoiled haole girl,” he says. I detect an unfamiliar edge to his voice. There’s a single knock, and before we respond, his mother enters.

She hands him a tall jar full of what looks like brown sludge and urges him to drink. To me, she says “Good! Drink!” pointing to him and miming how he should down the tonic. I sigh. So much for privacy.

After the Christmas gathering, Bernie and Mimi’s families ferry back to their apartments and jobs in the city. Susanna, Fred’s youngest sister, and her Chinese-Pakistani husband, Gulam, are visiting from Singapore with their two children, and they stay on at Number 10. That makes twelve to fourteen people for meals, depending on who’s coming or going, in a room the size of an American walk-in closet. Two framed sets of ancestors gaze down on us from near the ceiling, and a small altar sits on a table near the door beneath a dangling red light bulb. At the table, I am sandwiched against the far wall between Fred and his father, a spot that will be mine from now on. Like clowns in a circus car, we can exit the dining area only in the order we come in.

Before each meal, Josie, Fred’s mother, and his aunts pull metal-legged stools from beneath the large round table and place recycled computer paper on the table for placemats. Taking bowls and chopsticks from the hutch in the corner, they set a blue and white rice bowl, a pair of red plastic chopsticks, and a Chinese soup spoon at each place. For our first communal meal, a small plate and a slightly bent salad fork appear at my place at the table. Fred points to the plate and questions his mother, who laughs and quickly provides me with a bowl and chopsticks like everyone else.

“What was that about?” I whisper.

“She thought you might not know how to use chopsticks. I told her everyone in Hawaii knows how to use them.”

We pass our bowls to Third Uncle, who sits closest to the rice cooker. He fills the bowls and passes them back. In the center of the table, Josie has placed plates full of chicken, pork, vegetables, shrimp, and two small fish. Fred’s mother deftly detaches the head of one of the fish with her chopsticks, then reaches across the table to plop it on top of my rice. The fish and I eye each other for only a moment before Fred scoops the head from my rice and deposits it in his mother’s bowl. He says, “She wanted you to have the best part. I told her Americans don’t eat that.” I duck my head in embarrassment. She shrugs and laughs.

In Asian restaurants in Hawaii, I’m used to eating family-style, where everyone shares the dishes. Eating at Number 10 is different in ways that would horrify my mother, the nurse. No serving chopsticks to protect us from germs, everyone reaching across the table to take what they want, all talking at once and with their mouths full. Without knives, everyone but me mysteriously separates chicken and fish bones from meat inside of their mouths and then spits the bones directly onto the paper placemats. I try not to see the mounting piles of bones, not to think about germs moving from mouths to serving dishes and back again. “Home style,” Fred has explained. Not restaurant style. Although I am deft with Louisiana crawfish, and I grew up eating Dungeness crabs, I’m baffled about how to eat unshelled shrimp covered in sauce.

Paralyzed by my middle-class American upbringing — Don’t talk with your mouth full! Don’t reach across the table! Don’t raise your voice! Don’t spit out food! — I meekly eat the deboned pieces of fish and the peeled shrimp Fred piles onto my rice. I smile but hate feeling like a toddler or a baby bird.

In the ensuing days, Fred’s mother breezes in and out of our room with only a cursory knock as she opens the door. She comes to ask questions, to bring him tonics, to use the bathroom, to see how we’re doing. When she leaves, I complain that she’s invading my personal space. “She just walks in! What if we’re not dressed? Why can’t she knock and wait for an answer?”

Fred snorts and says, “This is family! What personal space? There is no personal space in a Chinese family. There isn’t even a word for that in Cantonese!”

“That’s not true. I learned some words in Mandarin for privacy, so there must be equivalents in Cantonese.”

“Those all mean bad things, like secretive and clandestine. Families have nothing to hide, so you don’t need it.”

I’m getting nowhere with my argument, and there’s more. My sweet, passionate, funny lover of two years is somebody else at Number 10. In Cantonese his voice is louder and gruffer, his gestures more theatrical and brisk. In Hong Kong, he shows less affection in public; he stays up late with his family while I go to bed; he instructs me in how to act Chinese: pour the tea, shake Uncle or Aunt’s hand, help clear the table, say good morning / joh sun. I long to be an ideal traveler, guest, and future wife, so I appreciate him teaching me the cultural ropes. I could have used that kind of instruction in my last marriage, when I was dropped cold into an alcoholic family. Yet here at Number 10, the independent American in me prickles, retreats into hurt silences, and accuses him of making me feel clumsy and stupid. At home, I’m in charge of my life, and I like it that way.

A few days into our visit, I manage to get Fred alone on a walk. We head down toward the main street, where we buy a skewer of fish balls. The size of a quarter and made with mackerel or cod pulverized into a sticky paste combined with soy sauce, chicken broth, and sesame oil, fish balls are a favorite snack on Cheung

Chau. I bite into one. “Hou sik!” Delicious! Then I prod, “When are you going to tell her?”

“Are you sure? I really don’t think this is going to work.”

“You promised! Just tell her we’ll leave for only two days. It’s my first trip here. Tell her you want to show me around.” Sigh- ing, he leaves to find his mother. In a few minutes, he’s back and shuffling his feet.

“So? Was it OK? What did she say?”

“She thought it was a great idea.” He pauses, takes a deep breath. “We’re all going the day after tomorrow.”

“All of us?” Surely I’d heard that wrong.

“Just Mom and Dad, Bernie and Amy, Sue and Gulam, Mimi and the kids. She called Bernie, and he said he has a hotel deal, so he can get the rooms.”


“Sorry! Sorry!” he says, turning up his palms. “I told you it wouldn’t work. C’mon. It’ll be fun.” I’m too astonished to sulk.

It’s dawning on me that here I have no control over anything, including my time and our relationship.

* * *

Two days later, fifteen of us gather at the terminal in Hong Kong to board a high-speed ferry to Macau. We stay at the Sheraton Grand Macau using Bernie’s business connections. When Fred and I close the door to our room and set down our luggage, I take a deep breath and think maybe this won’t be so bad after all. At least we have a room to ourselves, and a rather palatial one at that. Immediately, there’s a knock at our door. Fred’s mother and sisters tumble in, explore our bathroom, lounge on our beds, and rearrange the pillows. They admire my new jade bracelet and recommend White Flower Lotion for the still-visible bruises on my wrist bone. Susannah lifts my arm and says to Fred, “You really didn’t know it wouldn’t come off?”

Fred says, “How would I know?”

Five minutes after they leave, the phone rings. Fred answers, “Wei?” He talks for a few minutes and hangs up. “That was my mother wanting to know if the kids could sleep in our room.” I glare. He throws his hands up in front of him. “Don’t worry! I told her it wouldn’t work.” I suspect he also said something about the antisocial habits of Americans, but I’m stretched so far beyond accommodation I no longer care how that makes me look. Are they trying to keep us apart? How does anyone manage intimacy in a family like this?

I’m hoping that perhaps Fred and I can sneak off for dinner alone, but Bernie has made reservations for the family in a Macanese restaurant. The interior is decorated in blue and yellow tile-work that reminds me of Mexico, except Mexico was where I’d had solo adventures in my past life, and this adventure is far from that. Once we’re seated at two long tables pushed together end to end, Bernie and Fred confer on the ordering. We eat family style, passing dishes of Portuguese chicken bathed in curry and coconut milk; tamarind pork; and arroz gordo with hard-boiled eggs, raisins, and olives. A serious meat-fest. For me, the lone vegetarian/pescatarian, Fred orders steamed fish and bok choy with mushrooms, but even those dishes must be shared. I feel like I’m eating porridge at a feast, but my deprivation looks less pathetic when the waiter brings the pitcher of sangria Fred ordered. Then Fred pours everyone a half glass so all the adults can have a taste.

I down mine and look longingly at what’s left in the glasses of the others after they take only a single sip. What a waste, I think.

Fifteen strong, we’re an unwieldy millipede walking together through the old sections of the city, but I’m still charmed by the lovely black and white mosaic pavement covering the main plaza, the yellow and pink colonial buildings with their white piping. It’s amazing that we have reached the main plaza at all, given that, at nearly every corner along the way, there have been raucous disagreements, with lots of pointing in different directions. I pull Fred aside to ask, “Why does your family have to fight about everything? They can’t even get down the street without yelling at each other!”

“What do you mean, fighting?” he says, leaning back in astonishment. “We’re not fighting — just having a discussion! And if I don’t go back and participate, they’ll think I don’t care.” He dives back into the flurry as I watch from the sidelines, puzzling over how intense, non-smiling faces, arm-waving, and raised voices can be friendly discussion rather than signals of anger. In my family, yelling at each other resulted in our mouths being washed out with soap or in spankings with a wooden spoon (mostly me because I yelled the loudest). Once on vacation, when the bickering in the back seat got to be too much, my mother told my brother and sister and me to get out and walk home from the Dakota Badlands. As adults, we resort to indirection and sarcasm when dissension rises between us.

I admire honesty and directness, but I’m programmed to be diplomatic and polite. Once, when I chided Fred for not thanking me for something, he told me it’s rude to say thank you all the time in a Cantonese family, that thank you is for strangers. “In a family,” he said, “You’re expected to say what you mean and take care of each other, so there’s no need to be so polite.” At the time, I’d reminded him we were in my country, where American custom prevailed.

We stroll through the main plaza, then enter the grounds of a ruined cathedral where at last we can split up and wander in twos and threes. But, before we do, we gather for photos in front of the cathedral facade. We line up, all fifteen of us, for multiple shots on several cameras. In every configuration, I am somewhere in the middle and always in front.