When I was a kid, I had to find inventive ways to get my hands on a book. At the time, we couldn’t simply “check out books from the library.” Additionally, book-buying wasn’t a priority in my family of seven (we all relied on my father’s modest income). To read, I had to find resources of my own—my own “libraries.” At a neighbor’s house, I would settle unobtrusively in a corner. As I enjoyed the adventure stories, I’d look up and carefully observe my neighbor’s faces. Could I detect any signs of annoyance? Was I spending too much time at their house? If they didn’t mind my presence, I would continue reading. I was also known to stay and stand in bookstores for hours at a time, not leaving until the owner asked me to. Newspapers, my father’s political magazines, and my mother’s loaned novels were my secret friends. (When my parents saw me reading things other than textbooks, they told me “leisure books” were useless.)
From a young age, I began saving my allowance to buy books. The habit stuck with me, so when Anelise was not even born yet, I purchased a set of one hundred, newly published children books. The books set me back three of my monthly teaching paychecks. I began reading the books to Anelise when she was four months old; she could hardly sit! She responded by grabbing at the pages and trying to tear them off, as if she really hated it. However, that never stopped me from reading to her. I even recorded myself reading so she could listen to the tape before going to sleep in case I was too busy to read to her.
After we settled in at Palos Verdes, the first thing we did was visit the library. I was so amazed by its size, its architectural beauty, and its massive quantity of books. I nicknamed it “the book castle.” “How generous the city library is!” I cheered. (Before this, my most vivid memory of using the city library was when I was in high school. I remember waiting in line at 7 am on a Sunday, before the library opened, so I could occupy a desk and study the whole day. Senior citizens were there, reading newspapers and magazines. There were no books for check out.)
After a trip to the library, Anelise and I would bring home a big stack of beautifully illustrated books, of which the Christmas themed ones were our favorite. We loved the scenes of houses in the snow hung with glittering lights, stockings above the fireplace, trees decorated with angels, stars, and towering gift boxes. Anelise said “library” in English before she could say it in Chinese.
It was heavenly being able to stay home and read, but we had to go out and face the world. I remembered how I sweat and trembled when I went to the bank for the first time. Conversations sounded like fast-forwarded VHS tapes. I had to rely on Henry to add my name onto the account. Back in Taiwan we learned English until high school, but the real world seemed like it had nothing to do with books or tests. My most uttered words were “yes,” “thank you,” and “Bye!” There were anxieties: What if I couldn’t answer questions from the phone and cable company people? How do I write a check? Did I spell “hundred” right? Using a credit card was confusing—“Wrong way, please do it again!” My face felt flushed and my hands shook. Oh, to pump the gas! The hose won’t come out! Tug it! What does it say on the screen?! “Hey, many people are behind you, ma’am!” I heard somebody screaming in my brain.
Everything was a challenge, but nothing terrified me more than the impending and unpredictable moment in which Angela would decide to breathe her first breath of air. What if it was at a time when everyone was at work? What if my neighbor Cindy wasn’t home? “Call me when you feel something!” everyone reassured me. I posted a list of phone numbers on the fridge with a strawberry-capped magnet. It was a brand new thing, too. “Look at all those cute magnets!” I exclaimed after seeing all kinds of them on my sister-in-law’s fridge. She quickly gave me some of my own.
Driving to school along the scenic pacific shore was pleasant, but I couldn’t stop drawing contrasts between now and then, here and there. Like rewinding a video, I would revisit the scene where Anelise gets on a baby-van—a preschoolers’ transit we called it in Taiwan—full of chatting toddlers. She is cheerfully greeted by the van attendant. Rewind even further: I’m leading two lines of children. We had a routine and a route we took to school everyday. I’d call out each teammate’s name in front of their house and they’d come out and join the line. When all of us were rounded up, we converged with lines coming from other directions and all of us marched towards the school in the morning sun. I remember I was the tallest girl in school, and the first two students in both lines were the shortest, so I had to keep bending down to talk to them. I missed that.
Then I’d fast-forward to the present. It seemed impossible to walk to school in the here and now. Why weren’t there school buses? Although the drive to school was a good opportunity to take in the variety of cars and people, I felt frustrated when I couldn’t find a space in the packed parking lot or when I had to wait in a long line for drop-off. I was calculating how much gasoline was burnt and how much time was wasted as parents were idling in their cars. Why weren’t there buses in this great school system? (Louisiana schools, where Henry’s nephews went, had them.) My sister-in-law told me that the district had no money to offer the service. That came as a shock. They had no money in this rich city where doctors, lawyers, and business owners resided; where houses were surrounded by tall trees, verdant lawns, and colorful flowers; where houses cost millions; and where Mercedes and BMWs ran along wide, clean streets!
Soon after school started, Anelise brought home a huge envelope. Inside were beautiful samples of Christmas wrapping paper. Each piece was an artistic marvel to me; I cut them out to make a collage and posted it on the wall. In wonderment, I asked my sister-in-law what the paper was for. “Raising money for the school,” she answered. “Wait and see. There’s more to come!” “Wow, in Taiwan, doing fundraisers for school is considered a crime of corruption,” I responded.
Later I found out that it was true; the district didn’t have money. There were no art, music, or P.E. classes! (These were essential in Taiwan. I learned all these skills in school, not private lessons.)
“Oh well!” I sighed. “Nothing can be perfect!” Look at the classroom—the carpet, the couch, the bookshelves filled with books, the wall-to-ceiling decorations! Students didn’t need to bring in their own books or stationary! In Taiwan our classrooms were bare with only one wall in the back for an occasional “award list” posting. These things offset my disappointment.
Meanwhile, I was feeling very heavy and uncomfortable. My doctor, who was also from Taiwan, warned me to be alert because my labor could come earlier than expected. I had brought all of Anelise’s infant clothing with me so I wouldn’t have to buy as many baby supplies in the states. The rules I set for shopping were very strict. Any item over $3 was considered unaffordable. I had already spent $3000 to have my baby delivered in the hospital by my doctor. In Taiwan, the cost of delivery and a one-week hospital stay would have been around $200 with my teacher’s insurance.
I met a mother in school who spoke fluent English with some accent. She asked me if I could take turns carpooling with her. I gladly accepted. She then asked Henry and I to meet the boy and her husband that night. They were Iranian immigrants living in a beautiful house. The husband was an engineer and she was a nurse. After a friendly chat, just as we were about to leave, the wife said, “I think you’ll have to go to the hospital soon.” She must have been psychic. Later that night I felt it. We grabbed the bag, woke up Anelise, and went to Torrance Memorial Hospital. Another surprise: the hospital was so dark and quiet, and I was the only patient. I remembered how busy the hospital in Taiwan was. People rushed in and out; there was talking, yelling, screaming, laughing, etc. My anxiety that I couldn’t respond to the English-speaking nurses became real. I grabbed my hair to reduce the pain. Luckily the whole thing ended quickly. I was very proud and happy as I held a tiny, pink, beautiful sleeping baby in my arms. In Los Angeles, the city of angels, we were given a treasure. Thus, we named her Angela.
Angela didn’t know that the seasons were changing. She was dutifully working on growing up, crying from hunger, and falling asleep. She didn’t know that we loved seeing the yellow-orange maple leaves dangling and flying about in the blue sky. She didn’t know that we marveled at the bright, fire-colored pumpkins and the sunflowers peeking out of store windows.
Soon, Halloween was around the corner. At night, when Angela was sleeping, I held onto Anelise’s hand as we strolled along the paths surrounding our apartment complex. Look! A skeleton was swaying on a front porch. Spiderwebs stretched across windows. A monster’s face glowed green. Jack-o-lanterns flickered and smiled evilly on the steps. Spooky. We saw all these new things and learned the words to describe them.
On Halloween, I dressed Anelise up in a recycled ballerina outfit she wore in a preschool performance in Taiwan. I carried Angela to school in a baby seat. Anelise had a costume parade that day, so I took pictures of energetic princesses and small Supermen. But there was more fun to be had that night. Anelise and I went trick-or-treating around the apartment and Anelise got a bucket full of candy. Back at home, we passed candy out to kids who knocked on our door. Even I was frightened by a teenaged vampire with two sharp teeth poking out of a bloodied mouth. I could tell Anelise was very fearful of this character, but she kept it to herself and smiled, giving him a big handful of candy. We were stepping into the unknown, feeling excited and scared at the same time.
待在家裡讀書是有如天堂般的美好，但是可不能不出去見人啊！我記得第一次去銀行開戶，我可是緊張得發汗發抖，那些人講話像錄音帶快轉，只能靠我先生才能把我的名字加到他的戶頭去。我們在台灣修英文六年，只能讀書，不能説話。那時開口最順溜的，只有 yes, thank you, 和 bye 三個字。很緊張啊⋯⋯人家來裝電話，有線電視，怎麼辦？支票怎麼寫？hundred 拼錯了嗎？用信用卡可複雜了，「反了，再重刷一次！」我都知道自己臉紅了，手也抖。喔！還有，加油站的油槍，不是放不進去，就是拉不出來。那機器上說什麼？「噯，很多人在等妳呢！」我腦子裡好像有人在催我。我不能不抱怨，這㸃美國不好，在台灣我們是不用自己加油的！
每一件事都是個挑戰，可是最可怕的是肚子裡的小寶寶耐不住，突然決定要出來呼吸新鮮空氣。怎麼辦如果大家都去上班了？鄰居 Cindy 不在家？「時候到了就打電話給我！」大家都給我慎重的承諾。我把一串電話號碼，用一塊草莓磁鐵貼在冰箱上—這也是新學到的，當我看到家姑的冰箱上許多可愛的磁鐵，按住孩子們的學校通知什麼的，我忍不住驚叫「好可愛喔！」她馬上撥了好些個下來給我。
我越來越沈重不舒服，去看一位台灣來的醫生，他警告我要小心，可能會提前生產。我把怡安的嬰兒衣服都帶了來，就不用添購什麼東西。我自己花費美金3000元在此生產，只能住院一個晚上。在台灣生產的醫療費是由教師保險付出大部份，我自己大約花200元美金，可以住院一個星期。新來乍到，絕對要節省，當時我給自己限定，凡是超過三元的東西，都算買不起。有一天，我在學校認識了一位媽媽，她講着流利的英文，但有口音。她問我可否和我「共乘」，我一口答應了。她請我們全家當晚去她家坐坐，順便認識孩子和她先生。他們住在離我們公寓不遠處，一棟很漂亮的房子。他們是伊朗移民，先生是工程師，太太是護士。我們聊了一陣，要走之前，她說：「我覺得妳可能不久就得去醫院了！」她的預言可真神奇，回家沒多久，我果然開始陣痛。我們叫醒怡安，收拾了東西就趕往 Torrance 醫院去。那醫院，可又和台灣的大大不同，台灣的醫院真是熱鬧，人來人往的，有人說話，有人大叫，有人大笑。這個醫院怎的那麼安靜，又黑矇矇？空蕩蕩的產房，就只有我一個人！最躭心的是聽不懂護士的英文，不知可否應付得來？還好，這痛苦的時刻很快就過去了。抱着懷中這個美麗的小嬰孩，我非常地高興又感到驕傲。這個天賜的小天使因為出生在洛杉磯——天使之城，所以我們把她取名叫 Angela，中文名字叫做「安祺」。