After Angela’s birth, I couldn’t hold up my end of the carpooling responsibilities. In Chinese custom, there are many restrictions on a newborn baby’s mother. For one whole month, they’re not allowed to go out, eat cold foods, or touch water. They aren’t even allowed to leave the bed! They are required to eat the same dish every day—chicken cooked with sesame oil and wine—and drink a bitter herb tea. Obediently, I did not go out that month. I was very lucky and grateful to have my sister-in-law, Sue. Despite her busy work schedule at the post office, she managed to bring me chicken and tea everyday and took over my carpooling duties.
Then the month ended and I went back to my carpooling job. It was then that I noticed that Sylvia, Cindy’s mother, might be having a hard time with the carpooling arrangement. One morning when I was waiting outside for Cindy, I saw three toddlers playing inside a fenced-off area of the living room. After a brief talk, I realized that Sylvia worked as a nanny. I imagined her struggle. In addition to our two girls, she also had to put three other babies in her car seats. I wondered how she’d done it in the past. I immediately offered a solution: I’d take over the carpooling duties, and she’d take care of the babies, including Angela. After that, our morning routine became calm and smooth.
With her dark brown, curly hair, big eyes, and pale skin, Sylvia was a beautiful woman. It was hard to tell her ethnicity, and I didn’t ask because I felt it would be rude to do so. She smiled when she talked, but she also had a melancholy look about her. Her smile seemed forced and faded quickly. When we became more familiar with each other, she started to talk about herself. She was born in Texas to parents who had immigrated from Mexico. After she and her husband—who was from the Philippines—got married, they moved to California. “My mother-in-law hates me. That’s why we had to move far away!” Through her statement, I realized that conflict between mothers and daughters-in-law were an international phenomenon.
One day, she curiously asked me how old I was. “I’m 33, and you?”
“Twenty-two,” she answered.
I wasn’t expecting to be surprised, so when she revealed her age, I was stunned. “Twenty-two? You’re only twenty-two years old?!” I yelled, almost impolitely. I was implementing a new skill I’d picked up from my daily conversations where I’d end a sentence on a high-pitched note if the sentence were a question or an exclamation. “Wow, compared to you, I am very old!” I proclaimed honestly.
I was shocked that while we had daughters who were the same age, we were not of the “same generation.” Furthermore, she was far, far younger than even my youngest sister. I secretly calculated that she must have become a mother when she was only seventeen years old. I wondered to myself why she already had two children at such a young age. Up to that point, I had never met any young parents. The only people I knew who had children so young were from my mother-in-law’s generation. I recalled that, at seventeen, there was only one thing that mattered to me in the whole world. Peers in my high school—myself included—often swore to ourselves that we must “get into a good college…or DIE!” I wondered: Was my life too narrowly focused? Or had hers progressed too quickly?
Sylvia’s husband worked as an electrical technician, but the family could only be financially secure with the extra money Sylvia earned as a nanny. “I can’t really do anything other than this,” she sighed. “I didn’t finish high school and having two kids means I can’t go out.” Her subtle smile suggested a deep feeling of frustration. In contrast, I looked back at my own life as a 22-year-old. It was the year I graduated from college and became a middle-school teacher. Although I had a stable job, my ambition drove me to target a higher goal—to go to graduate school. I worked and prepared my graduate school applications simultaneously. I was at an age where I had high expectations for myself and was trying to switch my career from education to theater and writing. My world at the time seemed vast; my future was bright and full of promise.
Now, here we were. She was young, but carried a heavy burden. Did she feel trapped? She must have. At that moment, I felt, totally, that we were closely related and very similar. We might have been different before, but now we were the same. We had our families and our duties. Most of all, we were connected by an understanding that we were performing the same role: that of a woman.
Sylvia’s apartment was an amazing place. Sometimes I’d chat with her when picking Cindy up for a playdate with Anelise. Her living room was so tidy and uncluttered that it looked like a furniture display room. In the corner, there was a play area for the three babies. I always expected the babies to cry or scream as babies were apt to do, but I was amazed that they never made any fuss. Sylvia must be a very skillful nanny, I thought. Her kitchen countertop was shiny and clean; on top, there was nothing but a few glass jars containing cookies and cereal standing side-by-side. There was no other sign of food, dishes, or kitchen utensils. I felt embarrassed when I compared my messy apartment to hers. It must be stressful and physically demanding to maintain such a nice place, I thought to myself.
Sylvia told me, “I always feel tired. After the babies are gone, I have to cook. My husband doesn’t like to eat out, and he comes home late. He’ll be mad if the food is cold.” I only saw her husband once, when he was unloading something from his car. He was a sturdy man. I didn’t talk to him because he looked unfriendly. I always had this mental picture of him: he’d be sitting alone at the dining table eating a late dinner—a stern expression set on his square face.
Dumplings were Anelise’s favorite dish, and she sorely missed them. I promised her I’d recreate them here in America. I was told to buy flour wrappers from a Chinese supermarket, but there were no Chinese supermarkets nearby. My brother-in-law, David, hearing my plight, gladly took us to Ding-Hou Supermarket—the only Chinese market in the area. It was in Monterey Park, a city appropriately nicknamed “Little Taipei” for its high concentration of Taiwanese immigrants. We were impressed on first sight of the city. Chinese signs on stores announced insurance agencies, doctor’s clinics, dentists, clothing stores, travel agencies, salons, bakeries, and of course, restaurants. The stores stood in a row on the street. David guided us to a bakery that made Taiwanese-style breads like pineapple bread with vanilla cream filling and red bean paste bread. We bought many of them from the owner, who cheerfully chatted with us in Taiwanese. He said, “The best thing about America is you don’t need to speak English to live here! That’s why my English is still very poor after staying here for many years.” He gave a big laugh, as if to say “It’s no problem, living in this foreign country.”
It’s no wonder that places like Chinatown, Little Tokyo, or Little Italy thrive in America. People from different countries establish new communities here, bringing their language and culture with them. What other country has welcomed immigrants like America? We felt lucky to be on the receiving end of this country’s generous immigration law.At Ding-Hou, we bought all the ingredients we couldn’t find in our local supermarkets: flour wrappers, soy sauce, ground pork, ginger, and the vegetables “qing-jiang cai” and “jui cai.” Back at home, I taught Anelise how to wrap the dumplings as Angela slept nearby. Anelise made some funny ones—long ones, circle ones, stars, and other irregular shapes. I said, “These are all yours! Only you can eat them!” That made her so happy! Our California version of the dumpling turned out exactly the same as the ones I’d made in Taiwan. We ate happily and proudly distributed them to David and our neighbors.
To Be Continued Next Month!
月子做完了，我把我的共乘司機工作拿回來做，這時，我才發現這個接送孩子的工作對 Cindy 的媽媽 Sylvia 可是個大麻煩。有一天當我在她門外等著 Cindy 出來時，看見她的起居室裡放了個小柵欄，有兩個大約兩三歲的孩子在裡頭玩著玩具。我一問，她告訴我說她在家幫人照顧孩子，賺錢貼補家用。我的腦海裡馬上浮出了她急急忙忙地把這許多孩子放進安全椅的景象，太緊張了！不知道她這陣子是怎麼應付來的？於是我當場給她一個建議：我把我的安祺抱來給她，她就在家照顧孩子，接送孩子的任務則交給我。這樣安排以後，我們早上的例行工作變得順利，平靜多了。
真沒想到我們雖然有同齡的女兒，卻相差一個世代，我的最小的妹妹都比她們大多了。我很快偷偷地暗算一下，發現她在十七歲的時後，就成為 Cindy 的母親。「哇，和妳比起來，我老太多了！」我真心地感嘆了。可是，我還是不太敢相信這是個事實。除了我婆婆那個年代的人以外，我還從來沒有看過一個如此年輕的媽媽。我自己呢？十七歲的時候，我和我的同學們只在乎一件事：如果考不進一所好大學，就是死路一條。說來挺殘酷，但是這真的是許多高中生發下的重誓。我不禁自問，到底是我活得太狹隘了呢？還是她的生命加速前進得太快了？
她的公寓很獨特。我常去接 Cindy 來家裡和怡安一起玩，有時就進去她家和她聊聊天。她的客廳很整潔，一點雜物都沒有，簡直好像傢俱店的展示廳。在角落她圈起了一個堆了玩具的遊戲圈，三個小小孩在裡面玩，乖乖地不叫也不鬧，不像很多這個年紀的孩子們，總是又跑又跳的，我想她可能是個很有技巧的保姆。她廚房的料理台上既沒有碗盤，也沒有食物，空蕩蕩地只有幾個一式的玻璃罐排一列，裡頭是糖果，餅乾，麥片等食物。
我把她家和我家一比，只覺得羞愧，我的家總是到處堆了雜物，理不清。把屋子維持到這麼潔淨，一定花了她不少時間和精力。她說她老覺得很累，托顧的孩子們回家以後，她必得做晚餐給先生吃，因為他不喜歡外面吃飯。她有些委屈地說：「如果食物涼了，我先生會不高興，所以我都要等著他回來，幫他把菜飯熱好。」我若包了餃子，就送些去給她。她和 Cindy 很愛吃，但我從沒聽說過他先生是否吃過。有一次她先生在外面搬東西上車，我看了他一眼，是個很壯很嚴肅模樣的人，看來不親切，所以也我不敢和他打招呼，我就看過他那一次。之後我的腦海裡常出現一個影像，就是他先生一個人坐在飯桌旁，盯著電視機，獨自一個人吃著他的晚餐。
餃子是怡安最喜歡的食物，我們好想念哪！為了解決這嘴饞的問題，我決心要在這裡把它複製成功。聽說華人超市可以買到餃子皮，但是這附近沒有華人超市。我們的姐夫 David 很熱心地帶我們到「小臺北」，蒙特利公園市的「頂好超市」去逛。在1990年的南加州，這個超市是唯一的華人超市。蒙特利公園市得了「小台北」的綽號，是因為當初許多台灣移民定居在此。第一眼看到這個城市，我們眼睛一亮，哇，大吃一驚，店招牌都是中文。各行各業都有：保險，醫生，牙科，衣服，旅行社，髮廊，麵包店，當然，餐廳絕對少不了。David 帶我們到一家麵包店，他們賣台灣式麵包：菠蘿奶酥，和紅豆包。我們買了一大堆，也和店老闆用台灣話聊起天來。他興致勃勃地說起自己的移民經驗，他說住在這裡真是超級方便，因為完全不需要用英文。「那就是爲什麼我來了許多年，英文還不行的原因。」他哈哈大笑, 好像在向我們保證：住在這個國家，沒問題的啦！