Wei Way: To Build a Home
Once again I’m writing a piece different from the one I set off writing. History is moving fast. The doomsday clock has stopped ticking. Under the backdrop of escalating nuclear arms race and catastrophic climate change, a global pandemic serves as a reminder of the fragility of the human civilization. Instead of realizing our unsustainable current path, everyone competes to restart the insatiable economic machines to meet growth goals set by those who will not be here to face the consequences. If our leaders can not turn us away from the brink, then we must help them. Starting with stabilizing ourselves and our homes.
Through the happenings in the world in the past few months, we’re seeing that we can learn to work together to effect change. Whether the international governing system or individual families, are all made up of units of peoples. Each person is learning to walk their individual paths. Now we are all walking through the plague together and it awaken the real us.
The massive protests popping up across the globe are sending a clear message from the people. We are witnessing the largest social uprising in American history. The trigger was the video footage killing of George Floyd at the hands of the police, but a history of uneven power distribution compounded to this boiling point. To be strangers in own home leads to feelings of abandonment which eventually needs release. The black community has historically led the civil rights movements but this time more people joined. The protests spread through every corner of the states and now throughout the world. The military marched into American cities and martial law was imposed while American streets were declared a war zone. But they were not able to end the protests.
The president had to be hidden away in a bunker while barricades go up around the White House. Democratic leaders knelt while wearing Kentes. Military leaders openly dissented their commander in chief in support of the protesters.
We see the power of a people united. True power in modern civilized societies requires leaders who feel the needs of the people. The shortage of medical PPE and the fully equipped police force is a stark demonstration of our current priorities.
However gloom things may seem now, hope shines through. We witnessed the collective empathy of the people eclipsing the fear of disease and released into every corner of the globe. Plague or not it was eventually going to release. Feel the overwhelming emotions. We’ve seen Amish families singing into camera phones, Maoris Haka in solidarity from New Zealand, Native Americans pow-wow on main streets, even the Buddhist Monks decided to join the march for their fellow man. There are talks of Asians Americans having to take sides. There are no sides. It’s either all of us or none of us. We can’t not recognize our white brothers and sisters struggling alongside for a better future. Without them this collective movement would not be truly universal. Many of the police and politicians decided to take a knee or march together in solidarity with the protesters. Communes took over downtown blocks with mayoral support. Have you seen that before?
There are of course negative aspects of the protest like damages to the communities and reports of astroturfing. But to label the entire movement as artificial blinds one from the factual issues that created the mounting anger. There are those who violence for the sake of violence. They need to be stopped. But we’ve seen the most violence from those opposite the protesters. Mindless vandalism from within the protests have been mostly self regulated. Manipulation alone can not bring out all those who are still occupying the streets to this day. Regardless of the sustainability of the Autonomous Zones, we see people everywhere are all trying to provide the same essential services.
Some have said that America is a failed experiment. I’d like to think that it’s an ongoing experiment. No matter who is president, America is still America. We are still the largest social experiment of universality in human history. We are the Tower of Babel. Except now we get to decide if we scatter or build higher.
Judging by the people on the streets, we have risen as a society. It may not feel like it but we have evolved since the civil rights movement of the 60s catapulted the notion of equality into mainstream discussion. A lot of people have been born since then. Some of us moved in. America is not the same population as it once was.
We are all learning to adapt to life in this modern society. Globalized world with globalized challenges requires organized global cooperation. We knew our current trajectory was going to have these consequences. Now it’s here. It may be uncomfortable at times but the reality is here. Not only do we have to create a society that works for more people but we have to do it under the weight of a pandemic.
Stress leads to conflict and physical conflicts manifest into heated debates online airing our dirty laundry for the world to see. Publicity is helpful when exposing injustice. But a culture of public shaming only leads to more conflict. Communication and understanding moves us forward. We will take steps back but there’s a general direction for progress. Other countries may see us now and laugh at our misery but it’s much easier to maintain order in homogenized societies than one that makes up of all people.
The power of the American people is our ability to self reflect and move forward. Emancipation of slaves after the civil war, protests that ended the Vietnam War, and the election of a community organizer to lead us through a global financial crisis. Through every challenge, the people come together and move forward. Tearing down statues is temporary release but teaching the children the history of all of us lasts forever. May they learn how we got here and not make the same mistakes we once did.
Laws are meant to be rewritten. They’re just words on paper that we agree on. We can change the words. Justice reforms and progressive causes are already being legislated. Universal health care and defense reduction, once unthinkable, finally enters mainstream lexicon. Universal basic income was once just an utopic concept that introduced us to the first Asian American presidential candidate. Now we’ve just went through multiple rounds of national welfare with more being debated. Although top heavy but still unfathomable months ago. Especially ironic coming during the current administration. But it shows that it can be done if it’s the will of the people.
We’re all here with the same goals. Feed our families and keep them healthy. That’s two things we can agree on right now to get everyone through these uncertain times. Universal health care will take time but we can at least agree now is not the time to end health care for millions of Americans. Food is available for those who need. Hard part is connecting the food with those in need. The local community food banks are great resources but those who are in most desperate need are unable to reach help. If we are feeling really ambitious, maybe we can even agree all our family deserves shelter. This is the most urgent challenge facing LA. All while giant department stores sit empty and tents sprout up beyond downtown into the suburbs.
Social media amplifies the message. Voting makes it so. Voting will eventually move online. Now is the perfect time but we’re busy debating paper ballots. We’ve forgotten the original intent of the internet to connect everyone. Instead, we chose to isolate ourselves inside an infinite room.
It’s never been easier to learn from the rest of the world and search for the best it has to offer. We have the best professionals from all over the world, we shouldn’t have the worst emergency response. If every healthy country in the world has universal health care. Maybe we should too. It’s embarrassing to see us dropping out of international organizations and agreements left and right. Many that we helped build. Large machines have large footprints. This is the largest machine ever built in the history of man. What are we afraid of? Don’t worry who’s at the table. We’ll be okay as long as we send our best people.
I say a lot. That’s because I can here and now. My parents came of age during the Cultural Revolution; where one old man’s struggle to hold onto power divided the people to maintain control and led to the death of millions of innocent. Let’s not let that happen here.
The only way forward is through experiencing others. The more people we meet the more we realize our similarities. The rest of America is not like the coasts. The rest of the world is not like America. It’ll be some time before other places become more integrated. We are still ahead in the human experience. We the people include a few more of us now.
America becoming the global hegemon is no accident. It’s not just because of the guns. We’re made up of a collection of people from every region of the world sharing our experiences with each other that lead to new experiences.
Each day when the protests end, all go back to our loved ones and our homes. Our lives don’t end. We’re all just passing through our brief period in history. Just like any other periods in history, we’ll get through. With the people around us. Maybe not literally right now. But in many ways we are more connected than ever.
Start of My Story
Allow me to share my own experiences with learning the world around me. I’ve moved around a lot and experienced a few different types of societies. If it wasn’t for the helping hands of the locals, I wouldn’t be writing to you today. My experience is mine and it will not be the same as yours. I’m just learning as I go. This is how I got here.
I was born in 1986 in Hefei, Anhui, where my paternal grandparents still live to this day with the rest of the family. My parents and I lived a couple of hours away in the city of Bengbu because that’s where they graduated medical school and proceeded to work. All the staff and families lived inside the university communal compound. We lived in an aged three story building called Xiao Hong Lo, which translates to the Little Red House. We were assigned two rooms across the hallway from a kitchen. At the end of the hallway was the communal wash area with only cold running water. We boiled water for hot baths. The neighbors relied on each other to make the best of our modest lives.
Dad was away a lot for his PhD program and mom was busy with her students on campus so I roamed the compound by myself. The community took me in. Mrs. Qian, who ran the campus convenience store, lived next door with her husband, Mr. Sun the trucker and their four kids. To feed all the mouths, they had a vegetable garden with occasional chickens for eggs. I followed their kids around everyday after school before mom came home. I became one of the mouths they had to feed. The neighbors stayed with me when I was sick and mom had to be at work. Nobody had much but we always had enough to share. Now, the more we have the less we share. My fondest memory was skating side by side with a neighborhood friend sharing a single pair of roller blades. It only made sense since there were two of us and two skates. I became known among the neighbors as the happy kid with the tighty whiteys who made animal noises to announce my daily return from school.
I was cool with the teachers and students. My parents had respectful professions and I spoke Mandarin, which was still being standardized. But when the teachers and parents weren’t around, I secretly picked up a Bengbu accent to fit in with the other kids. Adapting to surroundings will be a consistent theme in life. I had two best friends, Xu Shen and Hu Kang. If you’re reading this, let’s catch up. Our favorite group activity was scaling the many construction sites popping up in an industrializing China.
During summer and winter vacations, we’d board the crowded green trains to visit dad in Beijing or grandparents in Hefei or Suzhou. There weren’t enough seats for the rapidly growing urban population. We had a routine where mom would boost me through the train window to save seats. I’d proudly wait for her to fight through the crowd to our seats. The bustling city forced competition but compassion remained.
Our favorite weekend activity was going to the shores of the Huai River to see the newly built cross-river bridge. I’d run onto the bridge like many times before. But this time I tripped and fell face first onto an open soda can. Blood quickly gushed from my chin and mom started panicking. She ran onto the road hoping to flag down a car to take me to the hospital. Nobody stopped. Until an old man in a straw hat pulled up in a flatbed wooden cart. He hoisted me onto the cart and ran to the hospital with mom sprinting beside me. I never got to thank him. Falling on my face seems to be another consistent theme in life. Each time I’m thankful to have people there to pick me up. I’ll try to fall less so you guys can worry less.
Life changed in the winter of 1996. I had just turned 10 years old and midway through fourth grade. Dad was offered a research position at Our Lady’s Children’s Hospital in Dublin, Ireland. He took off first to settle down with 100 Euros borrowed from a friend. He never used it. Who knows the struggles he really went through during that time. He never speaks about it. That’s the kind of man he is. Six months later, mom and I took off after him. I remember standing with my little red backpack at the Hefei train station departing to then the only international airport in Beijing. We waved goodbye at our teary family. It would be nine long years before we see them again.
It was the first time I had been on a plane. I watched the lady next to me spread what I later learned was butter on her bread before eating it. So I showed mom and we did too. Dublin was beautiful. Especially the people. This was the most memorable year of our lives. The Irish people embraced three immigrants who airdropped from thousands of miles away.
We lived in Maurie and John’s converted garage. They had two kids, Jimmy and Jordan. Jordan was about my age. Jimmy was a wee lad with a bowl cut. Jordan used to invite me up to his attic playroom and shared his toys with me. We’d sit in silence and build Legos together.
I attended St. Damian Elementary School. I started in the third grade since I didn’t know a word of English. The only phrase my parents made sure to teach me before first day of school was, “where is the WC”? I was the first ever Chinese kid to attend St. Damians. They didn’t really know what to do with me. Principal O’Connor decided to assign Ms. McGoldrick, the school librarian, as my full time mentor and English teacher. We’d have one on one English sessions during Gaelic class. I can’t recall much what was said but I remember her being patient. Except the one time I flung my jacket at another student in retaliation to what I thought was a diss. I still remember the disappointment on her face.
My favorite time during school was choir. I had no idea what I was saying. Just making beautiful sounds to melody. And because of Mandy, with the curly brunette hair and freckles.
I dreaded lunch time at first. The other kids would pull out sandwiches while I had a container of dumplings. Sometimes I’d leave the container inside the desk drawer, sneaking dumplings into my mouth, cautious to not let anyone see what I was eating. They were delicious but my insecurities got the best of me. I’d later learn this was an experience shared by many immigrants.
To cover these insecurities, I’d flex on the third graders by bringing the largest books from my collection to read after crosswords time. The boys played football everyday during recess. Liverpool and Man U jerseys colored the school yard. I didn’t know the rules or how to kick the ball, but I was the biggest kid in class so naturally became the goalie. I was known for my heroic full-sprint-towards-the-ball saves. The few times I got to score, I mimicked the other kids and sprinted across the courtyard with my arms flaying triumphantly. It felt good.
Half way through the year, I was bumped up to the 6th grade. I was suddenly with the big kids. The boys and girls were more into each other than the new transfer student. There was also another much cooler foreign kid who spoke English with a suave Moroccan accent. I can’t compete with that.
By then I had picked up enough to survive my first year outside of the motherland. It wasn’t easy. We didn’t have Google Translate back then. One day during English class I kept hearing the teacher say one particular phrase. So I wrote down the word phonetically in Chinese. 马九耐心, pronounced Ma Jiu Nai Xing and translates to horse, nine, patience. That night we searched the textbook together for a word similar in sound. Mom yelled out, “Imagination!” That’s it.
Communication is hard. The school hosted a PTA conference once. Parents wanted to keep me involved so I tagged along. It turned out to be at a Pub. I didn’t get to drink. I always remember Principal O’Connor’s words on my last day at St. Damian School, “If an Irish kid were to move to China for a year, he would not have adapted as well as you.” Thanks for that.
Ireland was a much needed parachute before dropping into the American frontier.
Coming to America
We came in through New York and stayed with aunt, uncle and the cousins for a couple of weeks while dad went straight to his new job in Florida. New York was a mind blow. To go from Sheraton Park where the buildings didn’t get past two stories to the crossroad of the world was a slight change in scenery. Those first couple of weeks felt like a blur. On top of the tall buildings, the world was suddenly filled with all kinds of people speaking different languages. I barely started learning English. I was no longer the coddled panda but just one of the people .
American school was a new challenge. To start I had to take the school bus instead of walking across the street. There was no Ms. McGoldrick. I was placed into ESL class with the other immigrants kids. It was here I learned there were other types of Asians than just Chinese. I think they were Vietnamese. I was excited to meet them. But I don’t think I communicated that well. I was not accepted by the group. One day they surrounded me over some kind of miscommunication. I learned later about the history between China and Vietnam. I don’t think they thought that far back though. I probably just dressed funny.
I had to find other people to hang out with. I ate lunch alone for a while. There was a kid named Jason who rode the same bus. We sometimes sat together when the seats were full. I saw him standing with his friends during lunch one day. He waved me over. So I did and just stood next to them during lunch for the rest of the school year. We rarely spoke. Well, I’m sure they spoke to me but I didn’t understand what was said. I just knew they didn’t mind my eating lunch with them. I’d bring my usual dumplings, dressed in the freshest 90’s Chinese children’s fit, spoke in a heavy accent with an Irish draw while hanging out with my new black friends.
Six months later we were on a plane flying across the states to Los Angeles after dad got his job at USC. We finally found a home in LA. Recovering from the ‘92 riots, some downtown buildings were still boarded up. But the city was big enough for all of us.
We first settled in Alhambra to be close to our friends. There was a large immigrant community that stuck together for convenience and safety. It was possible to survive in Alhambra without much English and Asian Supermarkets nearby were filled with ingredients we haven’t had since we left China. We didn’t have a car back then so it was important to have food close by. Our friends helped settle our lives, giving us valuable survival tips and furniture to set up our home.
I started at Maguerita School off Valley and Benito. I was still in ESL. The population of Los Angeles was different from Florida. To start, there were suddenly a lot more Asians. Just the ethic Chinese were split into those from Hong Kong, Taiwan, even Vietnam. That part of history took awhile to learn. There weren’t many from the mainland then. There were also a lot of Latinos, mostly Mexican American since we’re technically in their land. Wink.
People flock from all over to the largest city in the American West Coast for a piece of their golden nugget. LA has a bit of everyone. San Gabriel Valley is the mixing bowl. I started mixing during lunch time playing basketball and football, American football. Back then 5’9 and ¾ was able to play center. I was still self conscious about my speech but thankfully sports didn’t require much talking.
My parents’ only concern has always been my future. They learned South Pasadena had the best local public school district and we moved there after a year in Alhambra. Some questioned our move outside of the comfort bubble. I’m thankful for the move.
South Pasadena is a city unlike any other I’ve experienced. Located at the end of the 110 freeway, 10 miles away from Downtown LA; the city is a microcosm of the diverse LA community gently tucked between the foothills and valley.
I enrolled in SPMS for eighth grade in the Fall of 1999. We had a talk before the first day of school about staying in ESL or start in regular classes. Self conscious me chose the latter. Here was my chance to remake myself.
Once again sports was my in. Some of the kids played football in the middle school field everyday during lunch. I joined with my one year of lunch time football experience. I soon earned myself the moniker, Butterfingers. You can guess why. But it was still fun when it’s Hail Mary every play. I got to meet others in the group. People came and went, But seven of us stuck together. After floating around all these years, I finally found where I belonged. We’ve been there with each other since our best and worst and cringiest. They’re the ones who’ve kept me alive these years. The ones I go to if shit goes down. And I fall a lot. I’ll go alphabetically. I know how sensitive you are. Beaver, Daryl, Eric, Miko, Sammy and Sean have been the homies since before we had pubes. We went through our share of fights, sometimes physically. Sometimes with others.
We grew up during the early 00’s SGV AZN era. We had matching spiked hair with beyond baggy jeans and low hanging belts. But we just looked the part. Our parents would have disowned us if we joined a gang. We all grew up with immigrant parents who emphasized education as the only way up. We made sure to give them their fair share of rebellious American teenage phases. Maybe it was my inability to express myself or maybe it was the Ruff Ryderz Anthem, I was an emotional kid.
We went through a period in early years of high school where we’d rebel against our parents through breaking inanimate objects at home. Doors, walls, windows, some of us still have the scars. My choice target was the living room wall. I remember I wasn’t even that angry, just walked by the wall and threw my arm out. My fist easily went through the drywall and now I was arm-deep inside the living room wall. There was no explanation sufficient for parents coming home to a giant hole in the middle of their home. I had to fix it. We lived with a hole on our wall for a couple of days. Thankfully Daryl had just punched a hole on his wall at home and had extra wall repair material. He came over with a tub of putty, a piece of dry wall and some mesh. We quietly patched up the hole under the gaze of my parents. I joined the school football team and found an outlet for this teenage aggression.
I been lean on these guys during my continuous search for purpose in the world. Now instead of patching up walls, Daryl’s helping me with graduate school applications to patch up gaps in my academics. Each of these guys have had my back. I’ll save more stories for another time. We can’t see each other as often as we like now. Partially because of pandemic and partially because of life. But thanks to modern communication technology, it still feels like we are still loitering together on Diamond Street. Except now the conversations are different and Boyz turned II Men. The last time we were all together was for Eric’s wedding. Now he’s a dad. We’ve all grown since we first met. To see everyone everyone thriving resiliently during these transitional times makes me proud. I’ll try to catch up.
To write about the high school days without mentioning Robyn would be erasing part of my story. She was my best friend. Nothing happened to her, don’t worry she’s well with a good family. We just don’t talk anymore. I used to ramble whatever came to my teenage mind and she’d patiently listen. Now I still ramble, just to you guys. She asked me once if I knew we were a beacon of hope for some people. I didn’t know what she meant then.
We moved to Altadena in 2009. The financial crisis was tough for a lot of people but it was the reason we have a home. Parents traded the condo for the house we live in now. Located at the foothills of the Angeles, the city is near many trails and home to many farmers, artists and horses. We’ve been looking for neighbors like those from the Little Red House, we found them here.
We moved in during the height of the Station Fires. We stood together watching the fire from the living room window. We got through it and focused on making a home for ourselves here. First big project was replacing the rusty metal fence around and repairing the root damaged partition in front of the house. We decided a cinder block wall was the most permanent. Dad took on the whole project by himself. I was living away from home at the time so I was no help. For months we had cinder blocks stacked high in the drive way. Each time I come home I see less cinder blocks and more wall. With no experience in masonry, equipped with just logic and determination, he improved our home.
Parents are constant gardeners outside of the home too. They give back to every community that take us in. They do it because it’s how they’ve always done it. Every neighbor in the immediate vicinity has tried mom’s cooking. They’re especially proud of Anhui’s tea culture so that’s our go to holiday gifts. The kids get red eggs and red envelopes on CNY. But this may be in protest to my own unproductivity. The neighbors are also generous with sharing whatever they have. We’ve been spoiled by Steve’s exotic fruits. My parents first tried gumbo from Mo’s. Humberto’s wife makes the best tamale fillings. Through each of these interactions we learned about each other. We all have different pasts but chose to live together.
The plague scared everyone inside for awhile. Now people are starting to come outside again. A population deprived of human interaction came out of our houses more eager to connect. We’ve had some of the realest conversations during these times. Everyone’s been noticeably friendlier during our resumed nightly walks. Children are starting to play in the yards again. People crouched in front of their newly planted trees with fertilizers. The piles of old junk waiting on the curbside for waste management shows that people have been cleaning up their lives.
Last year around this time, I was bed ridden. This year I’m forced in because of a pandemic. You guys know how the entertainment industry has been. I’ve had a lot of time at home. I’ve never felt more productive.
According to Xinhua, my life before the pandemic was a literal party. So there must be an after. I’m starting to fully appreciate what my parents mean by living a fulfilling “little life”.
I’m happy to update that their vegetables are starting to fruit. We’ll have lots of tomatoes. Thanks Steve. Pumpkin vines wrap around the entire house. Bokchoy, pomegranate, dates, guavas and more. We should have plenty to share. Taking care of these plants has been the best time to think.
We finally had time to get to the projects we’ve been putting off. Housework and yardwork got me through this time. I’ve never been the handy type. Unless you count patio covering we did for one of Miko’s dad’s friends when we were teenagers. Like many others, we decided to use this time to work on the place where we spend most of our time. We finished the front yard landscaping during the height of the pandemic.
The backyard was the next project. Houses are little in Jane’s Village. Parents added an extra room a couple of years ago. They say it’s for my future family when we come over. I moved in by myself a little earlier than expected. The contractors left us a shell. But dad’s getting older so no more rebuilding entire perimeter cinder block walls anymore. So we work together.
Starting with the cluttered garage so we know what we have to work with. Dad’s a collector. Everything can be recycled. He does it for the earth. With the wood he’s saved throughout the years, we were able to build the entire deck covering, with gates. The bags of cement filled large cracks in the concrete floor. Bricks went to repair the cracked chimney. The leftover paint gave it a makeover. We threw up some lattices for the climbing plants. Our next project is a small deck extension to covered the exposed cement section. Far from craftsmen but the deck covering looked decent so we’re planning for the best.
In the foothills of the Angeles National Forest is where we stake our home. It’s always been us three, but people come along to move us forward. Stability is earned through the accumulation of a series of small steps together the larger goal. My parents always said, “if you want to help others, first take care of your home”. So I start where I live. With the people closest to me and whoever comes along the way. Life requires constant adjustment, especially now, the people in our lives keep us on the course.
This country has been good to us. I just wish it could be good for more people. I sometimes reminisce about my one roller blade while driving late at night in the city. The wheels are different but the person’s the same. Going home.