Who’s Afraid Of Ghosts

Some differences are in our head, and what’s in our head are even more difficult to change than visible and perceptible aspects of differences like accent and manners etc. Not that I can change my accent or my manners. I can’t. However I know it’s there and I’ve developed a way to deal with it.

It all comes from the poem “Cemetery Ride”, in which a pleasant bike ride in a Florida cemetery is described in a relaxed and fun style. How nice. I read it before, but didn’t notice until now that an Asian poet will never write about a cemetery in this way. Well, I can’t say never. I mean it will not happen without substantial cultural change. A cemetery is to be avoided and only to be visited in the annual “tomb sweeping” day; a cemetery poem is either sad or eulogizing–well, the best praise is usually reserved for funeral and this aspect of human reality is probably universal in all cultures.

Actually my friend L pointed this cultural difference to me before, but I didn’t pay much attention. She said that in America people don’t care if a piece of real estate is close to a cemetery. She means that a house next to a cemetery will not suffer a price loss. It is true. “Are people afraid of ghosts here? Ghosts can come out of the cemetery and haunt their house.” She asked, but I didn’t know how to reply. She’s a mortgage broker and had American colleagues. “You can ask your colleagues.” I said. “How can I ask? Are you afraid of ghosts? Just like that. They are going to think I am half mad.” She said.

She’s right. A lot of things just can’t be included in a conversation. First there has to be a context to get into such a topic. Then once there, one has to explain the cultural fear of living right next to a cemetery, the mythical habits of ghosts in another culture, and the reason why one feels incomprehensible that people make random visits to cemeteries and build houses next to where the ghosts live. So much explanation to do before one can ask, “are you afraid of ghosts?” Nobody will do a conversation in such a long detoured way. It’s like a comedian telling a long joke. Before she comes to the punch line, she has already lost all her audience.

Different Body

I’ve heard similar incidents happen again and again here in the Asian community in New Jersey. This is one story I heard about five years ago. One manager in a big drug company suddenly fainted. He is middle-aged and held a lower level management position, which is reachable by Asians before hitting the usual bamboo ceiling. Being a workaholic, he obviously abused his body to the point that his heart gave away. At the hospital, he was given the best care, with surgery and everything. He was improving for a couple of days and then inexplicably he descended into a coma. The doctors were baffled. The only conclusion they came to is that as an Asian, his body is reacting in a non-typical way for the drugs that were administered to him. Fortunately with the best care he got, he eventually recovered. What a relief to his family.

And this incident is not alone. A friend told me that his wife took a medication for some minor problem. The next thing she knew she was having a terrible diarrhea and stomach problem for two weeks. Another friend took a medication for her severe flu. Her symptom was too severe for her to bear and she wanted a quick relief. Then the medication she took was completely disagreeing with her body that she almost had to be sent to the emergency room. Their doctors said the same thing: their reactions are strange, untypical. The side effects of the drug, according to literature and the experienced doctors, don’t include anything they have experienced.

As Asians, we have to be careful when taking medications as prescribed. I am not saying that we don’t listen to doctors. Of course we listen, but we also have to be more savvy than other patients. Our body is smaller and our bone structure more delicate–prone to osteoporosis. Our food–without diary product and with a lot more soy–accustoms our bowel to very different things. If a drug trial is not conducted on Asian, the drug’s special effects on Asian will not be commonly known. Since the East Asian population in America is probably only 3%, it is unrealistic to expect any drug doing a trial on Asians.

Whenever I take Ibuprofen for my headache, I wonder whether the body weight should make a difference on the dosage. I mean a small Asian woman can weigh only 100 to 110 pounds, and a six foot man can weigh 200 pounds. That’s a huge difference. However the Ibuprofen bottles have no dosage-weight information.

And I am writing this all because my friend was asking me if it is a big deal if he continues to drink alcohol while taking a medicine, for which his doctor explicitly told him not to drink and take the pill at the same time. I am no health expert and I don’t know why my friends like to ask me such questions; I am no computer expert either, but my friends come to me for their download or virus problems. I don’t know. Probably I just can’t keep my big mouth shut about things I know as well as things I don’t know.

I am just wondering why the drug companies have to make such drugs. People will drink and smoke. Most can’t quit, or can’t quit without serious efforts. A drug with an alcohol warning doesn’t do much to stop the drinking. He will continue to drink and the drug will only damage his liver. Can they make drugs that can go with alcohol? No?

Visible And Invisible Masks

Our invisible social masks are not enough. Now we have to wear visible masks, which have more advantages than merely shielding our breath and preventing the spread of virus–under the cover of a mask, we can do with a lot less makeup or even no makeup. How much time we waste every day on beautifying ourselves? Now the wasted time can be cut in half or even reduced to 25% of the pre-pandemic level.

My friend once told me that I don’t know how lucky I am as a modern woman, as far as cosmetics are concerned. In the bad old times, women have to put lead on their lips, apply crocodile dung, bind their feet, or tighten their waist so much that they deform their ribs. I don’t know where she learned such things. I’ve never heard anything about crocodile dung and its beauty effects. Somehow I imagine a highly skilled and unethical salesman who did a trick like that–selling something as shitty as that to women who yearn for beauty. This same college friend also told me that perfume cannot have its fragrance without a little bit of shit being put in. I just couldn’t believe her then and I still can’t believe her now.

I know some women will travel to New York City once a month at least to acquire beauty products that are suitable for Asian skin tone and Asian hair. Although New Jersey is right next to NYC, the traffic is atrocious, the tunnel perpetually jammed, the parking price sky high. Yet they are like those unstoppable pilgrims. Often the whole family would go. They would buy goodies that can’t be obtained in Jersey, eat dim sum, obtain a trunk full of groceries. When they come back, they would proudly tell their city stories, including their ticket–mostly for parking violations.

Somehow I feel that this pilgrimage to NYC is not just for material things, but rather it is to satisfy a nostalgia. Most of us come from big cities and in America you have to go to NYC to indulge in the big city craze. Everywhere else is just sleepy suburb.

And I know women who would travel to South Korea for cosmetic surgery. I mean traveling from New Jersey to South Korea. It’s a long way to go. At first I wonder why not in America. Then I was told that only South Korean doctors understand Asian beauty. The American doctors don’t.

Easy Wonton Soup

Whenever I make a bowl of wonton soup, I will think of R. When I first came to America as a graduate student, R was my roommate from Eastern Europe. In America, we all live in our own communities and it’s unusual for an Asian girl like me to team up with a girl like R. However the special circumstance dictated that we were both newcomers, each looking for a place to stay at the beginning of the semester, and we happened to meet at an apartment complex.

That’s certainly friendship at first sight. Probably because we both like literature, we found a lot to talk about. Isn’t that strange? I mean I felt our friendship so odd since among our friends, her friends would not look at me and my friends would not talk with her. They all felt odd that we live “together”. At night, we would talk and talk. Somehow I felt like I was back home with friends I grew up with.

Somehow she’s a big fan of Shakespeare, but I am not. As a non-native speaker, Shakespeare’s lines are too un-English-like to me, though I enjoy online lectures on Shakespeare–those lectures are English-like, fortunately. And she talked about Othello repeatedly, for reasons I couldn’t understand. Her boyfriend at the time didn’t want to come to America. Instead he opted to go to a big city in EU to do his research. Probably R had a hidden rage in her to … I don’t want to speculate further. It’s too terrible to imagine such a thing.

Now come back to wonton soup. This was within the first several weeks we met. I was cooking a wanton soup and she suddenly said to me, “I am surprised you can find anything to buy in the supermarket. Your food is completely different.” She was eating yogurt she made herself, but I don’t eat milk product. She didn’t understand how people like me exist. I said I drink soy milk, but she didn’t think soy is a milk in the first place. The only Asian food she had ever tasted and liked was General Tso’s chicken. She thought that one day I could cook the dish for her. I couldn’t help laughing. I said that’s American food and I don’t know how to cook that.

She thought Genghis Khan was a savage and I had to defend my ancestor, probably a little over zealously; I thought Sultans of Ottoman Empire were even worse savages, but she defended them enthusiastically.

The wanton soup I am cooking now is really simple since my interest in cooking has been declining since the days I knew R. Just add chicken stock, add seaweed and spinach and sprouts. Bring everything to a boil. Add Trader Joe’s Chicken Cilantro Mini Wontons–already defrosted in the microwave. Low heat, barely boiling for ten minutes. That’s it.

Time passes, season changes. Things come and go; jobs here and there. Vicissitudes of life, high and low; friends from afar, live in my heart forever.


Regular strawberry or organic strawberry? They taste the same. If there’s any difference, it must be due to the power of imagination. Regular soy milk or organic soy milk? I don’t understand. Can genetically modified soy be considered organic? Are all the soy crops genetically modified? And all the corns? Should I make parsley dumpling, dill dumpling, or just plain chicken dumpling this weekend? That popular book with a lot of praises piled on is not interesting and I can’t continue to read it. How to bribe one’s mind to let it do what you want it to do? Will dumpling do the trick? Too time consuming to make.

Finally get hold of five face masks made of cotton and I can breathe easier. I once tried to DIY a mask and cut up a cotton shirt just for this purpose, but my sartorial skill is nonexistent and the result looked so hideous that I had to abandon it. My hands are so awkward that anything requires any kind of hand skills are beyond my grasp. Stitching, sewing, knitting, paper-cutting are out of the question. Even making model ships is difficult. My hands just go sleepy and the very simple task of applying glue to a little piece of wood and stick it to the top of the deck would take me a long time to complete. I had to quit that popular club at school. Now I can’t even remember the name of the club. My grandmother is so skilled with her hands. She did everything by hands, and she even made shoes. Every winter, she knitted for me and my cousins. It’s either a shawl, a hand warmer, or a sweater. The fact that she raised 9 children on very meager salary is quite unthinkable. If she becomes a heroine of a story, I would be the first to object. I am against those stories that portray women to be so moral, so blameless, so smart, so diligent, so suffering but so pure, and all those good qualities–unfortunately I can find such examples in many books. My grandmother is actually such a woman and I am glad she is not in any story and I will never write a story about her. The reason is simple–such stories are depressing and serving as social sticks to “beat” average women like me. And there are already enough of such depressing stories around that I don’t want to add any to the pile.

Watching an animal video on you tube. The hapless giraffe got itself entangled in a wire fence. I wonder why there have to be fences in South Africa in the area surrounding the Kruger. Probably the private game reserve owner doesn’t want animals to roam too freely to damage business profits. Anyway, the giraffe was finally rescued by a group of twenty men and its deep wounds on the neck were attended to. It is easy to think it is giraffe’s fault since it should avoid wire fences in the first place. It makes me think of those social fences, while not easily visible to our senses, can and will and have hurt us. And we are left to lick our own wounds. However I can’t come up with an example right now. There must be one somewhere.

The Impossible Plot Line

I am not sure how the story goes,
what he or she does,
how he poses or how she clothes.
Only a vague idea grows and grows.

Things good or bad or hectic,
with an unexpected Asian twist.
Relationships possible, and even electric,
but never far from the gist.

Imaginations so aimless,
considerations endless,
plot line pointless,
the bold attempts shameless.

For an O. Henry ending I contrive,
a story like Maugham's I strive,
a Waugh's style may come alive.
Failing all, I might just be myself. 

The Peril Of Persistence

It’s the peril of persistence. I was brought up on the principle of finishing what you started and now I am suffering the consequence. I can’t go on with this book, but my habit of persistence doesn’t allow me to give up in the middle. What to do?

I can’t stand “The Barbarians Are Coming” anymore and if I read one more page, I’m going to scream–do something with your life, Lung, and stop complaining about your girlfriends (he has two if you don’t count the third) and your parents (from Hong Kong with all the stereotypical Asian traits in more vivid and intimate display). I say this because I know the author died young and I can say this without really hurting him. He writes so well and I feel bad to criticize him, but the plot of this book is so agonizing. Somehow I feel that his girlfriends exist for the sole purpose of plaguing him about marriage and burdening him with offspring, and his immigrant parents live for nothing but to foist on him their bitter frowning, disappointments, rude remarks of prejudice, oily food, unwelcome expectations. And poor Lung can hardly defend himself against all these officious attentions and suffered in silence and depression. I wish I could sympathize him, but somehow I just can’t. I want to sympathize and please give me a reason to sympathize with you. I beg you.

Something else about the plot that bothers me: Lung dislikes his parents’ ways, from conversation, attitude, to food. He has no real connection with the tradition his parents adhere to and tries his best to detach himself from the odd reality he considers his parents live in. If he has such a mentality, how can he respect his father’s dying wish and marry the girl he hardly knows and shares nothing with?

I remember last year, the book “Life Before Man” finally extinguished my enthusiasm and ended my “Atwood Period” which lasted six months or so. It’s a book as agonizing as this one but I finished it in one month. Somehow I had to resort to false imagination that Nate loves Lesje passionately and suicidal-y in order to perk up my strength to go on. Atwood is so much more optimistic when she talked about other types of relationships, like those in Robber Brides for example. Such good stories.

Dusk Falls At 7:00PM

Darkened sky, brisk air;
cool breezes chill the arms bare,  
ruffle my summer wear.
Dusk so soon I am not aware.

A year passes a blink of an eye;
a day goes by before I could sigh. 
Chores I can't simplify;
Do it or not do it, either can satisfy.

Honest toil is something, 
or much ado about nothing?
Depends on who you ask:
existentialist, Buddhist, or moralist. 

It's Monday.
That's why I stray and fray.
A bad poem a day
will drive the gloom away.