Sunday, June 21, 2015

Sundays Shoes

Pa polishes his shoes on Sundays. I'm five years old.

These are called three point shoes. He takes the surface layer of dusts off with an old sock and tells me. He squeezes a pea sized dot of polish on the tip, and dabs it with the other sock, still clean and thread bare in the toes. Then I fetch the stiff shoe polishing brush from the bucket under the bed, and hand it to him.

Now he knocks and spreads smears of polish with his brush until they cover the shoe like a thin film of grease. Now he brushes and polishes. I mimic his motions on his other shoe, he nods and smiles. We shine together.

Except the goo covering my shoe no matter how much I beat it with my brush or my rag. It stays stubborn like my older brother Joe, sometimes he won't do what Pa says even if he gets a few too many smacks on the bums.

Our tea kettle whistles on the old coal stove. I holler at Ma to fill the hot water canister. Ma never lets us go near the stove even when it is not lit because of the orange layer of rust covering it. The stove looks sick, I imagine it black, smooth and shiny one day in its youth, fresh out of the iron cast. Does it ever dream of those days? Of returning to its childhood home? I let Ma braid my hair, even though tears come when she pulls and tugs for hours. When I go out to play with Ying who lives next door, her older sister and her laugh and point at my hair and ask me who braided me.

It looks a right mess, they say.

I laugh with them, tears still rolling in my eyes, and tell them it's Joe who likes to make jokes out of me and my hair. 


1940s, Pa is a child, running barefoot towards the Still Wave lake in the north most border town of PinAnn.  He jumps in with his brother Le, splashing and plunking until they are both brown like the earth all around.

The earth is so rich here it oozes oil if you squeezed it between fingers, their Pa said.

But they don't mind that. The potatoes are good eating and rice plumb and that's all they know.

PinAnn means peace. This symbolism gets lost somehow in the minds of neighboring rulers. They won't stop invading the country this way or that through this peaceful little town, and ravage its people. Pa says it's because they covet the rich oil in the soil. They don't got enough soil in their land to shake out their fishing nets. Sometimes they get tired of eating fish so they covet our land.

The lake stays still, no waves. Pa's older brother Le joins an army to fight one of the wars and loses his life there. They don't find him, lost in the battle field forever so they bury his old uniform with a pair of new shoes next to the family farm. His Ma's hair turns white that day when those soldiers come by with Le's army uniform and new shoes. No one knows what or who he was saving his shoes for.

These country boys never got used to wearing new shoes they say.

Pa pictures the battlefield red, with smoke and gunfire and the life of his brother and his neighbor's brother and other brothers and sons from this side and the other.  Tears of their mothers too, flowing without waves, still like the lake that won't churn. That means Peace.

Japanese, Russian, Korean, Chinese.  Pa gets the parade of languages in his schools and counts himself lucky all he gets are soldiers standing with blazing swords atop their rifles in their classrooms making sure they learn their languages good.

Pa stacks his foot one on top of the other until the bottom one falls asleep then he switches, toes working while he peers out at the soldiers brown combat boots, shiny like the swords crowning their guns.

1960s Pa graduates from college and marries Ma in his first pair of shiny leather shoes.  He saves them and polishes them every Sunday since, though he doesn't wear them again.

Pinches my toes he says.

But he smiles when he polishes them. Later we polish and smile together. He whistles strange foreign songs.  Russian, Japanese, Korean, Chinese.

Years later he would listen to Beethoven on a used phonograph whose pin scratches. Even later during cabbage season while northern winds hollered outside windows Pa reads me Dickens by the fire while Ma peels and sections apples but all of us forget to eat them, caught in the folds of David Copperfield's stories.

Still more years later he leaves home for another land, his three point wedding shoes left under the bed. Unpolished.

Every Sunday I pass by their dusty faces looking up at me begging for attention, for the caress of old socks with holes, greasy polish and the beat of stiff bristle brush.  But my hands fail to lift.


These days I wear traveling shoes to stay comfortable between constant journeys. Even my fancy shoes don't get polished. I don't know why but it seems to be the customs of another time, another world.

Occasionally I pass by airport stands where men sit high up in a lifted chair so someone can crouch below and polish their shoes with long rags dragged artfully back and forth.

I don't stop, lest I miss my flight, lest customs of new lands peg me crazy for ogling at strangers, lest memories flood, and tear ducts open.


Tuesday, June 16, 2015


The forecast promises rain for weeks, yet nothing materializes. This morning the sky darkens, hinting toward a storm. The California drought has gone on too long - four years, that our entire county looks brown and parched.

By nine in the morning clouds dissipate again and bright blue arrives to tells us rain won't come, and the sun will turn up soon by ten the latest.

I arrived in this country some fifteen years ago in the midst of a large storm.
"It's the first rain we have seen in ten years!" Mom said, "There has been a terrible drought and we kept waiting and waiting for the rain to arrive."

It sounded like a good omen, that my arrival coincided with long awaited rainfall. But I reeled from disappointments setup by long anticipations of gold paved roads and bright sunny skies, courtesy of the "Dallas" videos my mother had sent for me to watch a few years prior. So greetings of gray skies and brown hills gave me nothing but a dismal view of what seemed like an over-hyped dream. The glitz of Beijing suddenly seemed brighter, veiled in that unobtainable shimmer.

Palm branches sway and nod outside of my second story window, I imagine the sound of their leaves rustling, the sound of an approaching storm. Friends send me links to photos that show the extent of drought. Cracked pieces of land, disappearing forests, lakes and rivers receding to the bottom of dry, pink banks. The excess of loose dirt, hinting sand storms like those of Springs in Beijing, where desert wind riding all the way from Mongolia pelts you in the face for hours at a time.

A boy wrote to me from Beijing when I first arrived. "What is it like over there?  Are you adjusting to everything?  When are you coming back?"

Then he wrote in the PS: "I am sure you are not coming back.  You are settling down over there with your mom and later with your American husband."

I was a teen then. The notion of a husband still scary and remote.  But I felt the pressure of eyes watching over me from that innocent letter. People back home wondered what my visit meant, how long it would last, and what changes would come of it.  It hadn't occurred to me then to wonder about those things. So I had no answers for him. Anger smoldered in me however, for reasons I couldn't decipher.

Our county purchases water from its neighbor Imperial County (IC) who purchased it years ago from Colorado. I read in a New Yorker article.  IC intends to use the water for irrigation of alfalfa fields, among other crops. Neither county has enough as it is so either we give up on the farmlands down south near the Mexico border or we give up something else up here.   

Last Sunday I drove by patches of meticulous golf courses near the coast. Behind iron gates and pink roofed club houses, water drops glisten in the sun as central sprinklers shake their heads to an unhurried beat, sending sprays out onto the course. There must be a secret code for water usage here.

Ocean rumbles next to me, slashing rocky beaches with a power and conviction that make me look twice. When high tides hit the coast, several hills of red sand, mud and black rocks have collapsed. Overtime, they have become part of the ocean, turning into sand that never dried.

I feel like a child sitting among birthday cakes begging for candy.

My first July here passed in glooms and mists. Ma reminded me persistently, "This is not common. Everyone call this city the 'Finest City of America'.  It is always sunny here."

But the gloom suited me. It gave me an excuse to stare out the window and not explain my expressionless face. There hadn't been any oppressive heat or humidity, just a persistent cool overcast. The temperature so close to that of my body's it felt like living in an void, with unobtrusive surroundings of low hills and soft gray roads and cookie like community buildings and me. All seem to be gently melting into nothingness. I reached out and touched my arm to make sure it wasn't an illusion.

Then I sighed, not that I could see my breath forming as white puffs before my eyes. Those things belonged to another city, another time, another world.

Our own sprinklers outside my window wake me from my dreams last night. Tuh, tuh, tuh, that confident and fearless rhythm, full of innocence, hope and trust. Rain will come. All will be well. Life carries on.

After lunch I spot a gardener in blue overalls sleeping by his truck next to the giant palm tree, his blue cap shielding his face from the sun, legs stretched out under the hood of the car, back cushioned by leafy cuttings spread over the curb. Green branches and leaves trimmed in only occasional brown edges pave our walk ways and surround his serene silhouette.

A living, breathing impressionist painting in my day.

My camera misses me, like a parched river missing its source.


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