Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Jose in Our Kitchen

Jose in our kitchen

It isn’t kind to call your older brother Jose. It is definitely lack of respect. Yet that was what my mother called my oldest uncle, her brother. Jose had the misfortune of being stuck in Peru for 40 years before my dad sponsored him over. I never forget going to see Mr. Sanderson, the attorney who also arranged for my immigration to the US. I came from China at age 11. I had to memorize a bunch of “facts” about “my village” and which direction my front door faced and who was my closest neighbor in the village and what were the surnames. That was a trick question, for everyone in the same village had the same surname. China is a patriarchal setup. And I was even born the leader of my village of my generation. Tough luck, Gary Locke, you are not it.
The first time I saw my eldest uncle Jose I was living at Albert Yu’s rooming house. Hank had driven my book to pick up Jose at the airport and then they brought Jose to see me. I am the oldest of all my siblings. The duty to help Jose adjust to American life fell on me. That’s the way it works. My mother had a grimace the whole time we were together with Jose at the Tai Tung Restaurant in Seattle Chinatown. Hank had dropped us off at the café while he went to purchase Chinese restaurant food stuff for our café in Aberdeen, and so he did not have dinner with Jose and my mom and me. My mom arranged that private meeting. Jose had two wives. A legal but an unfaithful one in Hong Kong and a non-legal one and also later proved to be unfaithful and she was in Lima, Peru. Later I was to learn her name to be Carmen.
Jose was a storyteller and a good gossip. He read the Chinese newspaper from cover to cover and had brought with him a set of cookbooks from Peru. He had worked in large chifas that catered to Japanese in Peru. They were good businessmen, but Jose said that they always designed the toilets next to the kitchen of the chifas. Chifas is a Spanish word for “cooking rice.” It is a transliteration. Jose said if he weren’t number one cook he certainly was number two. Later we got to know that Jose is a good storyteller. All his life he missed his fortune or luck by a nanosecond or a micrometer. It is bad to be born in the year of the goat. Seems like everyone is getting the better of you.   (More later…).

Jose in our kitchen (part 2)

Whenever Jose works in the kitchen, he leaves a trail of vegetables and water on the floor. My father always say of Jose, he is not a man of planning or vision, when he dies, he will just drop dead somewhere and others will have to take care of his body. My father is not very charitable. He has known very little of charity his life. Jose goes home to his apartment that we own at two in the morning when we close the restaurant. My dad and I stay to clean up and to have our wee morning meal together. That’s the only time my dad tells me of his oppression and humiliation.

He was interned at Angel Island and he was interrogated there. His immigration would in some sense be deemed criminal, but that is because the criminals were making the laws. Suffices now to say that if he was a criminal, he was in crime for other reasons, not because of the circumstances of his immigration. Because our name was changed to Woon, I am a paper son. But the crime was that my great-grandfather had already come as an indentured servant in the town of Hoquiam in 1880 and his son was in all likelihood murdered. We never found the body or the reason he was missing. So my father had to purchased an immigration paper – somebody else’s and for those who don’t know this story and others, Google “paper son.” And/ or the Chinese Exclusion Act. No, it was not drama. It was how an entire nation was banned from entry to the USA.

My father seldom ate vegetables. His big meal of the day, and the only time he could eat it too, was when we sat together in the wee morn and the freight trains would blow their lonely whistles a few blocks away. His grandfather came when the rails were young and he did laundry and cooked for the loggers. North of Hoquiam, in Humptulips, you can go into the woods and find abandoned rails tracks, when over a century ago, these tracks transported lumber out of the woods. My great-grandmother was in China. They were separated by the Pacific Ocean and by American immigration laws. My great-grandfather had a solitary teapot in the backroom of his laundry shop and  he had a solitary teacup.

My great-grandfather’s name was Locke Li, meaning a man from the Locke villages and possess of great strength. He acted as a labor contractor and the mayor of Hoquiam went with him to his village to conscript 500 men for the logging industry. One of the men that came over from China was Gary Locke’s grandfather.

My father used to say to me in the lonely hours of the café at night, “I used to think that we can be president in one generation, but now I know it takes three generations to grow a president. He didn’t like Gary Locke very much because my father despised Beijing. And Gary Locke went to Beijing to be the US Ambassador. My father and I are peasants. We distrust officials. If you come in to our restaurant through our front door and you are a relative, we then know that you have forgotten the old ways. Relatives and close friends come through the back door. That way, any secret business is unobserved.

(End of part 2, to be continued…)

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