Four travelers from East and West.
Four travelers to California.
Two brought as children, one drawn by gold, one taken in arranged marriage.
Generations pass, and their offspring fall in love.
Four travelers converge in one American family.

This story was first published Sept. 9, 2010.


C.K. McClatchy, from the 1974 school yearbook

By ROBERT DIGITALE

In my mind the rain is falling on C.K. McClatchy High School.

McClatchy, home of the mighty Lions, an imposing, two-story edifice that in my youth reminded me not so much of a beige version of The White House but as more of a compact model of San Quentin.

It still stands in Sacramento, in dawn’s shadow of the Sierras, a valley town that grew up beside two rivers. One river tumbles madly down the oak-covered hills of the Mother Lode. The other flows gently along brown Delta sloughs and out the Golden Gate to the vast Pacific.

On a wet, gray afternoon in 1972, a Chrysler four-door pulls up outside the high school. Inside the big box sedan sit two middle-age women, two sisters, two Sacramento natives. A few moments later the driver’s son and the son’s friend  hop in. As they do, the mother notices my girlfriend and me walking in the rain.

“Who is Robert holding hands with?” the mother asks as she turns the car south onto Freeport Boulevard.

“That’s his new girlfriend, Carol Fongson,” says the son. “She’s George Chu’s cousin.”

A moment of silence ends with the aunt’s baffled declaration, “But that makes her Chinese.”

Yes, the son and his friend readily agree. She is Chinese. They don’t say it, but about a third of the school is Asian.

The car rolls south, passing the green lawns of City College and the immense, leafy trees of William Land Park, a squirrel’s paradise. The mother expresses concern about where such a relationship will lead.

The aunt chimes in. “I feel sorry for him,” she says with a mixture of sadness and confusion. “Can’t he get a white girl?” The son and friend look at one another. They have no reply.

The Chrysler soon reaches the entrance to the sprawling parking lot of the Raley’s supermarket. The mother starts to turn in, but another car from within the lot cuts across her path. Its driver and passenger are both Asian.

“Damn chinks!” the mother swears, slamming on the brakes. She takes a moment to calm herself, keeping her eyes straight ahead. “I’m sorry,” she says, “but that’s the way I feel about them.” She turns and looks directly at her son. “And that’s the way you feel about them, too.”

***

I laughed nervously a few days later when I learned of this incident. I didn’t want to consider that my folks and Carol’s parents also might have concerns when they learned that we were dating. Nor had I really thought through how I might react to such concerns. In short, the storm clouds were forming, and I didn’t want to look up.

This is the first vignette in the saga of an American family.

Next week on “American Risotto:” Joseph Pike and the Indian on Old Cub.

The main characters of “American Risotto” are:

Robert

Carol – Robert’s girlfriend

Joseph Pike – Robert’s great-great-grandfather/ Gold Rush prospector

John Digitale – Robert’s grandfather/ cattle rancher

Kwong Check Fee/Franklin Fongson – Carol’s father/restaurant owner

Ng Sau Ping/Elaine Fongson – Carol’s mother/restaurant owner