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 Oct. 14, 2010.
BY ROBERT DIGITALE
It was my fault that Carol got her first “B” in math class.
At least that’s what she says. All I know is that as a sophomore I sat behind her in math and found it harder and harder not to think about her. I tried. When no one was watching, I spent time teaching myself how to wink with either eye, a skill on which I inexplicably had placed a high value. And I tried to pay attention to Mr. Robison, the teacher, who two years later still was driving a huge recreational vehicle to school even as gas prices soared during the first Arab oil embargo.
But Carol’s laughter had its way with me. It was music, and it rang out across the room, and her joy made me realize that not everyone goes through life looking for something to criticize or to complain about. She was quick to laugh, and I was quick to listen. Soon enough I began to pester her, and her test scores dropped and by the first quarter she had a “B.” I still think Mr. Robison marked her down a little extra just so she would pay less attention to me. If so, it worked, at least in class. By the semester’s end she was once more an “A” student.
I spent Christmas break trying to get up the nerve to ask her out on a date. Yes, I was scared. A few weeks later, on my 16th birthday, I managed to call and ask if could I stop by her house that day and talk to her. She said, “Yes.” I was floating, even though I still had to wait hours before I could meet her. About a dozen of my Sea Scout friends, both guys and girls, first took me to an ice cream parlor where the waitress made me stand on a chair while everyone sang me “Happy Birthday.” But all I could think of was Carol. The girls in our group noted that my body was in one place, but my mind was far, far away.
In the late afternoon I arrived at Carol’s house. It sat a half block from William Land Park in a neighborhood that clearly was a cut above mine. I couldn’t help but notice that the yard looked professionally landscaped. The grass was neatly cut, the trees were trimmed nicely and small green shrubs by the walk had been shaped to look like some sort of animals. What I couldn’t see were the strange fruits that grew in the backyard: asian pears, Chinese red dates and the winter melon that grew bigger than a watermelon. I rang the doorbell. A middle-aged Asian woman answered, and she did not look pleased. “Who you?” she demanded sharply.
“I’m Robert,” I said, the fear rising up in me. “I’m here to see Carol.”
The fire remained in the woman’s eyes as she slowly turned away. She spoke in Chinese. A moment later, Carol came and exited the door. We walked toward the park. I was on a date, sort of, but now a little unnerved.
“Is that your mother?” I asked. Carol nodded.
I thought to myself, She’s as tough as Grandpa.
Growing up in the Sixties in California, I had no sense of any real differences between my classmates and me. Yes, we were whites and Asians, but nearly all of us were born in America. As kids, it seemed we all listened to The Beach Boys and watched “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” As teens, we pretty much went to the same movies, listened to AM radio and 8-track cassettes, and frequented school dances (with real live bands). Of course, there were cliques, but not based on color.
In other words, I was clueless at how different were our family backgrounds. If Carol’s mom had turned out to be TV’s June Cleaver, I probably would have been caught less off guard than I was when the door opened and I met the real Mrs. Fongson.
It was not to be my last encounter with reality.
This is the sixth vignette in the saga of an American family. Next week: Joseph Pike, A Murder And A Hanging.
The main characters of “American Risotto” are:
Carol – Robert’s girlfriend
Joseph Pike – Robert’s great-great-grandfather
John Digitale – Robert’s grandfather
Kwong Check Fee/Franklin Fongson – Carol’s father
Ng Sau Ping/Elaine Fongson – Carol’s mother
To learn more, go to the “American Risotto” page.