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. 28, 2010.
BY ROBERT DIGITALE
The village lay a mile beyond the river, with simple brick houses, a fish pond, a well and a great granite slab that served as a bridge over a small inlet.
Here was the birthplace of Franklin Fongson, who left it as a boy to America. In 1947 he returned in his mid-30s from Sacramento, Calif. to begin his search for a wife.
The village sits in Guandong province in southern China. Franklin had arrived there after a three-week steamship voyage from San Francisco to Hong Kong, followed by a half-day’s riverboat journey to Toisan and a two-hour hike to the village. It was farming country, and the villager’s main livelihoods were cultivating the nearby rice fields and tending their vegetable gardens.
To find a wife, Franklin enlisted a woman related by marriage. She was the wife of a cousin who had come to America as a “paper son” with Franklin and his father. The cousin, known as Bok Bok, essentially used the documents of a relative who had died before he could leave China. Now Bok Bok’s wife, the woman left behind, would help in the hunt for a bride. She spread the word among village matchmakers. She also accompanied Franklin on his travels outside the village to observe the various prospects, and occasionally to stand with him on city streets and watch the girls go by.
For Franklin, the search and his quasi-celebrity status as an American proved a somewhat heady experience. His search took him as far as Hong Kong, where matchmakers told him of a woman whose rich family owned 15 buildings, one of which was promised to the man who married her. Franklin also went to Guangzhou, or Canton, where a friendly eye doctor arranged to have an eligible woman come to his office so that the possible suitor could secretly observe her. Franklin later met her father, a gentleman of leisure who wanted this American to pay for a wedding banquet with 50 tables. Franklin knew he couldn’t afford such an expense. Besides, a friend had warned him to stay away from city girls. They were said to be too modern and overly concerned with dressing nicely and spending money.
Lots of men came to China and found a wife within a few months. But Franklin was in no rush to make up his mind. Half a year went by. A summer flood hit the village, putting water into some of the homes. Franklin later donned a pith helmet and took part in the rice harvest. He had studied several women. When would he choose a wife?
One young woman tried to make up his mind for him. Bok Bok’s wife and Franklin met her at a merchant’s stand in the streets of Toisan. She had asked his name and learned that he was looking for a wife. Later the same woman somehow managed to track Franklin down while he was visiting Guangzhou. “I’m running away from my family,” she told him. “You want to come with me?”
Franklin was aghast at the idea. “You can’t do that!” he told her.
A little while later her parents arrived in Guangzhou and found her. They told Franklin she already was promised to another man from America. They took her away crying and returned by riverboat to Toisan.
Would you marry a complete stranger? If you say “Yes,” how would you choose this person? Would you main criteria be physical beauty, education, work ethic, the person’s socioeconomic class?
Here’s the thing I can’t shake: Franklin’s choice affects not only his life but mine. My happiness is caught up in his decision. If he had chosen the Hong Kong woman or the daughter of the gentleman of leisure or the girl running away from home, my wife would never have been born.
Yes, I know every spouse could say “I wouldn’t be married if not for the coming together of my in-laws.” Yes, none of us would be here if our parents had never met. What’s different here is that Franklin will choose between several women at once. In no case will his heart be gripped with the notion, “If you don’t marry her, you’re going to be miserable for the rest of your life.” He will have to make the decision another way.
In the end, he will select a woman. And what if she doesn’t want him?
This is the eighth vignette in the saga of an American family. Next week: Falling Comes Naturally: A Story of John Digitale.
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.