Blurred yellow lights of street lamps pass us by as I look out the window. The three of us have assumed our standard seating positions. Mom and I upfront while Tim claims the backseat. The lighting on the road becomes sparse as we enter the hill bottoms of La Habra Heights on our way back to Baldwin Park. Mom expertly navigates the same winding hills I’d years later feel anxious driving myself. The frequency in which we took this drive shows through as Mom anticipates every curve, smoothly delivering us out of the windy hills. As we come down Hacienda Boulevard shadows of the Hsi Lai Buddhist Temple loom on our right side.
By the time we replace this grey 1988 Toyota Camry station wagon, it will have seen over 200,000 miles traversing all over Southern California dutifully taking us to our destinations. It was a welcome upgrade from Mom’s previous white Toyota Tercel. The new grey and white fabric interior was of particular value to me. I would never again have to feel the Tercel’s navy plastic seats burn the back of my thighs on a hot summer day. My favorite part of the new car was the rear cargo area. Before the stringent seat belt laws of today, my cousin Kim and I had the best adventures in the back, feeling every bump we went over, laughing when our heads hit the roof of the car.
One of our most frequent destinations was La Habra. Po Po, one of ten children, had four brothers settle down here, living within minutes of each other. Mom, Uncle Peter and Po Po’s arrival to the United States in 1971 was a direct result of the revolutionary Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965. This new law had a profound effect on not only my family but the United States as a whole, transforming the demographic makeup of America. Grand Uncle Walter, one of Po Po’s younger brothers, was given the opportunity to sponsor my family’s arrival into the states. This would create a watershed of some of the best memories I have as a child.
While in La Habra, we spent most weekends at Grand Uncle Norman and Grand Aunt Nancy’s. On those days, we would make a stop at the Dunkin’ Donuts on Idaho and Imperial Highway. Showing up to a Chinese home empty handed is tantamount to sacrilege. To this day, my love for glazed twist donuts is unmatched. In the more recent years the house has gotten a facelift, updated with a modern kitchen, neutral color carpet and white paint. Back in the 80s and 90s, though, I’d liken its aesthetic to that of the 70s Brady Bunch home, brown carpet and orange paint running throughout.
Many of my fondest memories as a child were made in this home. Loud family dinners with a huge spread, a mixture of Western and Eastern dishes. Grand Aunt Nancy’s signature steak dish was my personal favorite. Mahjong was the centerpiece of the weekends. I can still hear the clicking of the jade green tiles from the garage as Tim, myself and our cousins would watch TV in the living room. It was in this house I learned how to stack the tiles to start a game. As I got older, I began to understand the strategy of mahjong, what tiles played a better hand. The game brought us all together, the elders sharing loud Cantonese gossip and friendly competition. While the adults played, us kids would check in periodically, trying to get a measure of who was winning that round. For us, the best part was at the end of the night when the winner would split their earnings with each of us and we’d all leave a few dollars richer.
Uncle Dave, who still lived at home, was a consistent fixture of my childhood as well. In his 20s, he was our de facto babysitter. Some afternoons, Tim and I would climb into his white Honda Civic hatchback. Looking to give us a thrill, he’d jerk the steering wheel left and right sending us flying back and forth in the car as we drove out of the neighborhood on our way to the video store. In this house, I saw some of the scariest movies of my childhood. It, Jason, Nightmare on Elm Street and Chucky. We were definitely too young to be exposed to these films but helicopter parenting didn’t exist in these days. Besides, Mom was busy playing mahjong. I would dread the long, dark hallway, the only way to get to the bathroom. I’d imagine Freddy Krueger’s metal claws looming behind the bathroom door, Chucky hiding in the shower or blood erupting from the sink. Pennywise, the clown from It, incited the most fear in me. For far longer than I care to admit, I couldn’t go to a public restroom without being plagued with fear that he would come out of the toilet.
Despite the mild trauma the scary movies inflicted, I can’t help but think how lucky we were to be surrounded by so much love. It is a unique experience to have so much extended family and for them to remain close even after all these years. Just recently, Grand Aunt Nancy cooked an entire meal for my family, the most authentically Chinese way to show love.
My generation identifies as American. We were born here and English is our primary language. Despite this, I was still consistently confronted with racism growing up. This, coupled with a lack of representation, made me want to be anything but Chinese. I’m ashamed to admit I wasn’t proud of our culture in my youth. In the past few years, the landscape has drastically changed for Asian Americans. The most famous example to cite would be Crazy Rich Asians releasing as a global phenomenon. This milestone meant so much to our community, reinforcing our place in mainstream culture. I didn’t have these contemporary examples to look to in my youth but I’m glad my children do. I know it will make a significant difference in the way they view their own self images versus the way I viewed mine. These days, I couldn't be more proud to be Chinese American.