From East to West and back again

Elton Wong

My dad left Hong Kong and came to the United States in 1972. He landed in the Des Moines International Airport with two suitcases and less than two hundred dollars in his pocket. My parents met in Hong Kong, but my dad is from a small town called Petaling Jaya in Malaysia. When I graduated from high school, I went back and saw where he was born and where he grew up with his two sisters. He was born in 1947, after the war. In the United States, being a baby boomer means that you were born after the soldiers came back from fighting. In Malaysia, being a baby boomer means you were born after the Japanese occupation ended. My grandfather died when my dad was ten, and his family didn’t have much money. For a long time, my grandmother bore the full job of supporting them, and being a single mother in Malaysia is not easy. When he was 12, my dad visited the the United States Information Service, and read two documents that he came to regard as representative of America – the Gettysburg Address by Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King’s letter from Birmingham Jail. Because of financial difficulty, my dad dropped out of high school to work. He was able to leave Malaysia for Hong Kong when he was 22. He met my mom there; she was a minister’s daughter. When I was in Malaysia after my senior year of high school, my dad brought pictures of my family. He showed them my mom saying “this is my wife, Ann, a girl I met in Hong Kong.” My dad came to the United States after meeting Elton Trueblood, a minister from Virginia who was visiting Hong Kong. He kind of opened the door for the rest of his family. My dad got his doctorate at the University of Alabama, and my mom got her master’s there too. My grandmother, my aunts and uncles came to the United States then, around the time I was born. My grandmother is prominent in my baby pictures. I’m not sure, but I think I spent a lot of time with her early on, on account of my parents being in school. The Chinese word for “grandmother” (on the father’s side) is ma ma. In an unrelated note, I’ve recently decided that “Sweet Home Alabama,” by Lynrd Skynrd is my theme song. I’m writing this column on Tuesday, in my aunt’s house in Toledo, Ohio. My father’s mother died on Saturday, so we are all here for the funeral. My other aunt’s family is here from North Carolina, as well as Edmund and Angie from Malaysia, whom I stayed with on my trip there. All the adults in this house except for my mom and Angie grew up together in one neighborhood in Malaysia. They all know each other from First Baptist Church, which my grandmother helped found. The house is noisy and crammed full. In the kitchen, the adults are gathered around the table, laughing and talking about old times. Half of me feels at home, the other half feels like I’m in the Joy Luck Club. You could say that there aren’t many Asian people in my life in Ames. The adults speak in a loud mix of Cantonese and English, both spoken with Malaysian accents. The Malaysian accent is hard to describe. The accents are switched around on some words, and the word “lah” is tacked onto the end of phrases. My dad adopts this accent too, although he normally doesn’t use it. At home, it’s a strange thing to hear him pick up the phone, and then abruptly switch into Malaysian-English mode when he finds out who’s on the other end. None of my cousins speak Cantonese very well, but the older ones can understand it. This is a strange phenomenon. If you were to tell me in Cantonese to go to the car and bring in some coke, I would know exactly what you meant. But if you asked me an hour later how to give that command, I would be lost. My cousins are the same way. Once, when I was in about seventh grade, ma ma asked me what my favorite food was, so that she could make it for me. One of my favorite foods has always been char-siu bow, which is like a Chinese steamed bun with barbecued pork in it. They are delicious, and I was pretty sure she knew how to make them. She was in the kitchen all day mixing rice flour and roasting meat. We had them for dinner and they were huge and plump, with all kinds of extra goodies stuffed into them. Later that night, I was going to bed when my dad pulled me aside and said “You know, char-siu bow is very hard to make, you should thank ma ma for all her trouble.” I went down to ma ma’s room and knocked on her door in my pajamas. She was sitting on her bed, reading her Bible. “Thank you for making the char-siu bow for me ma ma, they were very good,” I said. I remember that she looked up and laughed a little bit, as if it was no big deal. Elton Wong is a senior in genetics and philosophy from Ames.