Do-do! Do! The phone rings. 7:05 a.m. on the dot.
I pick up the phone. “Good morning, Leela!”
Who else but my best friend would call me at 7 a.m.? It’s a regular ritual, as predictable as the cock’s crow. Better than an alarm clock.
“Hey, I’m getting my test results this afternoon,” Leela’s soft voice comes through from the other end of the line. “Want to come along to give me some moral support?”
“Sure.” I answer without thinking. “Where do I meet you?”
“How about the Mud Pie, around 12:30 p.m? ” Leela names one of her favorite vegetarian restaurants on Lyndale. “I’m taking the afternoon off. I can use a cup of coffee after work, and we can sit and talk before the clinic opens.”
I hang up. This will be my first trip to give Leela actual “moral support” for a possible abortion. The last couple of times, I only heard about them after the fact. Maybe the past year of daily phone calls in the morning—during her morning break—has made me her latest confidante. We are close friends, but I know her cautious nature and jealous safeguard of her privacy to pry for more details. Unless she offers to share, I never ask.
Lying in bed, on the verge of dozing off again, I hear Sarah, our mutual friend’s comment, “It’s not her third or fourth abortion. She’s had at least one with each new boy friend, sometimes two even…. That’s at least once a year. And I’ve known her for more than nine years….”
Nine abortions, or more? The astounding figure confuses me. Why?
Tuesday afternoon, I board the #21 bus on Lake Street and head Uptown. It’s a cool, spring day, summer is just around the corner. A crisp, fresh wind is blowing, and the street is bathed in a soft, spring sunshine. This is my sixth year in Minneapolis, and I am beginning to feel at home here. After all, my mother has already died in Hong Kong in 1983, the winter after I arrived at the University for my doctoral studies in English. Going “home” to Hong Kong no longer feels necessary. But if not Hong Kong, then where? Where do I belong?
I met Leela for the first time at the U Film Society on campus. It was a snowy, winter evening in early 1985. They were showing a new French movie at the Science Museum. Being a Francophile—I had a double major in English and French as an undergrad–I wouldn’t want to miss it. In the lobby, I ran into Mike Lee, a film-maker from Hong Kong I had met at a Chinese New Year party the year before. And he said, “Hey, Sophie, let me introduce you to another Hongkonger, a fellow film-maker, Leela.”
The woman standing next to Mike turned and smiled. Crimson lipstick, pearly white teeth. Large, dreamy, black eyes. Though not much taller than me, Leela has a regal carriage about her, like a ballet dancer; and a cool, distant smile. An Ice Queen. Her kohl dark eyes, cropped hair, and exotic looks make her a standout anywhere. She looks like a fashion model out of the pages of Vogue.
I found out later that Leela had arrived in Minneapolis a couple of years before I did, but she has dropped out of the English graduate program and gone “underground.” Somehow, she got a job as a cook at the University Hospital where she usually takes the morning shift, so she could take video-making classes and run her poetry group in the evening. An avid film buff, she loves Eastern European movies and foreign films. So we have a few interests in common, besides the fact that we have both “escaped” from colonial Hong Kong.
“Hong Kong was suffocating,” she confides in me, over Beef Chow Fun at the Village Wok. “And my dad wouldn’t let me go anywhere…. I couldn’t bear watching him and my mom fight; it drove me nuts. What was there to do but to run away from home?”
I’ve never met anyone else who’d describe their leaving Hong Kong the same way: “running away from home.” Running away, exile, escape. That’s exactly how I feel.
Leela’s father is half-Pakistani and half Chinese, but her mom is full-blooded Cantonese and a beauty in her day. That was the mid 1950’s. Her parents were high school sweet-hearts; her mother was barely sixteen, a headstrong, spoiled, rich girl. Her family objected vehemently to her romance with a South Asian—an “Ah Char,” as dark-skinned Indians were called in Hong Kong. Except for the very rich, merchants and diplomats, the rest were considered the “under-class”–They stink! So Leela’s mother got pregnant and threatened suicide; and she got her way. That makes Leela one-quarter Pakistani, although she was raised like most Hong Kong girls except for being Moslem and not eating pork. “I’m just a mutt,” she quips, defiance flashing in her eyes. Her father, however, sounds like a typical patriarch, dictatorial, abusive, and complete with a second wife and another set of family outside. He forbids his wife and daughters to go out on their own.
“I had to sneak my clothes out of the house and stash them at a friend’s home piece by piece. I only called my mom before I boarded the plane at Kai Tak Airport. I hate saying good-bye.”
So do I. But I did not have as dramatic an escape as Leela did. My family didn’t care, so long as I could take care of myself. I worked for a year and saved enough for my first semester’s school fees at a tiny Midwestern college, and took off. It was August 1973. And I have never looked back.
So here we are, two young Chinese women, ex-colonials, forging a new life in the American Midwest. Foreigners, misfits. Free at last.
When I walk into the Mud Pie, Leela is already seated at a booth, coffee mug in her hand.
“The clinic doesn’t open until one p.m.,” she says. “We have plenty of time. I’ve already had lunch at work. Do you want to eat something?”
I order a vegetarian burger and a cup of hot tea. Leela sips her coffee and watches me eat, with a faraway look in her eyes. The test results must be weighing on her mind.
“You know, I’m not religious or anything,” she begins quietly, like talking to herself. “But sometimes I think those babies—well, fetuses–must be waiting for me on the other side. ‘Mom! Mom!’ They’d cry….”
“’We want our life back! Give it back to us!’” she mimics in a high-pitched, dramatic voice. “Yeah, just like ghosts in the radio drama, The Midnight Hour!” She chuckles, although I don’t feel any real laughter in her voice.
I don’t know what to say. I’ve never had an abortion, or anything close to it. What can I say?
“Well, wait till you get the results,” I say tentatively. “Don’t jump into conclusions so fast.”
“Oh, I’ve been through this before,” she shakes her head. “My period is quite regular. So I’m 99% sure. Just need them to confirm it…and then I can take the next step.”
Leela is unusually moody today. Not the nonchalant, proud Ice Queen she likes to project most anywhere else. I am left speechless.
“Actually, the procedure is not so bad,” she continues, in a quiet, measured tone. “They always give you some counseling beforehand, just in case you might want to change your mind. I usually tell them that I can’t keep it; I have to work. It really doesn’t matter what you say; it’s just a formality.” Calmly, she takes another sip of her coffee. “There’s a room where you watch a video explaining the procedure, and then they ask you to sign a form. After that, you change into a gown and they take you into the room…. The doctor and nurses are all wearing masks. You never see their faces….”
A short pause. “Hm, they must be doing 20, 30 procedures a day; just herding everyone through.”
Her voice drifts off, as if she was talking in her dream. “There’s usually some pain, like cramping. But you’ll get over it.” Another pause. “Um, the needle is…this long.” She opens her hands and indicates a span of at least a foot. “It hurts the worst when they scrape you clean, to make sure they’ve got all the tissues out. Yeah, that really hurts.”
“Afterwards, you go and rest in a lounge with other women. Just like the sick room at school. You can have some tea and crackers, or candies and chocolate. They tell you to rest for a few days. I usually just call in sick…. No sex for a couple of weeks….”
From a far distance, I recall my mother’s rare disclosure. “There’s no denying your father. When he wants it, he wants it…. Wait till you’re married, you’ll know.” Leela, on the other hand, is the one who can’t wait. When she’s “in the mood,” she wants “action,” right away. It takes the guy too long to put on his “thing,” she complains, and inserting her diaphragm means more delay.
I wonder if she’s ever tried a better method for birth control. But I keep my mouth shut. Indeed, what do I know? My almost non-existent sex life makes me the least qualified person to make any comments on such matters.
All of a sudden, Leela flashes me a big smile. Crimson lipstick glimmers under the yellow light. “Yeah, if it was back in China in the old days, I’d make some mother-in-law very happy,” she chuckles again. “Such fertility! Just like a baby-making machine!” She laughs out loud, her laughter echoing through the empty restaurant.
“Yes, just like my mother says, ‘There’s no escaping from it. It’s a woman’s burden, a woman’s lot.’ It doesn’t matter whether you’re liberated or not. You’re still tied to your god-damned period, your god-damned eggs!”
She takes another sip of coffee, staring out of the window.
I can only see that foot-long needle, inserted into her womb. The pain, the blood. And the sounds of the doctor’s instrument, scraping her uterus lining clean. Does that hurt more or hurt less than actually giving birth? My mother had 10 births. “Two basins of blood, two basins of blood!” she used to exclaim, describing the process. It’s a woman’s burden? A woman’s lot?
Leela lets out a deep breath, and begins again. “Hm, I’m pretty sure this one is Rob’s,” she says in a placid voice, like telling someone else’s story. Rob is her latest boy friend—another film-maker, Italian-American, handsome, gregarious–the one she’s been thinking of marrying. Wavering, debating with herself over the decision. That’s why the daily phone calls at 7 a.m.
“It’s not that I don’t like him,” she complains on the phone, for the hundredth time. “I just don’t know if I should get married, now, and to him…. You know, the government has offered an amnesty for illegal aliens who entered the country before 1982; I should qualify. I don’t need a husband to become legit.”
There’s a gritty determination in her voice, with an undercurrent of pride, defiance and rage. Like a raging bull in front of a matador.
“I’ve always made my own way, by hook or by crook,” she says to me. “What’s the point of adding this meaningless title, ‘a wife’?!”
Like many of my friends, foreign students, Chinese women, Hongkongers…Leela is lost in the perennial quandary. Identity, nationality, home. Being born Chinese, and female, already makes us “second-class citizens.” Being from Hong Kong makes things more complicated. Our BNO won’t last forever. And we must live in the shadowland of being neither fully British, nor “bona fide” Chinese. Yes, how many of us would willingly “return to the Motherland,” when 1997 comes along?
“I stopped seeing Pierre and Alexei at least 3 months ago, in spite of myself,” Leela confesses, wistfully, in the near-deserted Mud Pie—unusually quiet for a Tuesday afternoon. Her pale, white face; her flaming red lips remind me of “femmes fatales” in many classic movies. Garbo, Dietrich…. “I was really having a good time. A French photographer, and a Russian film-maker. What else can I ask for?” She sighs. “Alexei, especially, makes me wild. Such passion in his eyes, his hands…. I want it to go on and on; I never want him to stop. And he brings me wine and roses, and recites Pushkin…. You’d never find such finesse with these hot-blooded Yankees who only want a quick fix.”
She pauses. “Oh, yes, I’d marry Alexei in a heart-beat. But he already has a wife!”
I wonder if Rob knows she’s carrying his child. Does he agree to an abortion? Is she going to tell him? Would she tell him after they’re married?
“Hm, it’s already 12:55; the clinic should be opened,” Leela puts down her coffee mug. “Let me call them from the pay phone outside.” She gets up from our booth, and heads toward the door. Even from the back, she looks stunning. Short, black hair; large, turquoise ear-rings; red, embroidered jacket from Guatemala.
…and those aborted fetuses waiting for her on the other side.
* * *
It was the spring of 1989. The whole world was ablaze with news from Beijing, where Chinese dissidents and activist students were protesting, taking over Tiananmen Square. Leela and I were part of a small group of students—from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and a couple from the mainland—who had been studiously discussing current events and intellectual concerns in a monthly “Book Club.” Aided by E-mails and faxes sent by Chinese students from campuses around the country—indeed, around the world–we were all infected by the fervor of the moment. Some of us went to the newly-formed, independent Chinese Student Association, and participated in their chaotic and heated debates; some of us interviewed the main student leaders and wrote reports in the University paper; some of us went along on overnight trips to Chicago, to protest with tens of thousands of other students in front of the Chinese Embassy. Our enthusiasm and our excitement knew no bounds. Even after being out of Hong Kong, or China, for long periods of time—some of us for decades—we were, after all, Chinese in our heart and in our blood. America was only our borrowed home.
On a few occasions, Leela and Rob brought their video equipment on our bus to Chicago to document the events. They seemed to be forming a stronger bond together, and I was happy for them.
Then came the fateful events of June third and June fourth, when military tanks crushed the protesters in Tiananmen—once again reported by all the prime time channels. I shall never forget the first Breaking News at 5 a.m., on the morning of June 4th, Peter Jennings on ABC. Gun shots and tanks on the Square. Injured students, crushed bodies, followed by massive arrests. The world, as we knew it—as we dreamed it–came to a grinding halt.
The rest of the summer felt more like a Siberian winter. We were all chilled to the bones. Our naïve hopes were dashed.
Overnight, students from China—even those who had never participated in the democratic organizing on campus—were talking of an amnesty, and a special permit which would allow them to stay in the US indefinitely. That would not include those of us from Hong Kong, of course, since we were “British.” Lin Hua, one of my good friends and an English scholar from Tianjin, had emigrated to Canada with her husband and young son. They had just crossed the Canadian border on the evening of June third. “In the nick of time,” she would tell me later. Others had their eyes and ears glued to the news, and the information from the US Department of State. With the help of Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi and a few others, the much-anticipated bill on extension for Chinese students’ visas would soon be passed.
One fine day in late summer, I put on my pink summer dress—the one my sister had mailed me from Hong Kong—and went to Leela and Rob’s wedding at the Minneapolis City Hall. It was a small wedding, with only a few close friends attending. I was one of the two bridesmaids, and Mike Lee was the photographer. As usual, Leela looked stunningly beautiful in a white, cotton summer dress, with subtle patterns woven into the fabric, and a purple, silk sash tied on her waist. Smiling, leaning against her tall, handsome husband, she was a gorgeous bride.
I finally breathed a sigh of relief. Hopefully, that’d be the end of those early phone calls at 7 a.m.
Apparently, Leela had called her mom, who urged her to hurry up so she could get her citizenship ASAP. With 1997 fast approaching, and the recent crackdown in Beijing—indeed, all over China– everyone in Hong Kong was getting extremely nervous. A foreign passport was the only security blanket. Leela’s family needed her to rescue them. Even her belligerent father was giving her and Rob his blessings.
“My dad says Rob looks just like a handsome Prince from North India; Caucasian good looks. He’d be happy to receive him as a son-in-law!” she joked.
So off they went, back to Hong Kong for the happy reunion, and another Pakistani-style wedding ceremony. The Prodigal returned, security blanket in tow. Everyone got what they wanted, or close.
By early fall, I was offered a temporary job as a translator/interpreter in New York City, where I lived and worked for three months. When I returned to Minneapolis, it was mid-January, with snow piled up two feet deep on the streets.
Why didn’t I stay in Manhattan, where my sister was making good money as an interpreter, and where I could get translation jobs easily? –I had no answer, except that I loved the arts too much. A group of Asian friends were organizing the first-ever Asian American arts conference in the Upper Midwest. They wanted me to be the coordinator. It was an offer I could not refuse.
I’d never be able to go back to China, anyway. Hong Kong is no longer my home. So I only have one option left. Rightly or wrongly, that was my rationale.
Now looking back, I wonder how many foreigners, and how many Chinese students ended up with decisions like mine, sooner or later? I had barely avoided facing the issue longer than most, hiding behind my scholarships and fellowships. “Be realistic, Sophie,” Lin Hua urged me on the phone from Toronto. “Only hua qiao–overseas Chinese–like you would believe in dreams of a better China,” she commented bitterly. “We, who know better, wouldn’t waste the time.”
In a way, I was luckier than some, since I participated actively in local Asian American groups, and multi-cultural organizing. I knew I had a community; I was not a state-less, home-less person. Over-compensating for my Hong Kong upbringing, perhaps. But mostly, the sounds of gun-shots and the regiments of soldiers and tanks on Tiananmen Square had been forever etched in my mind. Clinging to the hope that I’d be “Chinese” again no longer seemed possible. I might as well “become” an American.
I found a new apartment in St. Paul, not far from University Avenue. I needed help moving in. So I picked up the phone one afternoon and called Leela, who had helped me move half a dozen times.
But she wasn’t home. Rob, who answered the phone, told me that Leela was doing overtime work to save money for a new car. They were planning on moving to San Francisco the following summer.
“Hey, Sophie,” Rob said pleasantly, “I have a small truck. Why don’t you let me help you move? You’d never be able to find Leela the next couple weeks; she also has a deadline on a video project coming up. She’s working night and day to finish it.”
“Oh, that’d be great!” I exclaimed. “I’ll ask some of the other guys to come along to help. They’re used to hauling my big computer desk and couch.”
So everything was set for my imminent move to St. Paul, or so I thought.
Two days later, I received an unexpected phone call from Leela. “How dare you make a date with my husband without asking me first?” She screamed at me on the phone. “You have no right to go over me and not ask for my permission!”
“What?” I was stunned. “It wasn’t a date! Rob offered to help me move because you are busy doing overtime. He said he’s glad to help, that’s all.”
“Still, you needed to ask my permission first,” Leela’s voice was shrill and loud. “We’ve been quarreling for two days and two nights because of YOU!”
“Hey, wait a minute, Leela. Be reasonable,” I pleaded. “I wasn’t doing anything wrong. I didn’t ask Rob for help; he was the one who offered. Besides, I’ve cooked dinner for both of you; I’ve participated in your wedding like your family. I just thought….”
“Well,” she interrupted me, “You have no right to think! You’re taking me totally for granted. I’m your friend, Rob is my husband. By courtesy, you should have consulted with me first.”
“But how was I going to consult with you when you weren’t at home? Rob said you are too busy! What’s this big deal about a ride to move some furniture? It’s not like he’s running away with me!”
I was getting frustrated and angry too. There’s no point in reasoning with an angry—and most probably hysterical and very jealous–wife. But I had never foreseen it coming. I was shocked.
“You have violated every rule in the book on friendship!” Leela yelled at me. “You’re untrustworthy. I’ll never trust you again!
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I answered, also huffing and puffing. Indeed, I was incensed. “People help other people move all the time. You’ve helped me a number of times; so has Mike, and Charles and the others. I don’t see why I needed your permission to arrange for a ride. You’re just totally ridiculous.”
And so the argument went on, over the phone, for two whole hours. It was a futile discussion. At the end, I hung up, exhausted and hurt. My head was buzzing with Leela’s curse words, and her angry tirades—which I couldn’t fathom, nor could I accept. I wondered if her mother was this crazy when she fought with Leela’s father like dogs and cats. “Looking just like a ghost,” was Leela’s description.
I really wondered where all this anger came from. I definitely didn’t create it. And I did not deserve such rude treatment, not even from my “best friend.”
A couple of weeks passed. No more phone calls from Leela. Thank goodness! I hoped she would cool down and get over her rage. It was rage, pure and simple—coming out of nowhere.
One Sunday morning, I was meeting some friends for Dim Sum at the Cantonese House Restaurant. As I was being seated, there they were, Leela and Rob, already seated at the other side of the restaurant. They must have gotten there much earlier.
The minute she saw me, Leela got up from her table and headed for the exit. Rob stared after her. Then he also got up, gave me a little wave, and shrugged. They left.
I was very hurt; I couldn’t say a word.
The following week, our friends Charles and Clara had a dinner party at their apartment. “Leela said she’d bring her latest video to show us,” Clara said nicely. “Be sure to come early.”
“Oh, no!” I exclaimed. “She walked out on me at the Cantonese House the other day. I am not going to go through that again!”
“But why?” Clara was surprised. “I thought you said that she was the one who was angry. Now she has offered to come to our dinner. But you are the one who wants to avoid her. That doesn’t make sense.”
“Oh well, it does, to me,” I said. “She has not even apologized to me once for chewing me out on the phone for two hours, and for NO reason at all. And she already walked out on me, the minute she saw me arrive at a restaurant. I’m not going to endure such rude treatment again—not even if she was my mother!”
In the end, I didn’t go to Clara and Charles’ dinner party. I just couldn’t.
The following summer, Leela and Rob packed their belongings and drove off to San Francisco. I heard about their new apartment above a Pizza parlor, and Rob’s new job at a local TV station. But they never contacted me again, not even once.
Now, many years later, I wonder if I was over-reacting or too stubborn to refuse to go to that last dinner at Clara’s house. If I had gone, maybe I’d be able to repair my relationship with Leela before she left town. But it’s all too late now.
Friendship is like drifting clouds. You drift together; then you drift apart. Nothing is constant. Like the lines in this Chinese folk-song, Ben Shi (Our Original Story): In the long tunnel of time, we are merely fallen petals, each to her own destiny. “We don’t know how we’ve tumbled into sleep./ In our dream, how many blossoms have fallen in the wind?”
Here I am, in Hong Kong, some twenty years later, thinking of my quirky, beautiful, unpredictable friend who was like a sister to me for a few years. I wonder, is she thinking of me—maybe once in a while—in faraway San Francisco?
Copyright © Sophronia Liu, 2012
On the 23rd Anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre