Mai La was 18 years old when she got off the plane at SeaTac wearing her little Chinese pajamas. I was 27 and waiting with Nghiep, a Chinese friend, and a photograph of Mai, courtesy of World Relief Refugee Services.
It was 1981. The “boat people” from Viet Nam were flooding the U.S. west coast. Resettlement was a huge problem that wasn’t handled well. Large families were dumped into small apartments and left to figure out the city, language, buses, schools, medical services, and DSHS with very little help. I was living in a house in the U District with three other women. I had the largest room; there was plenty of room for another bed and chest of drawers.
I told World Relief that I wanted to sponsor a single woman or a single woman with a baby. They told me that single refugee women never happened. Whole families came over together. I filled out the form requesting a single woman anyway.
“It won’t happen,” they said.
“Ok,” I said.
Three months later, there was Mai. During the ages that American girls are going to proms and applying to colleges, Mai escaped from Saigon and spent a year and a half in a resettlement camp in Malaysia.
Nghiep spoke Mandarin and Mai spoke Cantonese, but they managed to communicate in Vietnamese. Nghiep made us dinner at his house. I listened to them talk. I hoped he was allaying some of her fears because she had a little worry- pucker between her eyebrows.
It was dark when Mai and I drove along Lake Washington Blvd and through the arboretum on the way to her new home. She finally spoke to me.
She said in slow, careful English, “What is your name?”
Mai and I shared a room for a year. Then I moved into the small bedroom in the back of the house and she had the big room all to herself for another year. She finished high school at Roosevelt High and found a job removing pimples and wrinkles from face portraits at Yuen Lui photography studio. She got married and had a baby, Tara.
One by one Mai sponsored two brothers and a sister to Seattle; they got married, and had children. We all get together for Dim Sum at Chinese New Year, for some kind of outing in the summer, and for Christmas. I showed them how to do a bloated American Christmas and regretted it. We all just about smothered ourselves in the wrapping paper. When she grew up, it was Tara who put a stop to the gifts and we were all relieved to just get together for dinner. I still slip a gift to Mai.
The Chinese aren’t so big on individual birthdays but every March 31st, I send flowers to Mai for her “second birthday.” Her first birthday is February 22nd. I can’t remember if this discrepancy came about because there were some mistakes on her immigration papers or if Feb 22 on the western calendar is March 31 on a Chinese calendar. In any case, I routinely forget Mai’s birthday on Feb 22, and am always relieved when mid-March I remember I have another chance. I order flowers with a card that says “Happy Second Birthday.”
When Ballard Blossoms picked up on my routine they began sending me reminder notices. The next time I ordered flowers for Mai, the florist said, “You said Happy Second Birthday” last year. Don’t you want it to say “Happy Third Birthday” this year?”
One of my all-time favorite stories about my Chinese family stars the daughter of Mai’s brother, Tom. Tom went to China for a traditional wedding with Fei Fei but they gave their two daughters staunch American names: Donna and Leslie. Donna was five the summer we all went to the King County Fair in Enumclaw.
We spent half an hour in the petting zoo. We fed goats, sheep, chickens, and geese. There was even a baby wallaby.
We advanced next door to a facsimile of a longhouse. A huge native American man was carving away at a canoe. Various native crafts were on display. On the walls hung pelts and skins from foxes, deer, and beavers.
Donna looked soberly at the skins on the walls. She stalked up to the big native American and nailed him with her eyes,
“Did you get those skins from the petting zoo?” she demanded.
He stared at her, shocked. Then his shoulders started to shake. He put down his tools and laughed. By the time we left the longhouse, he was wiping his eyes.
Fast forward to last weekend. There are fourteen of us now. Donna and Leslie are in high school. Tara is finishing college. Mai still works at Yuen Lui studio. I went to a baby shower for one of the brothers and his wife who are expecting their second baby. Their first, Christina, is 14 months and she was the star. A baby in the room makes a party come alive.
I guess I am the matriarch. For someone who never had much of a family to begin with and who doesn’t have a traditional family at all anymore, I treasure this one. Even though I was the one who started it, I feel like they took me in. Yesterday I watched the faces, laughed at the jokes and ate the wonderful food. I thought of Mai coming over here all by herself, me with my deficiency of family, and the words to a song from Miss Saigon:
played on a solo saxophone
A crazy sound, a lonely sound
A cry that tells us love goes on and on.”
It does, indeed. Pretty much anywhere you look for it.