Homeward Bound

Last month, I went home to California. It’s an odd word to use, home, given that I’ve lived in Amsterdam for 30 years. But what else can you call the place where you were grew up or your parents still live? Home is not so much a location as a spot on the space-time continuum.

Chinese Intercollegiate Club

Sixty plus years ago, there was an organization in Los Angeles called the Chinese Intercollegiate Club. It was a place where overseas Chinese students and alumni could meet each other and talk about home. More often than not, the group would meet on the campus of the University of Southern California, where the bulk of the overseas Chinese students could be found.

The club didn’t have much money to spend on food or drink, let alone entertainment. I imagine that the gatherings were modest, makeshift, maybe with punch.

When I was in college, we would bring our records to the cafeteria. Someone would fetch a phonograph from the dormitory while the rest of us pushed the tables and chairs against the walls. We danced all night long. It wasn’t the Paramount Ballroom but we had fun.

Karen Kao, The Dancing Girl and the Turtle (Linen Press 2017)

This dialogue belongs my character Song Kang but it could have been my mother describing her own experience. Those were the days when she and her friends would climb over the back fence at the Hollywood Bowl to listen to concerts. Sleep on the sidewalk on New Year’s Eve in anticipation of the Rose Bowl parade. Run three-legged races around Lake Arrowhead.

home with mom and dad
Grandad in Up. Image source: her.ie

Last month, some of those friends attended a Chinese banquet to celebrate my parents’ 60th wedding anniversary. While the men nodded off between courses, it was hard to imagine any of them climbing fences. Especially now that my father looks like the grandad in Up.

The wrinkles are inevitable but the friendships are not. How wonderful to celebrate a 60th wedding anniversary with the friends who were there from the start.

Plywood Palace

Almost 40 years ago, my husband Frans was backpacking through the United States. He’d been warned not to hitchhike between Los Angeles and San Francisco. So he waited until he got to Highway 1, north of San Francisco, to stick out his thumb.

A young man named Gordon stopped to pick him. This was June 1981, soon after Operation Opera, a surprise Israeli attack on an Iraqi nuclear reactor. Gordon and Frans argued over the merits and demerits of such an attack as they drove north into Humboldt County to Gordon’s home in the hills.

For Gordon, Humboldt County was to be his sylvan retreat where he could write books and live in nature. But he underestimated the impact of having Mary Jane as his neighbor. Prior to marijuana being legalized in California, it was the primary source of income for more than one-fifth of the county.

The hipnecks and pot princesses lived off the grid in their plywood palaces. Humboldt was a cash-only society then that needed neither taxes nor banks. Instead, you buried your cash in plastic tubes and glass bottles and defended your territory with maximum force.

Last month, we went to visit Gordon in his new home. He no longer lives in a plywood palace, having abandoned life behind the Redwood Curtain for the relative ease of suburbia. And while Gordon may be pushing 80, age won’t stop him from taking us on a hike through a stretch of old-growth redwood forest.

Rogue Elephants

Claire and I met at Ramona Convent, that all-girls Catholic high school that has been so very formative for me. Since graduation, our moments together have been few and far between. Claire remembers visiting me in Washington, DC in my days as a baby lawyer. I remember her visit to our new home in Amsterdam.

elephant at home
Rogue elephant. Photo credit: Karen Kao

It was the year Frans and I moved and Claire was one of our first guests. I have no idea what we did, if anything. What I remember are the stories Claire told of her time in Africa working as a river guide. My favorite story has Claire holed up in her tent, suffering from a bout of the runs. The local guides, however, have warned the group that a rogue elephant is on the loose. Claire has to choose between the safety of her tent and relieving herself out in the bush.

As she agonizes over her choices, the elephant enters their camp. He rampages about and, from the sounds of it, is getting closer. Claire’s tent flap opens and an elephant’s trunk enters. It snoops, it snuffles, it leaves Claire in tears of laughter.

Thirty years later, Claire and I reconnect. Life has not been kind to Claire and yet there she is, beaming like she’s 16 years old again. She tells me I haven’t changed a bit and I say the same thing to her and though we both know it isn’t true, the statement doesn’t feel like a lie. Our hearts recognize each other despite the wrinkles and the weight of time. We’ve come home.

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