Photo by Alec Vuijlsteke
The Asian bug has bitten my younger son Jesse. I don’t mean the flu that comes around every several years and gets blamed on that continent. No, he has been smitten by the mysterious East, and, like Marco Polo, fallen under the spell of the Orient. He is dating an Asian girl. Not that there is anything wrong with that, as an old Seinfeld episode proclaimed about another matter, and I have no problem with his personal dating preferences. He’s over twenty-one, and the only girls he has ever been attracted to since his junior high school days have been inscrutable Asians. Although I can’t say for sure, I am relatively confident that he may have “scruted” at least one of them.
I think Jesse’s fascination might be something genetic, something hard-wired into his psyche. His grandfather on his mother’s side spent years in the South Pacific fighting World War II. And for a while, Ian, Jesse’s older brother from another mother, also dabbled in the exotic when he was dating, before he got married. Ian’s girlfriend Anita wasn’t Asian, but Columbian, Ecuadorian, Peruvian, or one of those other -ians from one of those South American or Central American places. Not that there’s anything wrong with that either.
I always liked Anita, an intense and passionate little brown girl with white teeth, dark flashing eyes and a good sense of humor, who didn’t seem to mind that I put all the knives away and kept checking the hubcaps on my car whenever they came to visit. But Anita, by last account, moved back to Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, or one of those other places, got married and has had several kids, none of them his, Ian assured me.
Then came Siu Lan who was definitely Asian. She was Chinese, in fact, and I am pretty sure she still is. We called her “Siu Who?” though her last name was actually Wing or Wang or Wong. We did that to differentiate Siu from Sue, my niece who isn’t Asian and spells her name differently but pronounces it the same way. I first met Siu at a party, a family gathering of the Italians at my daughter Janine’s house on Staten Island. Weeks in advance of the event, a nervous Ian had prepared everyone for the meeting of East and West in an attempt to head off any potential problems. But on the appointed day, his grandmother, my mother, made it evident by the expression on her face that she wasn’t very pleased when Ian led a foreigner into the thick of twenty-five screaming Italians all talking at the same time.
I watched the girl, head high, black hair radiating the light of Janine’s Italian crystal chandelier, as she walked fearlessly or foolishly into the middle of things. The conversations dropped to a low murmur and stopped, and in the intervening silence you could hear a steamed wonton drop.
It was my mother-in-law who barreled in and attempted to break the ice with some Asian small talk. “So tell me,” she said with an innocent smile of simplicity on her face, “how come they took Kung Fu off the air? It was one of my favorite shows.”
Siu Who blinked. She shook her head. “I’m not sure,” she said without a trace of sarcasm after barely a pause. “But let me get back to my people and I’ll tell you what I find out.”
It was love at first sight, and from that second I knew Siu Who was special!
But their relationship didn’t work out because there were other problems beyond the East/West thing. And eventually Siu Lan went the way of Anita, though I don’t think she moved to South or Central America, and I assume she still lives in Brooklyn somewhere.
Soon after, Ian reconnected with Amy, his college girlfriend, the polar opposite of his previous choices, both geographically and physically. Amy was born in up-state New York, in Syracuse or Schenectady or one of those other “S” cities. She is smart, beautiful, flaxen blonde and so white she might be mistaken for alabaster. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I love Amy, and that is a good thing because she is now my daughter-in-law and the mother of Hailey, who for the first three months of her life was the first blue-eyed grandchild born into this brown-eyed Italian/Sicilian family, until her eyes changed to beautiful black Sicilian olives.
The Asian bug bit Jesse somewhere around seventh grade when he met Jessica, a petite Korean with great lips, who was in the horn section of the middle school orchestra. Jesse played the same instrument. Well, they didn’t actually play the same one, but they both played trumpets. Their pairing had such possibilities. Jesse and Jessie. Two trumpets. No waiting. However, they were both so shy that neither one said a word to the other until high school graduation day, just before they went off to different colleges. And by that time it was too late.
Then along came Amy. Not Ian’s “Caucasian Amy,” but one of the Asian persuasion, a Japanese violinist Jesse met in college. When he brought her around, the family, including my mother, had grown accustomed to Asians at the gates, although they still had trouble separating them according a specific -ese. Just as the family had reduced everything from ravioli to linguini and lasagna, into generic “macaroni,” there was a tendency to lump all of Asia together – Chinese, Japanese – Portuguese? It didn’t seem to matter. And there were some who had problems telling the family’s Asians apart and thought that Asian Amy and Siu Who were the actually the same person, dating first Ian and then Jesse. Not that they looked alike, or that there was anything wrong with it if they did. But some of the confusion was mainly because Siu and Asian Amy had never been seen together. No one ever had problems telling the two Amys apart. My mother-in-law never asked Asian Amy her Kung Fu question. “Because,” she said, “I already asked her once at Janine’s and I don’t want to be a pest. Besides, I don’t want her to think that I am being rude.”
So for as long as Asian Amy was on the scene, the matter of Kung Fu’s disappearance remained a mystery.
We didn’t talk much, Asian Amy and I, when she and Jesse visited. She was shy and quiet, the very definition of inscrutable, the silent, brooding type, a person of many moods, most of them dark, like a rain cloud that she seemed to carry with her. Their breakup was a protracted and painful affair for both of them. Asian Amy was Jesse’s first real love, but in the end, after many fits and starts, they went their separate ways.
After the pain of Asian Amy subsided, it didn’t take Jesse long to hook up, first with Kat, a tattooed Filipina, and then with Kit, a cute little Chinese girl. They make a cute couple. Kit is barely five feet tall and Jesse measures in at a towering six feet four. They have a lot in common. They are both shy and quiet and have a strong affinity for sushi. But if they ever get married I know there is no hope of the union ever producing a blue-eyed baby.
Jesse has other plans after graduation. He has been studying Japanese for about a year. In June he hopes to go to Japan for a year or more to teach English there. He has submitted his JET application, one of the few things he has completed on time without coaxing from his mother or me. He is already there in Japan in his head.
“I hope you get your wish,” I told him. “It is a wonderful opportunity. But what,” I asked him while we were watching Lost In Translation for the third time, “will you do if you are not accepted?”
He looked as though he had never considered that possibility.
“And what will you and Kit do if you are accepted?”
He shrugged as he sat there with his legs crossed looking very inscrutable.
So I am making plans too, to take a trip to Japan when Jesse is there. I am fortifying myself in Asian culture by ordering lots of Chinese take out, and I am desperately trying to develop a taste for raw fish and octopus flavored ice cream.
Joseph E. Scalia grew up a shabbos goy in Boro Park, Brooklyn, turning on lights and lighting cooking stoves. He has published two novels FREAKs and Pearl, two short story collections, No Strings Attached and Brooklyn Family Scenes. He is looking for a publisher for his latest collection of humor, Scalia vs.The Universe.