On behalf of my ancestors, the recent ones, the ones I’m still trying to belong to, I’m chasing this letting go, still, this American dream.
Hey baby, Miss Cold,
There’s a Chinese temple in Oroville, somewhere in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, the boonies, which I mixed up with the goonies for a long, long time. We came to California in a pack, a whole gang of us pressing on, which is not what a press gang is, and not what we were or are. We wanted to avoid winter and unpleasant ways to die, so we brought it all with us, the warung, the bodega, the encampment, little villages everywhere, entire worlds.
In the end it appeared the point was to be jazzy, carefree, to let it all go, not cling, not need to belong, just be. No language barriers, no need to hold on, no need to judge, man, we’re all one, we’re all the same, man. On behalf of my ancestors, the recent ones, the ones I’m still trying to belong to, I’m chasing this letting go, still, this American dream. I’m moving away to be released from it all, to a smaller town, to the mountains, me and all the city people who are living and letting live, who are finally letting go, who are just being.
This is 2020, or is it 2021, merging into the same, all of us surviving the great yeast and trampoline and bicycle and toilet paper shortages, when we were missing everything but still have so much stuff and not enough time, and we didn’t buy books or typewriters or notebooks or help each other or reflect. If COVID didn’t kill us, it gave us perspective and opportunities, and somehow that’s fair because the people it was unfair to are largely dead, or suffering even more, working even more jobs to make ends meet, too much to have time to complain, not that they had time to complain anyway. And then some other people it didn’t kill, they just want to keep this small town to themselves. They found themselves already and don’t want my or your discoveries undermining theirs.
Our ancestors, the ones who are alive, the ones I’m still trying to belong to, they haven’t let go. They don’t want us to leave, either. They carry all of the old world with them, and where are they going to put it? Who are they going to give it to if we go? It wasn’t meant for those lazy smalltowners, those limited imaginations, those places trying to stay frozen in time.
Our ancestors, they say, “Oh, don’t go there. They don’t want you there.”
I tell them no one wants anyone anywhere. That’s our common humanity. We are all grouches.
“Not true,” they say. “Grouchiness is un-American.”
I’m worried for sure, about loss, mostly of anonymity. It’s hard to pick your nose at stoplights if you’re so easily identifiable. It’s hard to pick your nose at stoplights if there’s only one stoplight, or even four. Somewhere, there are more than a billion stoplights and you can’t tell me from a billion others. Is it better to be special? We only came to hope, and that’s what we all live for, anyway. It doesn’t have to be real.
A few miles out of town, there’s a meadow with an old Basque brick oven at the end of a dusty road. Those Old World sheepherders really knew how to live. If you were really from here, man, if you were really local, you’d know if this grove is sugar or ponderosa or lodgepole, all sweet, all contested. This guy’s family has picnicked under that tree for three generations. How dare you suggest we cull anything so that we don’t all go up in flames, you heartless tradition killer. What is the greater good, anyway.
Every time we camp there and people ask how our weekend was, I tell them it was beautiful, the stars, the sky, just being.
“Where did you go again?” they’ll ask.
“The Khyber Pass,” I’ll say. “Just past the meadow. We made pizza there.”
I have trouble remembering names, and can’t remember exactly where that Chinese temple is, but seven people have already told me about it, and I’ll remember eventually. I’ve also been told about the railway, forced labor, and the plaque that commemorates the Chinese camp being set on fire. I think (hope?) it’s full of regrets, but I haven’t seen it yet. There’s still a China Camp Road. The local daily runs a headline, “Life for Chinese not easy in 1870,” on a random November day. Small town news cycles transcend time.
I think people are too embarrassed to tell me about Wong’s, the local Chinese place, and they just assume I hate Panda Express (it’s delicious). When I interviewed at the wonderful local bookstore (I did not get the job), they asked me how I would deal with the occasional racist or xenophobic comment. I said something about perspective and genocide, this not being close to it, but, really, what do we normally do about it, everyday, anyway? Don’t we just do that normal everyday thing about it, which is, nothing? Feel bad? This, too, shall pass? Live and let live, man.
One day, I want to open a Chinese restaurant here and name it Fong Lee. I’ll try to learn to cook, first. According to the local daily, Fong Lee was the most successful Chinese trader of those days of yore. They said he was a redhead, which seems improbable, and they called him Slobbermouth. Fong Lee is a better name for a restaurant than 10,000 Lost or Dead, but Slobbermouth may be the best name.
One person told me there’s a Chinese lady in Oroville whose family has been here for a hundred years or something. When you have time, we can go to this weird temple and ferret out this hopefully very grumpy auntie who doesn’t speak any Chinese and doesn’t want us there or anywhere and is a little bit racist against everyone. That’s how we will know we can all belong.
Thanks for having us, or, speaking for myself, thanks for having me.
Ho-Ming So Denduangrudee lives in Truckee, California.