The Hoarder (#342)

As a child, the conversation at my family dinner table was always better than the food on the table. (I kid you not–Kraft Mac & Cheese was the best meal of the week.) My dad might have political anecdotes from Capitol Hill.  My stepmother might tell us how one high school gang tried to break into her classroom to get at another gang. Or we might get a story about our great-grandfather learning how to swim by diving off a piano in a flooded southern parlor from my mom.

My Chinese American husband’s family was all about the food. I learned the hard way that no one expected conversation at the table. Everyone concentrated on eating. This makes sense when the food is both tasty and served immediately (e.g., dim sum). It also makes sense if you’re eating a dish like chicken feet, which involves considerable mouth aerobics, ending in spitting out chicken toenails.

Young boy grimaces as he bites down on a fried chicken foot.
Baby D meets chicken feet.

Andy’s dad also wasn’t much of a talker, unlike practically every person in my family. My family told jokes, made fun of each other, and competed to get the best laughs. We all also like to show off share information.

Maybe this is why Andy’s a better cook than I am. He tastes as he goes and even plates artistically, believing the food should always take center stage.

I love good food, but I also want to hear about spouse/ spawn’s days. The breakfast/dinner table is the place where I find out what’s going on. I believe that communication is connection and sharing is caring.

Andy, on the other hand, hoards information. And he hoards it as long as he can.

I’d walk into the kitchen and say, “That smells good. Whatcha making?”

“Stuff.”

“Sooo…what’s for dinner?”

“Food.”

“Oh my God, would it kill you to tell me what’s for dinner one time?!”

Apparently, it would. Because not once did Andy actually volunteer to tell me what he was making. I had to piece together clues from ingredients and cookbooks on the counter.

Now, when Andy asked me what I was making for our Christmas party, my response was: “Oh, I’m going to do cream cheese sugar cookies with buttercream frosting with about one-quarter teaspoon almond extract, plus candy cane and chocolate meringues—and I’ll need the food processor for both the candy canes and to chop up the chocolate chips extra tiny so they don’t get stuck in the piping tips and also maple sugar rugelach and did you know that I had to order maple sugar from Ben’s Sugar Shack in New Hampshire this year?! I can’t find it ANYWHERE. Or and I’ll make those chocolate cookies with white chips that are your favorite, do you want coconut in them or not?”

It’s a point of pride that, when asked “why?,” by Baby D, I never once responded with “Because I told you so.”

Instead, I dumped elaborate reasoning and detailed explanations on my child until he either fled the room or could out reason/ argue me into changing my mind.

Storage containers and boxes crammed on wire shelving units.
Andy’s least favorite view

The only information my husband shared freely was how much he hated all the boxes in the garage. We had many boxes. That happens with a house less than 1200 square feet and minimal storage space. Heavy blankets, comforters, and winter clothing were stored in the garage in the summer. Window fans and tubs of light linens got stored in the garage in the winter. There were two bicycles, suitcases, pet supplies, cleaning supplies, the extra refrigerator, extra chairs, an extra banquet table, portable chairs for soccer matches, a team soccer canopy, a team bench, and 8 containers of holiday/ season decorations.

Every so often, when Andy got snarly, I cleaned out/ donated anything we no longer used. Andy’s grumbles subsided, especially when I pointed out we’re one of the only families on the block that actually put a car in our garage.

I kept tabs on all the storage containers with decorations, though.

Not long into the pandemic, packages started arriving for Andy. There were at least a dozen. Some were large. One was very heavy. A few were small.

“Gardening supplies?” I guessed.

Andy said, “Stuff.”

I rolled my eyes and let it go. The following weekend, Andy spent an entire day moving items around the garage. He went to Lowe’s and returned with giant mobile shelves—the kind that you can roll together so they take up less space but then roll apart for access once the car is out of the garage.

Also the kind of shelf energetic offspring will try and ride down the driveway when Dad is carrying “excessive” Christmas decorations to the garbage bins.

After rescuing child, shelf, and decorations, I planted myself in front of Andy and announced “That’s it. You’ve been bitching about the garage more than usual and there all these mysterious boxes. What are you DOING?”

“Stuff—”

“NO! No more bullshit ‘stuff!’ For all I know you’re setting up a fucking meth factory!”

Andy said, “It’s not a meth factory.”

I crossed my arms and inhaled. Deeply.

Andy hurriedly added, “We can’t go to the gym so I’m turning one of the bikes into a stationary bicycle so I can ride it to get cardio because I can’t run anymore on my bad knee and walking takes too long. I’m trying to make more space in the garage to set up the bike.”

“That’s…great. But…why wouldn’t you just tell me that?”

Andy shrugged.

“You know, mouths are for more than eating!’ I told him. “They’re for talking! For sharing information! If you’d just explained what you wanted to do, I would have helped you. I could have gotten rid of some boxes, consolidated a few things, figured out how to make more space.”

“Really?”

“What, did you think I’d say no?! To something as important as you being healthy?”

“Uh…”

And that’s when I realized that Andy HAD thought I’d say no. Just like his parents always said no—no sports, no extracurricular activities, no curfew extensions. Andy was so used to his family saying no, he’d learned to never offer information which could result in a “no.” It was maddening…but also understandable.

I consolidated a few boxes of decorations and donated some boxes of older blankets to charity.

Andy’s cardio area, with gardening/ soccer hat on bike.

Andy set up his bike. He rides it several times a week.

Sometimes, now, he’ll tell me what he’s cooking.

The other night, at the dinner table, Andy stopped eating long enough to ask Baby D, “So, little boy, what did you do in school today?”

Baby D replied,

“Stuff.”

Waiting (#314)

I am not a patient person. I was the kid in the car asking “Are we there yet?” every 10 minutes. My many siblings were equally impatient. Road trips were an endless chorus of questions about how long it was to the bathroom, restaurant, and destination.

Unsurprisingly, we didn’t go on many road trips.

My Chinese-American husband is patient (sadly, he grew up on Oahu, which is too small for road trips). I’m not sure if he’s naturally mellow, or if the tropical “hang loose” vibes worked on his personality the opposite way that the intense, political atmosphere of Washington, D.C. affected me.

Perhaps our different levels of patience exemplify the difference in our cultures. My Western mindset insists that I can control my destiny if I work, scheme, and worry enough. At the very least, maybe I can get someone incompetent fired if I document the crap out of his failings. But Andy doesn’t see the point; people are gonna be stupid and other people are gonna cover for them. That’s life, and you have no control over your own fate, let alone anyone else’s. Why exhaust yourself changing nothing? Continue reading Waiting (#314)

Gifting East: Christmas Edition (#311)

Shopping for anyone from a different culture is tricky.

Shopping for your in-laws is tough.

Shopping for your Chinese-American in-laws?

You’re fucked worse than The Martian. Continue reading Gifting East: Christmas Edition (#311)

Election Night: Then and Now (#305)

Over 70 million Americans have spent the week holding their breath. We remember how confident we were four years ago. How we arrogantly assumed that the rest of the country saw Donald Trump for what he was: a hateful, racist, incompetent, misogynistic narcissist who would run the country into the ground.

I watched the numbers roll in on CNN and compared it with the New York Times website. And by 7 PM PST, it was clear that Clinton did not have the votes in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. It was shocking, but true. Numbers don’t lie. The trend was obvious.

My Chinese-American mother-in-law was visiting. She didn’t understand why I was upset. “It will be fine,” she said.

“It will not be fine,” I told her. “With the Senate also Republican, there will be no checks on that man.” I fled to my bedroom. Continue reading Election Night: Then and Now (#305)

Sunny, with a Chance of Travel (#303)

Many readers have requested more “when the in-laws visit” stories.

I see you, sadists.

The only good thing about my Chinese-American father-in-law’s decline was that he could no longer visit. (This is why I am not in prison.) Instead, Andy flew to Hawaii to help his mom with Jay’s care.

The one time Sunny briefly left her husband for her niece’s wedding, I told her how pleased I was that she had gotten away. (Jay was in the hospital for tests and procedures.)

“I feel terrible,” Sunny told me. “So guilty.”

“Why? You should get a chance to see your sisters and have a break. Jay’s fine, with round-the-clock care.”

“But he always said it was my job to take of him. And now I’m not.”

How was it that a man who could no longer speak was still imprisoning his wife with words? Continue reading Sunny, with a Chance of Travel (#303)

Are You Okay (#299)

Maybe you have an optimist for a partner. The kind of person who says, when his grandmother has a stroke, “She’s not going to die.”

And she doesn’t.

When his mother has an ovarian mass removed, your husband isn’t worried. “It’s not cancer,” he declares.

The biopsy proves him correct.

While you may agonize over bleeding while pregnant, potential pre-eclampsia, and spiking a fever during labor, your husband does not. “Baby D is going to be fine,” he tells you confidently.

Sure enough, your baby is born ridiculously healthy.

And yet you know catastrophe waits around every corner. When a family member you don’t speak to regularly calls, your first thought is, “Oh, no.” It takes years of practice and therapy to say, “Everything okay?” instead of blurting out, “Who died?” Continue reading Are You Okay (#299)

Failing (#294)

My Chinese-American father-in-law harangued me weekly until I got pregnant. He believed my sole purpose in life, as wife to the Number One Son, was to bear him a grandson.

Once Baby D was born, Jay’s health deteriorated. Physical ailments led to mental issues. By the time Baby D was four, Jay was in a wheelchair and not always lucid.

As if he had only been holding on to complete his purpose in life—a grandson. Continue reading Failing (#294)

Taste Test (#268)

I am a picky eater. Take onions. I’ve hated onions with a passion since biting into my first McDonald’s burger and recoiling in horror over the raw, diced bites of bitterness wrecking my burger.

Unfortunately, onions are everywhere. No burger, sauce, or burrito is safe.

I’m normally a people-pleaser. Not when it comes to onions. I will quiz the wait staff before ordering a new dish. I will send that dish back if an onion shows up (very nicely and apologetically). And then I am NEVER going back to that restaurant.

My Chinese-American husband can and does eat anything. Animal brains? Check. Animal testicles? Check. Bitter melon? Check. Fish eyeballs, jellyfish, chicken feet? Bring it. The guy could have killed it on Fear Factor. Continue reading Taste Test (#268)

Parental Expectations: East vs. West (#263)

My husband had Chinese-American parents. Mine were white, uptight, and Anglo-Saxon Protestant/ Atheist.

Andy was expected to obey his parents without question. If his parents said his curfew was 10 PM, Andy was home at 10 PM. If Andy’s father wanted to sit on the couch and watch TV, Andy could forget about participating in Little League or any other sport.

I was expected to obey, but not without question. My mom was an attorney. Dinner table discussions in her house ranged from abortion to capital punishment. Everyone was encouraged to express their own opinions and defend them. If I could present a good argument for a curfew change or pierced ears, these items might be considered. (Lost on curfew, won on pierced ears.) Continue reading Parental Expectations: East vs. West (#263)