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Her Pink Bathrobe




Her Pink Bathrobe




My friend Linda Baisky passed away. This news has rocked her hometown New York and China’s entire media world. Condolences are aired on the social media channels across both countries from people she knew, and people she didn’t. My phone never stops ringing, and journalists with cameras crowd around my apartment for a snippet of Ms. Baisky’s life. Leafing through the hundreds of photos of hers with me is such a sweet sorrow – the photos from which she seems to resurrect, reliving with me those lambent days in Hawaii.

#

It was a rainy weekday in early August, when I landed in Hawaii from China three years ago. I was put in an interim lodging facility affiliated with the University of Hawaii for a maximally-allowed duration of ten days, after which I would have to be on my own for permanent lodging. First few days of room-hunting was a sheer disappointment; all available rental apartments were incredibly expensive – a rental of $1,000 dollars plus utilities was just in a low range – psychologically worse with any attempt at a mental conversion to the Chinese yuan. With that kind of money, I could live the life of an emperor in my home country, I thought. This came as no surprise, as a friend of mine who had lived in Hawaii for years told me that rainbow Hawaii was heavenly but only for the rich, and that he had to seek apartment share options or homestay just to get by as a student.

   My checkout clocked in for tomorrow, so I became desperate by the hour, and joined the hungry crowds of room hunters at the campus center at seven o’clock in the morning. I shoved my way to the front for a better view of the postings on the bulletin board, studying them in much the same way as I examine an exhibited collection of artifacts in an art museum, snapping pictures of the contact details of those ads interesting to me, when a female voice behind me was heard, “Nihao!” On this exotic land of English speakers, any mother-tongue sounding speech could be a new revelation for me, me as an indoorsy kid who had never set foot on a foreign soil in my memory, not even a remote city, until this week, despite a repetitive loop of my parents’ reminders to me that I was actually born a US citizen during their graduate studies in Boston.

   I turned around and scanned the crowd for an Asian face. None. I turned back, eyes re-focused on the bulletin board, when the same greeting was repeated, this time followed by a gentle pat on my arm. I turned, again, now within an arm’s reach stood a slender lady with blond hair in her white tank top. She introduced herself as Linda Baisky, the name that reminded me of a famed US-born China Radio newscaster. I exchanged handshake and introduced myself as Mengfa, and learned that she was indeed that popular newscaster. Such a small world, I thought. She said that she was actually half-Chinese, and had lived in Beijing for eight years. Eight years was long enough for residing in a foreign country, but way too short for picking up a native language at an adult age. Her Chinese was not just near-perfect; it was darn perfect, better than mine.

   We joined each other in securing a spacious one-bedroom apartment for $1,100 dollars per month located on the busy Ala Wai Boulevard. We reached an agreement that I was going to pay my share of $400 out of the total rental for occupancy of a to-be-resigned curtain-separated corner of the living room.

   “We are meant to meet here in Hawaii,” she said.

   “That’s karma,” I said.

   When night fell, we traded some fun stories over dinner, and said goodnight. Over the days, this became our routine – we each made some light cooking, dined briefly together, and called it off for the day.

   I asked her one Friday night how she ended up being a radio newscaster in China, adding that broadcasting was a dream job, and therefore fiercely competitive among those professionally trained, probably in thousands, a number that’s infinitesimal compared to the large, ever-growing Chinese population, yet large enough to witness a majority of the candidates rendered untenable.

   “I was lucky,” she said, sharing a photo of hers in a hugging pose with her newscaster peers, “I entered a nationwide speech contest administered in Beijing, and tape submissions was part of the initial selection process. I didn’t take it seriously, knowing too well about Chinese restrictions on the government-controlled social media, but I made my submission anyway, for fun maybe. My application with the tape was signed by Baitien Lin, my Chinese name. Weeks passed before I received a call from China Radio that I’d made the final round. My newscaster friends later revealed that it was a jaw-dropping moment to see a foreigner walk into their conference room in front of the interviewer panel.”

   The anecdotal reporting of such I’d heard lots from the social media on how she catapulted to fame making her a household name. Yet hearing it firsthand from Linda was thrillingly surreal.

   She grabbed a water, and sat back. I asked her to take a stroll with me to the Waikiki Beach a few short blocks away from our apartment. “Sure,” she said, snatching a blue jacket from the hanger.

   “So you’re in journalism for graduate studies here?” I asked.

   “Actually no,” said she, “I thought about getting into journalism, but chose American studies instead.”

   “Oh?”

   “Yeah, with a concentration on Asian-American studies in particular, to explore ways in which the hyphenated culture, the so-called model minority, has historically been striving for achieving the American Dream under the same American flag,” she said as we sauntered along the busy Kalakaua Street. I stopped for ice creams, and passed one to her. With a thank-you, she continued, “In a multicultural environment, the challenges we all face, regardless of race, are collectively distinctive compared to each individual culture that’s homogeneous by nature, and bonded by people all from that same race.” She said, wiping off the gobs of the clotted cream from the corner of her lips. “What brought you to Hawaii?” she asked.

   “Your karma with me,” I said, grinning. “I’m actually pursuing MFA in creative writing.”

   “That --” she said, turning her head to me, “is interesting.”

   “Interesting in what ways?” I asked, “Isn’t interesting a phrase used more with negative connotations?”

   “No, not always,” said she, “certainly not in this case.” She was bumping her arm into mine while we were now squelching barefoot along the sandy beach, watching the surging waves perpetually licking the moist sand.

   “I think in episodes, like in a TV series. Life to me is a TV series.”

   “My mom is editor of a literary journal she owns, and if you are interested, I can pass her contact information to you.”

   “I’ll be privileged,” I said. I then asked her why she picked me as her roommate. She said that Chinese was part of her cultural background, and she felt safe with Chinese, because Chinese males were perceived to be in a non-threatening zone compared to howlie.

   “Oh, in what ways?”

   “My mom is Chinese, she says that Chinese are less aggressive, mild and polite. They don’t think impure thoughts about women; even if they did, they wouldn’t show it; and even if they showed it, it would be more of consensual than engaging in a forced sex.”

   “Doesn’t that reinforce the Charlie-Chan stereotype – benevolent yet desexualized in the Western culture?” I said, seated with her on a sand-buried rock. “What if I’m not the one molded from that stereotype?”

   “Then I wouldn’t mind getting drowned in a consensual act, with you,” she laughed, her eyes meeting my gaze. As the salty breeze creeped up, caressing her shoulder-length blond hair, she pushed it to the back, while playfully digging her toes into the sand – those soft feet and fair-skinned legs. Too soft for the soft sand.

#

More and more we cooked dinner for each other if one was late from school; more and more we engaged in sharing worldviews just about anything under the sun. More and more, we stayed late together, ignoring the tick-tock of the clock. One night she stormed in and said, “So you did send stories to my mom, huh?” feigning anger.

   “Of course,” I said matter-of-factly, “your mom is my indispensable resource now.”

   “But you know what my mom said?” she gave me a squint, “looking at your romance stories between male and female roommates, she asked me if we are seriously dating,” she said, combing her hair to my laugh. “Now, how did you manage to fictionalize our darn seriously normal relationship?”

   “All in my imagination,” I said, pointing to my temple, “simply based on your clocked shower time at night, the pink bathrobe and loose sash as you come out, and your occasional front nudity I’ve spotted between my curtains. All this fills my imagination, which I then transcribe into episodic stories, and call it fiction.”

   “Like I said, you have impure thoughts but daren’t show them.” She bent her back and whispered in my ear, “And that makes me feel really safe. You know what?” she said, eyeing the clock, “let’s dine out today, I pay. Today’s my birthday.”

   Dinner was served over scotch whiskey for me and cocktail Manhattan for her at Wong Kee Seafood restaurant, I asked about her future plans.

   “I like the newscaster job, but my real interest is teaching in China,” she said, sipping cocktail. “I think it’s a more meaningful job for me to share my findings through comparative ethnic studies, to expose my students to how today’s Asians see the world and how the world see them, and how Asians are making efforts to break away from the stigmatized sticky floor through the bamboo ceiling for the accomplishments Asians deserve. I’m determined to return to China; that was and has been the clarion call for what I feel my life is worth.”

   I told her that I was going to stay in America, to avoid being perceived as a loser. “I feel like I am a sojourner, a cultural in-between, stuck as duckweeds with no roots, yet the notion of freedom in this country is what I cherish and uphold.”

#

With an offer at hand for a teaching position from Wuhan University, Linda looked so happy; her face blossomed at the mere mention of that offer each time. “We have karma to meet and be friends, but looks like we will just have to part from each other in pursuit of our life goals,” she said, sobbing on the night of our graduation day.

   “As the Chinese idiom goes: there is no never-ending feast,” I said, trying to fight back the tears. “This is such a bittersweet moment.”

   She smelled of shampoo fresh from the shower, and was in her pink bathrobe. She placed her hands in mine, both intertwined like in a ballroom dance. I untied her sash and undressed her bathrobe to reveal her total nudity. She locked her eyes on mine expectantly and unzipped my pants. It was a beautiful night; the moon was hanging low in the deep serene.

   As I saw her off at the Honolulu International Airport, her eyes were red, likely from last night. So were mine.

   Back at my apartment, I was packing for my move to New York, Linda’s hometown, when I received a call from Linda’s mother Wendy, who shared the good news that my fiction got accepted.

   Linda and I exchanged messages frequently about each other’s life - her new career as a university professor in Wuhan, and my life as a writer. Six days from now was going to be the Chinese Lunar New Year, so I quietly planned a trip to Wuhan to give her a surprise visit. I landed in Wuhan on January 24th of 2020, the eve of the New Year, only to have learned that Linda passed away – she died of coronavirus days after she was voluntarily helping the local hospitals with protective equipment deliveries.

#

The city of Wuhan was now in a lockdown. I was stuck at my hotel. I heard that Linda had died alone, like all other coronavirus-infected deaths. I took the urn from a local funeral home, embarked on a special US chartered plane that had just landed in Wuhan for American citizens, first and last time to fly together with Linda back to New York – her home, and now mine. I looked down from the window of my plane, shedding tears and uttering condolences for Linda and for all those who had lost their lives to the now declared deadly pandemic.





Ahming Zee



  
Ahming Zee lives in Boston as a naturalized immigrant from China. His work has previously appeared in Literary Yard magazine, including translation work in Culture Monthly, a magazine in China. Zee holds an English degree, and during his graduate studies in Hawaii, Zee served as Poetry Editor of Hawaii Review, and Staff Writer for Ka Leo O Hawaii. 

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1 Comments

  1. Thanks for this important perspective.

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