Every Sunday morning I speak to my parents on their way to their weekly pilgrimage to a Hong Kong-style diner where they and my sisters gather over jook and yau tieu to have breakfast.
Most of the time our conversation lasts for as long as it takes for them to find a parking spot in Chinatown. Topics of conversations usually revolve around how my two sons are faring, whether or not Son #1 is treating Son #2 well, or if Son # 1 has grown taller yet. Boring normal stuff. Usually Son #2 is napping during these conversations as the call happens between 10AM to 10:30AM EST right smack dab in the middle of his first nap. (And we’re keeping that first nap for as long as we can. Bless his sleepy soul!) Sometimes, the conversations last a little longer, extending until the first steaming bowls of jook hit the table and the phone is passed from one sister to the next. The last person I speak to is the unfortunate one to get their bowl of jook last.
It’s been about 10 years since I’ve been able to make these weekly pilgrimages to Chinatown in the flesh because I moved my fleshy self to New York City a decade ago. Ironically, it’s made talking to my parents a lot easier now as I’m forced to try to use my broken second grade level colloquial Chinese to commandeer my thoughts into something at least recognizably intelligible. Usually I come out sweaty and gasping for air as I struggle with only 35 years of failed Chinese language acquisition.
Pretty soon I find myself not just gasping for air, but gasping desperately for vocabulary. Rich vocabulary, nuanced, emotive and comprehensible Chinese speak. I weep in my reveries, bemoaning the seconds that sag between each drawn out sentence. I know San Francisco is foggy with a chance of passing sunlight, especially in the Outer Richmond. I need to confirm this with my mom and dad every week though. The ease has come with practice and my willingness to fumble, my resolve to allow myself to be practically incomprehensible to my own parents.
Enter the picture message.
I have to give it up for my Sister #2 for putting up with my parents’ technological foibles. When I say my “parents”, I really mean my dad. (My mother has a flip phone and she hates talking on the phone. Sister#3 handles that phone plan.) This is due in large part to my sister who, in good Chinese daughter fashion, continues to pay and support his text messaging habits, which is limited to when he can actually remember how to send a text message on any given day. She’s also IT, Installation and Service.
Suffice it to say, our modes of communication have flourished, particularly with the onset of the picture message. There’s more! So much more. Innovation has aided to alleviate some of my Chinese daughter guilt for opting to live 3000 miles from obligation. We’ve Facetimed while he had a promotional Internet rate. We tried cheap WIFI when that rate ran through. We’ve shared hotspots. He even discovered Youtube and the glories of pirated music and Il Divo, of course. Find me a senior citizen in this country that does not love the supple tenors of Il Divo.
The picture message still trumps all the others. Most importantly, these messages don’t require much vocabulary.
Here is a sampling of my other conversations with my dad.
Lots of flowers and plant life speak.
I speak plant too.
Then there’s parking.
I reply: “Your Car IS too long.”
More parking issues:
My reply: Say “Be Mindful of Your Parking” instead.
There are always parking issues and senior citizens in San Francisco looking out the window making sure no one blocks their driveways. This is the first year my Dad has resorted to writing these signs. So he sends them to me to edit before he places them on their car window. I call him and tell him to make something more permanent. Why go up and down those stairs with those old joints?
He calls me to tell me this sign may be doing too well of a job. Mission Accomplished!
Perhaps it’s not so much in the vocabulary as it is in the delivery. They hear me gasping every week, gasping to make sense to them. Perhaps it’s not about trying to figure out how to make sense to my parents. They’ve had 35 years of nonsensical Chinese from me. Maybe they just get me more than I get them. Maybe they’re just happy someone’s on the other line. Sometimes they want to know I’m alive. This is our LDR. And for the most part, they listen; unless the Chinese language news is on or their steak arrives at the rodeo dinner.