On a birthday like no other, Canyon Sam reflects on celebrating beauty, practicing joy and compassion, and the inspiration of novelist Maxine Hong Kingston in the face of an increase in anti-Asian violence.
My birthday was approaching and it was the big 65, making me an official senior citizen. We were still under Covid protocols, though looser than the last year. Just when we got the vaccine four months ago, variants started spreading. My attempts to pull together even small gatherings of friends or family came to nil: Scared of the variant. Don’t know if the vaccine can resist the variant. Still waiting for my second shot.
I decided to just plan to do what I enjoyed doing and celebrate being alive, without much fanfare. My hiker friends had all raved about wildflowers on Mt. Diablo – 40% of normal rainfall, but they were blooming: Baby blue eyes, Diablo daisies, milk maids, fields of golden poppies.
I looked forward to moving, to being outdoors, in nature, to feeling gratitude for my body and life itself.
My hiking guru was leading a hike the day of my birthday, so even though it was a long drive, I thought I should seize the opportunity. I looked forward to moving, to being outdoors, in nature, to feeling gratitude for my body and life itself. We had a vaccine, we had a new president, my mother turned 100 – life was good.
Before having a quiet dinner with my mother the night before my birthday, we did some baking. My mother’s thumbprint cookies, little pillows of shortbread with a red heart of jam in the center, were famous in my family. She’d been making them for over 70 years. For my 50th birthday party she put out a huge platter and my friend trained a camera on the plate to see what happened. My cousin’s eleven-year-old daughter took over twenty. But now my mother’s fingers were gnarled from arthritis, her shoulder frozen. She fretted that she could no longer make cookies.
That afternoon I Zoomed in to an event called “Artists Against anti-Asian Violence” with several writers. I tuned in mainly to hear Maxine Hong Kingston, novelist and longtime inspiration. She read infrequently, and I hadn’t heard much of her during the lockdown year. The precipitous rise and vicious nature of anti-Asian hate crimes, often extremely violent and leading to many deaths, had picked up thirteen months ago when President 45 and his minions made deliberate, loud efforts on any occasion to refer to the virus as Chinese, originating in China. Thousands of anti-Asian attacks had occurred in the last year, 900 in the Bay Area. Mainly against women and against the elderly; often immigrants. One prosecutor in New York said, I can’t press charges for a hate crime, in a case where an Asian man eating an eggroll on the subway was stabbed to death by a man who tore the food from him and smashed it into his face, screaming, “Here’s your f’ing eggroll, Mr. Eggroll.” The D.A. said, eggroll is not a racial epitaph.
In the Zoom reading, Maxine, with her distinctive white hair read a piece about being on an international flight from China where she sat next to a young village woman flying alone to the U.S. for the first time. Maxine spoke to her in the woman’s Say Yup dialect, since Maxine’s parents had come from the same region in southern China. The woman was going to join her husband in New York.
“Excuse me,” Maxine said, stopping. “I have to get a Kleenex.” She walked to the back of the room, pulled three tissues from a box and rejoined the Zoom meeting. She wiped her nose.
“I’m sorry,” she said about the delay, peering over her reading glasses. She looked right into the camera, not down at the paper she’d been reading.
“I’ve been crying for months…I cry every day. This is so not like me!” she said. “It must be all these events…” She blinked for a few moments. “Every day…” her voice trailed off. She took a breath and continued her story.
“He has a job!” said the woman on the plane, about her new husband. “He has rented an apartment!” The woman reminded Maxine of her own mother, who had immigrated here almost a hundred years ago.
When night fell they held hands and gazed out the window at the immense darkness of the sky.
“Red red green green,” the woman said in wonder at the lights below.
“Red red green green,” Maxine said, “it means ‘pretty.’” She chatted in such a way that bolstered the woman’s sense of hope in her future, all the time aware of the social environment into which she’d be landing. They fell asleep touching hands in the darkened cabin. Maxine thought: I am her child from the future.
1976: I am in Oregon, twenty years old, at the Ashland Public Library. I check out an intriguing book and go outside in the shade of the trees, on the top of the hill, to read. I read the cover, The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts. A memoir of a Chinese American girlhood. I read the back cover, I read the inside jacket cover, the back inside jacket cover. I feel this sour taste, a floating sensation in the pit of my stomach. I have to close the book: I can’t read anymore. I don’t pick it up for days. It is the moment I realize I have cycled through years of schooling, gone to a nationally ranked high school, and a prestigious university, but I have never, ever, read a book in school that reflected my own life. I have read Faulkner and Fitzgerald and Twain, Dostoevsky and D.H. Lawrence, but this is the first book about a Chinese American and a female I’ve ever handled in my life.
Two years later I live in San Francisco. I have a day job. I have written a fan letter, my first ever, to the author, in care of her publisher. I want to be a writer, I say; Do you have any advice? A postcard arrives, postmarked May 1979, Honolulu. The picture is of Burning Sugarcane Fields in Hawaii. “Take classes at the community college; there are many fine courses. Best of luck to you, etc,” it says. Handwritten, it is signed Maxine Hong Kingston.
Maxine goes on to become in the 80s the best-selling living novelist in the U.S. Her books, reflecting the earliest and largest community of Chinese in America, the Cantonese, are taught in colleges and universities nationwide. Her lyrical, generous, fiercely clear writing defies genres. We have the same Buddhist teacher in the 90s. Thirty-two years later, my first book comes out. My publisher likes one blurb so much, they put it on the front cover, at the top. The book took almost twenty years to come out and every once in a while I’d run into Maxine. “How is your book coming?” she’d ask with real interest. The blurb on my book cover says, A miracle of a journey, a miracle of a book — Maxine Hong Kingston.
My mother rolled the cookie dough between her palms and I dabbed the Welch’s grape jelly in the well in the center. “People call them thumbprint cookies,” she says, “but I use my index finger.” They came out perfectly, golden brown on the bottom, the purple jelly in the center turning ruby red, a good luck color.
My mother also gave me for my birthday a tall beautiful orchid, deep, rich fuchsia in color.
As I was riding home with the orchid in the back seat, I thought, tomorrow I’ll be hiking around Maxine’s house. I was haunted by the thought that she cried every day. The Atlanta killings three weeks ago had been not just a wake-up call but a national alarm, a screeching siren. A young evangelist drove to three different locations and killed six Asian women and two others. The sheriff who interrogated him said, “He had a really bad day. And this is what he did.” The next day they pulled the sheriff from the case, found he had sold anti-Asian merchandise online.
How hard it must be for Maxine after all these years of writing about the Chinese American experience, of enlightening readers — an entire life’s work — to see this savage ignorance and hatred.
Mt. Diablo was in a part of the Bay Area I rarely visited. If I am out that far east, I thought, I’ll drop off some cookies to Maxine. In the Buddhist tradition, if you are given gifts, you offer joy and compassion to others. Use the flame of your candle to light the candles of others. My main teacher, during eating meditation had us say a verse to offer joy to one person in the morning as we chewed, and offer compassion to one person in the afternoon. We had a lot of time to think because he had us chew each bite of food thirty times. “When the food turns to liquid,” he said, “swallow.”
In the midst of deep grief as a people, I practiced joy in the morning and compassion in the afternoon.
That day I climbed three peaks with the group, delighting in hillsides of silver lupine, lavender larkspur, yellow mustard, shooting stars, Indian paintbrush and my favorite, Chinese Houses. Then I stayed back and enjoyed the view while the others went on to the next peak. It was getting quite hot. I photographed butterflies and climbed back down the mountain. I drove twenty minutes and found the address, in the hills, but wasn’t sure it was the right house. Then I noticed a large hanging on the front door with a big Zen circle painted in one brush stroke and a pair of sneakers in a small size splayed on the ground right before the door step, as if the owner had just stepped into the house.
I sat in my car and wrote a card: “I hope more people get to hear Red red green green,” I said, in lieu of the title which I didn’t catch. The whole world should hear it, I thought. It was the most sublime piece of writing I’d heard in years, speaking of the past and the future, of the hopes and fears and idealism of America all in a short piece.
I didn’t say, “I’m so sad that you’re sad.” Or, “I can’t imagine losing you, stay safe.” I said, “I’m leaving you cookies my mother and I baked last night; she’s 100.” I had wrapped a container of them in a Balinese print napkin, tied with two topknots, like a Japanese food bundle.
I left the orchid close to the other plants at the front door, so it kind of belonged there, yet amidst the green, the magenta popped. I put the cookies beside the pot.
In my yoga study we learn about effort and service. You always make an effort and you want to be of service, but you release attachment to outcome. I expected a generic reply: Found them. Thank you.
At 9:30 that night I wrote an email: “I left you two items; you might want to pull them in.”
The next afternoon I received an email: “When I stepped out the door,” she wrote, “the orchid said, ‘Surprise!’” The world she stepped into felt gentler and warmer, she wrote, seeing those gifts. She and her husband loved the cookies. “They’re even more special,” she exclaimed, “because they were made by a 100-year-old! Thank you for listening and understanding. It’s the first day I haven’t cried.”
The next couple days I got emails, texts, calls: How was your birthday? What did you do on your birthday? What did you do to celebrate?
I said, I went on a hike, I had dinner with a couple friends, my favorite neighborhood place — indoors even; we had a back room to ourselves. Ceviche, short ribs, paella.
But the most special thing that happened, something that was too involved to explain and more valuable than any gift, was that in this frightening political climate, in the midst of deep grief as a people, in an era for Asian Americans like none I’ve seen in 65 years, I practiced joy in the morning and compassion in the afternoon. For my 65th birthday, I thought, I made Maxine Hong Kingston happy.