Chase painting me when I was 19 before I came to the US
Vanity Fair Magazine write-up on the book Chase and I made
Dusting the living room coffee table this morning, I saw the book my brother Chase and I made when we were starving artists in Los Angeles. We reminisced about our childhood in China, which was still a strong influence in Chase’s art work after he came to the US. Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa wrote in his Letters to a Young Novelist: “The novelist doesn’t choose his themes; he is chosen by them. He writes on certain subjects because certain things have happened to him.” This is also true with artists or filmmakers.
Chase and I being the Marx brothers for Halloween
Chase’s self portrait from that era
I am sharing parts of the book here in this blog:
When we were children, we spent most of our time leaning on the window, looking out and day dreaming.
My brother taught me how to really see the things that we looked at, how there were shapes in what appeared to be one shape, and colors in what I thought to be one color. How did he know all this? I didn’t know. He was older than me. Older brothers knew these things.
We stared at the black roof tiles, grey buildings, brown dirt and green tree tops for hours on end. The geometry of the shadow changed as the day went on. The clouds were never the same from minute to minute. Nature went out of its way to please us — kids with no toys.
One morning, just before dawn, I woke up to see my brother propped up on his elbows by the window sill. He had the abstract expression of someone in a trance. Curious, I joined him and looked out. Everything slumbered still in primeval blue, blurred and dewy. The world was absolutely calm and still, I could hear my own heart beating. It was as though the first time in my life I became aware of the creature that was myself. And I was living the morning’s first stirring breath of air, the first bird taking wing and the sun winking above the horizon.
Why is it that some moments stay with us, moments that didn’t seem significant? I close my eyes and I can see the blue mist of that morning, and feel the moist air in my nostrils.
My mother saw us looking at the sky and bought us a picture book called Forecast the Weather by Observing the Sky. She hoped that our staring at the sky would somehow turn into an educational experience. “The red sky forecast a high wind and storm tomorrow,” I’d account at the end of the day. Or, “the fish-scaled clouds suggest a light drizzle.” I finally had something important to say.
My mother with my brother Chase in front of our house
Even in the coldest of winter, we sat by the window and stared. Our feet rested upon a round box made of wrought iron, filled with poplar wood cinder, covered with fine ashes. The box was called a foot-warmer.
Before Lunar New Year, after my mother did the rationed special purchase for the festivity, our room would be filled with the warm odor of chestnuts, sweet yams, or dates being cooked in the foot-warmer. I would feel happy and drowsy from the sweet aroma and carbon monoxide that the brazier emanated.
We looked into other people’s windows too. Some of the windows looked like mirrors of our own. The same little faces staring back, lost in their imaginations or boredom. In the window across from ours lived an older girl with very long black hair. Every time she lifted her arm to tie her pony tail, I wished I was her. My mother caught me watching and said, “A big waste of soap to wash all that hair.” Soap was scarce. Throughout my childhood, the length of my hair stayed firmly at my earlobe.
One window always had its curtain drawn. I heard the other children say that there was a ghost living in that house. She only came out at night to steal little children.
The curtain was made of a pale blue cotton, dotted with tiny yellow flowers. Where the flowers had been, there were little holes. The yellow dye at the time was somehow very erosive and tended to eat through the fabric.
One night my brother and I decided to climb up to that window. We peeked throughout the yellow flowers. A ghost! I gasped and nearly fell. She was an old woman with a very white face, ghastly blue eyes, and a long nose. We later learned that she was a foreigner, an American. She had married a handsome Chinese doctor a long, long time ago.
The day came when I was no longer content with seeking hidden colors in the grey wall. I had noticed a neighborhood boy and waited for him to pass by every day. The billowing of the beige curtain in the breeze felt like a caress on my face. One afternoon, he looked up and saw me. Did he hear the clamor that my senses made? I felt like spilling out the window.
This was the time when students were being sent down to work on the farms. The night before he left, he put his mouth against mine and moved his lips in a funny way. I didn’t know that was called a kiss. Nobody told me. All I knew was I wanted the return of those lips. That night was the first sleepless night of my life.
My second sleepless night was during a moist and hot summer. The girl with long hair was not at her window. In her place was her grandmother. Grandmothers didn’t stare out the windows. They were always cleaning rooms and cooking in the kitchen. But this one stared. At nothing. She seemed to be waiting for something, but I didn’t know what. Nobody ever came. She was just in her window, staring, cut off from the world. It was not the kind of expression that I was used to see in windows.
Then she climbed up and sat on the sill, new black shoes on her bound feet. My heart missed a beat when I saw her jump out. Later, I heard that she had wanted to die, but the building was not high enough. She broke her legs and many ribs. She had been rich. Her late husband had owned factories and land. She was the enemy of the proletariate. I swore by that window that I’d never be rich.
My family, too, was once well-to-do. My grandparents owned much land, and had an American education. They adopted a “better attitude” toward the revolution and gave away most of our eight room house to families that had no house of their own. My brother and I didn’t mind that much about the crowded chaos, but we missed our back room windows.
My grandparents with their children. My father is the handsome dude in the back
Soon, we made friends with the people who had invaded our house. The back rooms that they occupied had a view of the long, narrow garden that grew in what had a dried up river bed. In the spring, the air was perfumed by blooming flowers and fresh cow droppings. I would stand by the window, breathe in with all the force that my lungs could muster, and sneeze the most satisfying and intoxicating sneeze.
Beyond the long and narrow garden was a pasture. My brother would be cow-watching as I sneezed. For him, their melancholy slow pace radiated resignation and dignity — nowhere worth hurrying to, nothing worth fretting about. Their black and white hides reflected the blue of the sky, the brown of the earth, the green of the grass. As for me, I saw only their pink nipples and longed for ice cream.
Ice bream was a rarity in China when we were growing up. I heard from other girls that you would be rewarded with a bowl of ice cream if you were lucky enough to have your tonsils taken out. It was minor surgery, but performed without anesthesia. I convinced my mother, and we went for the operation. And they did give me a bowl of ice cream to sooth my throat. But swallowing hurt so terribly that I gave my reward to my brother.
So many years have passed. We’ve left behind our childhood. The windows are on the other side of the earth now. My brother is still fascinated by the cows and pastures. Me? I’m still fascinated by the pink nipples and vanilla ice cream.
The first time I saw an avocado grove and tasted an avocado was when I visited Ojai with Chase, where he painted some of his paintings at the time. The creamy buttery texture, the floral earthy smell and the complex taste made an indelible impression. Now that my children are both vegetarians, I use avocados in our meals very often. They are nutritious and very satiating.
I used a simple recipe from allrecipe.com with minor changes:
4 large tomatoes, chopped (I used grape tomatoes)
4 avocados – peeled, pitted and diced
1 red onion, thinly sliced (I used red shallots)
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper, or to taste
1 (8 ounce) bottle balsamic vinaigrette salad dressing (I used Balsamic glaze and fresh lemon)
I also added a few kernels of fresh sweet corn that is not in the original recipe