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February 19, 2024

Old Sugar 6

By Barbara Rendall


Trevor thought he might sneak off on a morning walk that would gain him some private time. But then he remembered that he had to sort out his suitcase and separate dirty clothes from clean ones and ask Cookie if he could use her machine. He was down to his last shirt. He hadn't done a wash in Wilson's laundry room, knowing he could get it done for free at home. Since he'd been on his own, he'd become very particular about his clothes, a reaction to having always had to wear an outgrown and dingy school uniform when he was growing up. Now, as an adult, he was very conscious of grimy shirt cuffs and clothes that smelled like they'd been hung to dry in a musty closet. At least he could still try to keep that part of his life under control.

But Starry came looking for him. "Trevor is a tidy boy," she said, sounding like a sample sentence in an English grammar textbook. Then switching to Cantonese she ordered, "Come on. Ma said to go ask the Sugarmans to dinner tonight."

He kept up his sorting. "Those foreigners? Why do you need me?"

"Ba told me to take you. He said maybe they'll find you some work. Besides" -- she gave him a sly look -- "they're from New York! They've been waiting all year to meet you."

"What are they doing here in the village, anyway?" he asked, stalling for time but curious, too.

"They sell furniture and other old stuff. They have gorgeous things."

Cookie's voice rang out from the kitchen. "Trevor! Granny's going to clean in there right now. Put away all that mess and go with Starry! Out!"

It looked like he had no choice.

Her long ponytail swinging, Starry led him through the alleyways of the village. Red decorations were stuck on and around every door and rich holiday cooking odors filled the air. There was a feeling of suppressed excitement, too, created by the sounds of more voices than was normal inside the rows of connected houses. Little groups of over-stimulated children were running around, some of them wearing brand-new shoes at least one size too big. Trevor remembered the clumsiness of new clothes at New Year, all of them too big, and the sense of being entangled by his family's thriftiness.

"So," he asked Starry, trying to seem as if he was just making conversation, "who are these gweilos? What's so special about them?"

"They're nice. I'm invited there for tea every weekend," she replied, tossing her ponytail. "We speak English, and then I teach them four Chinese characters each time. They love Chinese characters."

"But why do they live way out here?"

"They used to live in Macao. They taught English at the Polytechnic, but then they had to retire. They went back to New York, but they found out they didn't like it anymore. They said they'd lived here so long they'd turned into Chinese! So they came back, but the government told them they had to buy property if they wanted to stay. So they bought a house here and decided to open a furniture store and sell other people all the kinds of stuff they like."

"You mean like antiques?" Trevor was beginning to get the picture: clever Americans getting rich by selling overpriced Chinese things to other gweilos. Or selling them back to the wealthy Chinese, like that Shanghai Tang clothing store chain in Hong Kong. That little idea was making a mint.

"Yeah. It is kind of weird," admitted Starry, who was not one to miss an interesting observation. "Their house is more Chinese than any Chinese person's, I'll bet. They even think I should wear Chinese clothes for New Year, even though I told them only little kids dress up like that."

Trevor felt less and less inclined to meet this couple. They sounded a little strange.

They came out of a narrow alley onto the road along the river and Starry turned left, leading him toward the temple that stood down at the end. Then she stopped partway down the road and challenged him.

"Now just guess which is the Sugarmans' house." She glanced at the row of small buildings along the street and then looked ostentatiously away toward the water with a little smirk, not wanting to give out any hints.

The houses ran in a straight line, sharing walls, and were small and narrow, two or three stories high. Some were shabby, with gray cement walls and rusty window frames, but others had big, modern windows and nicely painted pastel facades. This part of the village seemed to be in a transition phase, probably because of the draw of the river view. The pavement went right up to the rickety metal front door security gates of most of the houses, but some had what Americans called a little "yard" in front, with a few small trees or planters of flowers, though these were pretty tiny yards by American standards. When he lived in America, Trevor had seen yards that were vast expanses of green grass and complicated landscaping, like parks, though the yard at the back of Mrs. Morehead's house had been modest, just big enough for a few chairs and a clothesline.

As they walked down the line of houses, Trevor noticed that one of them was different from all the rest. Separating its small green courtyard from the street was a yellow cement wall with green ceramic lattice designs inserted in the open spaces that punctuated the wall at waist level. A round moongate hung with two festive red and gold lanterns and flanked by small, carefully clipped trees opened onto a path of stepping stones leading to a carved wooden door. It looked like an official's house, or a civic building of some kind. But just to the right of the gate was a blue and white ceramic tile sign, an imitation of the street nameplates that were on every street corner of Macao. There was the house number, 39, and then the English words


Furniture and Curios

with the corresponding Chinese characters running down both sides of the plaque.

"I guess this must be the place?" he said to Starry slowly, warily.

She smiled her sidelong grin at him and led him up the walk to a neatly lettered notice on the door instructing "Ring and Enter" in English and Chinese. Starry reached up and pulled a handle sticking out of the wall, and a crude-sounding bell rang somewhere inside. Then with both hands she turned a large brass lever that opened the door. She did this with an ease and familiarity that suggested many previous visits. Apprehensively, Trevor followed her inside. He didn't really want to meet these people and have what was left of his self-respect ruined, but obviously no one was going to give him a choice.

A large Western woman with a loose pile of grey hair pinned to the top of her head stood at the end of a long room full of furniture. She was talking on the telephone, but she waved at them as she spoke. "Yes, yes, they've arrived. Yes, very good," she was saying in poor Mandarin. She had a loud, clear, slow way of talking, with an American accent so flat that it seemed to create a great space around her.

Instinctively he knew it was Aunt Cookie on the other end of the conversation. He felt like he was in one of those conspiracy movies, caught in a web of surveillance that he was powerless to escape.

The woman hung up the phone and beamed at them. "Starry -- don't you look nice! I love your hair that way. And this must be your cousin Trevor."

She came forward extending both hands in welcome, her eyes as they lit on him bright with interest. The wrists and hands that were reaching toward him were heavy with large rings and bracelets of gold and jade and other colorful stones.

"It's so nice to meet you at last! I'm Nancy Sugarman."

Trevor recognized her as the type of gweilo woman you see a lot in Hong Kong -- big breasts, big feet, big clothes, and very excited about everything Chinese. She wore wide, black silk pants, a gold silk jacket embroidered with flowers and birds in every color, and dangling jade earrings. It made him cringe a little, how casually these people picked up Chinese fashions and customs. By contrast, when he'd left his aunt's house this morning, the New Year's Eve outfit she had selected had been a Hello Kitty sweatshirt.

"My husband is around here somewhere," Nancy Sugarman said. She twisted her head toward the back of the house and called in a commanding voice, "Morrie!"

They stood among crowded arrangements of Chinese furniture, porcelain, leather boxes, mirrors, paintings, and scrolls. All this must be for sale, Trevor realized. But at the back of the big room, set off by carved screens on either side, was a more cozy, lived-in looking area that glowed with warm colors -- red and gold silk curtains and cushions and wood furniture the color of dark honey. Big padded chairs were arranged around a low table.

It all looked good enough to eat, Trevor thought, and then realized this was because the air itself smelled delicious. Something good was cooking.

"Come in, sit down." Nancy motioned them to places around the table. "I just made some congee, Morrie's favorite kind, for the holiday."

Morris Sugarman, Uncle Fong's "Old Sugar," was just then descending the angled wooden staircase that took up a corner of the living area. He was a lean, grey-haired man and like a lot of western men, it seemed to Trevor, noticeably shorter and much less hefty than his wife. He wore a dark blue wool Chinese tunic coat -- an "old man's coat" as Trevor had always heard it called. No old man Trevor knew ever wore one, but he had seen a few of the old guys who lounged around the main square in Macao wearing them in winter. He'd assumed they were the moth-eaten remnants of their fashionable wardrobes of the 1950's. He wondered where old Sugarman had found his.

"Hello, neiho, neiho! Cousin Trevor has arrived at last." Morrie Sugarman's narrow, bright-eyed, friendly face was slit across by a big New York grin. He approached them eagerly, shuffling a little in black cloth slippers, offering his hand. "Kung Hei Fat Choy! Starry, you are spectacular in your seasonal red and truly a sight to behold!"

It seemed to Trevor that old Sugarman spoke English in an odd, dramatic way, like he was tasting and savoring each word he said, as if it wasn't just a word but something else, an unexpected and wonderful treat. Maybe it was just that he'd been an English teacher.

"Isn't she?" Nancy chimed in. "It's so nice to see her in something other than her school uniform," she said to Trevor. "She's such a serious little student. You know," she added, turning back to Starry, "when you're a little older you should have a cheongsam made. Red silk, nicely fitted--with that long hair down your back, you'd be a perfect picture."

Starry squirmed with embarrassed pleasure, and cast a glance at her cousin. "Maybe --"

Nancy had a sudden thought. "In fact, you know what you should do? You should ask your grandmother if she has some old cheongsams put away in a trunk somewhere. They would be such a treasure to have."

"Granny?" Starry looked amused. "In a dress?"

"You'd be surprised, my dear," Nancy assured her, with a smile. "We old ladies were something very different in our youth. I'll bet your granny was a little China doll."

A slow, thoughtful look stole over Starry's face. She absorbed the strange new idea, storing it away in her ever-growing mental file.

"Now you two, try some of this congee." Nancy suddenly produced a large earthenware pot and a stack of thin, richly decorated porcelain bowls. "It has some barbecued pork, and I also added dates and nuts and red beans and lotus seed and other good things. We love it at this time of year, but we'll never finish it by ourselves."

She spooned the sweet porridge into the bowls, added matching spoons, and passed them around on the smooth dark tabletop. It felt strange to Trevor to be eating a snack of congee out of such fancy dishes. But the Sugarmans seemed to have deliberately surrounded themselves with special old things. Nothing was plain or cheap or ordinary-looking. It was like a different world -- like stepping into a film or a painting.

The congee was delicious. After the first taste Trevor was compelled to eat it right to the bottom without pausing, as if in a kind of trance. It was warm and nourishing and tasty and sweet, and deeply comforting somehow.

"It's very good," he said diffidently, almost embarrassed to be so impressed by a bowl of stewed rice.

"Oh, it's just a simple old recipe," said Nancy, delighted. "A Chinese friend in Macao passed it on to me. Have some more." She filled everyone's bowl again and then set about making tea with a variety of utensils and vessels she'd assembled at her place.

She filled a small teapot and some tiny cups with hot water from a jug, poured it all out again into a bowl, measured tea leaves into the pot, covered them with water, poured it out quickly into a set of narrow cups, refilled the teapot ... Trevor felt dizzy watching her.

Next to him, Starry watched Nancy's procedures with a prim little smile on her face. She slid a glance toward him. "This is the proper way to make Chinese tea, Trevor. Did you know?"

"Sure," he said. He thought he'd seen someone do all that business on television once.

Nancy handed him one of the narrow cups, and he lifted it to his lips.

"Only smell it!" Starry commanded in Cantonese, tersely. Then, delicately, she lifted her own cup to her stubby little nose.

"Oh, you can drink it," Nancy said easily, guessing correctly what Starry had said. "What a waste not to! But the first pouring has the best aroma, and the narrow cup lets you appreciate it. Now we'll switch to the other cups."

She poured out the tea again, into low, round cups this time. "This is jasmine -- I hope you like it. We usually drink Pu Er first thing in the morning, jasmine at mid-day, and Long Jing in the evening." She savored her first sip.

"It makes a wonderful ritual," Morrie added, again sounding like he was beginning an address to a roomful of people. He raised his tiny cup to Trevor and Starry. "You young people are lucky to have such a rich culture underpinning your lives. Such strong traditions, even in the simplest things, like a daily beverage."

Trevor couldn't help thinking of Cookie's Luk Yu teabags.

"Life is so superficial for young people in our country," Nancy added. "There's no --" Then she remembered. "Oh, but Trevor -- you know all this! You went to college in New York! So did Morrie and I -- we met at City College. Where were you exactly? Your family wasn't sure of the name -- was it NYU? Columbia?"

Well, here it is, Trevor thought with resignation. This will make the holiday complete. A dark, grim feeling was growing at the bottom of his stomach, mixing together with all that congee. He looked down at the clear amber glow in his tiny porcelain cup. It stared up at him like a small, unblinking eye.

This was the question he had managed to evade for years. He gave the standard answer that had always worked with his relatives and friends: he gave the name that appeared on his diploma, that sacred rectangle of heavy, creamy paper that had been passed around among family members in its dark blue, gold-crested folder on his triumphal return home, and then carefully put away in a safe deposit box in the Bank of China on the advice of Uncle Fong ("That's worth big money to some crook. Lock it up!").

"I was at the State University of New York," he said carefully.

"Ah," said Morrie, but of course that didn't really answer his question. "Is that what they call City College now? It's part of that state system. That's our old --"

"Er--no." Trevor cleared his throat. "The campus I was at--it's not really downtown, I mean, in the actual city ... It's sort of out ..." he concluded lamely.

Both Sugarmans leaned forward toward him over the table, frowning a little, straining to pin down the place.

"Oh, the Island? Long Island?" suggested Nancy. "One of those branches of SUNY -- Morrie, what is it?"

"Oh, Stony Brook!" Morried slapped his hand down on the tabletop in satisfaction. "That place has come a long way --"

"No ..." Trevor said hesitantly. This was like some kind of slow torture. He was aware of Starry watching him keenly, so he thought he might as well get it over with and complete his shame. Admit the vain little deception he'd kept up since he'd been accepted there and then looked in an atlas, before he'd bought his plane ticket.

"It's a bit north of the city." He paused. "And west." He took a breath. "Oneonta." That one little name seemed to have way too many syllables, like a whole range of small mountains that had to be crawled over before he could speak the truth. But now it was done. Said. Out.

"Ohhhhh," said Nancy. There was a wavering pause. She took this in, and then she smiled kindly at his abashed expression, as if finally understanding something. "The Catskills! But it's not that far from the city, is it? The best of both worlds." She saw his embarrassment and rushed in to help. "Those little colleges all over the state have grown by leaps and bounds -- such a sensible system."

"Yes," chimed in Old Sugarman, following his wife's tactful lead. "Very much like the California system, with the network of different campuses, Berkeley, UCLA, Davis --"

Trevor was burning with discomfort, humbled by their eagerness to save his face in front of Starry. He couldn't think of a thing to say.

"What is Oneonta like?" Nancy pressed on, to fill the silence. "We've never been up that way. It must be a lovely little town."

Trevor couldn't believe that she was completely ignoring what she surely understood, that he'd obviously worked long and hard to give everyone the impression that he'd lived in the middle of New York City for four years. He stole a glance at Starry who for a good part of her life had pictured him living in the famous teeming city, on intimate terms with Central Park, the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, Yankee Stadium. But he'd found you could buy those postcards anywhere in the state. The truth was, the only time he'd spent in the city had been thanks to cheap one-day bus trips a few times a year.

Starry was sitting straight up in her chair, giving him a penetrating look, with her hands neatly folded around her teacup. Then before he could answer Nancy Sugarman's question, Starry began to recite smugly, "Oneonta, New York. Population 15, 600. Located in the western foothills of the Catskill Mountains. One hundred and seventy-five miles from New York City and two hundred and twelve from the state capital, Albany."

The Sugarmans both laughed in surprise. Trevor only stared at her, realizing she was even smarter than he'd thought.

Starry just smiled a superior smile, but the dark stars of her eyes were twinkling. "Haven't you ever heard of the internet? I knew how to use it when I was six!"

Trevor found his voice. "So -- you knew I wasn't -- actually in the city?"

"New York. Oneonta, New York. What's the difference to Auntie Scarlett or Ma and Ba? I was the only one who would ever think to look at a map."

"What a girl." Morrie beamed at her, and then shook his head in admiration. Starry accepted the compliment with a proud blush and took a sip of her tea.

"She's right," declared Nancy sensibly. "The main point is, what a wonderful experience to have immersed yourself in a new culture for four years. It's so broadening, especially at your age. We often wish we'd discovered China when we were younger, but we had our two girls to think about --"

"For one thing," Morrie chimed in, "the aptitude for learning a new language is highest when you're young -- Well do I know how --"

And they were off on their favorite themes again, sailing right over what Trevor had expected to be his trainwreck of humiliation, minimizing it, brushing awkwardness aside with a wave of the hand and offers of more tea. Instead of humiliation, Trevor felt as if he were being rushed along the shiny rails of their intermingled clear, flat voices, free, relieved, ready for some kind of new beginning.

He understood that the minor geographic details of his life in America would not be something that they would discuss again. Next to him, as the tactful Sugarmans went on and on, Starry gave him a sharp, sideways kick on the leg. He interpreted that as another show of support, though more Cantonese in style.

Article © Barbara Rendall. All rights reserved.
Published on 2011-02-07
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