A while back I wrote about how events that happened when you were young affect your entire life. That particular blog was more focused on the idiosyncrasies of my cats. But I had a friend…..
This friend is Chinese. She is older than me. I worked with her until she retired.
She was born in China. With her parents and siblings, she experienced the Japanese invasion into China prior to World War II. Her refugee family marched with others through China and immigrated to Malaysia. I don’t know where she was born or what happened to her parents. She never talked about that time. You could tell if the conversation was getting too close, she would shut down.
She grew up and went to school in Malaysia where she was raised by an aunt.
She said enough that I knew the march to her exile was long, painful and treacherous. Only bad things happened. Sometimes there was no food to eat. Many people died or were killed. These are vivid memories for a child.
Her family prospered in their new country. Through her talent, she received a scholarship to England. The deal was that she had to serve as an instructor for two years to repay her education. Her assignment was Guam and that’s where she met her American husband who was working in the Peace Corps.
Her degree was in art and she was very talented. However, her hard life and different culture gave her quirks that would stun her coworkers. At first I was shocked and thought of her as “stingy” or “parsimonious” but I came to understand it came from being poor for a long time. She was creative about stretching a dollar in many ways.
To say her purchases were premeditated is an understatement. I was with her in Burger King. The person taking orders asked if she wanted a cheeseburger or plain burger. She asked what the extra cost was. It was 16 cents so she passed on the cheese.
That was just the tip of the iceberg. She was an incredibly poor tipper and the rest of us often threw in an extra buck to cover the shortage. She felt that whatever was charged should cover the entire cost. Tips weren’t in her culture.
However, if you were going to a flea market, no one could barter like she could. She could embarrass her husband of 40 years. I would walk away not because it’s a bad thing to do. In many countries it’s expected. It’s just that where we live, it isn’t customary. At farmers’ markets and places like that, merchandise isn’t marked for haggling so many vendors are reluctant to discount unless it’s the end of the day and the item is perishable.
She was an attractive oriental woman — small and slight with an olive complexion. I went shopping with her to buy a dress for her son’s wedding. We found (on sale naturally) a beautiful full length garden style dress. It was simple, no fancy trim. Just plain elegant. It was black with a muted floral and it made her look like something out of a magazine.
She took it back the next day. Her family said it didn’t look like her and they were right. It didn’t. After forty years of dressing like a peasant, they couldn’t accept her all prettied up. She ended up with a drab olive-green dress that did her no justice at all.
Perhaps the oddest part was that she asked if she could borrow my makeup for the day. She never wore any and didn’t see any point in investing in it for one day. I am pale with dark blonde hair. I told her it wouldn’t work so she didn’t wear any. Not even lipstick.
Those of us who worked with her have hundreds of stories that we occasionally share. Don’t get me wrong. She was a great person. There just was a cultural shock thing going on when you spent time with her even after all the time she had lived in the United States.
After retiring, she and her husband moved out-of-state. They built a house in an isolated area and were planning to live off the land.
She has done quite a bit of traveling worldwide. She has relatives and friends living in many countries so in some ways she is very worldly.
Even though I haven’t seen her in many years, I will always consider her my most unusual friend. Definitely the kind of friend you would want to go along to buy a car…if you have the stomach for haggling.