A most unusual friend

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.

38 thoughts on “A most unusual friend

  1. Kate, I just became a follower of yours and this morning ran across this post about your Chinese friend. My husband and I taught in a Chinese University for more than a couple of years…in Chairman Mao’s home province. We returned to the States in 2005 and have been back there many times. Our students as well as our friends had family who suffered tremendously in the past wars and then in the Cultural Revolution. The old memories die hard for many of them due to the horrible incidents in their lives. We are fortunate to live in this great country…and we are fortunate to have close friends that are reminders of how blest we truly are.


    • I truly wish I understood her past better but she wouldn’t talk about it. I am honored that you are following. I have been enjoying your comments and observations. Your gravatar isn’t connected to a website so I don’t know if you have a blog. If you do, let me know. There is another follower Behind the Story (she commented farther down) who married a Chinese man. She occasionally posts about the cultural differences and I find her interesting too.


  2. I am amazed at the number of comments on this article about our mutual friend and the comment asking if she rationed her joy! What an observant comment. Really struck home with me. Also most extremely creative people do find a lot of joy in their work. If she did, she sure held it close.


    • Thanks for commenting especially since you knew her as well as I did. I always had a hard time understanding her because she seemed to contradict herself. She once said that Chinese people don’t do humor, that it was a waste of time but there are times I remember her laughing. Then she would seem to be guilty about it. I always wanted to better understand her youth because that’s where the secrets lie.


  3. My first thought upon reading your post was that circumstances affect people differently. My late husband, who was Chinese, was born in China during the Japanese invasion. He experienced occupation, disease, lack of food, the death of his brother, etc. He didn’t leave China until 1949 when the Communists came into power. He was ten years old by then. One result of his having experienced near starvation was that he always wanted a full cupboard and refrigerator, and he ordered more than we needed at restaurants. He always gave generous tips and gifts. I think generosity was part of his family’s culture.

    The Japanese invasion of China was horrendous for the people who lived through it, and, I guess, each responded in his or her own way.


    • Thank you for commenting. He did have the opposite response to a similar experience. I was stunned at the atrocities committed mostly because I never had heard of the invasion before. Yet we continue to do them.


  4. how nice to think back on an old and unusual friendship. I often wonder about some of the people I once knew and have lost track of. Some of them do have interesting stories that come out of very difficult childhoods. I don’t think I can even imagine the kind of deprivation that would contribute to a strong need to save 16 cents on a burger. I enjoyed the reminiscing, Kate.


    • I can look back now and understand better. At the time, it made me nuts. I am sure I rolled my eyes at the 16 cents thing. I think I offered to pay it for her in frustration. My tolerance level has gotten a lot better with age.


    • What is even odder for me is that she was oblivious of the effects of her trauma. She thought it was an ethnic difference and if anything, the rest of us were a bit weird. She certainly thought that we spent too much money on nonsense (which included things like an out of season tomato). I have had other Asian friends and they adjust to where they are (the old when in Rome, do as the Romans do thing).


  5. You never know the hardships that people experience just to get to America. I had Polish neighbors when I was a teen. They lost their children when they were in Poland. At one point her husband was impressed into the Czar’s army (something he was not happy about). There are many blessings living here. Some people forget that. Thanks for the reminder, Kate, and Happy Thanksgiving.


  6. Fascinating how your friend never assimilated to American ways. An old saying comes to mind: “when in Rome do as the Romans.” I had a prof in college who left China one step ahead of Mao, but he Americanized himself to a fault. This woman sounds like she went out of her way to not fit in. Wonder why?


    • In many ways she did assimilate. She dressed very American although simply. Her English was very good. There were some old beliefs that stuck with her. I have a cat that was part of a feral litter. She is a very passive cat and I believe that there were times when she didn’t get enough food. Today, even though there is enough food for everyone, she will still eat everything in sight because she has old memories of hunger.


  7. A touching post and a stark reminder this Thankgiving Day week about how fortunate we are to live in this culture. Your friend has scars that can never heal…we all do to one degree or another…but some we just can’t hide.


  8. Very interesting post. Old habits die hard ~ whether we get in the habit of pinching pennies or spending freely. Our circumstances may change, and we don’t.

    She sounds “tres serious.” Did she laugh freely? Or did she ration her joy along with her coins?


    • She was serious. She said the Chinese people do not have humor in the traditional American way. She took everything that was said literally. There was no joking around. I think she found joy in life just not the same way we do.


  9. I think one of the best parts of working is getting to meet people from diverse backgrounds. Keeps everything in perspective. Good for you for loving your friend for being exactly who she is, rather than trying to change her!


    • Change her? Dang! I couldn’t even get her to wear lipstick at her son’s wedding! I wish she could have taught me the art of haggling. It’s very useful for large purchases but I am not good at it.


  10. How interesting that you were able to get to know her, to some extent, and observe the various idiosyncrasies that were partially due to her culture, and partially due to her peasant status. We can sometimes become immune to the stories that are behind the faces in the people around us, if for no other reason, than because we are incapable of imagining their lives.

    Your story brought to mind the book by Amy Tan, “The Joy Luck Club”which was also made into a movie. I read the book first, and thoroughly enjoyed it, but then, after seeing the movie, it brought to life in a more visual sense things I had not been able to imagine, even while reading the book. It tells the story of four women, and their own unique struggles while emigrating from mainland China, whether my marriage, the march into exile, adoption, or their search for the preservation of their Chinese culture while living in America, and how it impacts their daughters and their more “modern” lives. It’s a very intricate book (and movie), but very revealing about how significantly a person’s historical culture can impact their future. If you’ve never seen the movie, I highly recommend it, although I’ll warn you that it’s a long movie (2 and 1/2 hours), but it sticks with you after you’ve seen it. At least for me, it gave me a perspective on what it might have been like to have such a deeply resonating culture impact a young person’s life. Great post.


    • Your post was so appropriate. I wrote this story several months ago and never posted it. I am a BIG Amy Tan fan and she released a new book this year. Yesterday I was looking into buying it when I was reminded of this piece. Yes, there are similarities. Although I worked closely with this woman for 3 years I really didn’t know a lot about her past. What you see here is pretty much it. When she was orphaned (if indeed she was) or siblings I know nothing. I only know she has a brother in Australia who is very wealthy and “cousins” spotted around the world. I liked her because she was kind although her comments could be sharp. I thought that was a result of English as a second language. She said the Chinese did not use humor as they felt it was a way to disguise your true feelings.


    • Before writing this, I googled the Japanese invasion. There were incredible atrocities committed. Women were kidnapped and raped. They called them comfort women (for the soldiers) and they were eventually killed. Farmers were killed. Children were killed. Since she was raised by an aunt, I can only assumed her parents were dead from something unnatural. We never seem to learn the lessons.


  11. this somehow made me feel like I’m an unusual friend (or the unusual girl in our circle). i’m way too different from most of my friends and… i don’t know, i usually ask if im weird or something. sure they’d say ‘no’ but … well, it just feels like it.

    great post btw 🙂


  12. Love this post! I have memories of some Oriental folks I worked with during my Med Tech training and subsequent hospital employment. I never had the chance to do things like shop with them but some of them, I knew, had not had an easy time prior to living in the U.S. Stories like this should make us all the more thankful for our many blessings. Thanks Kate and have a Merry Thanksgiving!


    • I have said it before. I am so grateful to have been born here with the parents I had. Out of all the things I worried about as a child (tests, quizzes, whether my hair was going to look nice and of course boys) I never worried about being killed.


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