The Chinese World Daily is my grandmother’s gospel. This is how she knew that Clinton had an affair with Monica, and Hillary is a good woman. This is how she learned she should stock up on bottled water after September 11th and stay away from LAX around New Year’s. And this is how she heard that too much Vitamin C might actually be bad for you, but eating large quantities of mu’er (a kind of fungus) helps the heart.
Every day Popo goes out to buy the paper from the corner store for 50 cents. Most days, it’s her only excuse to step outside her condo. But first, she must get ready. Since her arthritis makes her cold, she puts on long underwear beneath tight jeans and a thin wool sweater, even if it’s 80 degrees out. After rubbing on lotion, she dabs her face with white powder and ties a loudly patterned silk scarf around her neck. Then comes the essential step: her thick, wavy black wig. Ever since I was a baby, Popo’s been wearing this wig. It sits on a stand on her vanity table in its “off” hours, next to a scattering of bobby pins and tubes of hot pink Revlon, a jar of Pond’s cold cream, and stuffy old-lady Chanel. Even now, at 83, she won’t go out of the house without it. Especially now.
Wig tightly fastened in place, gold watch on her wrist, she is ready. She goes downstairs, finds her keys, purse, and dark sunglasses with the rhinestones (this is Los Angeles, after all), slips on her shoes, unlocks the two locks on the front door, unlocks the two locks on the second metal screen door, and steps outside.
It only takes her five minutes to walk to the store, which is good, because she doesn’t like to be out in the sun. Luckily, Popo lives in Monterey Park, a [End Page 45] mostly Chinese suburban community near East L.A. Here, she doesn’t have to speak English to get by; almost all of the restaurants, grocery stores, and banks are run by Chinese. Even the Chinese World Daily (which you can buy in Hong Kong and Taiwan) is printed here in Monterey Park. When I visit, I feel like I’m in some odd hybrid world—too many Asians to be America, too clean and spacious to be China.
On her way back from the store, Popo checks her mail, usually junk, and inspects her potted plants on the front patio. Back inside her condo, she locks the four locks and moves to pick up the remote. Standing in front of the TV, she switches from channel to channel: The Price Is Right, a cooking show, one of the stations she gets in Chinese, back to The Price Is Right. Voices of exuberant strangers cheer and exclaim in the background as she sits at the foot of the long, glass-covered dining room table in a tall-backed wooden chair, its silvery satin cushion still covered in its original crinkly plastic.
Here, on the table, lie the small details of her life arranged in little stacks and haphazard piles: Social Security letters typed in English that she cannot understand; photographs with heavily powdered old ladies from her singing group; her favorite mug with a picture of two hands holding two mugs of beer and the saying “I’ve got a drinking problem: Two hands but just one mouth,” yesterday’s tea leaves thick and fully expanded inside; a lamp, the telephone, a jar with ballpoint pens, scissors, and magnifying glass; a small red tapedeck, and a few dusty cassettes she hasn’t listened to in years. She puts on her reading glasses and scans the front-page headlines, settling into her daily ritual.
In the background, the TV is always blaring. Popo gets eight channels in Chinese (and over a hundred in English), but she grumbles that there’s never anything good to watch as she switches back and forth between Chinese soap operas, news, and variety shows from the mainland, Hong Kong, and Taiwan...