Strawberry - A Shanghai Girl in America Ch. 04


"Wait one," Alan say. He turn engine on, turn heater on, climbs out of car, snow everywhere. Opens trunk, brushes snow of windows with big brush. Opens my door to help me out. So cold! Freezing.

I jump out, stretch. Air so brisk. Brisk? "This is fucking cold," I say, so carefully using correct expression I remember Alan using last night.

Alan look at me. Look so startled. I smile at him. "You tell me northern Minnesota have three types of winter weather. Cold, really cold and fucking cold. This fucking cold, right?"

He starts laughing. Shakes his head. "Nope, this is just cold, Strawberry. Only minus ten."

"Wow." I so startled. This feel fucking cold to me. I follow Alan into the gas station. "If this not fucking cold, what is fucking cold?" I ask him.

The old guy who hasn't shaved since yesterday morning standing behind the counter looks at me. Looks at Alan. Starts laughing. "Lady," he say to me, chuckling. So nice of him to call me lady. "Fucking cold is when you spit and your spit freezes before it hits the snow and when it does, it bounces. That's fucking cold, right buddy?" He look at Alan.

Alan laughs. "Yeah, that's it, Strawberry," he say to me.

Wow. This so interesting. I go back outside, into the snow. "What sort of a name's Strawberry?" I hear the old guy say to Alan. The door shuts so I not hearing what Alan say. I kick the snow. It seem really fucking cold to me. A car pulls up, an old lady climbs out just as I spit experimentally into the snow and watch. No, it doesn't freeze, it just makes wet hole in the snow.

"Disgusting," the old lady says, just as I try spitting again. Same result. Wet hole. Spit not bounce. I say "It not fucking cold." We look at each other, she shakes her head. Walks into the gas station. I need to visit washroom so I go back inside, find Alan coming out of the men's room. "You right," I say, "it not fucking cold."

Alan and the old guy both laugh. I so puzzled. I not trying to make joke. Only simple observation of fact. Oh well, who understand American humor. So puzzling. So dashing into washroom. So bliss. Old lady washing hands when I emerge. I wash hands next to her. She not happy about something. I follow her out.

"Alan! What are you doing here?" Old lady scream so loud. So startle me.

"Grandma! How are you! You driving up? They let you out by yourself?" They hug so enthusiastic. So happy. Alan stands back, smiles at me so proudly. "Grandma, this is my girlfriend, Strawberry."

Old lady turn to me. Look so disapproving. My heart quail. I smile. So polite my smile, so artificial. Miss Shanghai contest so good training. So used to smiling at people who not liking me or not giving damn. Alan looks puzzled. I not knowing what to call Alan's grandma, she say nothing. So rude. Forcing myself to remember lessons on manners when meeting so uncivilized people.

Blessing our so smart High School for anticipating such need and sending all us Senior Year girls to those classes on how to deal politely with so uncivilized and so rude western people. Of course, not all western people so rude, but some are. Teacher stressing so important to always be polite. Always to set good example for so uncivilized people. Teacher ensuring we all so knowing that benefits of six thousand years of continuous civilization and culture so needing to be inculcated carefully in peoples where veneer of civilization so very recent. "I am so pleased to meet you." Remembering my lessons. Maintain polite smile, maintain eye contact instead of respectful bow. Hold out hand. Only one hand. Not using both hands.

She take my hand, very slowly. Give my hand quick shake. Let go right away like she not liking to touch me. I so upset. She so rude. "Hello, Strawberry." She nod head at me, so abrupt.

I so struggling to remember wise words of teacher, so struggling to remain true to traditions of so venerable sage Confucius as interpreted for modern post-feudal times by wise officials and leaders of Party. So hard though. So wanting to respond with such rudeness. So restraining self. So remembering wise proverb. "If you are patient in a moment of anger, you will escape one hundred days of sorrow." So taking deep breath and practicing patience. So pleased with self. So thinking this is subject for so impressive Facebook post on challenges of dealing with foreign people together with wiseness of young people to be listening to advice of sagacious Party officials.

I so thinking such good way to score brownie points with Party. Mommy so sure to forward so intelligent a post from daughter to so many esteemed Party contacts. I thinking to review contents of post with Mommy before actually posting. So necessary to ensure Party line followed correctly. Mommy so knowledgeable on Party line at all times, even when living in San Francisco. Such post bringing self to attention of senior officials, so raising awareness that self not just pretty face, so ensuring future beneficial contacts if needed. Always to be thinking of future, even if return to Shanghai currently looking so improbable for reasons so not to be discussed.

So rude Grandma look at Alan, smiles, her expression suddenly so warm. "I'm driving up to your Mom and Pop's. Looks like you are too. How long're you staying?"

Alan nods. "Yeah, staying until after New Year." He smile. Slip his arm around my waist. I forget so immediate thoughts of party line, instead so nestle in against Alan, so happy that he demonstrate love for me to rude Grandma. So smiling up at him. So conveying message to rude Grandma that Alan mine now. "Bringing Strawberry up to meet the family." He kiss the top of my head. "Strawberry and I're very serious. Wanted to introduce her to everyone."

"That's nice." Grandma not sounding happy at seriousness of relationship as communicated by grandson.

I so understanding. Probably Grandma not liking beautiful Shanghai girl taking handsome local guy away from local girls. I so unimpressed. Shanghai girls so beautiful they take any guy they want. I even more beautiful than average Shanghai girl. So much more beautiful, I so knowing that. I so not worrying about competition. I so worrying about Grandma though. Old people, they head of family, their view so important. In China, if Grandma disapprove, Alan and I so toasted. Not sure if this true in America though. Western people different like that, not valuing family so much. No respect for elders. But Alan bring me to meet his family so he respect elders. He so happy to see his Grandma. So many puzzles. So many worries. So much uncertainty.

Alan and Grandma so happy talking and talking and talking. I stand there listening so long time, so respectful, so hungry. So needing food and hot chocolate. So dizzy. So not interrupting happy family reunion.

"Alan. I so hungry, needing food." I need to interrupt at last. I feel so sick now. So very hungry. My voice so faint. Feeling so dizzy.

"Well, you better look after your demanding little friend, Alan." Grandma sound so snappy. So not caring I almost fainting from starvation. So heartless cruel old lady. Evil nasty rude Grandma. "See you at home tonight."

"Okay, Grandma, we'll be there."

Alan turns to me. "Are you okay, Strawberry."

"No," I say, my head so spinning. "So very hungry." I so faint. I hearing Grandma snort as she walk off. Alan sits me down, I feel better sitting down. More better after hot chocolate with cream and sugar. Lots more better after two donuts and some yummy yogurt. Alan eat with me. Pizza. Microwave Pizza for breakfast? Six pieces. So horrible. So shame that Americans not eating congee. But Alan also has plate of yummy looking biscuit things to go with so strong black coffee. Alan looking so wide-eyed. Me? I feeling so much better now. Sugar in blood back to normal level. Looking at yummy biscuits with so much alertness.

"What are those?" I ask, so interested. So scrumptious looking.

"Those? These are Krumkake* Strawberry," he say. "Local Minnesota delicacy, they're delicious. Try one with your hot chocolate."

I pick one up. Nibble. So delectable. So tasting lovely in mouth. Like a waffle cookie filled with whipped cream and dusted with powdered sugar. I eat it all, then another. So full now. Feeling so much better. Still so worried about nasty rude old Grandma but so not asking. Wondering if she always so rude. So hoping rest of Alan's family nicer. I know little sister Gwen is nicer. Such a wonderful little sister. So looking forward to seeing her again.

"We better hit the road, Strawberry," Alan says at last. "Still got another three hours to go from here."

Why we hit the road? Is this some kind of weird American ritual before driving? It not something I see before, but guessing it would be like back home, where you beat effigies of your enemies and curse them to drive away bad luck. Maybe something to do with driving in winter weather? Beat the road and curse away accidents? I guess that make sense. I follow Alan outside, so curious now. So intrigued. So wanting to see strange new custom. Nothing happens. Alan opens my door, helps me inside car, brushes snow of car, climbs in, we drive off. No hitting road?

I decide to ask. "Why we not hit the road?" I so curious.

"Uhh, we are." Alan glance at me.

"No, we no hit road. We climb in car and drive off."

Alan looks at me. Face say he being so patient with me. "It's an English expression, Strawberry. When we say hit the road, it means we're going to drive off."

"Oh." I feel so small. So silly. So stupid. Nothing to do with beating road accident devils after all. Just stupid language. Nasty rude horrible grandma, so horrible silly language. Everything so horrible. So wanting to cry. So tired. Outside so cold and white and scary looking. Nothing but snow and fields and trees. No buildings. No people. So empty. So lonely. Unknown so horrible and scary. So wanting to go home now. Tears trickling down my cheeks. So wanting to be brave and confident. So not succeeding. I sob, just a little.

Alan look at me. Looks so concerned. "What's wrong, Strawberry?"

Now I can't stop crying. "Your Grandma, she so rude to me, Alan. She not like me."

Alan reaches over, holds my hand while he drives down so snowy highway. "She just met you, Strawberry, once she gets to know you, she'll like you."

Now I cry harder. Alan just confirm my fears. His Grandma not liking me. Alan know. I so sad. So unhappy. But so not wanting to ruin Alan's Christmas. So long since he's visited his Mom and Dad. So trying to stop crying. So trying to be brave, so trying to shrug of cruel heartlessness of horrible rude Grandma as big muscle car powers way through so snowy winter wastelands.

"Don't cry, Strawberry," Alan says. "That's only Grandma. You've met Gwen, she's flying up tomorrow morning. She likes you. And Mom and Dad are great. I've told them all about you. They're really looking forward to meeting you. So's my big brother. And all the rest of the family. Everyone is. They're all going to love you."

I sniffle, wipe tears away. Think of Gwen, not nasty rude Grandma, I tell myself. Gwen and I can have lots of fun with Alan and Gwen's friend. She promised to teach me cross country skiing. And snowshoeing. Take me dog sledding. Camping overnight in snow. Go to church on Christmas Day. I always wondering what church like. I know, I mention before but still, finding perseverance of so strange archaic customs so fascinating. Church buildings looking so quaint and picturesque.

So wondering about strange practice of ritual cannibalism I read about. So shivering when remembering. So bloodthirsty a ritual. So scandalous that so terrifying primitive custom so redolent of savage past still practiced by so many otherwise civilized people. So not understanding continuation of so olden day's custom. No wonder Chinese government frown on so strange and un-chinese practice. Cannibalism, even of ritual sort, so not acceptable in China. So wondering why ritual persisting in America. Chinese government of course so sensible to discourage.

Maybe I not go to Church. Not wanting to see so horrible ritual. Thinking instead of going to Chinese restaurant in Duluth. Duluth has Chinese people? I wonder if they do dim sum. Must do. Where Chinese people go, dim sum go. Dim Sum in Duluth? My friends in Shanghai will be so curious when I do Facebook update from Duluth from Chinese restaurant in such remote foreign location. All sorts of adventure to look forward to. I smile at Alan. Wipe away tears.

"Not minding me," I say. "I so silly, Alan. So scary to meet so many new people. So worried I not make good impression to your family."

"Don't worry, Strawberry," Alan pats my leg, "everyone's gonna love you." Now his smile really warm. Smile make me hot. "And you're so beautiful and so smart, all my friends are gonna be so jealous."

Now I smile so warm back. So nice to be told I so beautiful. Especially by Alan. Liking that so much. Of course, he right. I know I so beautiful, but still, so nice to be told. "Thank you, Alan." I hold his hand up to my cheek, kiss his fingers. I so bad to cause Alan concern. So wanting just to love him and make him so happy. So bad of me to cause him concern.

"Why don't you have another nap, Strawberry, there's nothing much to see. I'll wake you up when we get close to home."

"Okay." I adjust seat back, tuck pillow in between headrest and window, rest head, close eyes. So tired even after earlier nap in car. Such a long long drive. So stiff and sore. "Tell me about your house, Alan." So happy to listen to Alan talking.

"We're thirty miles five north of Duluth, on the lake outside of Two Harbors." His voice so soothing, so happy when he talks about home. "My father built it when I was little, the house is all log and stone, you can sit there all year round and look out over the lake..." I drifted off to sleep listening to Alan talking so delightful about the house and his family...

* * *

"Wake up, Strawberry, we're almost there." Alan's hand patting my leg. He sound so happy.

"Oh." I jerk awake, open eyes. Look around. We on a four lane expressway with lake to our right. So much water. So cold and grey looking.

"Coming into Two Harbors soon," Alan smiles, "almost home, not so far to go now." He look so cheerful. So smiling even after such long drive. So wonderful guy.

I so much better after that nap. Also, I a lot more nervous. Soon I meeting Alan's parents for first time. I check clothes, make sure I okay. True Religion Jeans. Helen Lee plaid shirt. My jacket look okay, not too formal, exceedingly elegant yet sufficient casual. A really nice Judy Hua design. So nervous I mentioning that again. Thinking I still so passable after so long trip. I find handbag on back seat, brush my hair out, make sure hair just so. Lips not quite okay, adding just a little lipstick. Check myself in mirror. Yes! I look so good. Alan smiles. I know what he thinking, but a girl should always look her best. Always. I so need to make good first impression on Alan's parents.

Road narrows. No more expressway. A harbor on right. Takeout place with so strange name. I glance at it. Butterburgers? Frozen Custard? Oh? So strange sounding food. So wondering what butterburger taste like. Burger made from butter? So weird? Surely melting when cooked. Drive into small town. Houses now. Shops. Small office buildings. "This is Twin Harbors," Alan say.

I smile so nervous. Town so small. So empty. No people in streets. So grey and deserted looking. So like small eerie town in so scary American horror movie. We through in minutes, out the other side. Sign say Highway 61. Cross over Silver Creek. Pass Loop Road turnoff. I feeling more and more nervous as we drive on and on. Arms itching. Sweating. Swallowing saliva. So increasingly worried about meeting family. Will they like me? Maybe they won't? What if they all like so nasty rude Grandma? So awful thought.

So swallowing and swallowing. So much saliva. Feeling sick. So wanting air. So panting. Wiping sweat of forehead. So trying to rehearse english-language phrases to use on meeting potential parents-in-law for first time. So forgetting everything I intending to say. So anxiety. At last we turn off the highway. Experiencing such feeling of sickness as we drive down a small side road, snow pile high on either side. Drive down towards the lake, turn into a long driveway that winds through forest. Sudden entry into clearing in forest is surprise. I see large log and stone house on a small point, low cliffs overlooking so-grey water of lake, a rocky beach below. Snow everywhere.

"Here we are, Strawberry. This is home," Alan say, smiling. Stopping in front of large four door garage building behind house. Turning engine off.

Silence. Ominous scary silence. Car instantly feels so cold. Grey sky. Grey lake. Snow-covered trees. Snow covers ground everywhere. Show covers roof of house and garage. Snowflakes in air. Wind whistles through pines. Crashing of waves on shore. So scary. Listening for wolves howling. Maybe they silent because hunting? Perhaps man-eating bears watching so noiselessly and invisibly from deep woods? Like so scary horror movie. I so nervous I can't control breathing. My hands shaking. I sweating. Panting. Feeling nauseous. So not remembering a thing to say to family on formal greeting.

"Strawberry, are you okay?" Alan looking at me.

"Air," I pant, struggling with my door. "Need air." It not opening. I need to get out. Need to get out. Need fresh air before meeting family for first time. Grandma so scary. What if Alan's Mom and Dad so scary too. What if wolves in woods. What if bears watching? So panicking. Need to get out of car, breathe in cold air, calm down, relax, make way to house and safety. Forcing door open. Pushing myself out, feeling so panicked, stumbling away from car.

Breathing in cold air. So freezing cold air. Even smells cold. Nose burning from cold. Cheeks so immediate numb. Face so burning. Cold so from extreme. So shaking with cold so immediate. Jacket to thin, so incapable of keeping cold out. Vision so blurry from tears. Someone comes out of house, walks towards us. Oh no! So soon. Too soon. My stomach lurches. Bile in my throat. Can't breathe. Need to breathe. Go away. Go away.

"Strawberry." Alan's voice sound so remote, so far away.

I double over, feeling of sickness turning so sudden to nausea, so overwhelming me. I throwing up onto the driveway again and again, feeling Alan's hands holding me. When I finally make out what I'm looking at, its two woman's shoes, half covered in fresh vomit. I push myself up, gasping, throat raw. "Sorry ... I so sorry."

I feel so bad. Awful. So disastrous first impression. So wanting to disappear of the face of the earth. So wanting to just curl up and die. So struggling to breathe. So shivering. So shaking.

"Strawberry, are you okay? ... Strawberry?" Alan is holding me. Sounding so concerned. Not caring that I've just vomited everywhere. That it's getting on his clothes.

I so wanting to cry. This just so horrible. So embarrassing. What will his Mom think of me? "I sorry, I sorry," I half-sob, pushing myself the rest of the way up.Shaking. Looking into his Grandma's face.

Grandma looking even more disgusted and disapproving than when we met earlier, at the gas station. She say nothing for a long moment. Just looking at me.

That look. It too much. I burst into tears, bury my head against Alan's chest. Cling to him, crying my eyes out. So cold and frightened.

Alan's arms go round me, holding me. "It's okay, Strawberry," he says. "It's okay, it was a long drive, don't worry about it, it could happen to anyone." His hand strokes my hair. I hear him over my sobs. "Stop scaring her, Grandma."

I'm not, I'm not scared of her, I want to sob, but I can't stop crying. It's not rude Grandma that's scary. It's meeting a whole new family. Alan so important to me. I so terrified of making a mess of everything and I have. I making a total complete utter mess of everything. Everything so strange and scary and I so totally stressed. I unable to stop panting. Not enough air. Hyperventilating. Hiccupping. So bad. This so badly awful. So no control over situation. No control over self.

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