Carolyn Wing Greenlee

Stories from the Cutting Room Floor

     I have always had a queue of books waiting to be written, some of them in progress for years. Realistically, in whatever time I have left, how many of those is it feasible for me to actually finish? With much prayer and careful thought, I’ve reduced them to two—Eternal River IV, and a collection of information and techniques to help people be healthy.

     I was feeling wistful and regretful about leaving so many of my stories on the cutting room floor, but today I realized I could put them on my blog. I still believe they’re worth reading, and I certainly want to give them a chance to be a blessing.

     There are so many things I’ve longed to tell you—stories of Hedy after she came home with me, travels with my husband following the Oregon/California Trail in an ancient motorhome, vignettes of pioneer life I’ve collected from people I’ve met along the way. I’m so happy that I get to share them after all, and I don’t have to write another fourteen books. It’s liberating—even thrilling. It’s like handing the grand baby back when she’s fussy—all the fun, none of the responsibility.

     I want to thank my friend, Mary Trimble, for encouraging me in this giddy flinging forth of miscellaneous tales you would never otherwise see.

     This first piece is a tributary of Eternal River III, The Next 30 Years. In the published version I decided to tell only the parts of my life that were significant to the central flow of the partnership of Tom and Kay Wing. I had written my own parallel life, but I realized the book would have to be 800 pages. Below is the first part of what I cut, and now am delighted to send out to have a life of its own.

     From the unpublished version of Eternal River, III

     When I was eleven years old, I told my dad I would never leave him. I would remain there in our beautiful custom house at 380 East Baseline Road, with the lemon grove and Cypress-shielded decorator garden behind, and the huge driveway and decorator garden in front, at a curve on sparsely traveled Baseline Road. I don’t know what prompted the remark. Maybe it was because my grandma had just died. Three years before that, Grandpa had been killed by a lady speeding through an intersection against a red light, her windows fogged and iced. She never saw the gentle Chinese man crossing with the cash box under his arm on the way to his beloved Lincoln Market. Uncle Bill said money blew all over the street. The Gongs never pressed charges. It was 1954, and in California hatred against the Chinese was still rampant. The lawyer told them no judge would convict a White woman for killing a Chinaman.
     In 1954, I was too young to understand death, and three years later when Grandma died I wasn’t much more aware, but there was something about never seeing someone again that stuck in my mind, emphasized by the sudden cessation of trips to Merced, trips that I’d been making since before I was born, whose rhythms were constant as seasons, as waves, as tides. For as long as I could remember we were going and coming back, going and coming back. And then it stopped. So maybe I was trying to break the cycle. If I didn’t leave home, perhaps it would all stay the same—butterflies and hummingbirds, coyotes yipping in the night, the little lemon tree just outside my window where the setting sun turned the sky orange and red as it disappeared behind the San Gabriel Mountains.
     My father’s reaction was neither pleased nor sentimental. “Don’t be ridiculous,” he snapped. “Someday you will want to leave and it will be right for you to go.” There wasn’t a trace of warmth in his voice. I had poured out my little girl heart and he brushed it off like shavings from his drill press. He and Mom thought I was impractical—a sentimental, artsie dreamer who was much too sensitive.
     Now, six years later, there I was in the summer of ‘64 packing for college.

     When it came to my own higher education, I didn’t have a clue where to begin looking. My parents, as usual, rose to the task. From the aptitude testing I’d had when I was eleven, they knew I had more chance of success at a small school where I would have interaction with my professors and be judged on my knowledge of the subject rather than on test scores alone and, in the days before Yahoo or Google brought the world to your computer, they researched and selected Occidental College.
     My dad said he’d take me to L.A. to have a look at the campus. As we sped along the 101 Santa Monica Freeway, he gestured towards a bleak, flat-faced skyscraper. “That’s your college,” he said. Big red block letters on the top clearly spelled out, “Occidental.” I was terribly disappointed. I had hoped for something more Ivy League…

     It turned out he was joking, but I wasn’t expecting that mode of communication from the son of a Confucian scholar. Lectures, delivered in somber tones, impatient corrections when I did something so obviously brainless that any idiot would know better, patient instruction on how to solder or drive or deport myself, occasional commendation if I accomplished something extraordinary—that was my dad to me. Sometimes he told a Chinese joke that he found terribly funny, but Chinese jokes never made sense to me. I supposed they lost something in the translation, or perhaps I didn’t have a sufficiently Chinese mind.
     There was no way I could have anticipated a prank from my father, so, when the austere skyscraper turned out to be the Occidental Life Insurance building, I kept the memory as a small, warm spot—one that told me something different about my dad, something playful the way I’d heard other dads fondly tease their daughters. At the time, however, I felt only dismay. Daddy didn’t let on and I didn’t figure it out until we turned into the parking lot of the most ivy league college I could imagine. I was immediately in love with Oxy. It had the scent of higher learning established in elegant stone buildings and grand, well-rooted trees.

     My parents immediately began preparing for my departure, planning ahead for every need. They bought me a set of brown tweed suitcases with curved vinyl tops and matching trim. That style wasn’t my taste (I neither liked tweed or brown), but it never occurred to me to object. I was accustomed to my parents going out and meeting the need—making selections without any input from me, returning with the items they had chosen for me. They always had specific reasons, thought-out.
     For easy identification with a bit a flare, Daddy cut multiple sets of my call letters out of red reflective tape and neatly stuck WA6PYB on the brown vinyl of every piece. Why did I have ham radio call letters? Daddy wanted Adrienne and me to grow up as close to normal as possible. Normal American girls had dates, but in the 1960s, Claremont boys didn’t ask Chinese girls out, so Daddy set about to rectify the situation.
     In ham radio land, folks don’t know anything about you except your personality and the strength of your signal. Since there were very few YLs (Young Ladies) on the air, Adrienne and I were instantly swamped with callers trying to make contact with the YLs with the Gonsett Communicator II-B (the Gooney Bird). Most evenings I’d be on two meters, joking around with a bevy of amateur radio boys. I was very popular, always guaranteed a QSO (conversation) night or day, and exercised my quick, sarcastic wit honed around the Wing dinner table. With no Chinese face to hide and no history or family to represent, I got pretty silly. But the guys seemed to like it and I felt like the Queen of the Prom. Now my father was sending me off with my ham radio identity emblazoned on my luggage. He said no one would steal such distinctive pieces. I loved how he was always thinking of ways to protect me.

     When summer came around my parents told me they were going to get me a car—a VW Bug (they were the latest rage)—a shiny red one. My dad said they planned to paint two big black spots on the back and attach a pair of curving antennae on the front. Ladybugs were one of my favorite things. Not only were they shiny, bright red and round, they sucked the life out of the horrid chartreuse aphids that dined on the juices of my mother’s favorite roses. I looked forward to the sensation the LadyBug would make on campus, but when my parents reviewed the features of the vehicle, they discovered there wasn’t even an engine in front to provide bulk and weight in the event of a collision. They decided it was too flimsy.
     I wouldn’t have been as disappointed had my dad not built up such a delightful anticipation. He was especially adept at creating vision for others. He was an enthusiastic soul and he could stir interest in something you’d never heard of, or never cared about before. But he was also wont to change his mind—always for good reasons. Safety was his major concern. Mom’s too. The world was a hostile place where you could be hit by a speeding car and have no voice to complain because no one would listen. In this kind of place, you needed to watch out for yourself and protect the ones you loved. Hence, no Bug for Carie. They wanted their daughter safe.
     I couldn’t even take my trusty Pontiac station wagon, Yellow Belly Sapsucker. It was okay for driving to Claremont High and back, but much too old to go to college. My parents didn’t trust it on the freeways. In fact, it was time for it to move on. I was grief stricken. Through the family front room curtains, I watched as the new owner drove it away. It was like losing an old dog, my faithful friend. I don’t remember what car I took to college, probably one of the three Lincoln Continentals, but I never loved them the way I loved that old station wagon: GNG 325. Daddy said “GNG” stood for “Good-night, Girls.”

     For most of my life I’d grown up in Southern California’s Inland Valley, the second daughter of two powerful, intelligent, dynamic parents, with an older sister to match. My dad was famous for his Chinese herbs, and especially FCF, a miraculous formula for flu, colds, and fever; and an innovative way of eating that nudged the bodies of diabetics from high requirements of insulin into health. He was also a famous amateur radio ham whose call letters, W6MVK, were recognized world-wide by DX (long distance) enthusiasts and kings. Mom was the one who ran their three offices and facilitated his research of Ultra High Frequency (UHF) as well as their radio paging factory in L.A. and their station in Oakland, California. She did all this while making sure that her family had good food, nice clothes, and a lot of training in morality, responsibility, respectability, and poise. Except for numerous lectures on obedience (“filial piety,” though they never called it that), proper behavior, and the deterioration of the country through immorality and graft, Daddy left our upbringing to Mom. She handled the house and everything and everyone else. I’d gone to school with roughly the same group of kids from kindergarten through high school graduation, my entire high school population being around three hundred students. Now I was about to leave everything behind.

     My father said flatly that, after I’d been in college for a while, I would come to think my parents were stupid. I was sure this could never be. My parents were smarter than anyone I knew. In the last remaining weeks before I left, my father further prepared me for my departure. He told me that I must not mess around with boys because no one would buy a cow who gave her milk away. And he also told me there were three things I must not marry: a Mexican, a Catholic, or a Democrat. Shortly thereafter I was carrying my distinctive suitcases into Orr Hall to share a room with a person I’d never met.

7 Comments

  1. Nancy Fine

    January 9, 2017 - 8:20 PM
    Reply

    Oh! Carolyn, more please! You’ve pulled me in in a heartbeat. I can’t wait to read more. Thank you so much for sharing so vividly.

  2. Pat Khan

    January 6, 2017 - 1:13 PM
    Reply

    Carolyn, What precious and poignant stories of your parents and of you. Also reminds us how it was for Asians and other immigrant cultures in the U.S. at that time.
    Thank you for sharing your stories, they are delightful and heartwarming. I also enjoyed reading about your Mother and Father, I knew they were always welcoming with open arms with me. Your story lets us know that is how they both lived their lives. Salt of the Earth.

    Thank You and Great Expectations for 2017, Pat

    • Carolyn

      January 10, 2017 - 8:39 PM
      Reply

      Pat, You knew my parents well from your work in microcurrent, but also many meals together, visits at the Claremont house, and museum exhibit guided tours. My dad loved showing you his inventions displayed in public places of honor. I’m glad I get to share a different side of them with you. We are so privileged to have known them. When I share their stories, I can feel them, see them, hear them once more. And whenever I hear from you, I remember those big hugs and how much all of us loved being together.

      Thank you for continuing to check in with me throughout so many years!

      Love,
      Carolyn

  3. Valerie Vinzant

    January 6, 2017 - 8:03 AM
    Reply

    More, more! Wonderful!

    • Carolyn

      January 12, 2017 - 9:06 PM
      Reply

      You sweetie! Thanks so much! You make me smile!

  4. Mary E. Trimble

    January 6, 2017 - 7:34 AM
    Reply

    This is fascinating, Carolyn. I appreciate learning more about the “real” Chinese culture. You had many more obstacles growing up than I did, probably mostly because of the cultural differences.

    • Carolyn

      January 12, 2017 - 9:33 PM
      Reply

      Well, Mary, it was reading your blog that gave me the idea of sharing stories. The Carolyn part of Eternal River III has much more about interpersonal relationships inside the Chinese family than the blue published book. It’s the Second Generation from the point of view of the Third Generation. “Joy Luck Club” is repeated many times in families from this culture. Our parents always had much harder lives than we, and we didn’t appreciate what they gave us because we didn’t know what it cost them in stretching past the strictures of their own difficult lives.

      I’m looking forward to sharing more. Thanks for the encouragement!

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