12. June 2013 · Comments Off on Home · Categories: L.. 13 to 15 years

Macau in1950's

The crowd from the ferry clears.   There is no one at the pier for me.   I see a lone rickshaw man.   Will you take me to my grandmother’s house, I ask him.  Yes, yes, he says as he helps me into the rickshaw.

I have only one small suitcase.   He fits that into the rickshaw with me, and we are off in the right direction.  He doesn’t ask me where my grandmother lives.  I guess he was sent to wait for me at the pier.


The gate is open as it always is.  I pull the gate bell for someone to come and pay the rickshaw man.

hibiscus blooms


I see the hibiscus by the gate.  The divided well.   Farther back there is the star fruit tree and the lichee trees near the rabbit hutches.  The custard apple bushes near the steps.  Everything is the same.  It is not a dream.

Why do I think of this place as my home?   It was my mother’s home, but our family has scattered.   I was cast out without anyone saying why.   I am back only because Anita missed her stop.   Yet I feel that I am rooted here, that I belong here in a way that goes beyond common sense.


Ah Ngung comes running down the steps, a toothy smile showing off her new gold tooth.

Titi kisses me on both cheeks as though I have just come back from a holiday trip.  She asks no questions, and that’s just as well.

She takes me right away to my cousin Jose’s office.  He is a doctor.  It doesn’t matter that he is an ophthalmologist.  After a brief examination he assures Titi that I am as healthy as I look.

Titi puts me in her room.  I am to sleep in my old bed.

My grandmother died recently, and her room, next to ours, remains empty and in mourning.


11. June 2013 · Comments Off on Back to School · Categories: L.. 13 to 15 years


Titi says if the nuns ask for your student records, just tell them that they were lost in a house fire.  I nod.  It’s easier than explaining to Titi that I had gone to school the year before, and that my sister and I lived by ourselves for only a few weeks.  I would never ever mention Anita’s name.

The nuns at Saint Rose, many of whom have known me since kindergarten, are not surprised to see me.  They put me in the right grade for my age.  I have a feeling that the nuns have their own information network, more discreet than the local gossip and probably a lot more accurate as well.


Soon I have a new best friend, Marina.

There are the usual house parties, the weekly American movies we choose from three movie theaters, and riding our bicycles all over town.

0 R




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On the beach in Coloane, one of Macau’s islands

My sister writes and tells me that my brother has been building marvelous little model houses out of found materials.   He says that if I am First of the Class he will build me a model house.   Now he’s in on it too.

For me, school changes.  I have always liked school, but the carefree days are over.  I concentrate on my schoolwork to excel in every subject.  I have never done that before.

10. June 2013 · Comments Off on Insolence · Categories: L.. 13 to 15 years · Tags:

When I was thirteen, the nuns suspended me from school for three days.  The charge was “insolence,” but they would not say exactly how I was insolent or to whom.  My aunt Titi, who was the one who glanced at my report cards and signed my permission slips, had only this to say to me, “Don’t be too familiar with the servants.”  Decoded: don’t ask bizarre questions in class.

Titi did not mean that I should stop sitting on a footrest in the servant’s cottage, listening to Ah Chun’s stories while she ironed.  Ah Chun kept our family in clean, impeccably ironed clothes, sheets and linens.  Among the four domestic amahs that kept our household going, she was the sage.  She had a book, an arm-bending volume with many thin pages, which she consulted as a sort of almanac for all things.  She also had a repertoire of stories about village Mozarts who could make music learned from a previous lifetime, star-crossed lovers who had happy endings in another dimension, whom you could see in the night sky if you knew how to look, and ghosts.

The ghost stories were the best.  Ah Chun would tell ghost stories only if there were a few of us gathered at her feet.  She would not be ironing.  She needed both her hands to tell about the woman whose husband slapped her around and how she came back as a ghost to haunt him.  As Ah Chun re-enacted how the ghost stood over her husband’s bed, and how she looked at him longingly because she still loved him, we held our breath.  Then the ghost reached out her boney, icy hand and gently caressed his cheek.  At the same moment, a mischievous cousin reached over and touched his sister’s face.  She squealed, we squealed, and everyone was totally spooked.

Ah Chun knew about audience participation.  She wasn’t the sage for nothing.


The sisterhood

The sisterhood


09. June 2013 · Comments Off on The Nuns’ Method · Categories: L.. 13 to 15 years

The nuns have determined that the sin of pride is my greatest temptation.  They tell me that they are pushing me up a grade so that I would have to work harder and perhaps learn some humility.

I have a new teacher.  She is also the headmistress.   Her name is Mother Paulinus.   She is British.   I think she suffers from this warm, humid climate more than anyone.

In spite of the layers of her long white habit and headpiece that covers all but her face you can see that she is too thin.   Her pale cheeks have hollows and her eyes are like pools of blue water in a desert.   But she is tall and has a quick step and carries herself with authority.   She never mentions the heat.

She sees me puzzling over a form that asks for my race.   Anglo-Saxon, she says.   I know that my nationality is British, but my mother was Portuguese.  Besides, we are Eurasians.   Never mind all that, she says, you go with the paternal grandfather.

That was simple.  Now I have an identity.  I also have a guide.

They give us a choice.  We can take a course of studies that leads to graduation in the American system or one that leads to matriculation in the British system.   We choose America.


08. June 2013 · Comments Off on Summer Birthday · Categories: L.. 13 to 15 years

It is summer again.  My report card shows that I am First of the Class.  Titi glances at it and says nothing.   No one cares about that except my sister.

Titi lets me go to Hong Kong for a week to spend my birthday with her.

To mark my achievement at school, my sister takes me to a store where there is a glass case with rows of gleaming fountain pens.  I choose a “Parker 51” in silver.  She has my name engraved on it in gold letters.  Maybe you will write a book someday, she says.

My sister is sentimental about birthdays as was our mother.   I do not expect a party.  She surprises me with a small party, mostly with her friends.

She is in a different place now.  She moved to Kowloon to be among our father’s relatives.   Like our mother, she has built an extensive network of connections and knows the where and how of so many things that I can only be amazed.

Someone says that our father and Linda are back in their old neighborhood.  He stays in his narrow world.  I have not heard from him, and I do not go there.   It is as though the time I spent with him happened by accident in another world.BiirthdayCard by Pat

Design with Pressed Flowers by Pat Jorge Kim

07. June 2013 · Comments Off on Magnet · Categories: L.. 13 to 15 years

My new classmate Annie is far and above everyone in math subjects, although I have a slight edge in geometry.   I see that math is my weak subject.  I get my cousin to tutor me enough to keep up.   But for me, math never catches fire.

I am astonished when Annie tells me that she stayed up most of the night studying for an exam.  She says her mother brought her a bowl of cold water to splash on her face to keep awake.  I feel the void inside and a pang of envy.  Annie has a tiger mother who cares.

By this time I am not keeping up because of my sister or anyone else.    My sister threw down a challenge for me, but I know that she has already dismissed it when she remarks that anyone could be First of the Class if they study hard enough.   Titi shows no interest.

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Something else is driving me.  Rather, something else is pulling me from ahead like an invisible magnet.  I am not sure where it leads.  I recognize that the pull forward is a lifeline.   At least it is my lifeline.   At the same time I’m afraid I will lose it and never get it back.

But why does Annie need to cram?  We have comprehensive monthly tests.   No one is allowed to fall behind.   She is always in second place only because there are fewer math subjects, and I have an edge on the subjects requiring language.

Except for math, all our tests are in the form of essays and often require illustrations.   For biology finals we are given a blank piece of paper and two hours to illustrate the circulation of the heart.   For geography we have to draw the map of Africa and fill in all that we know.  We bring color pencils to exams.

Though we are expected to help one another at other times, our tests and exams are designed to be competitive.  Each teacher has her own system of grading, but they all use numbers, like judges in the Olympics.   Instead of 1 to 10, they grade from 60 to 100.  No one starts under 60 – she would not be in the class.   Except for math, in which we can get 100, we are graded mostly on knowledge but also on presentation, and no one gets 100 – there is always room for improvement.

I wonder for the first time whether I have a different way of studying that depends less on repetition than on the quality of concentration.  I see patterns and structures and fit the details into them.  It is visual in the sense that when I get the right focus, so to speak, on a page, I will have a visual memory of the order of the paragraphs, and the order and even the spelling of the words.  Any images on the page are gifts, like extra markers.

If I am not distracted, I need to do this twice, and once more for review before an exam.  There is more than enough time in my day, especially if I concentrate in class, which gets me halfway there.  I sit in the front row for that reason.

Annie is dedicated.   She is working for a scholarship to an American college, and her whole family is cheering her on.

I don’t have such a clear plan.   All I have is this magnet thing that pulls me forward.   It is as tyrannical as a demon drug master.


06. June 2013 · Comments Off on Patterns · Categories: L.. 13 to 15 years, Out of the Blue

My brother sends me a model house he built, a trophy for my being First of the Class.   I give it to the nuns.  They display it on a little table in the hallway.   By the time the new term starts, it is gone.

0 R

The nuns see that pushing me up a grade was not enough.   There are unintended consequences.

They push me up another grade.

It is painful to lose all my classmates once more.    There is no time to brood.   I scramble to catch up on classwork.

Our new textbooks come from Catholic University in Washington.  New teachers arrive from the U.S. and Europe.

Mother Theotokos is young and modern.  She teaches us biology in an American accent.   She tells us stories about teenagers like ourselves.   We are jealous that they do more fun things in American high schools.   Compared to them we are drudges with our noses pressed to the grindstone.

Mother Columbine is Irish but she has been in the Far East for a long time.   She is petite, and the huge English literature textbook seems even heavier when she handles it.   How much of that can we cover? Undaunted, Mother Columbine begins with Beowulf.

Mother Columbine teaches that emotions are good.   I think of my father’s anger and how is that good?

This literature textbook has two complete Shakespearean plays, short novels and stories, and the essays of Emerson, Thoreau, James and other American and British writers.   Why do I remember being absorbed in Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych?   They must have stuck some translated works in there.

The section of poems is enormous, but not random.   They have been given a form.  Here are the lyricists, there the metaphysical poets, over here the transcendentalists, over there the allegorical poets.

I want to read everything in this treasure trove, but I know that I must focus on what Mother Columbine assigns.  I have to separate the two.   What I need is a map.

coca cola calenda

Out of the blue someone gives me a very large Coca Cola calendar.  The back is blank.  Perfect.  I draw a map using color pencils.  I give a place to every writer and work we cover.   I add identifying clues.   This way, I can remember the details by “seeing” the whole map and focusing on the place where I put the author.

I notice that even though I don’t make maps for my other subjects, there I am also remembering patterns and structures.   I can “see” the information I need as a logical part of the whole.

I think everyone studies like this until Annie enlightens me.

05. June 2013 · Comments Off on Mother Paulinus · Categories: L.. 13 to 15 years

She has taken me under her wing for three years, enough time to set me on a course that soon becomes my own.

As simply as she helped me decide my “race” as being British when filling out a form, she makes sure that I never forget that English is my native language, the one in which I speak to myself, the one in which I dream.   My own mother had thought this and had insisted that we speak only English at home.

Mother Paulinus says that to have depth in language I need solid roots.   From deep roots I will have no fear of branching out as far as I can go.

As for this magnet thing I describe, she says it is a gift, pure and simple.   Just as faith in life is a gift.   It does not come from me.   It is easy to lose the connection and cut myself off.   That will be my own fault.

Yes, it is a sort of demon too.  All gifts are burdens.   They come with obligations in direct proportion to their size.

Reach out to others, she said.   Since you don’t think that you have as much school spirit as students in America, do something about it.

That’s how it came about that I put together a ceremony where we sing and dance together and crown Thelma as Queen of May.  It is so lovely and fun that the nuns allow us to stage a simple play that I wrote.

The play is a total flop even though the audience is trying its best to applaud us.   The actors do not know their lines or cues or where to put their feet.  It is beyond embarrassing.

It is my fault.  I was so afraid of pushing my friends that I managed only two rehearsals.

I assumed that everyone would learn their lines on their own as they promised.   I should have had more rehearsals or canceled the performance.    Mother Paulinus accepts my mea culpa.

I start a school newspaper and name it The Rosette.  It is getting close to final exams.   Schoolmates give short interviews but no one commits to writing anything.  I borrow Titi’s ancient typewriter and peck out all the articles.  I piece everything together on the dining room table.

It is only a scrawny four-page sheet.  The nuns say take it to the printer, negotiate a good price, and the school will pay for it.  I know nothing about printing or bargaining.

My cousin’s friend, magnanimous Fanny, volunteers to help me out.  She takes me to the printer.   She handles everything.  The Rosette is published.

This little school newspaper will play a crucial part in the direction of my life’s journey that has little to do with journalism.


04. June 2013 · Comments Off on Prize Giving Day · Categories: L.. 13 to 15 years

The assembly hall is filled with families and graduates.  There is no one from my family.  Titi knows the date because I gave her the announcement.  She has never shown any interest, but it still hurts a little that no one is here.

The First Prize for Application is announced.  This one is for being First of the Class.    I am about to rise from my seat out of habit.   But it is not my name I hear.   It is Annie’s.   Amid the applause I look over and see her family cheering.   Women are hugging and crying tears of joy.

My name is announced, and I go up the stage for the Second of the Class Prize.  They also give me the prizes for French and Catechism.

The only prize that matters to me is the one for Application.  It’s as though I won the gold medal in all the competitions but they give me the bronze medal at the ceremony.

After most people have left, I go out to the empty grounds.  This is the place where I have spent so many happy years.   Why do I feel betrayed?   What do prizes matter?  No one in my family is here anyway.  Isn’t it better to see Annie’s family so happy?

My Second Prize is Rudyard Kipling’s book Kim.

It is the only book I own that I never open.


03. June 2013 · Comments Off on New Kind of School · Categories: L.. 13 to 15 years, Out of the Blue

One of the unintended consequences of being pushed up two grades is that at graduation I am still fifteen.  The colleges in the nuns’ network consider me too young to be uprooted and sent thousands of miles away for four years.

They say wait at least another year.   To me, that is too far to see.

Out of the blue, Mother Paulinus sends word that she wants to see me right away.  There is someone she wants me to meet.

She introduces me to Elizabeth Reid.  She is an Australian.  She is the editor of a Catholic newspaper in Hong Kong.  She came to Macau for a retreat.  Elizabeth greets me with a warm smile.

I soon discover that the nuns have been effusive in talking me up to Elizabeth.   She is holding a copy of The Rosette.   Now that the nuns are no longer responsible for keeping my pride from stumbling into a horrible fall, they are bragging about me like tiger mothers.   They use the word gifted without mentioning demons.

Elizabeth offers me a full scholarship to a new kind of school in Ohio, U.S.A.   She promises me that after one year at this school, they will place me in an appropriate American college.

What new kind of school?  Mother Paulinus hands me a brochure.

Elizabeth says that when I come to see her in Hong Kong she will answer all my questions.

The brochure shows small buildings in a rural setting.  They mention international students, including a European baroness.  From this I gather that they are a sort of finishing school like the ones in Switzerland that my cousin Didi is considering.

Although the teachers are not nuns, they emphasize spiritual training, whatever that is.  In any case, I will only be there for one year.

I am going to America!



02. June 2013 · Comments Off on Door Slams Shut · Categories: L.. 13 to 15 years

Mother Paulinus calls me in to see her.  She has bad news.  Titi has told her that I cannot accept the scholarship because my father will not allow me to go to the United States.

When I get home Titi is not there.  I break down in our bedroom and cry my heart out.

Ah Ngung tries to comfort me in the same helpless way she did, years ago, when all my paper dolls disappeared.  I had spent months designing clothes and furniture for my paper dolls.  Spread out on the stairs, I had traveled with them into many imagined worlds.

Ah Ngung whispered that Titi threw them out.  I didn’t confront Titi.   I didn’t even cry.  I stopped playing with paper dolls.

I can’t stop my real life.

Aunt Cecilia, my youngest uncle’s wife whom he had brought back from Portugal, comes into my room.   She speaks no English.   She sits on my bed and simply puts her arm around me.  Everyone knows what happened.

Titi does not mention her visit to the nuns.  I don’t bring up the subject, and no one else says a word about it.

01. June 2013 · Comments Off on Truth Will Out · Categories: L.. 13 to 15 years

Within days my Uncle Adolfo sends his car for me.  His home is just around the corner from us.

He is the patriarch of our family.  He and I have gone through the ritual kissing we all do at our many family gatherings, but I have never had more than a few words with him.

He greets me with a warm hug.  He congratulates me on my success at school.  He says my mother would be proud.  Her name is up on the Board of Excellence at Santa Rosa.  It’s in the front parlor, in gold letters.   Have you seen it?  I answer yes.

There are only four names, maybe five.  Yours will be right under your mother’s.  She wanted to study law in Portugal.  But those were different times, and our mother prevailed on her to stay home.

Don’t worry, he adds, you are going to America.

Later my Aunt Edith says that when they hear my story, though not from anyone in the family, they don’t know what to make of it.  Titi has always given the impression that I am a mediocre student, just getting by.

What am I doing graduating ahead of their daughter Didi when I am almost a year younger?  Edith marches down to my school to find out for herself.

The nuns give her their proud as tiger mothers’ opinion of me.  They also surprise her with a copy of the Rosette.

At home, nothing is said about any of this.  Titi is subdued, stony faced and inscrutable.  But so is a volcano before it erupts.

I am relieved that there is much to do in Hong Kong to get ready before my sailing date.   I leave right away to stay with my sister.  My uncle has put her in charge of getting me ready.

Ferry old copy

30. May 2013 · Comments Off on Manna from Heaven · Categories: L.. 13 to 15 years, Out of the Blue

My sister reveals another bombshell that blows apart my neat explanations of what happened with Titi.

After my uncle told me that I was going to America, he calls my sister to his home.  Out of the blue he tells her that my mother has left us money.  It is in the form of a demand loan to a Chinese businessman.   Before she died, my mother signed over this demand note to Titi along with her jewelry.

When did he discover this?

Instantly, I remember seeing my mother at her wardrobe handing a necklace to a young Chinese woman.   The woman was weeping that her father suffered from tuberculosis and they were desperate.    We were in the middle of the war.  Did that incident have anything to do with this loan?

Another thing sprang to mind.   When I came back after my year with my father, Titi went out of her way to let me know that money was tight, at least when it came to me.

Complaining that a book I needed for school was too expensive she borrowed it and typed up a copy.  It was The Pilgrim’s Progress.   Her copy was full of mistakes.  It didn’t matter because I read the original before she finished typing it.   She never copied another book, but she made her point.  I dreaded asking her for money.

As a practical matter, I had everything I needed.   My school uniforms were custom made, as were my shoes.   Titi provided me with enough clothes.   My uncles gave me pocket money.

My sister knew how to bargain with local tailors in Hong Kong.  She had a keen eye for quality.   She sent me custom made clothes copied from the latest fashion magazines.

To me, money was abstract – I didn’t think about it.

In my excitement about going to America, it had not occurred to me that I needed money for the voyage, a deposit with the U. S. government for the voyage back, suitable clothes and all sorts of other expenses.

My mother’s demand note is for much more than I need.

My sister says that it took three telephone calls from my uncle before Titi sent over my mother’s jewelry and the demand note.

With Titi, was it always about money, then, as my sister claims?

It weighed on me.  Why?

MotherMy mother

29. May 2013 · Comments Off on Titi · Categories: L.. 13 to 15 years

For years I did not know that my godmother was my mother’s best friend who had become a cloistered Carmelite nun.

Ever since my mother could not be there for my confirmation day and entrusted me to Titi, I had assumed that she was my godmother.

I slept at my grandmother’s house the night before the event.  Titi put me in the other bed in her room.   She watched Ah Ngung rinse my hair.   She helped me into my white organdy confirmation gown.   She took me to the ceremony at the cathedral.   She shared my delight in opening my presents.

Whenever I returned to my grandmother’s house, I always slept in the other bed in Titi’s room.

There was a special perfumed soap in our bathroom which she asked me not to use.  I didn’t ask why because I had heard what everyone whispered about her love affair.

I never mentioned the soap to anyone.   I always associated its fragrance with something mysterious.  There was a side to Titi that fascinated me.

Every night, she lay in bed and silently prayed the rosary.  I can still see her, the moonlight coming in our open windows shining on her hands and glinting off her rosary beads.

She reminded me of the nun lying on her bier in our school chapel.  The nun lay surrounded by flowers and tall candles.  Her face was serene, her pale hands rested on her chest with a rosary entwined around her fingers.   The rosary’s black cross stood out like a witness.


As we sang the triumphant hymn In paradiso  I understood that we were ushering into heaven a life lived for the love of God.

Yet I felt a deeper sadness than I could explain.   I rebelled against the idea of turning away from loving the world, especially of giving up loving a man.  I have a dream that there is one man, the one for me, waiting for me somewhere.

There was a profound sadness in Titi that I sometimes saw in her resting face.

Titi observed the usual customs of our religion, but except for this nightly ritual, I thought her life was bound by secular virtues.  Good manners, proper decorum, appropriate dress, habitual kindness most of all to those less fortunate, and the myriad details and traditions about how we are to live graciously.

But Titi was not just the old maid who ran our grandmother’s household.   Once, for a short time, she was a teacher.   She had found the love of her life in the first blossoming of her youth, but too late.   He was already married.   The old rules of our society bound too tightly for them to love openly.

She had his child.   He raised their boy as part of his family.   The whole thing was handled discreetly.   Who knew the toll in suffering on all sides?  It was an open secret that everyone guessed and no one acknowledged.

Once I saw a movie with a similar plot.   It was based on a novel set in nineteenth century New York society.    However, there was a different outcome for Titi and her lover.  They never gave up their affair and loved each other until old age and death.

There has been a barrier between Titi and me since I came back from that year with my father.  Am I partly to blame?

Titi puts me back in her room when she could just as easily have given me my grandmother’s bedroom next to hers.

There are other small signs of tenderness.  She embroiders my initials on a set of my underwear.   She embroiders them on a sweater.

One day she takes me with her into town, to a section where there are mostly Chinese shops.   We go to a Chinese bakery.   She asks me to choose between a light and a dark cookie that is the size of a saucer.

She encourages me to eat this huge cookie on the street (a breach of manners for a lady).

As we leave the bakery, her lover appears.  Titi takes his arm, and arm in arm they stroll defiantly down the busy street.

I follow behind, eating this huge cookie that is making crumbs all over the front of my dress.   What is she trying to tell me?

The Mother Superior General of our nuns’ order is coming to visit our school.   I am to give the welcoming speech in French, without notes.

Titi watches me practice.   She asks why I am able to speak French but not Portuguese.   I don’t speak Portuguese although I understand it well enough.

I answer that I don’t know the Portuguese conjugation of verbs because I haven’t studied it.  Titi says when you are in doubt, use the infinitive.

But we go on as before.  She speaks to me in her limited English as do my other relatives.   Would it have made a difference if I spoke her language?  Would we have had true conversations and grown close?

Was it really about money or was it her way to keep me from going away?

I will never know.

Titi, Artur, Adolfo,Darling

28. May 2013 · Comments Off on Goodbye Daddy · Categories: L.. 13 to 15 years

I need my father to sign my new passport.

He and Linda live in their old neighborhood in Wanchai.   I go to his home, which is now an apartment in a tall building.

Both he and Linda have not changed as much as I have.

This is the first time that my father hears of my going to America.

Does he have to pay anything?   No, I assure him.  He signs.

Isn’t she pretty?  He asks Linda.    Oh, I think her sister is prettier.

It is time to hug him and say goodbye.


My father


Hong Kong in 1953