Monday, March 31, 2014

MY LIFE INFLUENCED ME AS I WROTE “GOOD FORTUNE”


Recently I was approached by a book club that selected “Good Fortune” as their monthly read. The members inquired if I’d be willing to attend their meeting and of course, I answered I’d be delighted. It had been two years since I’d read my manuscript and I thought it wise for me to refresh my memory. I started reading it again and at once it became apparent how much I loved my characters, but also how much of my own life was revealed on the pages. At the time I started writing “Good Fortune” my father was dying from Alzheimer’s. Once a brilliant author, scholar and teacher, he was deteriorating rapidly and I was experiencing grief at how he’d radically changed. As I read about the conflict between Wu and his father, Tong, I realized I was writing about my yearnings for my father to be well.

 
The complicated relationship between Wu and Tong as Tong's health declines runs prevalent throughout “Good Fortune,” but there is much more from my life captured on its pages. I've heard it said an author writes about what they know. Chapter 8 tells about a letter that foretells the future. I wrote about an actual letter my husband received from his grandfather while he was anxiously waiting to find out the results of an important state exam relating to his position as pastry chef for a major hotel. Somehow, the letter got tucked inside a book and was forgotten for six years until once again, my husband was waiting to learn if he’d passed his state exam to become a Licensed Marriage Family Therapist. Back then things weren’t computerized, so he had to wait three months to learn the outcome. One morning he dreamt about his grandfather with whom he’d had a close relationship. He woke up missing him, wishing he could talk to him one more time. Without knowing about his dream, I watered the plants per my usual weekly routine and noticed a letter protruding from a book. Curious to see what it was because it hadn’t stuck out before or I’d have noticed, I slipped it out and read it. When I saw it was from Grandfather, as a surprise I set it on the reading table for my husband to find next time he sat there to read. At the end of this blog is a photo of the actual letter which predicts my husband is going to pass his exam. The reproduction is small, but it reads: “Your father keeps informing me of your progress. I trust and feel confident that you will pass your state exams with flying colors…” When he read it that morning, he knew he had!

 
Another example from my life is written about in Chapter 17. The ballerina painting Jenny shares with Michael was the first oil painting I ever attempted. I came across a photograph of a prima ballerina after her final performance and was struck by the beauty of her pose, her long hair flowing down her back. I’d taken many figure drawing classes with live models and I thought the pose so beautiful I wanted to paint her. When I showed the finished painting to a friend they remarked it was “so sad.” Until that moment, I hadn’t seen the sadness, only the beauty that inspired me to paint her. Page 97 Jennie is talking about herself to Michael as they are getting to know each other:

While I was still in school, an artist friend gave me a beautiful gift. She made an oil painting depicting a ballerina after she danced her final performance…She's seated backstage with her torso bent over and her head resting on folded arms across her knees. Flowing down her back, her long black hair makes a graceful veil…When I hung it on the wall, I only saw the dancer's sadness. My friend viewed it strictly from an artist's perspective. Her eye appreciated the shape and form of the dancer's body draped in the chair and she painted what she saw, but I felt as if I were seeing into a mirror reflecting what could be my future… The painting showed me the depth of the dancer's sadness after her final performance, and every time I looked at her I felt her pain, too. I knew I didn't want to end up like her…Then one day, I found myself looking at the painting in a different way. I realized I was also an artist, and I had the power to paint my future. My life was a canvas and the future my work of art. Once I came to that realization, I was able to take the steps to protect myself from such a heartbreaking fate. That changed everything. Now, whenever I look at the sad ballerina, all I see is a beautiful painting.”

These are just two examples from my life I incorporated into writing “Good Fortune” while attempting to share some personal experiences of synchronicity, wisdom and learning. There are too many to include, so I will only list twelve of them. The names are fictitious, the incidents all true.

1.         Discovering how to actually open a fortune cookie without breaking it. My friend described how her daughter received her engagement ring the day before I wrote Chapter 7.

2.         Learning about Chinese culture and customs from unexpected sources wherever I went such as the conversation coming from the next table while dining at the commissary at work. A magazine delivered in the mail with an article about Shuikou noodles after I’d just begun writing Chapter 40.

3.         Brothers Andy and Michael fighting and ruining their mother’s new lamp.

4.         Pretending to be pirates and fighting with swords made of cardboard.

5.         Chapter 18 - Michael’s reflections about the hurdy gurdy man in Monterey, CA, how he respects this man for being independent and his own boss.

6          Contemplating the universe while star gazing around the fire pit at Nepenthe. A silver fox appeared and scared the diners.

7.         Michael standing all day and being exhausted from working so hard on Valentine’s Day. As a floral designed, I experienced such fatigue.

8.         Meditating by the ocean and hearing a voice in the wind.

9.         Creating a beach sculpture from driftwood, shells and seaweed.

10.       Referring to “A Dictionary of Symbols” after waking up from a dream.

11.       Jennie studied ballet and jazz. I took ballet 6 years and lyrical jazz for 25 years.

12.       Grieving over the death of my father. The poem Wu tucked into his father’s breast pocket is in the grave with my father tucked inside his breast pocket.

13.       Achieving a state of enlightenment during meditation.

 I hope you enjoy reading “Good Fortune” as much as I loved living it and writing it.


Yours in good fortune,
Leslie Bratspis, Author
 



 
"GOOD FORTUNE" is available at Amazon.com & Kindle, Barnes&Noble.com & Nook, Smashwords.com    By request from your local bookstore
 

 

Saturday, November 16, 2013

AN AMERICAN AND CHINESE THANKSGIVING

It’s almost Thanksgiving. Time to eat too much turkey, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes with gravy, and pumpkin pie. We celebrate with family and friends and pay homage to the pilgrims who made it through the first harsh winter in their new home with the help of the local Native Americans. It’s a time for reflection and giving thanks for all our blessings and good fortune throughout the past year.

In “Good Fortune” I wrote about Thanksgiving from two perspectives. The first is when Michael and Jennie go to Eric and Susan’s house for dinner. The second is what’s happening in the Chow household across town.

Thanksgiving is the first time Eric and Susan meet Jennie, Michael’s newest girlfriend. Michael is a confirmed bachelor who never commits to any relationship. When he senses things are becoming serious he breaks up with whoever he’s dating. The mere fact he’s bringing someone he’s recently met to meet his best (happily married) friends is a big step for him.

For Anna living in Chinatown, her husband Wu is treating Thanksgiving like any other work day. He leaves her alone all day to care for his father and their two young sons who were born in the United States and are completely Americanized. Dennis and William are excited about Thanksgiving and Anna’s hopes to have a traditional American Thanksgiving dinner with her family are crushed because Wu refused to stay home from work.

Page 246 begins:

Susan and Jennie took an instant liking to each other and within minutes of their introduction, chatted in the kitchen like old friends. Their compatible personalities, similar style of dress, sense of humor and shared worldview made them an instant hit with each other. As kindred spirits, they discussed their respective careers while they worked side by side completing preparations for the holiday feast.
The turkey received a round of applause when it came out of the oven, and Susan took a well-deserved bow. The small group gathered around the candlelit table resplendent with all the traditional mouthwatering Thanksgiving fare. With full hearts and hearty appetites, they toasted the holiday, their plans for the future and each other. Then the feasting began. Nearly an hour later, after shamelessly stuffing themselves with generous second portions of everything followed by Jennie’s sumptuous pumpkin pie and coffee, the ladies retired upstairs to the room set aside for the nursery.
Rubbing her full stomach, Susan showed Jennie, who was loosening her belt, the wallpaper swatches she had selected to choose from.
“I like the one with the cloud border around the ceiling,” Jennie said.
“That's my first choice, too.”
Now they were away from the men and couldn't be overheard, Susan confided in Jennie.
“The other morning Michael was talking about you, and I could tell he really likes you a lot.”
Jennie smiled. “I like him, too.”
“He hasn't been involved with anyone since he broke up with his last girlfriend a couple of years ago. The women he dates are usually gone before you know it. But I know he's getting serious about you.”
“That's good because I’m very attracted to him. I think I could get serious about him, too. How did the three of you meet?”
“Eric and Michael knew each other years before I came along. They were college roommates. From the stories I’ve heard, during their hippie days they were a wild pair. Back then you probably wouldn’t have given Michael a second glance. I know I wouldn’t have looked at Eric twice.”
“I can just imagine those two with long hair and tie-dyed shirts and bellbottoms.”
“Don’t forget the love beads.”
They shared a good laugh.
“As to how we met? Would you believe on a blind date?”
“Really?” Jennie’s eyes widened. “I’ve never gone on one of those, never wanted to.”
“Me either, but my friends were so persistent they wore me down until I agreed to do it. They must have known Eric and I would be good together because I was hooked on our first date.”
Jennie lowered her voice to practically a whisper. “I'll tell you something in confidence, but you must promise not to tell Eric.”
“I promise,” Susan said, crossing her heart. “I love secrets.”
“When I opened the door tonight and saw Michael standing there smiling that sexy smile of his, I felt butterflies in my stomach.”
“Oh, I love that. I remember those butterflies when Eric and I first began dating. Why is it they don't last? Now instead of butterflies I look as if I've got a beach ball in here.” Susan clasped her hands beneath her expanding belly.
“What are you two ladies laughing about up here? What's all this girl talk anyway?” Eric chided, barging in from the hall.
“Oh, you know, the usual. We were talking about men, what else?” Susan shot back.
“I should've known. Well, these two men request your company downstairs. We want to play Truth or Dare. Are you both up to the challenge?”
“You bet!”
When the evening drew to a close and it was time to leave, Jennie and Susan hugged each other and promised to keep in touch. As Michael bent over to kiss Susan goodbye, she whispered, “She’s a keeper. Don’t screw this up.”
“I won’t,” he promised.
During the drive back to Jennie's apartment, Michael had visions of making passionate love to her until the sun came up. He was aching to live out the fantasy he’d been having about her since the night they went dancing. Jennie had been having her own similar thoughts, so imagine her surprise and dismay when her younger sister flung open the door at the sound of their approaching footsteps.



Miles away in Chinatown, Anna’s Thanksgiving isn’t going well. She’s angry and frustrated with her husband:

Page 250:

Thanksgiving in the Chow household was not much different from any other night. Good Fortune was open for business, and Wu was there to manage it. Alone in her kitchen, Anna roasted a turkey and prepared Chinese stuffing of soy sauce, ginger, mushrooms, chestnuts and sticky rice. She also prepared traditional American side dishes of cranberry sauce, peas, and mashed potatoes and gravy for Dennis and William who were completely Americanized and excited about the holiday. At school their class learned about the Indians and how they helped the settlers get through the first winter. They made Thanksgiving turkeys for the table from pine cones and construction paper.
The boys could barely wait to eat and while dinner cooked, they complained it was taking too long. Now seated at the table, they wolfed down their food while Tong picked at the turkey and vegetables on his plate until Anna noticed he wasn't eating. She brought him a dish of beef and noodles hastily warmed in the microwave. He thanked her and picked up his chopsticks. Wu never made it home in time to join them at the dinner table.
Anna was torn between two worlds. Her sons were born in the United States and knew only this country and its ways, but like Wu, she had been born in China. She still retained fond childhood memories of her affectionate aunties far across the ocean, and her sparrow-like elderly grandmother who grew all her own vegetables and cooked everything over hot stones in the backyard. Leaving them behind had been hard on her, especially on holidays.
Anna never doubted that Wu was a devoted husband, yet he never seemed to be able to spend enough time at home anymore with her and the boys. Over time she grew used to it, but that night she felt especially lonely and resentful because she knew of other Chinese families who, like other Americans, were assembled and celebrating Thanksgiving with their children. While she was alone in the kitchen putting away the leftovers, Anna longed for her mother who moved to Los Angeles so her father could be near his brothers, with whom he jointly owned a bakery and two laundromats. It wasn't often she felt this way, but why couldn't Wu have stayed home tonight just this once?
By the time he finally did arrive, it was late and the boys had been put to bed hours ago. Anna was seated at her dressing table brushing her hair and was still feeling annoyed, as her image in the mirror clearly reflected. Upon entering the bedroom, Wu immediately noticed the anger etched on her face and was confounded to see it, because one thing he could always count on when he came home from work was that Anna would be happy to see him and greet him with a kiss and a smile.
Sensing that something was vexing her, he braced himself for an argument while attempting to act casual. He came up behind her and kissed her gently on top of her head where her hair parted; this gesture annoyed her beyond words.
How dare he!
Angrily, Anna removed his hands and got off her stool, wheeling around to face him with an angry scowl.
“Why couldn't you have stayed home with us just this once?” she accused. “I tried to make it a nice Thanksgiving for the boys, but how nice could it be without their father here to celebrate with them? The restaurant didn't need you tonight, but they did. You've got your priorities all mixed up!”
“You know I always work on Thanksgiving. It's not my holiday so why shouldn't I be at the restaurant?” Wu defended himself. “I’m not the only one who isn’t celebrating. The restaurant was busy tonight.”
“Because your sons don't share your feelings, that's why. They were born here, and they know all about the Pilgrims and the Indians and the first Thanksgiving. Their teachers taught them that our people are just like the Pilgrims who crossed the ocean and came here to make a new life for themselves. Tonight I fixed turkey and mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce and . . . oh what's the use!”
Anna flung her brush down and stalked off toward the bathroom to have a good cry, but Wu came after her and held her at arm’s length.
“I had no idea how strongly you felt about this. Why didn't you tell me before?”
“Do I have to spell out everything for you? You knew I was preparing Thanksgiving dinner and the boys brought home those cute turkeys they made at school from pine cones. You could have scheduled someone else to run things tonight, or better yet, you could have stayed home all day with us.”
“You know I can’t do that.”
“See what I mean?”



Michael and Wu’s lives parallel, but from opposite directions. Michael never commits to anyone he dates. When Susan whispers in his ear “don't screw this up” she suspects he will do the same thing with Jennie.  He has no desire to get married and has always been candid about that. In contrast, Wu is married and has a loving family, yet he’s letting work interfere with his relationship with his wife and sons. He doesn't appreciate what he has and takes them for granted.

Will Michael and Wu change? Both are driven to succeed, but at what price? Purchase "Good Fortune" and find out what happens. For the past few weeks it has been in the top 100 on Amazon in the genre of Visionary Fiction. If your library doesn't have it let them know it's in other libraries and can be ordered from the catalog.

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WISHING YOU AND YOURS A HAPPY VERY THANKSGIVING AND GOOD FORTUNE!

Leslie Bratspis

Friday, August 30, 2013

SMASHWORDS INTERVIEW

It's been much too long since I've added a new post, but I've been busy writing another novel. Will you please forgive me? The working title of the new book is "VANILLA GRASS" and I've completed the first 18 chapters, but I've got a long way to go before it's finished. This is going to be a totally different genre than "Good Fortune." My fellow writers at my weekly writer's group were a little shocked at first because the characters are "bad" teenagers. There's slang, profanity, sex, drugs and crime. What a stretch for me as a writer!

I recently took the time to publish an in-dept Q&A interview at Smashwords.com that I hope you'll read.

https://www.smashwords.com/interview/LeslieBratspis

Please let me know your comments and let me know if there are more questions you'd like answered.

Yours in good fortune,
Leslie







Saturday, February 2, 2013

HOW PATIENCE TEACHES



From his years of experience, Tong knew even when one intrinsically comprehends what is right, taking action is not always the best course. Sometimes, not by doing, but just by being who you are and practicing patience leads you to your goal. By allowing the way of all things to show you the turn of the road, the mystery of how one ought to proceed will be revealed. The learned and spiritual ones he'd met throughout his life seemed to know this, never speaking it, but by their actions one could trace it.

"GOOD FORTUNE" page 191


This is only one of many life lessons "GOOD FORTUNE" shares through the vehicle of Tong, my favorite character. Watch for more.

Yours in good fortune,
Leslie Bratspis

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“GOOD FORTUNE” is available on Amazon.com, Kindle, Barnes&Noble.com, Nook & smashwords.com. Your local bookstore can order it,  request it from your library and tell them it’s already been cataloged.







Saturday, January 19, 2013

CHINESE NEW YEAR - YEAR OF THE BOAR



One thing about authors is, we have to do more than sequester ourselves at the computer and write. Unless we're so well known we have our own PR department we have to market our work. So, to start off the new year, I've reproduced a chapter in "Good Fortune" devoted entirely to the Chinese New Year's ever dinner followed by 10 days of celebration. I hope you'll find it so interesting you'll want to read more. Both Amazon and Smashwords.com have additional free online samples.

I invite you to visit my Facebook fan page, click “Like” and follow me. I welcome your thoughts, comments and suggestions.  


For those of you who prefer to support your local independent bookstores, ask them to order "Good Fortune." Additionally, libraries throughout Pierce County and King County, Washington carry it which means regardless of whatever city and state you live, your local library can obtain copies for you and your book club. Just let them know it's already been cataloged into the library system.

If you want more information about purchasing copies, email me: lesliebratspis@yahoo.com

Happy New Year with blessings and good fortune to all!
Leslie


40
JANUARY 31, 1995
YEAR OF THE BOAR

Since it was traditional to start the Chinese New Year with a smart new outfit, weeks before she began cleaning house in preparation of the guests who would be coming to celebrate New Year's Eve dinner, Anna shopped for her family. As hosts, it was important her family be well-dressed for the holiday. She chose garments of bright red with accents of gold; red to ensure good luck and gold for prosperity, the two most important elements for the upcoming year.
From the neighborhood tailor, she purchased a finely sewn red rayon shirt for Wu with his initials monogrammed on the pocket in gold thread. For Tong, she bought a red Chinese shirt with accents of gold running through the pattern of cranes—associated with longevity, health, happiness, wisdom and good luck—soaring above trees and waterfalls. At Macy’s she bought matching red shirts for the boys and small black leather belts with shiny gold buckles. For herself, she found a red Ann Taylor suit to wear with her finest gold earrings and bracelet.
Anna hummed as she mopped the kitchen floor, smiling and remembering how she used to hate housework. Now, she took enjoyment from keeping the house clean for her family. Her change in attitude began when she was sixteen. Like most teenage girls, she had a rebellious streak; both her mother and fate would rid her of it.
“No! I won't do it!” Anna yelled at her mother. “That's just a dumb superstition someone taught you when you were my age, and I'm going to prove it by leaving my room exactly the way it is.”
Anna's mother pressed her lips together with frustration.
“At sixteen you are so sure you know everything. I warn you, Anna, if you don’t clean the mess in your room before the New Year, it will affect your whole life.”
“Do you hear how stupid you sound, Mom?” Anna shook her head with disgust and flopped down on her bed.
“You will have only yourself to blame when your life becomes total chaos,” her mother warned one last time, then slammed the door in anger because Anna put a pillow over her head to drown out the sound of her mother’s nagging.
Anna soon wished she had heeded her mother's ominous prediction, because the next year was the worst year of her life. It started when she came down with a bad case of German measles. After that, she and her best friend began to argue unceasingly. She received a “C” in geometry that ruined her straight A average and, as if that weren’t enough, her once regular menstrual cycle became erratic and painful.
After that ill-fated year, Anna always made certain to straighten her room well before the year's end. When she married, she continued the ritual by thoroughly cleaning the entire house from top to bottom, careful not to use a broom three days from New Year’s—a broom sweeps away good luck.
A week ago, Anna invited Aunt Ying and her daughter-in-law, Sue, to Yum Cha (drink tea) so they could discuss the menu and food preparation for the lavish feast. The ladies sat at the kitchen table enjoying cups of Oolong and Jasmine tea, eating sponge cake, sesame cookies and red bean cake.
As usual, Ying complimented Anna while finding fault with Sue.
“Anna, you are a wonderful hostess. Last year Cho raved for days about your delicious cooking. You must teach Sue all your secrets so one day she will be as skilled as you in the kitchen.” Ying sipped her tea and took a delicate bite of sponge cake. When she chewed, her nose twitched.
“What do you mean? I like Sue’s cooking.”
“Ha! Her food is always too salty because she doesn’t pay attention to what I show her. What do I know? I’m only her mother-in-law. Perhaps she will listen to you.”
When she heard her mother-in-law criticize her cooking, Sue wanted to lash out, but Anna stepped in and smoothed things over in a tactful way.
“Of course, Aunt Ying, I'll be glad to show Sue whatever I can, but everyone knows no one can make noodles as you do. Will you be bringing your special dish again this year?”
Aunt Ying's mood softened. “Of course, I’ll be glad to. Would you like my recipe?”
Anna smiled. “Thank you, but I already have it.”
“Oh? I don't remember giving it to you. What is wrong with my memory?”
“Nothing. Sue gave it to me last year. Did you know she memorized it down to the smallest detail?”
Ying looked at her daughter-in-law with surprise. It was no secret to the Chow family that the two women didn't get along, and everyone knew Sue was getting desperate to move out of her in-laws' house before her baby arrived.
Sue seized the moment and mustered her courage. “As long as we’ll be getting everything ready for dinner, shall we prepare breakfast for New Year's morning, too? We can prepare most of it in advance.”
“At times you are a smart girl,” Ying said with a double-edged compliment. “When I was a girl we only cooked meals the day they were served. All the ingredients had to be fresh. But now everything has to be fast, and old traditions are replaced by what is most practical.”
What Ying said was true. The practice of long-established customs became blurred and lost with fast-changing modern times. Added to that was the fact that back in the old days in China, traditions had varied from village to village, even within the same region. The result was that now almost anything was acceptable. For the sake of convenience, the Chow women wanted to get an early start by preparing whatever they could beforehand.
Three days after that conversation, Aunt Ying and Sue came back to help Anna polish all her silver serving pieces. They worked wearing rubber gloves to protect their hands. The women rubbed vigorously with soft cloths until the silver sparkled and gleamed like mirrors, and they could see themselves reflected in the shiny bowls and serving trays.
Sue was expecting the birth of her first child in mid-April. While she polished, she and Anna talked about the baby.
“A child born in the Year of the Boar will have the outstanding qualities of honesty, patience and courage,” Anna said.
Sue gazed at her stomach and spoke with love. “He will also be blessed with the characteristics of thoughtfulness and a generous heart.”
Ying listened to their remarks with her sharp ear, and although she was thrilled at the approaching birth of her first grandchild, naturally she would never tempt bad luck by verbalizing her feelings. Instead, she complained in a loud voice to Sue, hoping to trick any evil spirits who might be lurking close by.
“You foolish, unlucky girl! Did you not check the calendar before you got pregnant with my son’s child? Alan will be shamed when your baby is born ugly, stupid, and worthless.”
At once Anna and Sue realized they had been careless and hastily agreed with Ying. With voices united, the women bemoaned the sorry shame to have such bad luck while inwardly, their hearts sang with joy. In silence, they contemplated the approaching birth, and all good things the Year of the Boar might bring to the Chow family.
The day after polishing silver, Anna sorted through Wu’s and the boys’ clothes, and rearranged their closets. Then she tackled her own wardrobe, straightening her purses and shoes, and getting rid of what she no longer wanted. When that was done, she sifted through her clothes. With a final tug at an out-of-style blouse, she removed it and tossed it on the pile on the floor that consisted of her unwanted garments, and Wu’s and the boys’ castoffs.
Unlike the days of her ancestors when the wealthy lords bequeathed their clothes to poor farmers who wore their discards with the hope that some of the lord's wealth might rub off on them, no one she knew would consider accepting any of their used clothing. In fact, her own childhood had been surrounded by superstition and the belief that wearing apparel from another person (with the occasional exception of an immediate family member) would be like wearing another's essence. Just the thought of it gave Anna goose bumps as she tied the handles of the trash bags bulging with unwanted clothes.
Glad to be done with the closets, she hauled the bags and extra hangers off to the laundry room so Wu could take them to the Salvation Army. Anna wondered where all the extra hangers came from, as she tied them into bundles with string. She was meticulous about everything, yet each year when she cleaned out the closets, hangers appeared from nowhere, like a new crop of corn to be harvested.
The last day before the holiday, Anna was ready to attack the final chore of dusting and waxing the living room and dining room furniture. She enjoyed that, and always saved this task for last. The doorbell rang as she was almost finished.
Anna opened the door for Sue, straining under the weight of the full bags of groceries she carried with both arms, her purse slung over her right shoulder, and the unborn child growing inside her womb.
“Sit down and take off your shoes. I'll put these away,” Anna said, reaching for the groceries. “You poor thing, you need to rest.”
Sue sat down, kicked off her shoes and slid her swollen feet into the slippers she’d brought with her. She watched as Anna placed the groceries on the kitchen table and then methodically began putting the perishables away in the refrigerator. Next, Anna took a collection of stainless steel pots of different sizes out of the cupboard. She filled some of them with water for soaking nests, then Sue got up and the two women began preparation of the yin wor jon (bird's nest soup).
They dropped fresh slices of ginger and dried turnip balls into simmering water. Then they added chicken backs and necks to make a rich chicken stock. This had to simmer uncovered for an hour, giving them time for the next project of unfolding the newly-ironed linens and placing them on the tables so they could begin setting out the dozens of ornate plates and bowls for the guests. As they worked, the women chatted.
“I love the fact that during the holidays our households assemble to celebrate. I want the boys to feel as connected to their elder relatives as they do to their cousins,” Anna said.
“Father Cho, Uncle Tong, and Feng are our three most respected elders. Father Cho remembers a lot from his childhood days, but he usually won't talk about it unless we're all assembled at a family function. He has a lot of bad memories about the old country.”
“Tong is the opposite,” said Anna. “He overlooks that and enjoys telling tales to his sons about old family customs, just as his grandfather shared stories with him when he was small. I hope the boys can retain at least some of what he tells them when they're older so they can pass them along to their own sons someday.”
Smoothing out a crease in the tablecloth, Sue made a confession. “I admire you, Anna. Don't you ever tire of caring for Tong? Sometimes I wish Alan and I could get away from Cho and Ying for five minutes. We have no privacy at all. I'd love to have a house all to ourselves, but every time I mention it to Alan, he puts me off by saying that as soon as we can afford to move out we will. I'm beginning to think he's making excuses and doesn't have the slightest intention of getting us into our own place.”
Anna walked around the table to comfort Sue. “I know it's hard, but you must have patience and faith that he will keep his word. After all, you two are still practically newlyweds and are already expecting a baby. Perhaps Alan feels you're not yet financially prepared to be out on your own.”
Sue plunked down a bowl with exasperation and waved her arms in the air. “I can't stand living with my in-laws another minute. Ying is impossible. Nothing I do pleases her. My food is too salty or the soup is too cold, or the way I iron Alan's shirt isn’t perfect enough. She finds fault with everything I do and is always complaining about something I did wrong. What about you? Don't you mind having Tong under foot all the time?”
“No, I don't think of him that way.” Anna adjusted the bowl Sue had carelessly placed. “Although I clearly remember feeling that I had no privacy when I was still a new bride, even though he was always so kind to me. Tong keeps so much to himself nowadays that I hardly even know he's around. But the boys are like two puppies following him everywhere. They absolutely adore him and won't give him a moment's rest when he walks through the front door. He thrives on their affection.”
Anna's voice became wistful. “In all honesty, though, I admit sometimes I get fed up with living in a house full of men. Just between us, I hope to be blessed with another baby next year, and I pray for it to be a girl this time.” She picked up her tea cup. “That's why I'm drinking this raspberry tea. I'm trying for happiness in me.”
“Oh, that’s wonderful!” Sue hugged her and gave her a kiss on the cheek. Then she searched Anna’s eyes. “What does Wu say about you wanting a daughter?”
“Well, you know, he's always wanted more sons, but I told him I'd love to have a girl to keep me company and he was okay with that. Of course, another son would be fine with me. If we're lucky, the Year of the Boar will prove to be a fruitful year for us in many ways.”
They laughed, and Anna was thankful to have such a close friend to confide in. She was overjoyed when Alan—Wu’s cousin born to Ying shortly after the Chow family immigrated to San Francisco—married Sue. From the start, Anna viewed Sue as more than just a cousin by marriage; she loved her as though she were her sister, the younger sister she never had but always longed for when she was growing up.
Anna and Wu didn’t have any siblings, yet each wished they had. In her case, her mother was unable to conceive again after she gave birth to her, and Mei-li died within months after coming to the United States. By circumstance, she and Wu each remained the only child and understood the loneliness the other felt while growing up. Alan and Sue became the closest thing to having a brother and sister.
“Did you remember to buy the gold paper-wrapped candy for Tuesday morning?” Sue asked.
“Yes, I bought enough candy and dried fruit for both of us to put out for company, and I also got plenty of tangerines with bright green leaves and stems. Oh my, I almost forgot to boil the water for the hung cha (red tea) eggs. I'd better do that right now.”
“Hmmm, raspberry tea and hung cha eggs, two symbols of fertility. You'll have happiness in you in no time,” Sue said, with a mischievous smile.
While the women were busy in the kitchen, Sue’s remark about caring for Tong made Anna consider why her father-in-law never remarried. When she was in junior high school, her affluent neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Hung, lived a few doors down the street in a large house. When Mr. Hung died unexpectedly, leaving his young, naive and unassertive wife a widow with three small children to raise alone, Mrs. Hung never remarried. Anna, a sensitive girl on the brink of womanhood, felt sad that pretty Mrs. Hung remained a widow, especially when a few years later, Mr. Yee, the grocer, showed interest in her. As Anna recalled, Mrs. Hung discouraged his advances, and before long Mr. Yee took the hint and stopped trying to court her.
When Anna was older and began to baby-sit for Mrs. Hung, they would frequently sit and talk woman to woman. One day she confided in Anna. “I will never remarry because when I die I will be reunited with Mr. Hung. He is waiting for me in heaven.” Another time she spoke to her about Mr. Yee. “It would have been too much trouble if I had married Mr. Yee. My husband’s jealous ghost would have haunted me day and night and scared our children, too.” Mrs. Hung never remarried; she stoically endured her loneliness rather than seek happiness with a new husband.
In a similar way, Tong chose to stay widowed, remaining forever faithful to his beloved Mei-li. He never spoke of his grief, but Anna sensed it. She loved the old man, and was glad he lived with them.

福
By Monday night the activity in Chinatown reached a high level of excitement and like all traditional holidays, families everywhere gathered to enjoy the festivities; out-of-town relatives traveled great distances to celebrate with their relations, and those without family were invited to share the Monday night feast with close friends. The Chow Lee Tong household was bustling with the noise of three generations and many friends, all talking and laughing at once.
While the men were seated in the den reviewing the Super Bowl play-by-play from the video they’d taped of the game last December, Anna found herself worrying about table space. She had hosted many family banquets and knew to rent extra tables and chairs in order to seat all her guests. But with the crowd tonight, it seemed impossible there would be enough chairs to go around.
Wu saw her fretting and came up behind her. He placed both hands on her shoulders and lightly massaged them in an attempt to reassure her.
“Relax Anna, I watched you count the seating arrangements three times before you ordered the tables, so stop worrying. Everyone is going to have a place to sit.”
“But your family keeps growing by leaps and bounds. I remember our first party where we only needed one extra table. With the crowd here tonight there's not an extra inch of room.”
“It will all work out, you'll see.” The doorbell rang and Wu rushed away to answer it. “Gong hey fat choy!” he called out as he opened the door.
Gong hey fat choy!” was the hearty response from Uncle Cho and Aunt Ying as they exchanged the traditional greeting of congratulations and wishes for happiness and prosperity in the New Year.
“Where is my daughter-in-law?” Ying inquired in a sharp voice as she scanned the room with hawk eyes. She reeked of too much perfume, which detracted from her new red dress and expensive gold accessories. “Sue told me she was coming over early to help out, and then she left in such a hurry I couldn’t catch her. That girl is always rushing away from me. She should have waited for me like a respectful daughter.”
As she complained, Ying held up a huge bowl of faht choy (seaweed hair), a fine-stranded dark hair-like seaweed thought to bring wealth to those who ate it. At the New Year's Eve dinner, it was considered good luck to eat food that sounded similar to the words for gold, money or prosperity. Faht choy sounded almost identical to fat choy, the latter part of the greeting exchanged between Wu and Uncle Cho, which literally translated, meant “prosperity.”
“If you take that into the kitchen, you'll find Anna and Sue putting on the finishing touches of a feast fit for a king. I'm sure they’ll both be delighted to have your help, Auntie.” Wu bent over and kissed Ying on her heavily rouged cheek. Then he left her to greet more arriving guests.
The sound of lively conversation and the laughter of children filled the house, while the mouth-watering aromas of cooking food wafted from the busy kitchen. While they waited for dinner to be served, guests nibbled from bowls of toasted almonds, salted peanuts, watermelon seeds and fresh fruit. Sweet-smelling tangerines with stems and leaves left intact for good luck were set out on all the tables.
When the appetizers were brought out and the last person seated, Wu and Anna took their positions in what were considered the lowliest seats; their backs faced the door. In the place of honor directly across from them sat Tong.
The banquet began with appetizers of slivered cucumber and chicken, preserved eggs, smoked fish and vegetable relish, all beautifully arranged and accompanied by warm rice wine. The paramount course of prestigious bird's nest soup was served next, followed by an entree of ginger-seasoned stir-fried vegetables. Since meat dishes represented wealth, shrimp, pork, chicken and roast duck, each prepared in a different mouthwatering sauce, were consumed with small quantities of rice. The final course consisted of steamed dumpling and long-life noodles. Then tea was served with a special dessert of eight-treasure pudding consisting of red bean paste, rice, fruit, and nuts.
Although a cornucopia of food was offered, the guests politely helped themselves to only small portions at a time because to do otherwise would have been looked upon as greedy. No one would consider taking the most tender or delicate morsel for themselves.
For this purpose, Anna had placed an extra long pair of chopsticks at each table so that if one desired, a table mate could honor another by picking up a delicate morsel and place it on their plate as a gesture of affection.
When everyone grabbed their chopsticks and commenced eating, the conversation died down and the room became quiet as family and guests concentrated on the meal. Talking while eating is considered very impolite. Therefore, it is better to exhibit good manners and converse later without the chance of accidentally spitting out or dropping the food from one's mouth; that would be rude and embarrassing.
While her friends and family feasted, Anna noticed how her guests, all dressed in their new finery, exuded a happy and positive attitude. She loved this holiday because it was full of auspicious thoughts and gestures.
As each person finished and had politely consumed every grain of rice, they indicated they were through by placing their chopsticks across the top of their rice bowl.
The dishes were cleared away and a tray presented with small, steaming hot towels dipped in fragrant boiling water, wrung out, and rolled. The towels were used to wipe hands and faces.
All the dishes were cooked to perfection, but when Anna received compliments on the savory feast, she modestly protested she wasn’t a good cook and it was only because of Sue and Aunt Ying’s help that everything turned out so well. All three women were praised for their culinary skill and, despite their protests, they beamed with happiness their efforts were appreciated.
Now came the best part of the evening for the children, who grew excited and animated as they waited for the traditional lai see (red envelope) to be distributed with the lucky money inside.
At the appropriate time, the elders slipped the red envelopes out of their pockets, and the children flocked to their grandparents and others to receive their lai see, which they would spend over the ensuing days.
After several minutes of boisterous merriment, Wu stood up and rapped on the edge of his glass with a spoon to get everyone's attention. Once the room quieted down, he began his speech.
“Dear family and honored guests, thank you for coming to our New Year's Eve dinner. As you can see by the number of children in attendance tonight, our family is flourishing.”
Wu glanced at Sue and several other expectant mothers and joked. “There are even a few children joining us on this all-important evening who are yet to be born.” The group received this comment with goodhearted humor. Wu continued. “I hope all of you will join me in encouraging my father, Uncle Cho, and our dear friend, Feng, to share some stories with us so that we and the children can learn more about our family and our heritage.”
“Yes! Tell us.” Voices young and old called out.
“Father, will you do us the honor and begin?” Wu asked, as he took his seat.
“Very well, as you wish.”
A hush settled over the room as mothers sat their toddlers on their laps. Older brothers and sisters kept the other youngsters quiet so Tong could address the gathering.
“Tonight we are assembled to celebrate the coming New Year, the Year of the Boar, which has always been one of our most fortuitous years.
“As you know, the boar is a symbol of wealth and family. Since wealth usually involves a certain amount of counting, whether it is in blessings or money, tonight I have chosen to speak about the Chinese system of numbers and our lunar calendar.
“Children are taught to count by using their fingers. However, before there were numbers as we know them today, in a distant time past, three thousand years ago, our ancient ancestors drew lines and symbols to keep track of the days.”
A baby's cry interrupted Tong's speech, and he waited patiently while the mother quieted her infant before he went on.
“A thousand years later our people discovered a way to keep track of the months by watching the changing face of the moon.”
“What about the animal faces, Grandfather? Where did they come from? Was there a giant zoo in the sky?” Dennis wanted to know.
“Ho! A very good question, my little scholar. During the great Han dynasty, each year was matched with an animal name. How many of them can you identify for me?”
Dennis stuck a finger in his mouth and sucked on it while he thought about the answer. “Um . . . I know . . . there's a monkey . . . and a dog . . . and . . . and . . . and a pig.”
“Excellent. I will write out the names of all twelve animals for you. Can you draw a picture for me of each animal next to his name?”
“Don't forget me, Grandfather. I want to draw pictures for you, too,” William chimed in, jumping up and down, which excited the rest of his young cousins who all began to jump and cheer at the same time.
Tong chuckled. “Very well, all of you can learn together. I will give the list to your father. He will make copies at work so you and your cousins can each have one.”
As always, Wu was amazed by his father's broad scope of knowledge and his inspiration for teaching children. “I'd be glad to, Father. How did you learn so much about our calendar?”
“Grandfather passed on all his knowledge to me because he knew I would travel far from home and most likely never return. He made certain to teach me Chinese history so I wouldn’t grow up in a far off place and forget my heritage.”
His father's words made Wu wish he had spent more time learning from him instead of being so single-minded about business. With the approaching New Year, he made a firm resolution to make the time to listen to his seemingly endless store of knowledge, learning what he could while he still had the opportunity to do so. This was a sobering thought to have on New Year's Eve, and he quickly dismissed it, but not without resolving to act upon it.
Uncle Cho spoke up next. “Well then, I have something to share. Would anyone like to hear?”
Encouraged by the group’s cheers, Cho looked around the room, grabbed his full stomach and assumed a teasing voice. “I could not help but notice that all of you ate your fair share of noodles tonight.”
“They were delicious,” a voice called out.
“Wonderful!”
A small utterance came from one of the youngsters. “I love noodles.”
“Very well.” Cho began to articulate in a sing-song voice perfect for telling stories, replete with nuances and colorful descriptions. “Tonight I am going to tell you about the Shuikou noodles that come from the beautiful Shuikou region, where the Chang and the Daning rivers meet. This basin is full of tiny black birds with beautiful red feathered tails. The birds fly within a gorge carpeted with yellow wildflowers. Five hundred years ago, the people of this region made thin round noodles out of wheat flour and limestone spring water. Rumor has it these noodles were so delicious that after one of the Ming emperors first tasted them, he demanded his tribute from the Shuikou region be paid from then on in nothing else but bundles of noodles.”
“Uncle Cho, why didn't you tell me that story when I was your Little Tadpole? I remember every story you ever told me, and that wasn’t one of them,” Wu said.
“Because I didn’t know it until today. Not to be outdone tonight by my older scholarly brother, I searched through my books for an interesting story that would have something to do with food in honor of tonight's feast.”
“Ho! Very wise of you indeed,” chortled Tong. “Just like the old days; still trying to keep up with me.” Then he turned to his beloved aged companion seated beside him. “Now we await Feng to tell us something of interest. What about it, old friend? Is there something you want to share?”
Feng slowly ground out his after-dinner cigarette and nodded his head, smiling with the sly look of someone who concealed a wonderful secret. “You probably expected me to come here on this all-important night unprepared, but your clever son alerted me to have a story ready, and his warning gave me plenty of time to plan ahead.”
Such an unexpected action on the part of Wu made Tong and Cho view him with renewed respect and pride. Apparently, Wu had invested some serious thought into the after-dinner storytelling portion of the evening that began a few years back and had since evolved into a Chow family tradition. Secretly, Tong believed it was the influence of the book of fortunes, whether or not Wu was aware of its effect on him.
“Please begin, Feng,” prompted Wu. “All of us are eager to hear what you have prepared to tell us.”
Feng felt the eyes of the guests in the room upon him and, although he was unable to make out the details of any but the closest faces, he knew these people well and felt comfortable addressing them.
“I spent many years of my life as a keeper of books. What some of you may not know is that in my youth I was also an accomplished calligrapher. I was tutored by a great scholar who taught me the art of calligraphy while also instructing me in its history.”
Only Tong knew about this area of Feng's education and he listened intently, wondering what he was going to say next.
“In ancient China the art of calligraphy was held in the highest esteem by the whole population, educated and illiterate, rich and poor. Calligraphy soared to a stature above all other forms of art because it had the most profound spiritual value attached to it. Over hundreds of years, various scripts evolved. To the student, it is easy to recognize and differentiate, for example, between Kaiti, Caoshu, Shaoer, Lishu, Weibi, and Xiaozhuan. These different styles represent not only the distinct stages in the evolution of our written language but serve as a record to preserve our past. A fact all you young people should take pride in is that your Chinese ancestors invented paper eleven centuries before the western world.”
Feng folded his hands in his lap, which indicated he had concluded.
“Cool, we're pretty smart,” an impressed teenager said, breaking the thoughtful silence, and was joined by his friends and cousins who agreed with him.
“That was quite interesting and informative, Feng. Thank you.” Anna patted his arm with affection. “I think I speak for all of us when I say learning about our past is a wonderful way to spend the eve before the New Year. I was inspired by Tong, who is going to make a list of all twelve animals for our little ones. I would like to request that our storytellers also write what they shared with us this night so Wu can get copies of those printed as well for whomever is interested.”
“An excellent idea,” Tong agreed.
“Thank you, Father. There are many important stories from our past that ought to be preserved for our children and grandchildren. Who knows? Perhaps someday they will all sit gathered around their own tables as we are tonight and will be able to tell these interesting historical tales to their own children.”
Anna's last statement was received by the group with such enthusiasm Wu couldn’t contain his delight. His obvious pride made her blush. Tong was convinced the book of fortunes must have also influenced Anna, because now she wanted to begin her own book for the Chow family to hand down to future generations.
At long last he felt the inward peace he had yearned for and was certain Grandfather's presence was in the room with them, guiding them, and rejoicing with them.
The morning of New Year's Day dawned in beauty with the theme of the day centered around sweets, to ensure the sweetness for the rest of the year. Everywhere, people spoke only in happy and positive words, omitting anything unpleasant such as grief or illness. The use of sharp utensils, such as scissors and knives, was avoided if at all possible.
Aromatic floral arrangements sat on tables alongside bowls of fruit and hung cha eggs, whose cracked shells resembled small spherical mosaics. There were also bowls of candies, many of them wrapped in gold foil to look like coins.
Guests were served a light breakfast of steamed sponge cake with sweet sauce and tea. Lunch consisted of vegetable dishes and meatless leftovers. Although not all households followed this tradition, the Chows reserved the eating of meat dishes until dinnertime, reasoning that the animals had been killed, and the early part of the day remained devoted entirely to nonviolent, sweet and peaceful things.
In days of old, farmers toiled and saved their money all year for the New Year's Eve feast. This enabled them to serve the best foods, which they hoped would increase their chances for a future of continued wealth and prosperity. In the present day, the Chow households had been blessed with abundance and all lived comfortably without knowing the hardships of their ancestors. In each house, bowls and dishes were filled to overflowing with treats for the many guests who came by to pay their respects on the first day of the New Year.
Some elders, however, clung to the old customs and only visited relatives. They waited until the second day to visit friends because of belief in an old superstition. If they went to the house of a friend who had bad luck that day, for the rest of the year they would be blamed for causing it. Rather than take such an unpleasant risk, they postponed their visits.
For ten days the streets of Chinatown were transformed into a street fair of continuous joyous celebration. Noisy and colorful parades took place with music, drums, and many-legged dragons dancing like giant caterpillars. The popping sound of firecrackers could be heard everywhere; the air became filled with acrid clouds of smoke. Lively young children ran between the crowds gathered on the sidewalk and eagerly spent their lucky lai see money in the shops. Throughout the extended celebration, friends continued to visit one another and distribute more red envelopes to the little ones. It was a happy time.
While all this took place, Wu and Anna began their historical book and gathered stories from friends and relatives who came to visit. At night, however, once they were in bed, they put all that behind them since they were earnestly preoccupied with another important project that required all their attention. The Year of the Boar was pregnant with future possibilities.