Fate by Chinese Laundry
From Oct. 24, 2019
By some quirk of shared humor and fate, I've managed to stay married to the same man for more than three decades. I joke that we met in a Chinese laundry, which is true--sort of. What would have been my junior year of college, I set out on an adventure that changed my life. For two years, I'd passed a flier in the stairwell of the Fine Arts building at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls that said "Interested in studying in Taiwan, room, board and tuition paid?"
I don't know about you, but my mother always said, "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is." So I passed that sign day after day. But one day--maybe it was from having the final, final, really final breakup with my boyfriend from high school--the tug of the flier was stronger than my mother's admonitions. I called the number (this was 1980, long before e-mail or websites), and set a meeting with a professor of economics, a subject I'd never so much as glanced at. It turned out that the National Taiwan Normal University had an exchange program with the UWRF. Students submitted study proposals, and the program administrators selected two students to go. "Maybe next year," Dr. Peng said. "We already have many applicants, and the entries close in a couple days."
Having already honed my procrastination skills to a fine art by that time, I knew "a couple days" was an eternity. In contrast, I knew nothing about Taiwan, except that it was in Asia, which had held a fascination for me ever since fourth grade when my teacher had a Japanese exchange student who taught us origami. I spent that night--all night--deep in the bowels of the University of Minnesota library learning everything I could about Taiwan, figuring out what the heck I wanted to study there and then preparing a study proposal on the teaching of English as a foreign language.
The rest, as they say, is history. I and, by another fateful quirk, a good friend were chosen to go to Taiwan that fall. Room, board and tuition were paid as promised, but not transportation to get there, and the cost then (when gas prices had shockingly crossed the $1 a gallon threshold for the first time) was higher than it is today. Again, no Internet surfing for plane tickets. We scoured the phone books, calling airlines and travel agents in search of affordable rates and found the best fare leaving from Seattle. We posted requests for a ride share on bulletin boards at the UWRF and the University of Minnesota. (Not to keep pointing out how old I am, but these were real bulletin boards--cork boards with thumbtacks.)
We were in luck. A woman with a VW van was headed west, and she was happy to have two of us to chip in for gas. What we didn't know was that she had an enormous German shepherd that was chronically and violently carsick. That would have been a good thing to know--and avoid--before starting off on a 2,000-mile journey. We also didn't know that the van was a stick shift, and my classmate was not proficient at driving a stick. His lack of smooth transitions only added to the ferocity of the dog's hurling, so the car owner and I soon took over most of the driving, leaving Al with the wretched, and retching, animal.
We did eventually make it to Seattle and, after a many-hour delay in the Anchorage airport, to Taipei. That's a story unto itself, but let me fast-forward. After two weeks of living in the Mandarin Training Center on the NTNU campus, I moved into the Taiwan International Youth Activity Center. A many-storied youth hostel or dormitory, TIYAC housed students and travelers from dozens of countries. I had been there for about two weeks and was downstairs in the laundry room washing clothes when Hong Tsong-ming walked in. By that time, I'd become accustomed to the fact that random people would stop and practice their English with "Americans," which all Caucasians were assumed to be. I was just as eager to practice my Chinese, and with a whopping four weeks of lessons under my belt, you can imagine that I was quite the conversationalist. Hong Tsong-ming, on the other hand (and I only learned his full Chinese name many months later), had studied English from textbooks and bad teachers since junior high. He could read but was hard-pressed to carry on a conversation. During a labored but lengthy "discussion," I learned that he had five brothers and two sisters and that he worked for a sweater company. (Actually, that was a misnomer. The Chinese word for "sweater" and the word for "trading" are homonyms. Early on, I remember marveling at how many people worked at sweater companies. It was at least two months later when I discerned that they worked at trading companies--that Taiwan, while certainly a major producer of clothing at that period in time, did not hold exclusive worldwide rights to sweater production that necessitated virtually every adult to work for sweater companies.) He learned that I had two sisters and lived "near Chicago," which is what I started saying because no one had any idea where Minnesota or St. Paul were.
Tsong-ming left as abruptly as he had come in, and I just figured he was done practicing his English. But a few minutes later, he returned to the laundry room with a handwritten note that said, "Will you have dinner with me tomorrow night?" Later, I learned that he was at TIYAC to pick up a friend from English lessons, and he had wandered into the laundry room in search of the bathroom. His friend helped with the note.
The next night, when I was paged to go downstairs, I found the lobby packed with black-haired, dark-eyed people, most of them young men. I had no idea which one was the shy note-writer who had invited me to dinner. If it hadn't been for his pale-yellow motorcycle helmet, which I recognized, I might never have identified my date.
That was Sept of 1980. On Oct. 24, 1983, we were married in the presence of my parents, my sister Laura and cousin Allyne Jane, a full contingent of my husband's relatives and 400 years worth of ancestors, a union made official in a later ceremony before a justice of the peace. We were -- and remain -- two people brought together by what in Chinese is called "yuen-fen," or fate from a far distance.