Coming to AmericaJANUARY 31, 2009
- Regina and Kenneth Mok
- (Courtesy Charlie Schroeder)
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Happy Year of the Ox! According to the Chinese calendar, we just entered the new year a few days ago, and celebrations are in full swing this weekend in many Asian-American communities across the country. It's traditionally a time to spend with family - which makes it bittersweet for Wendy Mok. She's lived in the Los Angeles for five years, and her parents, Kenneth and Regina, live in Hong Kong. So they don't get to see each other much. But recently, she and her husband, Charlie Schroeder, got them to come visit. It was their first trip ever to America. And it only happened after years of nagging.
My wife Wendy and I tried to get her parents to visit us from Hong Kong for the past few years, but no matter what we did we just couldn't get them to come. So we had to get creative. We made a DVD for them called "Our Lives in America." Wendy narrated it in Cantonese, and for some strange reason I gave them a tour of our garage. But you know what? It worked. They came. I guess television is very powerful.
Mommy really loves old Hollywood movies (Chinese tradition dictates that you call your in-laws "mommy" and "daddy"), so right off the bat we wanted to show her where the celebrities live.
"As we're driving around, something caught her eye," Wendy remembers. It was a large, stately home perched on a hill with an American flag in its lawn.
"There is a flag there," Mommy said. This was an unusual sight, because in Hong Kong nobody hangs flags outside their flats. Mommy thought for a moment that somebody very important, like a government official, must live there. But Wendy set her straight. "It doesn't mean a thing," Wendy said. "Everybody has an American flag here."
It wasn't until Wendy pointed it out to me on our travels around the U.S. that I noticed American flags are so prominent. Since I grew up with it, I've taken it for granted that Americans have a lot of pride and patriotism, in particular since 9/11.
Food is a big deal when people travel, and Daddy was very concerned about what he was going to like in America, but we knew there was one familiar place we could take him: McDonalds.
On the way to Las Vegas, we stopped at a McDonalds drive-thru. I ordered for the car.
"[Mommy] looked so puzzled when you started talking to a menu," Wendy recalls. Turns out, this was the first time my in-laws had been through a drive-thru. Hong Kong is a vertical city and one of the densest places on earth, so there's barely room for cars, let alone the conveniences of a drive-thru. "He is still driving," Mommy recalls. "So I don't know [what was going on]." She liked it so much we went again later in their trip.
Mommy and Daddy's one big western vacation was to Europe a little over 30 years ago,and they had a very romantic time in Venice where they went on a gondola ride. They wanted to relive that experience again, so we took them to the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas and to the gondola in the mall. But when we got on the boat our gondolier, told us that he expected both couples to kiss every time we passed under each of the 14 bridges.
"My mom was like, 'No, no, no, no, no, no, no,'" Wendy says. "I've only seen my parents kiss once. And it was when my dad gave my mom a little peck on the cheek. We show affection through food."
Regardless, we still went on the gondola ride, and while mommy and daddy didn't kiss, Wendy and I did (when her parents weren't looking).
Wendy grew up watching "This is Tom Jones" every Sunday night with her mom. Once I bonded with Mommy while watching a DVD of Tom Jones' old performances. So we thought it'd blow her mind if we surprised her with tickets to see him in Las Vegas.
We sat three rows from the stage. She asked us to take her photo outside the theater with the poster and throughout the show bobbed her head and tapped her feet in rhythm to his songs. It was a dream come true and probably something she thought she'd never experience.
When all was said and done, I wanted to find out what Mommy and Daddy thought of everything. Daddy liked the desert and was surprised there wasn't more sand, like the Gobi. He liked the houses in our modest neighborhood, the TV show "Cops" and the racial diversity and harmony that he witnessed. Mommy loved the gardens and getting her pictures taken among the roses. But her favorite thing caught Wendy and me totally off guard.
"No need to pay for car park," she said. After 15 days of nonstop touring, we couldn't believe our ears. "The most interesting thing is free parking?" I asked. "Yeah," she replied. Coming from Hong Kong, where there's no free parking, I can see how it shocked her, but her favorite? Yet another luxury most Americans enjoy when they go to the grocery store.
I usually drive from point A to point B and fail to appreciate the niceness of what surrounds me in America. But when somebody comes to visit us from another country, I try to see the US through their eyes, and it's really only then that I fully appreciate all the wonderful freedoms and opportunities that we have. Since Mommy and Daddy's visit, I look at Los Angeles and Las Vegas quite differently. Same with Wendy.
"Every time I park my car right before I do some grocery shopping, I think of my parents," she says. And whenever I have to pay for parking, I consider it the most un-American act imaginable.