Help Me, Marie Kondo!

41F9o66qNTL._SX352_BO1,204,203,200_Marie Kondo is an international phenomenon. She is the Dalai Lama of decluttering, the Dr. Ruth of neatness, the Oprah of organizing. In her 2014 book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and on her new Netflix series Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, this young, petite Japanese woman gives tips on organizing every item in your home and tells you her philosophical basis for doing so. 

The KonMari Method, as she calls her process, feels a bit cultish. The rules are rigid. Things must be tackled in this order: clothes, books, papers, komono (a Japanese term variously translated as miscellaneous items or accessories or gadgets but which includes dishes, linens, appliances, CDs, etc.) and sentimental objects. Purge first, then organize. The organizing principle, the rationale, is simply whether or not the object “sparks joy.” All items of the same sort must be stored in the same place. 

And like a religion, the promised reward for following the rules is paradisiacal and eternal. “If you use the right method and concentrate your efforts on eliminating clutter thoroughly, and completely … you’ll see instant results that will empower you to keep your space in order ever after (italics mine). Marie Kondo also writes, “As you reduce your belongings … you will come to a point where you suddenly know how much is just right for you. ‘This is just the amount I need to live comfortably. This is all I need to be happy.’ … Interestingly, once you have passed this point, you’ll find that the amount you own never increases.” (Italics mine.)

Okay, okay. Before going any further, I want to come clean. I am not going to tidying heaven, at least not this go-round. I couldn’t stick to one of the very basic tenets.. I couldn’t drink the Kool Aid. I couldn’t do it.

Other than being petite Asian women, Marie Kondo and I couldn’t be more different.Kond_9781607747314_epub_001_r1 Guess which of us said, “My interest in housework and tidying began when I was about five.” You’re right. It’s not me. My earliest experience of tidying up was in grade school. On Friday afternoons, our teacher had the kids clean out their desks. The storage space was under the seat. I would fill the space and still had a book left to put in. I’d stack the books with the top going in first. Nope. Then, I’d put them in with the spine facing me. That didn’t work either. I took the extra book home.

I asked an Asian-American friend whether she had read the Kondo book. She gave a dismissive look. “I don’t have to. I already have the genes.” Well, I have the genes too. My parents were very neat people. Mom would slip dad’s newly laundered undershirts in the bottom of the stack in the drawer. She figured Dad would take them from the top, as that was most convenient. That way, each shirt would get worn in rotation. Dad, on his part, took his shirt every day from the bottom of the pile, thinking that it’d be easier for Mom to just put the clean shirts on the top. The pile was so neat that neither noticed for months. So, I can’t blame my genes or my upbringing. 

When I decided to read and review The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, I had not realized the rules were so cut and dried. Nonetheless, I hoped to follow the rules at least through the first  of the five organizing categories in the mandatory sequence: IMG_7641Clothes. This would require me to gather all my clothes — from the coat closet, from my half of the bedroom walk-in IMG_7638 2closet, from my off-season clothes closet and from my chest of drawers — and my shoes and belts into a big pile. I needed to pick up each one and decide if it “sparks joy.” If not, discard. But, before discarding, thank the shirt or dress or coat for having done its job for me.

IMG_7640Even though she didn’t explicitly say so, I think that one reason Marie Kondo insists on putting everything into a great big stack is to shock you with the volume of your belongings. I was doomed when I realized that I couldn’t have a huge pile of clothes sit in my living room or family room or the bedroom for, I don’t know, a week? I just couldn’t do that to my husband. 

So, I went to each place and went through the ritual of touching, assessing the joy level and thanking the tossed items. I first did my closets, then my drawers, then my shoes and belts. And even though I did get rid of a fair amount of stuff, I was already doomed. “Tidying by location is a fatal mistake,” Marie Kondo says.“This approach is fatal,” she repeats in a different part of the book, in case you missed it the first time. 

Let me tell you what this mini-purging felt like for me. I had a hard time deciding what “sparking joy” means exactly. I had a pair of shorts that were baggy and wrinkled. BUT, it had roomy pockets, enough for two tennis balls. That’s why I have them. (Usefulness can spark joy but Marie Kondo doesn’t want you to start down the rabbit hole of analysis. Hold an object and wait for the feeling.). I have golf clothes, birding clothes, Symphony clothes, Latin dancing clothes. I have clothes that are older than Marie Kondo. I decided to part with my wedding getaway dress, from my first wedding in 1972. It’s still cute, but I didn’t feel the joy. 


Even though I only experienced the tip of the KonMari iceberg, I found it a positive experience and learned a lot. Here are the most useful take-aways:

Be grateful to your belongings and your home. Multiple scientific studies show that gratitude improves physical and psychological health. Marie Kondo’s approach to her house and her belongings is all about gratitude, even if on the anthropomorphizing side. She says, “It is precisely because we have a home to return to that we can go out to work, to shop, or to interact with others. The same is true for our belongings. It is important for them to have that same reassurance that there is a place for them to return to.” I am reminded of one of my favorite arias in La Boheme where the philosopher Colline praises and bids farewell to his coat when he has to sell it. 


My sock drawer

Store everything vertically. Marie Kondo feels that most

Underweardrawer from above

clothes will be “happier” folded and placed vertically in a drawer. They are certainly easier to find. As I’ve only watched the first episode of her show, I only know how to fold socks and shirts and underwear. I look forward to learning how to store pants. She recommends vertical storage for paperwork as well. That will be a formidable challenge.




Reduce the effort needed to put things away. Marie Kondo says that it is a mistake to place things for ease of getting to them. Her point is that we are willing to go to great lengths to dig out some object when we want it. What we need to do is to find places that are convenient when it’s time to put things back because that’s when we lose steam. This assumes that every object has its place in the house. It’s our obligation to the thing that serves us. 

Practice deciding. It will get easier and easier to know your own mind and heart the more you make the “sparking joy” decisions about your stuff.

Clean clutter to lose weight. Marie Kondo makes the observation that her clients tend to get slimmer when their house is tidy. She admits, “I have no scientific basis for this.” (Well, actually, there are studies. One of them shows that people in a chaotic kitchen tend to eat more snacks, about two-hundred-calories-an-hour’s worth. The theory is that clutter = stress = impulse eating.)

Marie Kondo is a winsome person. She writes with total sincerity. She’s found out through trial and error — she’s been thinking about these issues since age five, remember — what works for her. And she just wants to help you. I absolutely believe her when she says that she takes everything out of her purse at the end of every day and puts her wallet, receipts, train pass and business card holder in their designated places. I also absolutely believe that I am never going to do that.

Nevertheless, I plan to continue the KonMari Method. I will tackle books next, then papers, komono and sentimental objects. I may not always follow the rules exactly, but in tidying as in life, it’s never too late for redemption.

Tell me: What’s your system for organizing your things?

St. Louis Better Together and “The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip”

Saun_9780812989649_epub3_003_r1The town of Frip is “three leaning shacks by the sea.” The combined population of St. Louis City and St. Louis County is 1.3 million people. What the tiny fictional town and the Midwestern city have in common is that conditions are not working for the people. Something needs to change.

I grew up in the southwest part of  St. Louis City, a section called St. Louis Hills. Driving east on Watson Road (part of the fabled Route 66) into St. Louis, I watched the “Welcome to St. Louis” sign’s population number tick down from over 750,000 to less than half that number. I myself am one of those who left, moving first to the inner suburb of University City, and then to the bedroom community of Creve Coeur. 

IMG_3543One way St. Louis’s loss of stature struck home to me happened when I was in New Zealand last month. No one had heard of St. Louis. As I watched the blank, puzzled looks on the Kiwis’ faces, I tried Missouri (no), the Midwest (nope) or the Arch (not really). I finally settled on “300 miles south of Chicago.”

In addition, I realize that our region has real and substantive socio-economic issues: among them, racism, loss of manufacturing jobs, unequal school funding and unequal policing. I also realize that there are huge human costs attached to these dry sounding issues: loss of income, loss of hope, loss of future, health, life. One reflection of these inequalities was the months of unrest that unfolded in one of the County municipalities: Ferguson.

The fragmentation of the St. Louis area among the City and the eighty-eight municipalities of the County present formidable challenges to cooperative action in solving regional problems. For forty years, I have driven by boarded up buildings and leveled lots when I go to the Symphony, the Botanical Gardens and to see the baseball Cardinals, all located in the City. There have been improvements, for sure, but very piecemeal: a grocery store here, a rehabbed block or two there, a medical clinic elsewhere. I know I am emblematic of the problem. I go to the City for entertainment and culture but I pay my taxes to the County.

In 1876, St. Louis City officially separated from St. Louis County. At the time, the City’s population and wealth overwhelmed the County’s. The tables have turned and the City has become the impoverished partner. Now, a proposal to combine the City and the eighty-eight County municipalities would make the new Metro City the tenth largest city in the country. Because of the 1876 “divorce” and because of the huge number of municipalities that have their own police forces, municipal courts and sales tax structure, this is very complicated and contentious. Nonetheless, everyone agrees that the status quo has not worked for decades.

Saun_9780812989649_epub3_cvi_r1In The Very Persistant Gappers of Frip, written by George Saunders and illustrated by Lane Smith, the human residents of Frip, all ten of them, are also in an untenable situation. The Saun_9780812989649_epub3_051_r1
very persistent gappers of the title are bright orange, baseball sized creatures with multiple protuberant eyes and little intellect. They shriek with happiness when they find a goat to glom onto. They are loving the goats of Frip , if not to death, then to the point that the goat lies “on its side with a mortified look on its face.” They quit making milk when covered by gappers. The three families of Frip all count on selling goat’s milk for their livelihoods. 


Saun_9780812989649_epub3_005_r1It is the tradition in Frip that the human children brush the gappers from the goats eight times a day and dump them into the sea. The gappers love the goats so much that they climb back from the sea bottom, up the cliff and back onto the goats. All the children are exhausted, but only the girl Capable has the imagination and the guts to try doing something different. Through her wits, her courage and her kindness, Capable shows all the others how to make a change. In the end, even the gappers change. 

What I love about this modern day children’s book is that there are no bad guys: no witches, no ogres, no meanies. The adults, like most of us,  are pre-occupied with themselves. Mr. Ronsen spends his time shaving and trimming his nose hairs. Mrs. Romo’s passion is singing: ”She sang in a proud and angry way, as if yelling at someone.” Capable’s father is paralyzed by grief due to the death of Capable’s mother. The Ronsen girls only think about boys. The Romo boys spend all their time fighting with each other. 

Just like most of us, the residents of Frip are a tad selfish, a tad self-absorbed, a tad self-righteous.They ascribe good luck to their own virtue and others’ bad luck to their inferiority. When the gappers temporarily left the Romo goats alone, Bea Romo crows, “God has been good to us….Why? I can’t say….I suppose we must somehow deserve it.” The Ronsens and Romos send a joint letter in response to Capable’s request for help. They write, “…although we are very sympathetic to your significant hardships, don’t you think it would be better if you took responsibility for your own life? …it only stands to reason that you are not, perhaps, quite as good as us.” For as long as I can remember, the more affluent municipalities have assumed very similar attitudes of condescension toward their less well-off neighbors.

I also see similarities in the narrow viewpoints and self-serving attitudes between the people in Frip and the different stakeholders in the debate to unify the St. Louis region. Most people, myself included, only worry about the direct effect on their own day-to-day lives. Blacks, as reflected in an editorial to the St. Louis American, are worried about dilution of their political power. They will make up a much smaller percentage of population in the newly united area than they have in St. Louis City now. Local municipal leaders and judges are loath to give up power even if it’s power over a small fiefdom. I wonder if the united police department would come and check on our house while we are on vacation which the Creve Coeur Police Department does. 

There is also opposition to the actual process. My very conservative neighbor, an Ann Coulter fan, who has an opposition sign in her yard and a very left -leaning IMG_6955friend, a fan of Noam Chomsky, both oppose this unification plan. Both complain of lack of transparency and  lack of input. What bothers me is that the one of the more visible supporters is Rex Sinquefield, a wealthy local businessman who has made out-sized political donations to anti-taxation bills and Republican politicians.

On the other hand, the supporters are an impressive group. The City Mayor and the County Executive vigorously support the plan. They have the backing of businesses and organizations, such as the BJC and 43VM2vd4_400x400Mercy Hospital systems, Emerson Electric and Washington University. They have a catchy name, Better Together. Most importantly, they have the populace’s sense that what we have been doing isn’t working. The official report gives projections of savings of scale in aligning the area’s taxation structure, courts, policing, infrastructure. That certainly makes sense.

Why so much opposition? There is concern that the money saved is going to line the pockets of those who already have clout. A tongue-in-cheek letter to the editor suggested how streamlined  bribes would become if there were only one set of  government officials instead of the near hundred we now have.

In Frip, Capable decides that “it was not all that much fun being the sort of person who eats a big dinner in a warm house while others shiver on their roofs in the dark.” I venture that most St. Louisans agree with Capable in their heart of hearts. 

This is what Better Together needs to do. They need to convince us that we are

Me, too! (It’s a Molina shirt)

better than we really are. They need to buoy us up, get us to buy into the future of the entire area and convince us how we are intertwined with the fates of our neighbors. They need to exercise leadership! Maybe the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team could be a part of that. Have you noticed that in almost every news cast—a fire, a car chase, a festival—when regular people are interviewed, they are wearing a Cardinals cap, or T-shirt or sweatshirt?

It is a good thing that the St. Louis region is starting to address the fragmentation, the disunity, the distrust. I think this proposal is a first offer. And for inspiration, I recommend the example of Capable in The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip.

Tell me: What fictional character inspires you?

The Bear on the Stair: Tales of the Prairie, with Paintings

Journalist Susan Caba wrote this book review. She first published it on her blog: Susan is one of my co-authors of the book Guilty Pleasures.

“As I was walking through our house one night, a smelly, fierce, roaring black bear appeared out of a dark corner and chased me up the stairs. He almost caught me.”

The bear in question had quite a few teeth and a long, pink tongue which he waggled as he roared at the bottom of the curving staircase.

“I ran as fast as I could, slammed the door on his nose, and leaped to safety deep beneath the covers of my bed. The bear made one last horrible roar and left.”

Bear on the Stair

The words belong to Catherine Augusta Rademacher Gibson, recalling a tale told to her as a child by her grandmother in a little house in South Dakota. The vivid watercolor of the bear is hers, too, painted by Catherine many years later, as she grew old.

“Even now, I get goose bumps when I think of that bear. Mom’s sister, Aunt Clara, told me that I had a wild imagination. She did not mean it as a compliment.”

Though Catherine died in 1996, her “wild imagination” lives on.

Her watercolors and stories have just been published in a book, Glorious Fourth of July and Other Stories from the Plains. Catherine recounted the tales to her two daughters so they would sit still while she braided their hair. Later still, she made what she called “memory paintings” of these childhood stories. They were exhibited, in 1992, at the Mitchell Museum in Mount Vernon, Ill. Her friends told her she should make a book.

Catherine never got around to following their suggestion. But her daughter,  renowned St. Louis artist Mary Gibson Sprague, kept the paintings and remembered the stories. Finally, in honor of her mother, she gathered the work, researched the stories for historical accuracy and, two years later, the result is Glorious Fourth.

Glorious Fourth cover

I remembered the stories and did not want them to end, I owed it to her to pass them on,” says Mary, now in her 80s. “Mother taught me to see creatively…from baseball to gumdrops, she paid attention to the world around her.”

Each of the 32 paintings tells a story, recalled from Catherine’s childhood in the early 1900s, about life on the plains of South Dakota and Montana. Glorious Fourth is sure to beguile children, but will also be appreciated by historians, art enthusiasts and anyone who grew up reading Laura Ingalls Wilders Little House on the Prairie books. In fact, Glorious Fourth is published by The South Dakota Historical Society Press—Laura Ingalls Wilder’s publisher.

“The coyotes were so quiet and thin that it was creepy. Shep barked harder and we walked faster. The coyotes drew closer. Finally, Shep laid his ears back, faced the animals and bared his surprisingly large, white teeth.”

The book tells tales of menace—a circling pack of coyotes, cyclones, and an Indian who showed up unannounced, but only wanted to borrow a needle. There are stories of everyday entertainments—dancing the Mazurka on the parlor rug, telling ghost stories during a thunderstorm, ice skating on empty lots flooded by the Watertown Fire Department. And then, of course, there was mischief—but I’ll leave that for you to discover.GranPa's beard

Catherine was a master of composition and color. These watercolors, painted between 1986 and 1989, are edgy and fresh—a mash-up of Marc Chagall and Henri Matisse, with a dollop of Keith Haring. They are as alive as stained glass windows on a sunny day.

She studied art at the University of Minnesota, met and married her husband, Verne Cyril Gibson, and graduated in 1929. Verne—known as “Gib”— took a job as an engineer with the U.S. Lighthouse Service, which became the U.S. Coast Guard. With two daughters in tow, the family followed his assignments to lighthouse stations around the country, finally settling in San Francisco. Catherine painted when she could and joined the artistic community in every place they lived.

When Gib retired, Catherine could finally paint full-time. And, during the last few years of Gib’s life, when he was ill and housebound, she made her memory paintings to pass the time and cheer him up. In doing so, she created vivid images and stories that made the past come alive—and seem magical.

“During the making of this book, I realized these stories are more than a collection of one family’s anecdotes,” says Mary Gibson Sprague. “They belong to any family that ever had the imagination to move from place to place in search of a better life.”

If there is one trait that defined Catherine Augusta Rademacher Gibson, it was imagination.

“One day, Dad came home (and) the back seat of his car was soaking wet, while, oddly, the front half was completely dry. He said he had driven home so fast that the line storm could not get past him…my daughters decided that I made this story up. I finally painted a picture to show them how it happened. They said I made the picture up, too.”

granpas storm art

Glorious Fourth of July is available from the South Dakota Historical Society Press, 900 Governors Drive, Pierre, South Dakota 57501,

High resolution images available.

The paintings of Mary Gibson Sprague can be seen at

Tell me: Who is the historian (writing and/or painting) in your family? How about you?

A Gentleman in Moscow?

51Sp3yhGIQL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles spent over a year on the New York Times Best Sellers list. The novel is about a Russian nobleman who was forced to live within the confines of a Moscow hotel on orders of the new Bolshevik government. It is an elegant, charming jewel of a novel, a sort of literary Faberge egg. It is also the most polarizing piece of fiction I’ve come across in decades. DSC_0069

If I were to cast a movie of Count Alexander Rostov, the gentleman of the title, I’d give the part to someone like David Niven. To those of us old enough to remember, or TMC movie fans, David Niven was a movie star from ‘40s through the ‘70s. He played the consummate English gentleman: urbane, unflappable, loyal to a fault. He dressed impeccably, charmed the ladies and always had a witty response. Other than being Russian, this is pretty much a description of Alexander Rostov. 

I’m generally not a big fan of this type of man. I’m a sucker for the grand gesture, for the heart on the sleeve, weep into his beer kinda guy, like a Clark Gable. Or the socially awkward, nerdy, Boy Scout type. Jimmy Stewart comes to mind.

The set-up is that, in 1922, the Bolshevik Revolutionary government deems Rostov an enemy of the Russian state and designates him an “internal exile.” His place of exile is the Metropol, a luxury hotel in the heart of Moscow. He is already living there in a spacious suite with chandeliers, a dining room and a salon. He is unceremoniously moved to a single room in the attic. 

Rostov makes the best of the situation. He parts with his furniture, books and keepsakes with a philosophical shrug. “But, of course, a thing is just a thing.” In fact, he rationalizes that he has always loved train travel and boat travel precisely because of the limit on space. He compares his reduced living situation to Captain Nemo’s adventures on the Nautilus.

But Rostov is not entirely bereft. He still has his set of 52 crystal wineglasses in a variety of designs so that the each kind of wine or spirits can be drunk in its proper glass. He has his grandfather’s Louis XVI desk whose hollow legs contain gold coins. And he has at least a few of his books.

The hotel has its own barber shop, a bar, a casual eatery called the Piazza and a formal restaurant held to be the best restaurant in Moscow. It has a full complement of kitchen and wait staff as well as the barber, a seamstress, the bell captain, the concierge and the bellhops. So, yes, he has lost a lot—his freedom the most severe—yet, his life is still better than most.

He becomes friends with a precocious nine-year-old girl, emotionally abandoned by her Soviet bureaucrat father on assignment in Moscow. Inexplicably, she has a pass key to the hotel. The two of them conspire to explore all the nooks and crannies of the hotel. They visit the boiler room, a storage room with items left by patrons, from where Rostov reclaimed some of his belongings, the place where all the hotel banquet dishes were kept and many other rooms. They also sneak into guests’ rooms, including Rostov’s old suite. They gleefully spy on gatherings of genteel ladies as well as eavesdrop on meetings of various Bolshevik committees. 

These excursions could only be called adventures, and I was reminded of Eloise at the Plaza Hotel. This puzzled me as I thought the references to the ways of the Russian nobility and the one-eyed cat named Kutuzov were meant to lead me to think of War and Peace, not Eloise. Where was this book going? 

A year passes. Another year. Four years. Ten. Twenty. Thirty. Outside the hotel, Stalin rose to power. Five Year Plans devastated the economy. World War II came and went. A power struggle followed Stalin’s death.

Inside the hotel, Rostov faced adversity as well. One small catastrophe was the removal of all the labels on the wine bottles in the spirit of egalitarianism. It became impossible to pair food with the recommended wine. In a tsunami-proportion change in his life, Rostov unexpectedly became the caretaker of a five-year-old child. With aplomb and wry philosophical musings, Rostov overcomes adversity with ingenuity, physical dexterity and the help of his many friends.

About those friends. Despite calling him “Your Eminence,” the staff at the hotel genuinely likes Rostov. As the years pass, he develops especially close relationships with the seamstress, the chef and the maitre d’. He is also on excellent terms with the desk captain, the concierge and the dozens of workers needed to keep a large hotel running. They figure out ingenious ways to get around the common enemy: the bureaucratic hotel manager. 

Due to its excellence, important guests from foreign diplomats to movie stars to government apparatchiks stay at the Metropol. Rostov is a sought-after conversationalist because of his charm, wit, and broad knowledge of literature, history and the arts. He becomes friends with many of these guests, including a romantic liaison. 

In an ironic way, Rostov is the most egalitarian person of them all. After all, it is the job of a gentleman to make others feel at ease. Rostov could adapt to any company he is with. He remembered his grandfather telling him about Darwin’s “moths of Manchester.” The moths that had dark wings to match the soot of Manchester survived to propagate. As Rostov put it, “It is the business of gentlemen to change” with the times.

Lest you think that the story is just a pastiche of amusing incidents, descriptions of opulent settings and scrumptious food and wine, wry philosophical asides and War and Peace-esque anecdotes from Rostov’s life, let me assure you that, like any good caper movie, it all ties together in the end. Almost every relationship Rostov becomes involved in, from the conductor of the orchestra at the Piazza to the American vending machine salesman, and every bit of information that has dropped into his lap—the old copies of the Baedaker travel guides as well as his barber’s favorite hair dye—play a part in the final, winner-takes-all escapade.

Among my friends, there is a huge chasm between the fans of this book and the

Yoga Nancy

detractors. The fans outnumber the disparagers about two to one, which would jibe with the long time the book spent on the New York Times Best Sellers list. The ravers are so enthusiastic that they bring up A Gentleman in Moscow without prompting. My financial adviser recommended the book when it first came out in 2016. Yoga friend Nancy called it a page-turner. A different Nancy was breathless with praise for the language in the book.

Birder Bob

Birding friend Anne spoke in her soft Southern drawl that the book had to be one of her favorites of all time. Hearing this, another birder, Bob, agreed. At this point, his wife Barb sighed and said she couldn’t even finish it. Tennis friend Kathy loved the book so much that she lent it to tennis instructor Liz. Liz returned the book unfinished. She shook her head and sighed, “I give up.”

Birder Barb

My theory, and my reaction while tearing through the book, is that it depends on how willing you are to suspend disbelief. You have to accept the premise of someone being “imprisoned” in a luxury hotel. Not only is the prisoner talented and witty and charming, but he also has more money than he’ll ever need. On top of that, his friends all turn out to be loyal and extraordinarily competent. And the icing on the cake—he could get a baby sitter any time he needed one. This is escapism of the highest order, albeit charming, urbane and witty.

Tennis Kathy
Tennis Liz

If you don’t buy into these assumptions, then the book is just a series of digressions—some too cute, some arcane—slowing down an unlikely plot. If that’s the case, all the erudition about literature and history, the depth of knowledge of wines and music and the charming and witty repartee are irrelevant. For people who are looking for a filling breakfast, a Faberge egg is not satisfying. 

Tell me: Are you thumbs up or thumbs down?



West Meets East: Chinese Americans Visit Mother China

img_5969 2I had quite a few knowing chuckles reading Scott Tong’s img_5970account of his experiences in China in his book A Village with My Name. Like me, journalist Tong is Chinese American. Even though we grew up in Chinese homes in America, we both experienced major culture shock when we visited China as adults.

Early on, Scott talks about riding in a car to his ancestral village. “The ‘road’ we’re driving on has turned into a one-lane paved path about the width of a bike trail back home. It has the added drama of five-foot-deep irrigation ditches on either side….I try not to consider the odds of a car coming the other way, except that’s all I can think about.” 

On my most recent visit to China in 2016, I was mesmerized by the death-defying traffic. fullsizeoutput_2662A six-lane road inexplicably narrowed to two lanes. Cars, trucks, bicycles, motorized bikes, three-wheelers, electric scooters all jockeyed for road space, sometimes by going the wrong way down the sidewalk. A disabled man, one arm raised, the other on the controls of his electric wheelchair, careened catty corner across a major intersection. Every minute, I braced for some horrible accident.

Things were not improved outside of the city


Scott noted that the Chinese had always placed a premium on light skin color, especially for girls. Female TV stars were all pale. Scott’s mother was deemed “cute” because of her light skin. When Scott and his wife met their adoptive Chinese daughter for the first time, he noted, “Her skin color wasn’t ‘fairly,’ as paperwork suggested….[It] looked a shade or two darker than any of the photos.” The orphanage tried to make the child more desirable by lightening her skin in the photos.

The Chinese predilection for pale skin explains what had been always seemed to me an enigmatic comment my mom made when I was born. My dad said that her first words were, “How come she’s so dark?” And she said it not in a good way.

Scott homes in on the driving competitiveness of Chinese society: “China’s fast-forward dash for scarce resources—jobs, spouses, college spaces, affordable housing.” The winning of this race falls on the shoulders of the one child per family. (As of 2016, two children are permitted.) It can be a grueling, desperate existence. Scott’s Chinese assistant wrote in her diary “that she longed for a sibling not so much to play with as to share the harsh parental spotlight.” In my August 24, 2018 review, The Small Are Eating the Old, I talk about the grinding pressure my relatives in China, like all parents and grandparents in China, feel to give their child a competitive edge.

There were surprises on more personal levels as well. Scott’s great grandfather had studied in Japan in the early 1900s. While in Japan, he had married a Japanese woman whom he brought back to his village—quite a shock to his Chinese wife and three kids. On my first trip to China in 1977, the first of my family to go in twenty-five years, I found out that one of my uncles had four children, two with his wife and two with his paramour. You’d think my parents would have given me a heads-up.

Social interactions became more complicated as Scott embarked on his research of family history. He interviewed relatives, some long lost, still in China. Conversations with relatives, even in one’s native tongue, are sometimes difficult. As he was formulating his objections to his uncle who in effect, wanted to edit Scott’s book, he thought, “It’s hard to litigate this kind of argument in your second language.” When talking to my relatives in Chinese, I often wonder if I fully understand the point they’re making.

Besides the language, actual cultural differences stymied us as well. When is a family member “saving face” and refusing a badly needed gift? What are the rules for who should pay the restaurant tab? When are they playing you because they think you can do something for them? (I had an uncle who wanted my passport for a week so he could get some antique paintings out of China. I said no.) When are they understating out of politeness? Years ago in Hong Kong, an aunt invited my husband and me to a small, informal party for my uncle’s birthday. We showed up in street clothes for what turned out to be a full-scale, ten course banquet with dozens of guests in formal dress and in their best jade.

fullsizeoutput_2666Many of the buildings where  Scott’s relatives—and mine— grew up, worked and went to school still exist, often repurposed. His visit to his grandmother’s school reminded me of my 2016 visit to my aunt’s old convent. My aunt, mom’s older sister, entered the Helpers of the Holy Souls Catholic order in the 1930s. The European-style building smack in the middle of Shanghai is now a restaurant called “Ye Olde Station.” It has retained many of its fullsizeoutput_2670architectural features, light fixtures and dark wood trim. I walked through it wondering if my aunt had knelt to pray in this room or had communal meals in that room  or walked down that corridor.


In the book, Scott wondered about his “what if” life. “What if my dad had been the sibling left behind? What if I were the mainland cousin, driving —of all vehicles—a Buick?” I have often wondered how my life would have been if I hadn’t left China. What kind of friends would I have? What would my kid be like? Who would have been his dad? What kind of personality would I have?

When Scott was unable to track down any record of the last years of his maternal grandfather, he lamented, “I’ve waited too long to start chasing all this.” I—probably everyone—have had this feeling at some point or another. As Scott put it, “I am left with a few dozen pieces of a five hundred-piece puzzle.” 

Scott put in the leg work and the brain work to track down interviews, letters and locales that helped fill out the puzzle. In my opinion, he also showed a lot of courage. To acknowledge that our relatives suffered, made bad decisions, did despicable things is not easy. I would have been tempted to put my fingers over my eyes during the emotionally uncomfortable parts, like I do during scary movies. 

I think we can’t ever fully know our forebears, not even our parents, much less those relatives who are long dead. At least Scott can still ask questions of his parents and aunts and uncles. Mine are all dead. But at some point, Scott himself will be the grandfather and great grandfather. (I am already a grandma.) His kids, grandkids and great grandkids will know about where they came from and how they got there. They can catch a glimpse of what the early part of the twenty-first century was like. They will be so grateful. Hopefully, my grandsons will learn something of their ancestors through my writing as well.

I am grateful to Scott Tong also. In reading A Village With My Name, I was able to gain concrete context to my lived experience as a Chinese-American, make sense of my observations of Chinese life and even explain my discomfort with some social interactions with Chinese people. I learned about both parts of being Chinese and being American.

Tell me: One thing about your grandparents that surprised you when you first found out.

East Meets West: A Century of Connections between Chinese and Foreigners in China

img_5969 2As the last hundred years of Chinese history has had more than its share of upheavals, every Chinese family has stories of separation, betrayal, imprisonment, exile and death. In A Village With My Name: A Family History of China’s Opening to the World, Scott Tong writes about his search for his own family’s story. 

Scott Tong is a Chinese American reporter who lived in China from 2006 to 2010 as bureau chief for NPR’s Marketplace program. In China, he reconnected with relatives and began a deep dive into the history of his family. In this quest, Scott traveled to remote villages, including one where everyone’s surname is Tong, to cities such as Nanjing, Chongqing and Hong Kong and to a derelict prison camp near Tibet. In his memoir, he puts his forebears’ and relatives’ lives into the context of the trajectory of Chinese history and China’s interaction with the rest of the world.

Scott Tong

I am Chinese American too. Even though I am significantly older than Scott, we are both “one step removed” Chinese, clumsy in the language and unsure in social interactions. While Scott grew up in Poughkeepsie, NY, I have lived in St. Louis my whole life except for the first eight years in China and Hong Kong. Like Scott, I have tried to understand what life was like for my parents, my grandparents and my living relatives still in China. Both our families were separated for a quarter century by Cold War politics. Neither China nor the United States permitted its citizens to communicate with people in the other country.

Also, both our families in China had extensive ties to foreigners in the first half of the twentieth century. Scott’s great grandfather attended a Japanese university in the early 1900s. In those years, many young Chinese intellectuals went abroad to bring back Western knowledge and technology to bolster the crumbling Qing Dynasty. (The Japanese government had opened Japan to the West in 1868.) Scott’s maternal grandmother, Mildred, got her education at an American Methodist school in Nanchang, one of China’s smaller cities. In a stroke of luck, Scott found a stash of Mildred’s letters to her American teachers in the Boston University and Swarthmore College archives.

As Catholics, my parents’ families gravitated toward the French. Shanghai natives, my parents met as medical students at the Jesuit Aurora University in Shanghai’s French Concession. All their classes were in French. Decades later, they spoke French when they discussed things they didn’t want us kids to know. Like Mildred, my parents became very close to the faculty members. They often spoke of Pere (Father) Germain, the principal, a WWI vet, and Pere (Father) Audic, the physics teacher. Father Audic even came to St. Louis to visit us sometime in the ‘60s.

st. peter's shanghai
Aurora at right. St. Peter’s Church where my parents married at left. (Virtual Shanghai)

Everyone in China suffered to some degree under the Japanese during WWII (1937-1945). Scott’s family suffered unforeseen long-term consequences. My parents lived under Japanese occupation for eight years. Because my mother’s family lived in the French Concession, which was slightly more protected as a foreign entity, relatives in other parts of Shanghai flocked to Grandpa’s house. Fortunately, Aurora University stayed open and my parents were able to finish their medical studies. Living in the French Concession not withstanding, my mother’s brother was drafted into Chiang Kai-shek’s army. 

When WWII ended, civil war raged between Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists and Mao’s Communists. Mao declared victory on October 1, 1949. This event led to many family separations, including for Scott’s family and mine. Scott’s grandfather took his mistress and Scott’s dad, age ten, to Taiwan in 1949. He left behind a pregnant wife and a two-year-old son. Scott’s grandmother Mildred left for Hong Kong with her three young daughters, including Scott’s mom, in 1950. They moved to a district called Diamond Hill— a place that would become home to my family, too. .Mildred’s husband Carleton decided to stay in Shanghai. He ended up being jailed and died in a “re-education camp” after years of hard labor.

My folks graduated and married in 1946, a year after WWII’s end. Again, they chose to cast their lot with Westerners. Bishop Cuthbert O’Gara recruited them to an American Catholic hospital in Hunan province. This is where I was born. Dad did general practice. Mom delivered babies and was principal of the nursing school. With the help of the Americans, Dad got a position in a hospital in New Jersey in 1948, one year before Mao’s victory. He planned to return to China after a couple of years. Mom stayed on until fighting between the Communists and the Nationalists broke out near the hospital in Hunan. She took me and my six-week old sister, born after Dad left, on a harrowing journey back to Shanghai. It turned out my parents would not see each other again for seven years.

The Catholic hospital in Hunan. (Sister Mary Carita Pendergast, SC, in Havoc in Hunan

Like Scott’s grandmother Mildred, my mom decided to leave China. In 1952, in a high stakes gamble, she insisted she had to see her dying aunt in Hong Kong, and got

LuhA - 01
Me skipping rope at our Diamond Hill compound

permission for a two-week stay. Despite not being able to get a visa to enter British Hong Kong, she took me, my sister and her dad on the train to Hong Kong. While on the train, she found someone who would smuggle us over the border. We got off the train before the border station and walked what seemed like a very long way to a five-year-old me. In Hong Kong, we shared an apartment with two other families in the Diamond Hill district.

When I read about Scott’s grandfather Carleton, I thought of my own grandfather. He was a frail, mild mannered man. He had been a successful business man in Shanghai. He lived with us in St. Louis until his death in 1966. No doubt, if he had stayed in China, he would have been caught up in one or another of the purges. He would have suffered as surely as Scott’s grandfather had. A wave of relief washes over me when I think of how close he came to a terrible fate. It was not a sure thing he would leave Shanghai. Mom told him, “I am leaving regardless. If you decide to come with me, I’ll find a way to get you out.” He replied, “OK, I guess I’ll go.”

Scott’s mom in Hong Kong and dad in Taiwan thrived.They excelled in school and went to America to further their studies. They met at a Chinese Student Association Dance in Minnesota. Scott’s Dad went on to his dream job at IBM.

Our family received refugee status to enter America after three years in Hong Kong. We reunited with Dad in St. Louis in 1955. Then, I too became part of the model-minority, American-dream story. I did well in school, became a doctor, had a child, and now, I have grandkids. 

The folks who didn’t leave China had a much more difficult life. My mother had a taste of it before she fled. She had to attend indoctrination sessions. She pulled me out of kindergarten because she feared I would let slip that we were Catholic.

The two great national traumas in post-WWII China were the Great Leap Forward (1958-61) and the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76. During the Great Leap Forward, the top-down economic policies led to mass famine. Between 36 to 48 million people starved to death. It hit home when I visited China and my relatives in 1977. I was part of a “Friendship Delegation,” which was the only way to get into China in those days. Because I left China at age five, my cousins were virtual strangers. My oldest cousin looked like an old man and had lost all his teeth. He said they all fell out during the “Great Leap Forward.” 

The Cultural Revolution was instigated by Mao, ostensibly to restore ideological purity. It became a time of mass hysteria. Throngs of people marched through the streets waving Mao’s “Little Red Book.”They rampaged through homes destroying anything that they considered “bourgeois.” Anyone in authority — officials, bosses, teachers, members of the previously-moneyed class—was targeted. The wife abandoned by Scott’s grandfather was a school principal and was humiliated and punished. My aunt lost vision in one eye from being beaten by the Red Guard.

In the United States, during the years of the Cultural Revolution, I was a campus radical.  Our main goal was protesting America’s role in the Vietnam War. It was not much of a stretch to support Ho Chi-min, the North Vietnamese and, by extension, Mao’s China. In my youthful zeal, I was very enthusiastic about Mao’s anti-authoritarian and proletarian message. My teachers at Washington University were leftist as well. They were enthusiasts of Mao’s revolution, but had scarce information about conditions in China after the Cold War communications shutdown. I am chagrined that I bought into the popularity of Mao’s disastrous policies. My parents were vehemently anti-Communist.. I thought of them as too emotionally attached to the old ways. I was so wrong. Scott quotes his aunt: “We’re ashamed of what we did during the Cultural Revolution.” Me too.

Scott Tong has woven together the many threads of his family’s history across time, across China and across the globe into this surprisingly intimate story. Next time, I will tell you how it felt for Scott and me to encounter relatives after decades of being away; to try to imagine what life was like fifty, seventy-five, a hundred years ago for our parents and grandparents; to grasp the current economic and cultural landscape in what was for us a foreign language.

Tell me: What sorts of separations has your family gone through? 

George and Martha Washington’s Runaway Slave

Ona Judge slipped out of her master’s house as the family ate Saturday dinner and escaped bondage. She was 22 years old. That night, she boarded a ship bound for Portsmouth, New Hampshire, 400 miles to the north. It was 1796. Her master was George Washington. He was in his second term as president of the United States in the country’s capital, Philadelphia.

Washington advertised in local newspapers. They described the runaway as “a light Mulatto girl, much freckled, with very black eyes, and bushy black hair…of middle stature, but slender and delicately made.”

img_5944In Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of their Runaway Slave Ona Judge, historian Erica Armstrong Dunbar tells of Ona Judge’s early life in Mt. Vernon among family, her involuntary move to Philadelphia as Martha Washington’s personal maid, her daring escape to New Hampshire and her life passing as a free person. She also tells of the Washingtons’ determined efforts to recapture her, including Washington’s use of the power of the federal government.

In telling one slave’s story, Dunbar casts light on the physical and emotional hardships that slavery inflicted on bonded persons regardless of the status of their owners or the nature of the slave’s work. In Washington’s home in Philadelphia, the slaves slept crowded in the attic, rooms that were coldest in winter and hottest in summer. Dunbar points out that Ona, as with most house slaves, lacked privacy and private time: her time was never her own. For all slaves, the threat of separation from family and friends due to being sold or moved was ever-present. Women were always alert to unwanted sexual advances, but often could not avoid assaults. Every slave was subject to the whim of the master, no matter how impractical, unjust or dangerous.

Life events in the master’s family – births, marriages, deaths, moves – were sources of consternation for slaves. A death could lead to the sale of slaves to raise money to pay debts. Parents often gave slaves to their children on their marriage or at the birth of a child. All these maneuvers resulted in slaves possibly never seeing their family again.

The event that precipitated Ona’s decision to escape was Martha Washington’s decision to give Ona to her granddaughter on her marriage. Eliza Custis was labile and stubborn, known for her “stormy reputation.” Moreover, the newlyweds planned to live in the new Federal City (Washington D.C.). Ona would again be torn from people familiar to her, the people she had been with for nearly seven years in Philadelphia.

Many factors came together to make Ona’s escape possible: the fact that she was in a

Philadelphia Presidential House

Northern city; Philadelphia’s free blacks who helped her; the abolitionist movement which gave her courage; and Ona’s relatively high status in the Washington household, which allowed her to slip out.

Ona’s grit was evident on the ship voyage. For five days, she had to remain calm and not give herself away to curious passengers. A young black woman traveling alone was most unusual. She settled in the Portsmouth and lived there the rest of her life. She was never really safe because the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793 gave slave owners the right to recover escaped slaves even in free states.

Life for free or fugitive black persons was harsh. Employment consisted of arduous physical work. For women, it would be lifting tubs of water for laundry, scrubbing clothes and floors, getting up before dawn to make breakfast for the employers’ family. Some men, like Ona’s husband, worked as seamen. At sea, they were safe from slave catchers. John Staines was a freeman, but slave captors did not always care whom they captured.

Ona and her husband had two daughters and possibly a son who died young. They lived on the edge of survival their whole lives. At the end of her days, Ona was so poor that she boarded with another family. Both her children and her husband predeceased Ona. In an interview with an abolitionist newspaper in 1845,when she was in her 80s, Ona had no regrets about the steep price she paid for her freedom. Unlike slaves, she was able to marry. She kept her family together. She learned to read and had found faith in God.


George Washington’s advertisement yielded no results. He found out about Ona’s whereabouts in Portsmouth through an acquaintance. Wanting to avoid publicity and afraid of anti-slavery sentiments, Washington sidestepped legal means to get Ona back. Instead, he asked his Secretary of the Treasury to contact his customs collector in Portsmouth. This man was instructed by Washington to capture Ona and “put her on board a Vessel bound immediately to this place – or to Alexandria, which I should like better.” The customs officer did not know how to refuse the president. To his credit, after speaking to Ona, he refused to manhandle her. George Washington could only fume.

Three years later in 1799, Washington, now out of office, tried again to recoup his human property. This time, he asked his nephew, a Virginia state senator, to go to New Hampshire. He found Ona home with her first baby. Her husband was at sea. This nephew plied her with lies. He told her she would be well-treated at Mount Vernon. He painted a picture of reunion with her relatives. (Dunbar speculates that Ona worried that her escape might have brought reprisals –harsh treatment or punishment –against her relatives in Mt. Vernon.) He told her that the Washingtons “would set her free when she arrived at Mount Vernon.” Ona did not believe him and escaped to a neighboring town before the nephew returned with a group of men to forcibly capture her.

Washington felt that he could not let Ona Judge’s escape go unanswered for a number of reasons. He and Martha together owned more than 300 slaves. The successful escape of one could lead to unrest and insubordination by all of them. And there was the financial consideration. It wasn’t just Ona’s worth — each of her children also increased the Washingtons’ wealth.

Washington and the other slave-owning Founding Fathers — Jefferson, Madison and 404Monroe – were men of the Enlightenment who intellectually believed that “All men are created equal.” They all had, at points in their lives, decried the conditions of slavery and the state of the institution. I believe that, in his heart of hearts, Washington sensed the hypocrisy between his beliefs and his slave-owning status. This is why he freed his slaves in his will. This is why the U.S. constitution banned the importation of slaves… but not until 1808. Ultimately, the Founding Fathers lacked the courage of their convictions and let their progeny deal with the slavery issue.

But the Washingtons couldn’t give up their lifestyle. Slavery was embedded in their personal and institutional life by habit and by law. Who would cook? Who would clean the boots? Who would curry the horses? Reap the crops? Tend to guests? Even manumission was a complicated procedure requiring the state assembly’s approval. Slave owners lacked the imagination to see or were willfully blind to the lives of suffering that slaves led.

A society built to keep one set of human beings as property to another must be brutal, convoluted in its reasoning and hypocritical. This led to George freeing his slaves upon Martha’s death, not his own, so that families who had intermarried wouldn’t be split up, as his freed slaves would have to leave Mt. Vernon on becoming free. Martha, however, freed George’s slaves a year after his death. She was uneasy, as Dunbar puts it, that “the only thing standing in the way of freedom of more than a hundred people was her life.”

Mount Vernon Slave Memorial (Mt.

Here we are today, more than 200 years later, and racial inequality continues. Dunbar has given us a visceral sense of what that inequality meant and what freedom was worth to Ona Judge and other slaves. Awareness and empathy are the first steps to any change. This book has made me think about the institutional, social and implicit biases we continue to accept because it is convenient, helps our bottom line, or is just the social norm. Let us not leave it to our progeny to solve this injustice.

Tell me: About what do you lack the courage of your convictions? As for me, it’s the environment.