Chopstick-Fork Storyteller – interview with Cathy Bao Bean (8 November 2011)

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cathybaobeanIntroduction

About 2 weeks ago, I received an email from Cathy telling me about her book and stories. I visited her website and was intrigued by her story. I asked if she wanted to be interviewed and she agreed. I’m sure you’ll enjoy reading her story as much as I did. So, without further ado, I have great pleasure in introducing to you, Cathy Bao Bean …


Aneeta: Cathy, thank you for writing to me. I’m so glad to have this chance to ‘talk’ with you.

Cathy: And thank you for creating a website that supports authors!

Aneeta: Let’s start with something about you. Please tell me, where were you born, where did you grow up, what do you do for a living and where do you live now?

Cathy: Some of the “facts” of my cultural journey as chronicled in my book describes my immigration to America and my emigration from “banana-hood”—yellow on the outside and white on the inside for growing up in a town where we were the only Asians! Please keep in mind that the facts may be hard but the brain doesn’t have to be.

I was born in China as Bao Kwei-yee, a native of Ningpo by virtue of my father’s ancestry, in the Year of the Water Horse, during the 77th or 78th Cycle (depending on which book you consult).

Four years later, my parents, older sister, Bette, and I arrived in Brooklyn. As a result, I became “Cathy Bao,” born about 800 miles southwest of those same forefathers, on August 27, 1942, in Kweilin/Kuei-lin/Guilin (depending on which atlas you consult). In the process, I also became a Virgo and Dodgers fan.

One day later, Bette and I were enrolled in Public School #8. I spoke no English. Bette could say “Lucky Strike” and “Shut up.” The Principal let her skip 2 grades and made me do kindergarten twice.

In 1949, we moved New Jersey. I started to think in English and forget in Chinese.

In 1953, I went to summer camp and got “scalped.”

Four years later, I was in 10th grade and got “scalped” again.

In 1958, I received my first birthday cake.

The next year, I received the Junior Citizen of the Month Award. The following night I was summoned to court.

In 1960, I went to college where I majored in History, Government and screaming. The screaming didn’t get me the lead role in The Diary of Anne Frank because the Director didn’t think a Chinese could play a Jew from Amsterdam but it did get me on the Tufts cheer leading squad and, from there, onto a full page of Sports Illustratedclothed.

In 1962, I heard Malcolm X tell my roommate she was no longer a Negro, she was a Black Woman.

In 1964, I went to graduate school in California and learned how to Philosophize and be a Matchmaker.

One month later, I met Bennett Bean, a Caucasian male who didn’t wear socks and wanted to make art. He thought I was Japanese.

Two days after he found out I wasn’t, he was declared psychologically unfit to serve in the army.

Two weeks later, he proposed. I accepted.

In 1965, I enrolled at the University of California in Berkeley. There I met several of Bennett’s friends. Mostlythey lived in communes and nudist colonies. I became a Democrat.

The next year, Bennett started teaching at a college that expected him to wear a suit in the ceramics studio. After he shaved his beard and cut his hair, we got married. My mother said the word “sex” to me for the first time.

In 1967, the Whitney Museum bought Bennett’s sculpture even though it was upside-down, and I was accused of being a prostitute by the concierge in a big hotel (probably because I escaped a third scalping by the Bag Lady on the Staten Island Ferry and he didn’t know women with long Chinese hair might use their brains for a living).

The next year, I started teaching at a state college for less money than I made as a waitress and helped start the Black Studies Program.

One year later, we were both fired. The students protested and we were both re-hired. Soon thereafter, I developed my Menopausal Theory of Cooking.

In 1970, we met Billie Burke. Once the Good Witch Glinda in The Wizard of Oz, she had since become a Real Estate agent. She pointed us toward the eastern equivalent of Kansas, northwestern New Jersey, where we bought an old farmhouse. The neighbors thought I was the maid.

One year later, I got tenure. When the Chairperson asked me to make curtains for the office, I resigned and became a feminist before I knew I was a “Chinese-American.”

In 1973, I became a US citizen – that’s when the mayor asked me to be a Lenape Indian in the town’s Bicentennial Parade and I gained 70 pounds.

In early 1974, our son, William, was born. He weighed only 7 pounds, 14 ounces. 24 hours later, I decided Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy didn’t exist, Cinderella was a wimp, and Pinocchio had extraordinarily poor taste in friends. As it turned out, I was developing the Not the “Tiger Mom” method of parenting!

The next year, Bennett got fired again.

In 1977, William took off his diaper and I started teaching at another state college.

In 1986, William turned 12 and had his first birthday party. I turned 44 and didn’t stop smoking because the hypnotist couldn’t find my subconscious. So I incorporated and opened up an aerobics studio. Around this time, my college roommate became an African-American.

In 1990, William got his first tattoo.

One year after that, I slept next to some of my teeth and started to write my memoir. William got a second tattoo.

In 1993, Bennett was invited to the White House. He wore pink socks, sandals and a $1600 suit.

In 2002, once again the Year of the Water Horse, after 59 years of constructing a home and a wedding, I began the second cycle of my life by urging the newlyweds, William and Lisa, to make another life and, thereby, me a grandparent. After 35 anniversaries, Bennett continues to have too many lives.

Since then, after publishing two books: The Chopsticks-Fork Principle, A Memoir and Manual [please see below for description] and The Chopsticks-Fork Principle x 2, A Bilingual Reader (in which my stories are written in English and interpreted into Chinese by Dongdong Chen – available in interactive format at www.GoWell.com in both the GoEnglish and GoChinese form depending on which language one is trying to learn, I have been giving talks at universities, schools, libraries, and prisons in the US and China about being at least bicultural and, please, having some fun doing it!

Aneeta: That’s quite a life. On your website, http://www.cathybaobean.com, you make this statement: she has been learning how to make the “foreign” more familiar and the ordinary and extraordinary into each other. Can you please explain what this means?

Cathy: The Chopsticks-Fork Principle is about looking at ordinary events—birthday parties, first day at school, dining, toilet training, etc.—and seeing the culturally extraordinary. For example,

During the month of Aquarius, two years before the American Bicentennial, William Bao Bean was born—clueless at 7 pounds, 14 ounces.

“The one with the blindfold. Under the Bili Light. That’s your grandson, Mr. Bao.”

Watching my father, the nurse explained, “He’s under the ultraviolet because of the jaundice. Nothing serious. A lot of babies are born with the condition. It’s temporary. It doesn’t hurt; it just makes the skin appear yellow.”

With a totally straight face, my father responded, “He looks perfectly normal to me.”

The nurse started to explain again. And then stopped abruptly as my father’s words penetrated. Veteran of a thousand maternity ward introductions, nothing had prepared this woman from a small New Jersey town for the playful man from Ningpo. Her “Yes, but the yellow isn’t…” sounded almost impolite, under the circumstances.

My father smiled her to an understanding that the jest was intended though her discomfort was not. She returned it with one that gradually warmed to the situation. He had exposed her to a different way of looking and she had let it flash quickly on her embarrassment before letting its illumination reveal a larger stage.

Aneeta: Please tell me a little more about your book, The Chopsticks-Fork Principle, A Memoir and Manual. Can you please describe this book for me?

Cathy: Celia Morris, author of Fanny Wright: Rebel in America, put it very nicely, “Zany, moving, hilarious, and deep—not infrequently all at once. Cathy Bao Bean gives us a rollicking tour of the Bean method of merging work and play while negotiating cultural and generational divides to create a daily life far richer than its original constituent parts. As Cathy the Chinese Confucian philosophy professor declares war on mice, Bennett the Caucasian artist from mid-America announces “his increasing respect for all sentient beings.” As he discovers more of his Buddhist nature, she becomes “more and more like Shiva, ‘The Destroyer.’” Bennett designs a kitchen, Cathy notices that he’s neglected to include a stove, leaving their son William to rebel against his hippie parents by dressing like his father only on Halloween. Cathy Bao Bean has written a tart, feisty, whimsical, and penetrating saga of the family that invented the Chopsticks-Fork Principle and then proceeded to live by it.”

This book is available in e-book form on Amazon, iBookstore, & Barnes and Noble @ $8.99.

Aneeta: I am sure that your story has elements of storytelling in it. Therefore, can you please explain which elements you used most in your book and why?

Cathy: There are three basic elements in the (non-fiction) stories I write. First, they are all “true” in the sense that an event happened (hence a “memoir). However, the details I remembered and thought were important weren’t necessarily what others remembered or thought. Second, my stories are not just “personal,” they have ideas, even “lessons,” that are relevant to anyone who isn’t a hermit (hence a “manual”). And, lastly, they assume that you cannot understand a culture unless you understand its humor so, if you don’t have a sense of humor, pretend!! For example,

Via e-mail from Taipei, May, 1995: Hi Mom, went out with a Taiwanese girl a couple of times….not a word of English but a bit aggressive especially for a Chinese girl….times are definitely changing out here. I don’t think this one is a really good idea and I know you wouldn’t approve…her highlights include blue tinted contact lenses and nice legs but didn’t go to college and aspires to sell cars…well that is putting her in a bad light but it doesn’t get too much better. This one happens to be pretty unintellectual…I’ll see.

Biting my internet lip, I wrote: Dear William, What do you mean “a bit aggressive for a Chinese girl”? Are you being politically incorrect again? What I wanted to do was rehash the Facts of Life speech I delivered before our twenty-one year old college grad went to live and work in Taipei. Not only had our son arrived in Taiwan when impressionable girls were already transforming every young American male into a knight in denim armor, a.k.a. Keanu Reeves, but William had the added benefit of being photographed in every style of Levi’s and being so displayed in department stores and World Screen magazines all over Asia.

“Mom, some lady stopped me in the street and asked if I wanted to model blue jeans. What do you think? Should I do it?”

“Sure, William. But just get very ve-ry suspicious if they ask you to take off all your clothes.”

Happily, he got paid a month’s rent and wasn’t tempted by the possibility of a new career—“It was boring.” On the other hand, tinted contacts over nice legs drove me to warn him again about not getting carried away by naïve female adoration. It was their fantasy; it shouldn’t be his. (Translation: Virgins are off limits and, DON’T GET PREGNANT!!)

He wrote back: …oh by the way, Mom, I don’t know whether this was clear in the last e-mail but the way these girls operate is they get “face” because they have a foreigner for a boyfriend. You’ll love this—I told her that I didn’t want a relationship/girlfriend at the moment and she asked whether it would be okay if we just “acted” like we were. “Acted” is the closest translation I can find to xiang. But anyway, that’s what I mean by “aggressive”…girl does not take no for an answer.

I put my cyberspace foot down. Dear William, It’s been two weeks. Enough is enough. For her sake and yours, get out of this one.

He submitted, maybe. Hi Mom, Nothing else new except that the girl who worked at the clothing store and has blue contact lenses got hit by a car while on her scooter and has been in the hospital for the last two weeks—fractured skull as far as I can figure out but it could just be some internal damage…her brain is okay though. I went and visited her yesterday. She didn’t look too happy. She was getting out of the hospital as I showed up so I guess it is good that I went when I did.

After that, neither of us wrote about her again. Intellectually, my silence was honoring the right to privacy that his silence was developing. Emotionally, my fears wanted to hide him under a very dark blue umbrella. Practically, I asked, “Why ruin a good story?”

Aneeta: As you know, this website is for storytellers. What advice would you give to those who would like to venture into storytelling?

Cathy: In addition to the three elements I mentioned, practice your stories. If the only people who find them interesting are people who “must” know you well, then reformulate them so that people who don’t have to like you can still relate to the stories.

Aneeta: Cathy, this is all I have to ask. Is there anything you’d like to add?

Cathy: Yes, learn to enjoy yourself in different ways. For example,

With a EuroPass in one hand and a list of youth hostels in the other, he spent the summer touring places I had only read about.

“How was France, William? Did you get to Chartres? To Notre Dame?”

“No, but I saw a lot of good cheeses in Paris.”

Aneeta: Cathy, thank you.

Cathy: And thank you for this chance to “spread my word.”


This piece may NOT be freely reprinted. Please contact editor @ howtotellagreatstory.com for reprint rights.

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