Book Excerpt:Arizona Awakening: A Memoir of Romance, Race, and Redemption by Richard C Lin

 

From the Blurb:

As a lonely, awkward American-born Chinese high school freshman in Arizona during the early 80s, Richard endures the spirited racial taunts of schoolmates by day and the furious fists and flying chopsticks of his dad in the evenings. Into his world of tumult steps Lesley, the captivating new girl in town whose grace, wit, and charm have all the boys at school maneuvering for her attention. Despite two prior disheartening forays into the realm of unrequited love, Richard eagerly joins the fray. To the surprise of all and especially himself, he manages not only to catch her eye but to stir her mind as well. With rivals for Lesley’s affections snapping at his heels, he sings and dances his way into her heart while dealing with the occasional pitched battle involving kung fu pyrotechnics, swashbuckling swordplay, and blazing guns. What follows is a big-hearted romantic adventure through which Richard begins to understand bigotry beyond the prism of his own experience, comes to terms with his immigrant family heritage, and learns how to genuinely love someone while embracing himself in the process.

Read the review here

Excerpt

Lesley’s departure to a new home 754 miles away starts to sink in like a thousand-and-one minutes of Chinese water torture. The first few drops drip innocently, even caressingly, on the forehead. After perhaps a quarter-hour, the dripping starts to feel like a wooden ruler tapping on your forehead. Before long, this escalates into a conductor’s baton drumming away on your head. Then finally, it evolves into a hammer pounding directly onto an anvil that is your skull. And as you begin to realize you have a near-endless parade of drips left to come, you start to envisage in horror the drops carving out a hollow into your very brain. Your mind starts to go first, followed closely by your soul, and soon you are devoid of all thought except your desire for the thunderous pain to just go away.

Hence, I am thankful when fall semester of my junior year starts up at Brophy. Again I run into Father Sinnamon when I enter the campus, again he cups my face in his warm hands, and again he reminds me what a beautiful child I am and how I am meant for great things. I take comfort in his welcome and am glad to be reunited with Cary, Quen, and the rest of our Brophy gang. While they are a far cry from Lesley in terms of the tenderness and love she has come to represent in my life, I find refuge in their easy camaraderie, along with their intellectual curiosity, ambition, and wit.

However, I miss my Deer Valley buddies, especially since it’s starting to feel like they have slipped away from me. One day, I share with Quen how I loved playing live D&D with them, hacking away and bludgeoning each other to near-death with wooden swords. I suggest that perhaps we can try it as well. Quen, of course, finds the concept a bit too primordial and barbaric. He proposes the much more patrician kill-sport of disc gun capture the flag. We can use his place near the Phoenix Country Club. The house sits on nearly three acres of woodlands featuring varied terrain and myriad wildlife, which he says will inject the appropriate sense of atmosphere and danger to the proceedings.

Disc Guns: first introduced in the early sixties as the “Rapid-Fire Tracer Gun.” Available in greenish bronze or bluish silver. However, the bluish silver guns always seem to be out of stock—I guess who wants the greenish bronze gun that looks like it was dipped in baby food? The guns fire jet discs (or “tracers”) and hold up to twenty discs in an integrated spring-driven magazine.

The guns might shoot the discs up to twenty-five feet under perfect conditions. However, accuracy is increasingly haphazard beyond the range of fifteen feet as the discs are subject to wind currents. Additionally, once the spring firing mechanism starts to loosen, misfires can occur. And the gun jams whenever two discs simultaneously slip into the loading chamber, although if you’re lucky, sometimes it ends up firing both discs in different directions. For all its temperamental faults, though, it sure is damn fun to shoot your friend, little sister, or the FedEx dude with one.

I last played disc guns in Minnesota when I was around five or six. We used to roam the hallways with them in squads of two to three, shooting at other kids whenever we happened upon them. The jet discs were designed to bounce harmlessly off the skin but were also perfectly shaped and sized to enter the eye socket of any kid or adult given just the right shot. Of course, at this age, we rarely considered this rather debilitating possibility.

Now, at age fifteen, I am trying to determine the odds of getting shot in the eye as I wait for Quen to exit the powder room. Then I dismiss this possibility, demonstrating that a fifteen-year-old teen male’s risk assessment is not much more sophisticated than that of a five-year-old boy. Ten years after I first hung it up, I have dusted off my baby-food green disc gun, loaded it up, and pocketed about sixty jet discs.

I sit in the living room of Quen’s house, which I have heard so much about from some of our Brophy passel. His parents are relatively wealthy, even by Brophy standards. From the outside, it appears to be a generously sized house, but once inside, it does not appear to be as majestic in scale or as opulent as I thought it might be. I had half-expected an enormous mansion featuring a grand entry-way, double-helical staircases, and Hellenic fountains and statues here and there. I had hoped to witness a butler pottering about or, ideally, a French maid bending over to organize the books on the coffee table or standing on a chair trying to dust the chandelier.

Nevertheless, the house is very tastefully appointed, immaculately kept, and sun-splashed from the beautiful skylights above. There are some exquisite design elements, such as the avant-garde floating staircase rising above a Zen-inspired Japanese sand garden against a white marble wall with water gently flowing downward. The scent of bergamot and wild orange wafts from a single large aromatherapy candle sitting in the middle of the sand garden. And despite the lack of a butler and maid, incredibly, the house has absolutely no stuff lying about, none of the everyday clutter that abounds in most homes. I feel like I am sitting in a luxury model home, showcasing the latest in fine living.

“Ahh, that feels good,” says Quen. He startles me. It had never occurred to me that even Quen has to take a dump from time to time.

“That’s a lovely painting,” I say. I recall Quen mentioning his mom’s artistic abilities before. “Did your mom do it?”

“No, my mom didn’t paint it. She did buy it, though. It’s a Monet, or at least a very close facsimile of one.”

I have no idea who “Monei” is. Clearly, my face reveals this as Quen continues, “Founder of French Impressionism? Creator of Impression, Soleil Levant and Les Nymphéas?”

Finally, the art history section of Western Civilization class kicks in, “Oh, right, you mean Mo-NET?”

“No, I mean, Monet. The ‘t’ is silent, brother,” Quen says as he generously proffers one of his million-dollar smiles. No matter how bumbling I may be around him at times, he overlooks it. After all, to him, I have the blood of the motherland flowing through me.

“Right, right.” I try another subject. “Well, your mom has done an amazing job with your home. The minimalism here works.”

“Thanks, Richard. I’m glad you appreciate my mom’s design aesthetic with the understated details and sparse furnishings. She wanted people to feel they could find a sense of balance here. At the same time, she wanted visitors to feel cozy. So that’s why there’s all these throw pillows throughout the guesthouse.”

Did he just say guesthouse? No wonder it seems like no one lives here. Quen’s family has a fucking guesthouse. And it dwarfs our actual house.

We banter for a bit longer before the rest of the guys start to show up: Evan, Andy, Kip, John, Cary, and some others. All are dressed in rugged wear in preparation for our forest exertions. One guy, Steven, shows up in army fatigues and face paint. If we were playing disc guns solely in Quen’s guesthouse, he’d undoubtedly be the first to be killed. His camouflage may be well-suited for the jungles of Southeast Asia, but amidst the stark, minimalist white backdrop of the guesthouse, he blends in about as well as a grizzly in a polar bear exhibit.

I expect Quen to change as he is wearing a peach-colored cotton dress shirt and white shorts that look professionally pressed. However, he does not. Even for the pitched battle to come, he looks as if he is about to do another GQ photoshoot.

Everyone is armed with a single disc gun, except for Cary, who brandishes two. “Yeah, guns are like girls,” he explains. “Two are always better than one.”

“Well said,” says Quen offering rare praise for Cary. Even Quen cannot fault the wisdom of Cary’s philosophy, though he still can’t resist a jab. “Two guns are impressive. But too bad, you haven’t even had one girl. That’d be way more impressive.”

Quen is one of the few us to have a steady girlfriend. She is a beautiful, intellectual white gal one year older. This exemplifies an interesting dynamic: while some Asian men might resent white guys at times, quite a few love white girls and will date them at every opportunity. The corollary is the more widely documented “yellow fever” of white men, some of whom may look down upon Asian men while finding Asian women enchanting.

Quen greatly disdains yellow fever, even though, ironically, he might not exist were it not for it. He once described a most elaborate example: “The US always takes credit for defeating the Japanese. But there’s no fucking way they could have done so if Chang Kai-Shek and his Chinese forces had not held down some 600,000 Japanese troops that could have been deployed elsewhere in the Asia Pacific theater. Yet CKS is known in the West as the man who lost China. Meanwhile, his wife, Song Mei-Ling, is credited with saving China when she charmed both chambers of Congress to rally support for China. All those damn congressmen had yellow fever for her!”

After everyone settles in, Quen goes over the ground rules. His parents are away for the weekend, so we pretty much have the run of the estate. However, he wants us to know which parts we can play in (first floor of the main house, guest house, and much of the grounds) and which are off-limits (second floor of the main house, the swimming pool).

Then he lays out the basic rules of capture the flag, including the penalty for getting hit: if you do not have the opponent’s flag, you go back to your base. If you do have the opponent’s flag, you must return the flag to the opponent’s base and then go back to your base. There is absolutely no mention of which parts of the body cannot be targeted. I again think of how the jet discs can penetrate an eye socket, but elect not to mention this safety issue. I don’t want to spoil everyone’s fun just because there is a chance one of us might lose an eye.

We draw lots, and I end up on the team with Quen, Evan, Cary, and Steven. Andy, Kip, John, and two others comprise the other squad. They come up with a team name, The Arnolds, as in Schwarzenegger (not Palmer, although he too is a hero to prep school boys everywhere). For our team name, Evan lobbies for his Rainbow Coalition while Quen half-jokingly brings up Asian Pride. They compromise on Rainbow Pride, which cracks us all up. Private school boys are about as mature as public-school boys at handling anything vaguely alluding to homosexuality.

Rainbow Pride starts at the guesthouse. Meanwhile, The Arnolds begin at the front of the estate. Andy, captain of The Arnolds, leads his team there as he has been to Quen’s estate before. After they leave, we search for a place to plant our flag. By the rules, it has to be someplace widely visible, so we stick ours in front of the waterfall.

Evan volunteers to hang out at the guesthouse to defend the flag. He’s not the type to run around as he is as well-groomed as Quen and doesn’t wish to put his coiffure at unnecessary risk. Quen assigns Cary and me to join him as the primary attack group. Lastly, he has Steven, in his camouflage garb, hide atop a tree nearby where he can pick off The Arnold’s advance party in a kill box leading up to the guesthouse. Obviously, Quen has put some meaningful thought into this whole scheme.

He leads Cary and me across the estate. To Quen, this is just home, so he trots casually in front of us. I try to take it all in stride, continuously reminding myself that this is just another run-of-the-mill ultra-luxury estate, one with acres of woodland, a spacious guesthouse, and an even more massive main house. However, there are times when I can’t help but reveal my wonder.

“Is that a stable?” I ask.

“Yeah, we breed horses,” says Quen. “Several Arabians and two Friesians. We also used to have a few Thoroughbreds, but they demand too much time and patience. So we sold them.” He talks about his horses like another kid might speak about his collection of baseball cards.

A few minutes later, I ask, “Uh, you have a tennis court?”

“Yeah. Well, two, actually. For, you know, when friends come over.”

“Of course. We have two as well,” I say.

“Oh, really?” Quen asks, without any sign of incredulity.

“Well, yeah, but we happen to share them with about forty other families in our community.”

“Right. Well, that’s cool,” says Quen. Clearly, his mind is laser-focused on our game rather than our wealth disparity.

We march forward in a straight line across the estate, but Quen suddenly veers to the left as we approach the main house. We come across a one-story building with raised skylights surrounded by solar panels. He takes out a card and slides it through a reader by the door. We step inside. It’s a beautiful indoor pool house.

“Wait, I thought you said the pool was off-limits,” says Cary.

“You weren’t listening. I said the outdoor pool is off-limits,” says Quen. “I never mentioned the indoor pool. We can cut through here to get to the side of the main house to catch them off-guard. Benefits of home-court advantage, gentlemen.”

“Ah, smart. Is this a junior Olympic pool?” Cary asks.

“Nah. Full-sized. My dad is a swimmer. And Andy comes here to train sometimes.”

We pop out the other side of the pool house and find ourselves on the side of the main house. However, Andy must have anticipated this, as immediately a hailstorm of jet discs rain down from a tree to the left of us. Fortunately, none of the discs hit their mark, and we make a beeline for the front of the main house. Once we’re at the front, Quen points out a few statues to take cover behind. So this is where the Hellenic sculptures are.

More discs fly our way. Andy has most of The Arnolds set up in a defensive perimeter around the house. I spot the flag under the impressive entryway arch to the main house and indicate this to Cary with a flick of my eyes. He yells for us to cover him and makes a valiant run for the flag. He’s firing his two guns like he’s Chow Yun-fat in a John Woo movie, impressively evading all the jet discs whizzing about. Then, unexpectedly, one hits him from behind.

“Hey, Quen, you just shot Cary,” hollers Kip as he laughs from behind a bush in front of the house.

“Did you just fucking frag my ass?” asks Cary incredulously. He’s pissed and turns to walk back to our base.

“Sorry, buddy, that was meant for Kip,” says Quen. However, he says this with a half-smile that only I can see.

A chill runs down my spine. All of a sudden, I feel like Charlie Sheen/Private Taylor in Platoon as it dawns on me/him that the ruthless Quen/Tom Berenger/Sgt. Barnes has fragged the noble Cary/Willem Dafoe/ Sgt. Elias. However, I have little time for moralistic contemplation as Quen abruptly grabs me and pulls me towards the arched entry. We take advantage of the lull in the action as Cary makes his way off the battlefield, and we reach the flag, which Quen grabs. More jet discs fly our way, and we’re pinned down with Charlie closing in on us. We only have one way out… into the house.

Quen opens the door, and I quickly follow him into a grand entryway. So this is where the double-helical staircases are. We run past them and into an immense living room with wall-to-wall windows reaching the top of an inspiring vaulted ceiling. I have little time to admire how the windows and skylights bathe the entire room in warm light but make a mental note to do so the next time I come over, hopefully under somewhat less stressful conditions.

We make our way past the dining room…

“Wow…” I say.

“Yeah, it’s a Hugues Chevalier. One-of-a-kind handmade dining table from Vienna.”

…through the kitchen…

“Wow…” I reiterate.

“My dad wanted Gaggenau, but my mom insisted on La Cornue.” Even while running and dodging, he senses my blank face behind him. “Gaggenau is famous for its cutting-edge industrial design. La Cornue is French custom-made.”

…and into the backyard…

“Wow… Is that the Fontana di Trevi?”

“No, no, of course not. That would be in Rome. This is just a large-ass fountain with some horses springing forth from it, water spraying everywhere. You can swim in it, but it’s not the main outdoor pool, obviously.”

“Obviously,” I reply.

As we sprint back towards our base, I notice the main outdoor pool, mainly because it’s gigantic with a swim-up bar in a grotto that looks like it came straight from the Playboy Mansion.

Suddenly I feel a slight ping on my back. Andy or one of his minions chasing us has nailed me. Thankfully, their efforts are for naught, as Quen soon reaches our base with The Arnold flag. I’m exhausted and feeling a bit dizzy from running around in ninety-two-degree weather. However, I remind myself to study harder. I see the possibilities of a better life before me and I realize that one day, I may wish for a few luxuries of my own.

Most importantly, I am thankful to Quen, Cary, and my Brophy pals for one crucial matter: if only for that one afternoon, I have found reprieve from the Chinese water torture that had been dripping incessantly on my forehead.

***

After thirty years as a corporate executive, Richard C Lin recently retired when Covid-19 decisively taught him that there is more to life than struggling to get into a Zoom call at 2 am. He now focuses on writing, philanthropy, and his family of one extraordinary wife, three spirited kids, and nine frenetic hamsters. Richard has just completed his first memoir, Arizona Awakening, to kick off a series of four centered on themes of interracial romance, intergenerational immigrant conflict, and ethnic tensions in the US, China, and Taiwan. Richard also plans to craft an anthology of short stories regarding the Chinese young adult orphans that his wife, Cindy, and he have come to love and support. Richard’s excerpts from the memoir have appeared in The Dillydoun Review and have been slated to appear in The Write Launch, Potato Soup Journal, Drunk Monkeys, along with other literary journals.

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