The meanderings of a recovering ex-expat with the occasional identity crisis
It is said that goldfish have the worst memory of any living creature in the animal kingdom. I don’t think this conclusion was reached through years of rigorous, double-blind scientific research, where a school of goldfish was pitted against against a herd of donkeys, and both were forced to recall what they had for breakfast that morning. It’s just common knowledge that goldfish don’t retain a lot of stuff in those brains that weigh only 0.097 grams.
The human brain weighs about 1.5kgs, and it’s generally known that the cerebrum, which makes up most of our brains, holds what is known as memory. And because the human brain is considerably larger than a goldfish brain, it’s also generally accepted that we humans have better memories than goldfish. Except in the case of our family, brain weight and mass are just to keep our heads at the size that most people are accustomed to seeing on humans.
When my sister was a toddler, my parents had accidentally locked her in the back of their Dodge station wagon with the engine running and the windows rolled up…for about twenty minutes. For the first ten minutes, Annie, my sister, watched with great interest, as my parents wrung their hands and tore at their hair, blaming each other, themselves, me, and the Dodge corporation for their predicament. For the next five minutes, my parents tried to pantomime and baby talk instructions to their two-year-old child on how to unbuckle herself from her baby seat, calmly crawl over to the far left side of the car, and pull up the lock on the car door. In the last five minutes, a passerby noticed a family of dorky Chinese freaking out over what looked like a mentally-impaired baby staring at her own breath on the window from the inside of a locked, fake-wood-paneled station wagon. The good Samaritan then went to his car, got a wire hanger, slid it down the side of the window and unlocked my parents’ car.
About the same time, elsewhere in the world, another Chinese – possibly a first grader – had just won the National Spelling Bee by correctly spelling the word Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis. And it was highly likely that a fifteen-year old Chinese prodigy was opening up his letter of acceptance into Harvard Law School. But my Chinese parents were singing the praises of the genius who had invented wire hangers and the godsend good Samaritan who had the foresight to use one during their locked-car emergency.
Today, neither Annie nor my parents have any recollection of this incident.
If we had to choose a “winner” from our family of memory “losers”, my Mother would take the cake…then forget she had it, till about three weeks later when it was rotting into a puddle on the back seat of her car. Annie and I often competed against each other, based on how many events our Mother forgot to attend, or pick us up from.
“She made me miss my friend’s party once, because she thought she lost her glasses, and we had to drive back to all the places she’d been to. But it turned out her glasses were at home!”
“I was competing in a piano festival for the first time, and she got the room number wrong. She sat in on the violin competition instead, then yelled at me for giving her the wrong information!”
“I almost didn’t go to Grad because of her! She forgot to pick up my dress!”
“She once forgot to pick me up after a movie downtown and I had to hang out on Granville for three hours. Someone thought I was a transsexual hooker!”
My Mother’s absent-mindedness is legendary in the same way that a man will eat a whole cow in one sitting and get into the Guiness Book of World Records is legendary. She has about half a dozen wristwatches stashed throughout her house, in her car, and in various purses or jackets, which she can never find. She’s lost three pairs of glasses over the years and still has two pairs left, including a pair from the 1980s – the bug-eyed years.
But she won’t be able to tell you where they are at any given moment. My Mother’s now misplaced so many scarves that she walks around wearing something that looks like a dish rag around her neck. She’s lost so many umbrellas that she’ll only carry broken ones. You can always tell her apart from the others in a downpour, as her umbrella’s the one that’s turned inside out, or the one that’s partially-enveloped her head.
Whenever we need to be somewhere at a certain time, we’d give my Mom a good two-hours’ notice. But two-and-a-half hours later, she’d still be looking for her watch, glasses, or dish-towel scarf.
Over forty years of marriage, my Dad would sometimes say. And almost half of it spent waiting for your Mom to find her watch. Why does she need to wear one, if she’s late all the time?
And from another part of the house – maybe the laundry room, where Mom is bent over the hamper, looking for her watch, she calls out,
Cause I want to know how late I am, O.K.?
Then, we’d find out fifteen minutes later that her watch had been in her back pocket all this time.
Faced with a family of memory-impaired Chinese, I’ve trained myself to develop a steel-trap of a memory for the most minute and useless information. For example, I still remember my Student ID# from undergrad – 13908876. The birth date of an elementary-school friend I haven’t seen since the fourth grade – June 13. The precise location, appearance, and size of the bird dropping that fell onto my jacket, when I was watching the Orca whale performance at the Stanley Park Zoo and Aquarium – right shoulder blade, approximately 3″ in diameter.
I also know that slugs have four noses, Hitler had one testicle, and camels have three eyelids.
If a close friend had a birthday, I’ll probably miss it by a few days, even if I’ve known her for the last fifteen years. But I will remember what kind of shoes she wore one night we went out for drinks ten years ago after work, and how her hair was done up. And I’ll remember what kind of drink she had, and that her drink was watered down, so she asked for another, which took half an hour to arrive. I might even remember that the buffalo wings were too greasy and overpriced, the server was rude, and the place overrated. However, if that friend were to remind me today, that we were celebrating my birthday that night ten years ago, I would look at her as if she were a one-testicled Hitler riding on a camel with three eyelids, with a four-nosed slug plastered to its forehead.
When my friends reminisce about the family activities they did while growing up – camping, picnicking, or cherry-picking – I can only imagine what family-bonding moments they were. Family activities for me and Annie consisted of hunting for our Mother’s lost items. A pair of glasses got you several dollars, a scarf – maybe a pat on the head and lunch money, watches and jewelry – negotiable depending upon how valuable it was. Annie and I caught on quickly and started hiding our Mother’s possessions, just so we could make a few bucks.
I SWEAR TO GOD I put my wedding ring in that soap holder when I washed my hands! Mom would lament to my Dad, who could only shake his head at his wife’s spiraling descent into absent-minded oblivion.
Objects, which were taken from their usual spots would show up in the most unlikely places.
“Annie, where did you get that scarf? I’ve been looking for it everywhere!”
“In the vegetable crisper, next to the Ovaltine.” Annie would say, face deadpan. “Your cucumbers are rotting. Do I get my fifty cents?”
In the mid-90s, with only a few days before my parents had to hand over their house to the new owners, I flew over ten hours from Taipei to Vancouver and was greeted with a razor blade, a roll of masking tape and a spoon. My sister and I were told to each pick a room and go over it with a fine tooth comb, till we found valuables. Mom claimed she had stashed valuables throughout the house, but couldn’t remember where they were and also couldn’t find the notebook, in which she’d written their locations.
As you’d expect from a woman who had once stopped traffic on the Lion’s Gate bridge with her driving and required a police escort off the bridge, my Mother doesn’t keep her valuables in any place that would seem practical to 99% of the world’s population. She never puts money under the mattress, nor jewelry in the freezer. Instead, she’ll spend hours carefully planting a plastic bag containing her gold necklaces, bracelets and earrings in the dirt of her bewildered rubber tree. Or, she’ll strategically slice open the carpet in the Master Bedroom to stuff a few hundred dollar bills inside. My Dad used to complain that sitting on the Lazy Boy stressed him out, since whatever my Mother had stuffed inside the seat was digging into his right butt cheek.
Several slashed carpets, five massacred plants, and one dead Lazy Boy later, Annie and I found some loose change, several hundred dollar bills, a few wayward Certs, Annie’s report card from the third grade, one watch, and one heavily wrinkled scarf.
For absent-minded people like us, certain things we see or experience will trigger our memories of an unrelated, but much more important event. For example, I might see a homeless person walking down the street wearing a pork pie hat and plastic bags and suddenly remember that I’d forgotten to turn off the stove at home.
The day before my parents were to move out of their house, as Annie was trying to cut a thick-crust pizza with a credit card – all of the cutlery had been prematurely packed, and we’d forgotten to label the boxes – our Mother suddenly remembered that she’d put all of her valuables in the safety deposit box at the bank. They were never in the house to begin with.
“What a relief! I thought I’d lost everything, forever!” Mom exclaimed joyously.
Unfortunately, we couldn’t share in her joy. Dad had spent the entire day trying to fix the slashed carpets; Annie and I were grossed out by the number of food-encrusted utensils and garbage we found underneath sofa cushions and behind dressers.
“After pizza, let’s go and hide some of the cartons. Where’s the one containing the dishes and utensils?”
“…yeah, yeah! And her clothes and shoes!”
The adventure continues….