Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 115 in 2008.
My father-in-law and I treat each other as strangers until the two of us start watching a Korean soap together after which he demonstrates how to set a mousetrap while downing a shot of Mai Tai, 150-proof a pop.
My reason for treating him as a stranger is based on fear. He speaks with a rapid-fire cadence that sounds like a circus barker. Li, my wife, assures me that his profound hatred of me is not in the least personal. “When will he change?” I ask. She replies matter-of-factly, “When you finish up your dissertation and start making the real bucks.”
My father-in-law is a short man with a barrel chest. If not for the Cultural Revolution, the Japanese occupation and the other assorted political catastrophes that have come his way, he would have been a contented teacher of accounting at a secondary school or, perhaps, would have succumbed to my mother-in-law’s ambitions and become a high-ranking administrator at the Tianjin Normal College.
In the first case, he would have been happy. In the second, outwardly placid. But because his father had been a property owner previous to the revolution, my father-in-law was considered a member of the black class and was made to walk down the narrow alley where he and his wife had their apartment, his arms pinned back as if they were the wings of a jet plane, glass perforating his forehead and chest.
My father-in-law has been with us two weeks now. The ostensible reason for his stay is to see his only granddaughter. His real purpose is to escape his wife’s incessant nagging. He knows that she will not leave her precious Goubuli Alley where she is entrusted to manage the lives of her young sister, daughter and banker niece. It remains unimportant that her banker-niece, daughter, and younger sister do not want her counsel. Their stubbornness confirms to my mother-in-law the profound need for her advice.
My father-in-law starts watching Korean soaps the day after he arrives from Bradley. We have had cable recently installed so that he can view a Taiwanese station that broadcasts out of Chinatown in New York. I sit next to him on the adjoining couch. Our favorite soap has become Harvard Law.
The story is about three ambitious students from Korea attending Harvard who for some mysterious reason talk to each other in a crisp Mandarin. The basis of the show’s popularity is not hard to figure. On each episode, the central character, a tall Korean who always has his tennis racket by his side, comes up with a plan to overcome a hurdle erected by a professor who has eyes shaped like two Chinese plums.
Last week, the Korean and his two cohorts—a boy with shaggy hair and a girl wearing a Mickey Mouse bow--win their first mock trial. They are charged with defending an African-American woman who has been accused of shoplifting by a store manager at a major chain. It never gets explained why a poor, African-American woman would seek counsel from a law student who always carries around a steel-pitched racket or why a Harvard professor with two eyes shaped like Chinese plums would serve as her judge.
Several non-descript Westerners are teamed up with the Koreans. Their job is to look baffled while the Korean with the tennis racket asserts in perfect English the import that each student put aside his or her individual ego for the betterment of the group. The camera cuts to his sitting alone in his dorm room. The Korean has placed his steel pitched racket diagonally on the bed and is busy penning a letter to his grandfather in Seoul that affirms his desire to do the family honor by getting a high paying gig at a fossilized Boston law firm.
The mock trial takes place in the second part of a two-part special. We have to wait until later that night to find out how the Korean will win the case, once again proving his worth to his beloved ancestor and to the professor whose eyes bear a strange likeness to Chinese plums. A sports show comes on afterwards, hosted by a guy with black thick-rimmed glasses: his special guest has arms the size of a Sumo wrestler’s.
Li tells me in a very loud voice that I should come to the kitchen. A plastic Wonder Bread bag has been nibbled clear through, evidently by a mouse or by a city of mice. My father-in-law follows, carefully examining the slightly damaged Wonder Bread bag. He shakes his head in agreement. It is impossible to tell from the size of that hole how many mice live in our apartment wall.
He shuts the TV off for the first time since he’s arrived from Bradley and walks briskly outside our door towards our 75 Dodge Dart that has been with me since before I met Li.
My father-in-law flips down the torn upholstery. Off we drive to the nearest hardware store where a clerk looking almost like a twin of the law student, except for the scar protruding from his forehead, affably shows my father-in-law the different options even though my father-in-law does not understand a word, and I am hopeless at translating. These alternatives include a spray that woods persons have used for generations to suffocate whole cities of mice. Eventually, I settle on a mousetrap with a large-sized V on its wooden base. My father-in-law nods his head, apparently approving of my traditional approach and, in my Dart on the way back, intently studies the plastic packaging as if he’s Harrison Ford, deciphering an Egyptian hieroglyphic.
Its directions are easy enough to follow. The first step (and the direction emphasizes, the first step is the most important one) involves choosing the right bait. A slab of rich havarti with peppercorns in its middle may have worked but has already been transformed into my midnight snack, so I decide to take out in its stead some peanut butter that Cornucopia, a natural food store in town, has ground into fine particles.
As the direction emphasizes, I vigilantly (the italics, again the manufacturer’s) remove the small staple that locks the bar to the wooden base and place a hunk inside the curl at the end of the bait pedal and set the trap, as the direction indicates in bright red letters, at “the most opportune location”—at the edge of the laminated kitchen counter where we keep a cluster of unnatural foods, including a nearly closed packet of Lays and a half eaten yodel.
My father-in-law carefully observes my work as though he’s the Korean surveying his hopeless colleagues on Harvard Law. I may be paranoid. He may be displaying his attention as a way to indicate, in the only language he has, that he’s secretly bonding with my character. I may be typecast not as the leader but as the other Korean—as Shaggy, who has shown himself in other episodes to be a Renaissance man: a master of disguise, an expert film maker, and a more than competent acrobat, having once been shot out of a circus canon as a part of subtly wrought plan to incriminate a Cambridge police officer.
Part II of the special episode starts with the Korean warning emphatically that “the first step is most important.” He points with the handle of his steel-pitched racket at the girl with a Mickey Mouse bow before proceeding to pronounce Shaggy’s critical part in his elegantly simple scheme.
My father-in-law dozes off before the first commercial break in the program, his snoring inhabiting the cheap wood beneath the thin carpeting of our apartment. I reach the first commercial break but not much after, awakened only by the sounds of an early morning Japanese cartoon. An old man with a large gun is chasing a girl with a smiling face who manages to retreat to a normally peaceful green dragon who, nevertheless, manages to eviscerate the villain before giving the girl a daisy and snoring once again.
My father-in-law is already at work, checking out my trap. The steel bar above the Red V has been licked clean. The mouse has somehow figured out a way to digest the peanut butter that had been ground into delicate grains at the natural food store while avoiding having his or her neck lopped off by the thin steel bar.
My father-in-law speaks to Li in a voice that again reminds me of a barker on a circus stage. I drive him to the liquor store, convinced that I have not been paranoid and that I have indeed been typecast as one of the stupid Westerners on the Korean’s legal team.
My father-in-law finds a bottle of translucent rice wine that is called Mao-Tai, having a picture of a fat Anglo keeled over on the floor with cheerful red lettering below stating that “this wine can knock off the socks of any white man,” the emphasis the manufacturer’s.
I expect him afterwards to take the lead. But my father-in-law lets me set down the trap alone. This time, I give up the possibility of a midnight snack and use the rich havarti with peppercorn for bait. He starts working quietly on his Goubuli dumplings, which he prepares with a professional efficacy, scratching out a mix comprised of pork and scallions while rolling the dough flat and pinching the edges together so that the dumplings all have evenly shaped mouths.
It takes him nearly three hours to complete our meal by which time the two of us are so hungry that we devour the complete tray and share none of it with the mouse or with the city of mice that live somewhere between the back kitchen wall and the long fields of off-colored grass stretching leisurely to the edges of my university. My father-in-law and I retreat to our different positions in the living room: he on the comfortable sofa seat, me on the couch with the cushions that sag into the springs. A sports announcer with thick-rimmed glasses is speaking animatedly to the guy with the Sumo-sized arms.
Tiger Woods is playing in the Masters and is trying to come from behind in the final phase of the tournament. Though the Tiger has won innumerable times, he has not yet come from behind in the closing round. This tournament is no different. He bogeys 13, makes par on 14. The announcer with the thick-rimmed glasses comments in a hush as though from a studio in Taipei, the young broadcaster has gathered the clout to disrupt the Tiger’s concentration.
My father-in-law grabs the Mao-Tai that has been carefully cloistered in the cabinet above our kitchen counter--fills his tall drinking glass, directing me with his right index finger to take a similarly sized swig. He declares in his typically sharp-edged voice, “Gombei,” meaning in Chinese “down the hatch.” I empty my glass, repeating his toast, trying, as best I can, to capture his firecracker cadence.
My father-in-law is pleased at my efforts to mimic his Chinese, however imperfectly. He smiles the same way that the Professor on Harvard Law smiles at the Koreans who can speak precise English and fluent Mandarin but who never speak in their native tongue.
The trap in the kitchen by the Wonder Bread and the Frito Lays goes snap, but I am too blurry eyed to examine our success until the following morning when the two of us find the steel trap glimmering in the midday sun.
The mouse and the rich havarti with peppercorn in its middle are not there, so I figure we’ll have to finish another bottle of Mao-Tai—maybe several over the next few evenings or weeks.