Many years ago, when I was a graduate student, I inherited June when a fellow graduate student left the Berkeley area. She was a precious gift in more ways than I expected.
June cleaned my house as I never did and no one has since. While she cleaned, I edited the very long novel she’d written — essentially converting words and phrases into colloquial American English.
She needed the edit — and it was the only compensation she wanted — because she’d come to this country from China, with only the English she’d learned at school and had to become more fluent just be listening and figuring out what people meant.
The novel was her effort to tell English speakers about what she’d witnessed during the Second World War and the Communist takeover afterwards. Parts of it were truly brilliant. So reading it was part of the gift.
Talking with June was another part. We’d sit at the kitchen table for brief conversations before tackling our separate tasks. We generally talked about word changes I’d made, but not always. June was a sharp observer and intellectually curious.
I recall her asking me one day what she could read about “brothers fighting brothers.” I understood she meant our Civil War — much on her mind, given her post-war time on the mainland before she fled to Taiwan.
Fled alone, with her young son because the air force pilot she’d married, over her parents’ objections, wanted to have concubines when he returned home.
She’d lose face, she said, if she went back to her parents. Instead, she bravely moved here, where she knew no one — or anything about working for a living. Yet she found enough work that paid enough to support herself and “the boy.”
She managed somehow to find time for the novel, while still paying for rent, food and the like, but only after she’d also paid for at least some of her son’s college costs.
I think of June now because I wonder what she’d think about our country today. We surely do have a version of “brother against brother” — several versions actually.
June, I know, would disapprove of in-your-face actions and shoving at political rallies. She had very strong feelings about decorum. She’d remark on the shouting and shoving among kids passing by on their way home from the nearby public school. Their parents didn’t bring them up properly, she’d say.
I’m more curious about how June would view the blatant hostility to immigrants that Trump has surfaced and fostered.
She’d understand, I think, that the hostility isn’t directed toward people like her. We do see hostility against Asians in some quarters, but it’s mainly focused on high-achievers, in the conventional sense — college students, for example, and graduates with high-tech jobs.
Might June nevertheless feel unwanted — anxious even? All that talk of deportation. I’m quite sure she had the paperwork authorizing her residency. But she’d never become a citizen. She stubbornly insisted — my urgings notwithstanding — that she’d need to know more about our country first.
This had nothing to do with whether she could pass the test. She’d completed night school courses to prepare for that. But she believed she had to know more than most native-born Americans do before becoming an American herself.
And what, I wonder, would June think about the administration’s rounding up and deporting immigrants who, like her, had come to this country for safety and better lives for their children.
She was a devout Christian. I’m inclined to think she’d have based her view on what the Bible says about caring for strangers and loving neighbors as ourselves. But the Bible also speaks of honoring laws. And for whatever reason, June showed no tolerance for law-breakers.
She and I lost touch some time after I left Berkeley. That was back in the days when keeping in touch meant sending letters through the postal system or making long-distance calls.
June had little spare time, what with the still-unfinished novel — and very little money. I was short on both too, but basically just didn’t try to sustain the connection. I couldn’t help her. She wouldn’t let me. And I got none of the rewards of our weekly conversations.
I’m quite sure June is dead now. I couldn’t possibly find her anyway. But I do wish I could hear her thoughts on the immigration debate — if we can call it that. And I think of how she enriched not only my life, but the country she loved perhaps more than she should have.