In the spring of 1995, I suddenly found myself spun by the Buddha right off the wheel of life, down to New York City, where I was a jook-sing, an American born Chinese. Who knew what the heavenly one’s purpose was for this, but I had to adjust to my new life. I’d already lived two previous existences that I could remember—running a pressing machine day and night at a laundry to put two sons through college, and I’d been a child prodigy playing the violin to magnificent applauding crowds at Carnegie Hall—so I knew about being a model minority. However, what else there was to learn about being Asian in America, I couldn’t yet say. And for reasons unknown to me, one evening that first month, as the television beamed out the CBS logo of the western round eye, I sat waiting breathlessly on a pillowed couch, struggling to be comfy with my feet up and shoes off, letting the air flow between my tired toes. I was twenty-three years old and working at The Gap, and of all things, as the six o’clock news flickered onto the screen in beautiful many-pixelled Technicolor, my eyes gazed longingly, waiting with great anticipation for the woman who was now the goddess of my rife imagination: Connie Chung.
Yes, I couldn’t say why, but in my mind and heart Connie was my dark-haired beauty, my treasure, my China doll. Her porcelain smooth rounded face rivaled any woman’s as far as I was concerned, my ears listened intently for the playful lilt of her adorable cute voice, and don’t forget the perkiness of her smile or her beautiful almond-shaped eyes. To me she was such a media icon and high glamour woman, so why shouldn’t I, like Maury Povich, desire her for my very own?
For those of you deep in the Asian American know, forget about how Connie had been avoiding the AAJA (Asian American Journalists’ Association) for several years. She’d simply been busy getting to the top of the news heap and staying there. You should also recall how she was only the second anchor woman in all of network history, though I rated her first, far ahead of Barbara Walters, of course. Yes, at her peak Connie had power, money, fame, her voice an integral part of the daily news spotlight of our nation. So on the evening I’ve been telling you about, as I sat waiting for the news hour, my eyes desperately needed to be soothed.
Connie didn’t appear, though, and my heart began to ache. Perhaps she was on assignment at some far–off locale, questioning the President or other heads of state, or she might have suddenly caught strep throat or the flu, or been caught in a traffic tangle. Needless to say, I grabbed the telephone directory and posthaste called the local CBS affiliate, WCBS. “Can you tell me,” I asked, “if anything’s happened to Connie Chung?”
“There’s nothing wrong, but haven’t you heard?”a secretary asked in first-rate nasal Brooklyn accent.
My entire body instantly trembled. “Heard what?”
“The bombing in Oklahoma City. She’s headed there. Watch the late night news.”
“Thank you,” I said, but the secretary had already hung up.
That fateful day of April 19, I watched the initial late night news accounts from Oklahoma City, and the reports of the fatalities and the pictures of grieving parents and relatives made me feel awful. Who would commit such a crime? Why would they? I gripped the arm of my couch like I was belted into a rocket and taking off and suddenly thought of how other bombs might be about to explode. Why wasn’t Dan Rather taking the assignment? “Oh, my God!” I exclaimed. “Oh, my Connie!”
But later that night she materialized upon my Sony Trinitron screen, vivid and beautiful, hastening back and forth among a sea of vans, trucks, satellite dishes and Winnebagos, talking with the families revived her hard-hitting uncompromising, get-to-the-truth journalistic instincts. It was, after all, the same unflinching seriousness that had first launched her reporting career. “Are you worried,” she asked a police official,
“that crime might be rampant elsewhere in Oklahoma City while all the rescue teams are downtown? Is your municipality prepared for this kind of crisis?”
I knew instinctively how Connie’s concern and care for all of us provoked her severe line of questioning. She didn’t want any more harm done. Not there or in any other unsecure metropolis. But the people of Oklahoma City believed she was unfairly impugning the police, and that while doing so she was just plain getting in the way. Some self-righteous clod remarked on camera that she shouldn’t be critiquing the auhorities while everyone else was still focused on searching for survivors or just beginning the ordeal of mourning for the dead. By the next morning, I saw photographs in The New York Times of outraged Oklahomans wearing
“WHO THE HELL IS CONNIE CHUNG?” T-shirts.
As if that controversy wasn’t enough, Connie had apparently burrowed under Dan Rather’s collar too, because he was on the scene now, stoic, grim-faced, reporting for CBS instead, speaking with eloquent
compassion for the community of Oklahoma City and the security
of all the free world. He’d been on vacation, but this—now this was news—and clearly it had to be his news.
Two days later, Connie and Dan returned to studio headquarters in New York, and any of you could see the harsh fate of Chung-Rather in the making. When Connie read the headlines from the teleprompter, Dan appeared dismissive, barely interested; like a married couple sinking towards divorce, the spark was gone—they had no on-air dynamic or verbal chemistry anymore—and gossip soon leaked out that Connie had been told to hurry to the blast site while Dan had been told not to go. The New York Post reported that he’d given management a stern tongue lashing afterwards, saying, “We have to work something out so that we don’t have this situation develop again. If something like that breaks, I want to be in on it.”
The jealous backstabber, I thought. He’s killing her. And with all my being, I wanted to whisk myself there, to protect her and at least give her a hug. But I didn’t act, and one evening toward the end of that May I tuned in and discovered, to my horror, that CBS had removed Connie
from the broadcast entirely. The ungrateful news executive buffoons had relegated her, of all things, to weekend anchor, designating her as Rather’s substitute anchor.
“It’s not right!” I hollered, feeling despondent, if not obliterated.
“How can they shine the spotlight on her, and then just yank it away?”
The only person I knew away from work was Monique, a young woman whose hair was cut in a bob, her green eyes as pretty as jade—she lived in the apartment directly across the hall— and she must have heard my raised voice, because she knocked on my door, asking, “Are you alright?”
The interruption startled me, but so did looking at Monique; she was a stick-thin model with the longest legs and most delicate arms, who always appeared to be starving herself. She wore the shortest skirt, and her silk blouse was seductively unbuttoned down to the wisps of her cleavage. “I’m fine,” I said, trying to be brave and strong, “but how are you?”
“Let me know if you need anything, or if you ever want to go out for a drink,” she said, winked at me, and began to back away, as if the invitation somehow almost exceeded her own flirtatious boundaries.
“Thanks,” I said, but gently closed the door.
I thought Monique was—well, nice—but Connie remained the only woman for me, and since she was still gone from the airwaves, in no time my mood swung low. Through the subsequent days, I felt weak, my eyes growing dim, nausea often enveloping me, and strange unfamiliar desperate feelings of hunger and need rived my body and mind. It was as if I’d been seized by a curse or a spell, and when I worked at The Gap the feelings of hunger and need increased, growing out of control, burgeoning like dandelions proliferating across a meadow.
Yes, Connie’s absence was rough, becoming increasingly difficult, and one evening that same week upon finishing my shift at the cash register, without Connie to return home to, my entire being felt abandoned, if not hopelessly lost. Depressed, heartsick, I sat in my Honda Accord, and for some reason gently removed my contact lenses and withdrew from the glove box my spare pair of black, thick-framed glasses with heavy lenses. Once I put them on, after turning the key and starting the engine, I laughed for the first time in weeks, pulled out to merge with the dizzying swarms of vile Manhattan traffic, and cut someone off, but didn’t care. At the first intersection as the light turned yellow, when my foot hit the brake pedal to be cautious, tires screeched behind me, and someone yelled, “You Goddam jerk! Learn how to drive!”
Not knowing where the words stemmed from, I hissed, “I’ll show you some bad driving.”
As the light turned green, the cursing driver sped by and gave me the finger, but I gunned the accelerator, flew by him, and shot him the finger back. In the next moment a compass within my mind guided my hands where to steer; an irresistible urge compelled me to cut someone off, so I wrenched the steering wheel and swerved into the far left lane, nearly colliding with a Mazda Miata. “You asshole!” the driver shouted, but I laughed, veered far right, and my front bumper scraped against a parked BMW. A siren wailed behind me—I imagined being pulled over and beaten like Rodney King, but thought, not this time—and took a hard left down a one-way street into oncoming traffic. After dodging six oncoming cars, then making another left and burning rubber down a back street, I no longer heard anyone pursuing me.
Now I smelled something familiar and drove another block. I smiled, realizing my hunger had been for Chinese food. The restaurant appeared, a little joint called General Tso’s—you know the cheap kind of place—and oh yes, this place had a bright red and green neon sign advertising take out and an all-you-can-eat buffet.
My parallel parking dented fenders ahead of and behind me, but laughing, faster than an Olympian sprinter, I entered the restaurant. The aroma of hot cooking oil and stir-fried vegetables and beef wafted heavily from the kitchen, arousing my senses. “I’ll have the buffet, please,” I said and paid at the counter. Walking the buffet line, careful not to singe my eyebrows on the orange heat lamps, I piled spare ribs, fried rice, sweet and sour chicken, chow mein and chop suey on my plate, the food reaching high like a Tibetan mountain. My craving for this Chinese junk food felt endless, despite my knowing how such fare would never be cooked or served so in China. Seated alone at a small square table, I stuffed myself like an opossum storing fat for the longest, most dreadful winter, and swallowing a piece of pineapple from the sweet and sour—it was probably Dole, from Hawaii—I still felt the strange desperate feelings of need. I didn’t know why, or what lesson I was supposed to be learning, but I asked myself, how is this type of eating like being drawn to Connie? What do the two desires have in common?
Interrupting my contemplation, a gray-shirted waiter walked over to the table. Since he didn’t speak English, he sounded unintelligible, but as if volume would help, I spoke louder than normal and asked: “WHAT ARE YOU SAYING?”
He made a pouring motion then mimicked drinking.
“I’LL HAVE TEA!” I replied.
The waiter hurried off like immigration agents had to be chasing after him, or like he couldn’t possibly be a citizen or possess a green card. Eventually, he returned with a silver metal teapot, and in spite of how much I proceeded to eat and drink, the strange desperate feelings of need persisted like a mysterious problem with no end in sight.
After the meal, the waiter presented the American–invented ritual fortune cookie, so my fingers tore the cellophane wrapper off greedily. Reading the fortune, “Many delights await you,” like it was a sacred text, I added the words “in bed,” and laughed hysterically—as if I were so superior—at my appropriation of American wit, then waddled out of the restaurant believing how in only a few hours hunger would strike me again.
The sun was fading now, as evening shrouded the city, I couldn’t say why the idea of driving home fell perilous and ill-advised. A growl emanated from someplace within me, and wanting to know where it originated from, and why, and still missing Connie, I drove for blocks and blocks until a lit marquee in Mid-town caught my eye. After my foot jammed on the brake pedal again, I swerved to the curb and stared at the theatre, a formerly glamorous nightspot, where dead center on the marquee the revered words, ENTER THE DRAGON, were displayed in huge red-block letters. The movie title spoke deeply to some part of me, urging me inside. The allure felt ominous, somehow misleading, but I shut off the engine and hopped out of my car. Quicker than a spinning kick, I bought a ticket, raced into the dark, sat down, slouched back in a tattered maroon velvet seat, and started watching the man, the master, Bruce Lee.
The plot of Enter The Dragon is this: Bruce is asked by his superiors to travel for the good of his country to a mysterious island where—surprise—a grand martial arts tournament is being held. A white man who murdered Bruce’s sister also happens to be one of the combatants. So the movie promised to be as cathartic as therapy, but all through the film as Bruce heroically destroyed each opponent in one glorious fight scene after another to restore the equilibrium of justice, the same growl that I’d heard earlier persisted within me. What did watching such a cinematic classic have to do with Connie? I wondered.
Once the movie ended, as if my unexplained feelings of need and the strange growling weren’t enough, when I exited the theatre the street appeared empty except for several sinister figures leaning against my Honda, putting their greasy hands on the windows and doors and hood. Suddenly we weren’t in New York anymore; we stood surrounded by flower gardens in the middle of a huge courtyard, and the scent of lotus blossoms clogged my nose. A sprawling palace with a pagoda-style roof loomed ominously in the background, and as the loud striking of a gong filled the air the vibrations penetrated to my bones. Instantly my shirt and nerdy glasses disappeared, so I stood there bare-chested in black cloth-soled shoes, and as if on cue my muscles rippled out. Not just my biceps and pectorals, but muscles in places where I hadn’t known there could be muscles.
The men who’d been leaning on my Honda surrounded me. Issuing guttural cries, leaping, kicking, I flew through the air, and my feet struck jaws, abdomens, groins, and snapped a leg or two. No one could so much as land a blow against me, and using my invincible fists, I needed only a few punches to subdue each attacker. As if I had eyes like a fly’s, no one snuck up from behind, and when more attackers appeared, I did back flips, tumbled forward, and escaped anyone’s grasp until only one attacker remained. He was a colossus with no neck who looked as if he’d been raised on steroids or locked up forever in a World’s Gym. He glared at me now, no doubt wanting to rip my arms, legs and head off, but my fists shot through space so rapidly I struck him ten times before he could lift a finger. He fell to the ground and groaned, and I turned my back, mercifully sparing his life.
Something told me not to trust him, though. I knew he would probably pull himself up and rush towards me. After a few seconds, he did. But then a growl came from within me—primal, savage, unbridled—and escaped loudly from my mouth because it was the death yell, formerly issued straight from Bruce Lee’s mouth. I’d seen it in the movie, yet now it was embraced by me, embodying me, utterly alive and thriving in me, and within seconds all of my spiritual and physical energy and all of the forces of honor were unleashed through my fists in one incomparable punch. I sent the colossus to the ground again; he fell harder than a redwood tree struck by a final axe blow, and blood gushed from his lips. As I surveyed all of the attackers who had died trying to defeat me, I felt no remorse. Each and every one of them, I realized, should have known better, because don’t all Asians know the martial arts?
My muscles unrippled, and I stepped back into the Honda. New York’s streets materialized for me to drive down again, and my hand switched on the radio from which no songs played, and I heard only one voice, identical to my own, like a haunting refrain, asking, “For whom? For Connie Chung?”
The longing to return home flooded my emotions, but where I lived remained a mystery to my brain. Driving south, I sideswiped a Cadillac, next a Volvo, and before realizing how far I’d traveled I reached Mott Street, the Asian landmark of landmarks, in the very heart of Chinatown.
This was America’s cinematic depiction of Chinatown, the streets dark, shadowy, with rats and monkeys racing across the sidewalks, and Tongs, the oriental Mafia, were waging a hatchet war. But I parked the Honda, climbed out, and my eyes peered through walls and saw men lounging in a room smoking glass opium pipes, and gazing through the pavement, I discerned a room far below where men stood crammed shoulder to shoulder at gambling tables, risking every cent they’d ever earned.
Further down the sidewalk a golden door opened by itself, inviting me in. I entered, passed through beaded curtains, proceeded down a long hallway and waited between rice paper walls until someone ushered me into a small room. Roland Winters, the white actor with taped eyebrows, stood playing Charlie Chan with an inscrutable expression, withholding the solution to a heinous crime. Bald-headed Shao Lin priests instructed David Carradine how to speak slowly and appear curious
for his starring role in Kung Fu. Pat Morita was uttering the most famous yet meaningless line of his career, “Wax on, wax off,” for The Karate Kid, and soon I overheard the actor Victor Sea Yung as Hop Sing on Bonanza, quarreling with Bruce Lee as Kato on The Green Hornet and George Takei as Sulu on Star Trek, saying, “Mistah Cahtright, he say Hop Sing a bettah second banana than you or you!”
Across the room, B.D. Wong as Dr. George Huang of Law & Order: SVU, Special Victims Unit, pleaded in the softest, most untraditionally masculine voice, “Detective Munch, if you’ll just listen, I’ll give you the best psychological profile you’ve ever heard.”
But Robert Ito, Dr. Sam Fugiyama of Quincy, the coroner show, shook his head back and forth like he could win any worst sidekick contest without trying, because Jack Klugman stood behind him whining, “Come on, Sam. I’ve got a date, and you don’t. So cut that body now! Hurry! I need those tissue samples right away!”
I wanted to be sick, but at the end of the room a slim man sat behind a polished mahogany empire desk, his face partially hidden in the dark.
“Don’t I know you?” I said.
“Yes,” the man answered. “I’ve been on television for years and years, as well as in countless movies.” He leaned forward, and I saw he had silver hair, but his face was a younger man’s, and he wore a black linen tailored suit, then flowing silk robes. A cigarette materialized in his mouth, and evil shone in his eyes. An episode of The X-Files in which poor Chinese men had gambled using their internal organs as collateral flashed through my mind—yes, I’d seen him there too. His name, I suddenly realized, was James Hong; he was the most ubiquitous Asian American character actor of all time, always the criminal mastermind, always the mysterious shadowy figure plotting away behind the scenes, the one who forever sternly commanded, “Kill him.”
“Goodbye, Chinese Godfather,” I said, turning to leave, because my body couldn’t stop trembling.
“You could stay here, you know,” he offered.
“You don’t have to go, because no matter what happens, I’ll be with you through eternity. And it won’t matter if there are Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Korean, or Pilipino actors, or any other race from the East. I’ll be there, playing each and every one of them, and it will last forever.”
“Why?” I asked.
“You know,” he said. “Everyone on the other side has thought of it at one time or another. Because all Asians look the same!” He laughed like the epitome of evil, and the haunting sound of his cruel string of laughter lingered in my ears, so I felt as if a camera had been rolling, capturing us on film, and I was afraid the scene might somehow be repeated in my mind incessantly, like a form of brainwashing or mind control, in the same way that television episodes are aired again and again.
I felt distraught, uncertain. What else was I supposed to learn now? For what purpose? Part of my thoughts asked, Why, Buddha? Why? Unable to stay in the room with Hong for another second, I dashed back onto Mott Street. The hour was very late, prompting me to worry about being on time at The Gap the next morning, and since the location of my apartment was no longer a mystery to my brain, I stepped back into the Honda and started to drive.
If only that had been the last night of my missing Connie so badly. But enlightenment wasn’t mine yet, and within days Connie accused CBS of sexism, so in retaliation, Eric Ober, President of the News Division, adamantly insisted that the two person anchor concept simply hadn’t worked. Connie refused to take a smaller role, boldly stating, “It’s inappropriate for the only woman on the three major network news programs
to have anything less than coequal status!”
“This is not, and was not, a gender issue,” Dan Rather replied, his voice as droll and pathetic as ever.
But in my eyes, Connie’s demotion was all about chauvinism and misogyny. Who was there but Rather at CBS, Jennings at ABC, and Brokaw at NBC? Connie’s on-screen presence might be near its permanent end, but I backed her all the way when she demanded, “I want a mutually agreeable separation from the network.”
Still, for days—foolishly, secretly—I held onto the slender hope that somehow CBS might reconsider. “Connie,” they needed to declare, “we’re wrong! We need you!” But as life turned out, without her on the air that month, the news ratings plummeted. Ober didn’t rehire her, though, because to do so would have amounted to an admission of guilt.
I found myself crying incessantly but challenged myself, asking, is this what Connie would do?
Standing tall, I marched in front of CBS headquarters, holding up a sign that proclaimed: BRING BACK CONNIE CHUNG! My protest stretched into days, and then weeks, and although deserving at least a photo and a caption in The Star, or some footage on local news, the only person who seemed to notice me was my neighbor, Monique. She brought sandwiches and coffee, telling me I was brave. But the only result of the was my being fired from The Gap, due to excessive absences.
Then on June 20th, 1995, I woke to discover in T.V. Guide that Connie would not be returning to any network. At least not soon. She and Maury Povich—that lucky dog—had adopted a baby and named him Matthew Jay Povich. They appeared to be the happiest people on earth, joy prevalent upon their smiling, blissful faces, while my life only felt like it was deteriorating, crumbling apart like a sand dune being struck by a storm tide. That following week, my sense of abandonment was the worst, and I tried to tell myself that loneliness could become my good close friend, but without Connie I simply couldn’t bear the waking hours or the evening news. At night I wailed, “How could you leave me?” And as the pain of withdrawal intensified, I tried to cope by watching Kristi Yamaguchi ice skate her way to peerless Asian American artistry and perfection, but she wasn’t enough. No, she wasn’t the same, not even close, and also the urges to drive badly and eat at General Tso’s or practice the martial arts or return to Chinatown entered my mind, but none of it seemed comparable to Connie.
I pulled the shades down and sat for weeks on end in front of my television, always ending up on the floor, weeping, curled tightly into a fetal position. Why, Buddha! Why? I began sleeping long hours, venturing out only to buy groceries, and ignored anyone knocking at the door. Stacks of bills quickly began to accumulate, so I began working from my apartment, freelance writing for a midwest greeting card company. They raved about my poignant Valentine’s Day inscriptions like: “Darling, I’ll love only you forever,” and “No one makes me feel like you do in my heart.” Of course, Connie was my muse, inspiring each and every line.
Two years of solitude passed, and Connie’s absence from the airwaves felt more awful than death. I wondered even more about the purpose of my existence in this life. But one evening I heard on Entertainment Tonight that she was returning front and center for ABC News. I couldn’t believe it; I felt elated. The show was 20/20, and sure enough, when I first saw her on the screen she looked ravishing, pure gorgeous, and for a brief interlude it seemed as if she’d never left. Her comeback made me want to buy new clothes and dine out and dance until all hours, to make the scene and be seen, but the smallest part of me was wary, somehow knowing better, having already become so deeply depressed and hurt by her prior dismissal. So I reserved my feelings and held myself back, not returning to public life. I left that burden to Connie.
She lived up to it, staying with ABC for five years, so like a betrayed lover learning to trust again, I contemplated a comeback of my own. Monique’s door opened once as I darted out to buy groceries; she stood there, thinner and as revealing as ever, wearing designer jeans and a cashmere sweater, and she exclaimed, “I haven’t seen you in ages! Why don’t you drop by for a drink?”
I accepted, because I didn’t want to be rude, and because maybe what I did need was more real human contact. But a few hours later, that evening, as I sat down on her couch, she snuggled closer to me and whispered something I would never forget, “You know, I’ve always wanted to be with you. I have this thing. It’s a fetish. For Asian guys.”
A fetish? I didn’t know what she meant. But at that moment, the word felt strange, and Monique looked at me with all too much lust in her eyes, like I was a trophy or something to be won, like I wasn’t a feeling person and she didn’t want to know me for me. I sprang from the couch, bolted from her apartment like a gazelle trying to outrun a lunging tiger, inferring that she truly would have eaten me alive.
That very same week, Connie began hosting her own show on CNN, Connie Chung Tonight. I could see her struggling to return to form, wanting to be investigative and hard-hitting again, like during her youthful days, but the producers wouldn’t allow it. As a result she floundered—it’s never her fault; some insipid paper-pushing moron always has it in for her—so within weeks, she was fired again, let go, my lamb once more at the mercy of the world’s wolves.
To lose her twice felt like too much, and for a long while I only saw her on an episode of The View (the show that can never keep an Asian sister). But in January of 2006 she began appearing regularly on Weekends With Maury and Connie. Could Weekends be enough? Another executive moron cancelled Weekends, though, and in April of 2006 the news broke that Katie Couric was leaving The Today Show to join CBS and anchor the network evening newscast alone. It should have been Connie! She paved the way! Not little miss blue-eyed Katie Couric! Was there no decency left? Didn’t anyone care about the world?
Sobbing, facing the television that evening, I felt forced by the announcement to sit and contemplate who I had become. What was my purpose? What lesson had the Buddha hoped for me to learn? I paced, stared in the mirror for hours, wrote my thoughts down day and night in a leather-bound, key-locking black Moleskine journal, and despite how all the introspection felt more arduous than working at The Gap, I sensed the truth awaited me. Why, I asked myself one morning, was I so connected to Connie? Why did I yearn for her so badly? The only person who had shown me any admiration was Monique, and now her words about her having a fetish for me echoed in my brain. I sought out a dictionary, and after finding one in a desk drawer, sat and read that a fetish was: “an object of irrational reverence or obsessive devotion; or an object or bodily part whose real or fantasized presence is psychologically necessary for sexual gratification and that is an object of fixation to the extent that it may interfere with complete sexual expression.”
I stood considering the words, their meanings, and to my horror, realizing how Monique’s affections towards me resembled my affections for Connie, I screamed. No, this couldn’t be. But oh, yes. Monique had a fetish, and I had a fetish. That’s what it was. And my fetish, I gleaned, was an Asian fetish, too.
I felt deeply ashamed. Perhaps I might have remained that way, but understanding that part or consequence of being Asian in America, I divined, was what the Buddha had intended for me to learn. And once I admitted to myself how foolish my own longings had been, I felt calmer, then nearly at peace. I opened my apartment door, wanting to share with Monique the knowledge I had gained, to try and heal her, as well. But at that moment, because the Buddha must have deemed it so, I began to fade, stepping once more out of one life, and into another.