I’ve heard remarks among the staff that there was probably a group of two hundred folks from the south on this cruise, mostly retirees from Texas and Louisiana. This sounded accurate. They traveled around the ship in packs, wearing their college and professional sports logos like tribal markers.
It happened when Mom and I were in the elevator with two men in their sixties, each wearing different college logos. “Auburn, huh?” said one. “Roll tide!” He playfully punched the other guy in his shoulder, though other guy wasn’t really feeling it. “Yeah, roll tide,” the other guy muttered as he scurried out of the elevator. It didn’t occur to me that they were strangers until later.
I wasn’t sure if Mom was aware of all the Americana surrounding her. She politely ignored the whooping and the big hair and the sweatshirts with the anti-Obama slogans around her, the same way the Texans politely ignored her or the other ethnics on the boat.
Or she just didn’t care, unless it directly affected us. The only time it really got to her is when we boarded the excursion bus and I got solidly whacked in the head by a backpack full of tripods and camera equipment by a man trying to get to a seat. He muttered something — I think it was to me? And I turned around to notice this fanny pack resting firmly on his paunch before he sat down across the aisle, leaning against the window for a quick snooze.
“Did he hurt you?” Mom asked in Mandarin. ”I’ll give him a piece of my mind.”
“Maybe if he wasn’t so fat,” she continued, “he would get to his seat without knocking anyone over with bag he’s carrying.”
“Ma, it’s okay, I promise.”
“The bag that he is carrying on his back, full of his layers of back fat.”
“Why? None of these people can’t understand us.”
And now you jinxed it, I thought to myself. The man looked our way and my mom scowled at him. But he saw past us and did a quick scan of everyone on the bus before falling asleep again.
There was actually a decent amount of Chinese folks on this trip. Most most of these tourists were from Mainland China; they didn’t dress or act like my parents who immigrated through Taiwan, and I certainly didn’t see another Asian-American I could trade battle stories with at the bar. We watched a family at the Caribou Post lunch counter, where we had a 45 minute lunch between the bus ride through the Yukon and the two hour scene train ride through the White Pass, back to Skagway.
They chatted away — three generations of family, the same Mandarin that Mom and I spoke, but with a soft “r” sound at the end of some of their characters, the lilting Beijing accent.
Everyone in the group wore matching athletic fleece jackets in various bright primary colors, as if the Wiggles gave up singing children’s songs and opened up an industrial factory somewhere in the Chinese countryside. The cultural revolution was clearly dead, but all of Chairman Mao’s unisex Red Guard shirts and hats were replaced with generic ski jackets. I’d guess that they were newly wealthy, given the Chinese economy lately and all the stories you hear about in the news. They picked over their barbeque chicken and baked bean lunch plates and the woman marched to the front to pay for the entire party afterward, casually reaching inside her purse with what I imagined was a stack of hundred dollar bills.
Mom surveyed the mess they made from where we sat,their paper plates and chicken bones and knives and forks strewn about the table. “Those people need to clean up after themselves,” she said in Chinese, loudly.
“Ma, they speak Chinese too.”
Mom fluttered her eyes. “OF COURSE,” she said in English, just loud enough for them to hear. It was her language of choice when she wanted to patronize.
But the mainlanders do not hear, or they do not care. Either way, they were on vacation, and by then they were already at the gift shop ready to buy a whole bunch of sweatshirts that say “YUKON” to send home to hundreds of nieces and nephews. Can’t lose face, you know.
Two of them actually tried to strike a conversation the day before, while we waited for the elevators outside of the Stardust Theater on deck five. “Excuse me,” an older man mom’s age said to my mom. He was with a female companion, probably his wife or sister. “I notice you both speak Chinese.”
“Yes, we do,” Mom said. She was polite, but stone-faced.
“Oh. Where are you from?” meaning, of course, what part of China.
“We’re from California. Well, not him,” she said, pointing at me. “He moved to Florida.” Because I am a bad son.
“I see. We’re from Tianjin. Well, perhaps we will see you around the ship.”
“Yes, perhaps,” Mom said. Two elevator cars opened and my mom took the elevator farthest from us, apart from the other couple. When the doors closed, I shook my head as I pressed the button for the top deck, fourteen.
“You shouldn’t do that,” I said to her.
“You need to make more friends, Ma. We’ve had this conversation before.”
“What do I have in common with them? You think we are all going to be friends just because we speak the same language? Please.”
Incorrigible, but she had a point.
A couple of hours later we stretched our legs at a rest area in Carcross, a remote outpost that probably once had provisional items to trade, now gentrified with modern structures to accommodate the bus full of tourists that came in the area. The most popular structure was, of course, the restrooms, where mom waited in line with what seemed like everyone who lived in Texas sixty five and older. The Asians waited in line in the coffee kiosk over, buying out their supply of turkey sandwiches.
Between them was our tour bus driver, who made small talk with anyone willing to engage — the coffee kiosk girl, the slightly older intoxicated Carcross native on the park bench, or a fellow bus driver also on a sanctioned potty break. I started to eavesdrop when the other driver mentioned his job was a piece of cake, now that there was all of these tourists from China or Hong Kong or wherever they came from. A guy from the tour group just talks about the locations in Chinese now, he said between drags of his cigarette. He doesn’t even have to talk anymore - just drive a bus and get paid. But, you know, it is what it is.
The younger bus driver and I made awkward eye contact at that point. I gave him a nod. “Hey,” I wanted to say. “I’m not one of them! I’m an American, just like you! And while I may have high amounts of irony and sarcasm, I love the things you like, like pizza and Coldplay!” Okay, maybe a little less Coldplay.
Those are all things I wanted to say, and I may have had a chance to say it, if my Mom hadn’t walked up from her trip to the bathroom and pointed out the guy who whacked me on the back of my head with the camera and the back fat, gulping down soft serve vanilla ice cream in a waffle cone.
“AI-YO. SEE?” she points out to me in English, slapping me on the arm. “I TOLE YOU.”