My mother was an optimist. No, I mean really an optimist. This was a woman who, in 1969, planned a family summer vacation…to Ethiopia!
Granted, Ethiopia was not her first choice. Given her druthers, she would have hopped on a luxury ocean liner to Hawaii while young men in tight pants served her peach schnapps on a silver tray. “Peach schnapps—it’s the most elegant drink!” she’d tell us.
My mother stood 5 feet 11 inches, a fast-talking German brunette given to wearing bright red lipstick, big amber beads, polka-dot dresses. My sister Kaitlin and I thought she was the most elegant person we’d ever seen. Then again, we were ages 9 and 6, respectively.
“Peach schnapps—we used to drink it all the time in Danzig, before the war, when your Tante Thea und I used to waltz to Strauss’ ‘Blue Danube,’ sankyouverymach, at the glittering ballroom in Sopot built right over the sea. Mit ro-o-osen Gardinen! And you know your mother’s dance card was never empty in those days. There was Hans Heinlich, Karl Obst, Dieter Fischer-Kucher. Oh! Swarming like bees to honey!”
My mother was a nonstop talker. She would not stop talking. That’s why she was so sure her Hawaii pitch would work—”Palm trees, pineapples, Bali Hai!!! Bali Hai, Bali Hai, Bali Hai!”
My father was not impressed. “It is not that I do not like to spend money. Spend, spend, spend—that is all I do! It is just that I do not like to spend it on nothing.”
Hawaii, of course, was nothing—a horror of sunny beaches, fruity drinks, laughing, happy people. Why would we want to go there? “Where is the education?” he asked.
My father was fascinated with places like Uzbekistan—where he’d wanted to go the previous summer. Why? Because he had a friend there we could stay with for free. But it was more than that.
“The people of Uzbekistan are very, very sensible and hardworking! They have had a tough life, boy! The agrarian farmworkers face a fascinating challenge with the tractors and combines that we will see at the science and technology museum blah blah blah blah…”
At this point, you might be wondering how two such opposite people as my parents got together in the first place.
I blame it on Buick. When my mother first saw my father, on that magical day in the late ’50s, he was sitting behind the wheel of a brand-new 1956 Buick. I guess a man looks better than he ought, in a Buick. Especially when it’s surrounded by Southern California in the ’50s, a palm-fringed, swimming-pool-dotted utopia lit by a sun so bright you actually start to hallucinate. You believe you are in fact quite similar to a person.
No. 1: Both of you are new immigrants, recently escaped from bad circumstances in your home countries. My father was orphaned by age 12 in Shanghai, lived in poverty. My mother went through World War II, ran from soldiers, heard bombs drop around her.
Of course, my mother hated stories of grim Zolaesque realism. Her favorite after-dinner stories were either goofy or schmaltzy, ending hopefully with a glass of peach schnapps and a sing-along of some kind. When American friends at dinner parties would ask her about the hardship of Danzig, World War II, the Polish occupation, she’d cut them off.
“But enough of me. We are all of us travelers, nicht wahr? Foreign people in a foreign land. Und we all miss home, nicht wahr? Ja, ja. Prost! Let us sing…’Edelweiss! Edelweiss! Every morning you greet me!'”
Similarity No. 2 between my parents?
Except, I guess, that both had come to America—the place where miserable yesterdays could be traded in for joyous visions of tomorrow. And why not? It was the ’60s. America was a great place to live! Jackie was in the White House, Apollo rockets were in the sky, the future was made flesh at eye-popping world’s fairs featuring whizzing monorails above; below, pavilions of happy, dancing Third World people joining hands and singing: “It’s a small world after all! It’s a small world after all!”
So what if my parents had absolutely nothing in common? My mother would make this work. She’d smush polar opposites together and invent something wonderful and new like a raspberry linzertorte with sweet-and-sour hoisin frosting.
The first confident product of my parents’ Sino-Germanic experiment was Kaitlin and I. Looking vaguely Hispanic, we were given Chinese middle names and hustled off to kindergarten in Heidi-of-the-Alps-type dirndls and clogs. We had more strange appendages grafted onto us than the jackalope.
Fashion victims of my mother’s vision of a brave new (wildly cross-cultural) world, we were understandably suspicious of the idea of a family vacation in…Ethiopia.
“Ethiopia?” My father, of course, was immediately interested. And why not? Ethiopia was notoriously backward, wretched, poor. At that time, too, they were recovering from some sort of bloody civil war, leaving the countryside bleak, the people desperate. No one in the world would want to vacation there…which our father saw could be turned to our advantage.
“After all, if no one else is going, think how far the American dollar will go!”
“He thinks a vacation should cost one dollar! He’s cheap—and mean!” we twin jackalopes, wary antlers trembling, pleaded to my mom. “He just doesn’t want us to have fun. We don’t want to go to Ethiopia!”
“Ethiopia? Where is that? Oh! You mean…Ethi-i-i-opia!” My mother sang it as though it were a musical, like Oklahoma! “Ethi-i-i-opia! Home of the magical town of Mesewa—called the ‘Pearl of the Red Sea’—with its byoooootiful beaches? Und its luxooorious resort hotel with its glittering ballroom built right over the sea, mit ro-o-osen Gardinen, just like in Sopot?”
“Natürlich! It’s right here in my kleine deutsche Reisebuch. Of course, your father doesn’t know yet. He’ll probably be quite angry. But once we get there, we will run away from your father, and swim on the beach!”
Air Ethiopia was not a good airline. A plunging, four-hour ride on a shuddering gray plane brought us to a town with the suspiciously gay name of Lalibella. “Lalibella!” my mother exclaimed in mock dismay as its airport—a manure field—rose up to meet us.
The Hotel Lalibella seemed made entirely of peat—and peat which had taken its kicks and beatings from the desert wind for a long time. Thick, woven carpets with ominous symbols hung everywhere, exuding a faint hay smell. Kaitlin and I were given sour glasses of lemonade to drink as we perched on the family suitcases, watching sheep graze outside a big picture window. All at once, the sheep scattered: A man in a galabia was running after them with an ax.
I opened my mouth to let out a scream when suddenly I heard my mother…laugh. What?
But indeed, there stood my mother with four German tourists, large and blond and gleaming in their sweat-streaked khakis, expensive cameras and voluptuous leather travel bags draped around them like fresh kill. Apparently there was no place in Africa so miserable some German tourist did not want to take a photo of it.
“So, Putzelinchens!” my mother said. “You see: Everyone’s going to Mesewa! Ilsa, Franz-Joseph, Friedl-Beums…Hier sind meine Töchter—Kaitlin und Zandra. Zandra! Und das ist mein Mann, Herr Professor Doktor Loh, der kleine Chinezische.“
With a wave of my mother’s hand, soon the whole group was sitting down to a surprisingly festive Ethiopian dinner of bread and peas and potatoes. And, of course, fresh mutton that Kaitlin and I had watched nibble its last blades of grass a few hours earlier.
The adult buzz was growing to a roar. “Hoohoo-hoo-hoo!” There was much slapping of thighs and lifting of glasses. Even my father was having fun: Franz-Joseph had just announced he was picking up the tab.
“Du ferrukten Deutschen!” my father guffawed in his terrible German, reaching over to goose Ilsa on the rear. Ilsa was bighearted enough to laugh it off. I think the Germans were amused by my Chinese father, as though he were a small attack dog.
But even as they were drinking, my mother knew that something was kaput. Which was that while the Germans were indeed headed to Mesewa in the morning, they were planning to fly. But my father, of course, had just gotten us tickets for the bus.
Although back at the Addis Ababa Airport, I seemed to recall there had been some question of safety about the bus. Never fully explained. “Please,” one travel official in a shabby blue suit had pleaded with my parents. “You are wealthy Americans. The people of the bus, they are not good.”
But my father stood firm. Why ride in a plane for an hour when you could sit on a bus for nine, and save almost $20! For four people.
“Besides, we are not stupid tourists. We will go the way the natives go! It will be so much more…educational.”
But of course our German friends were not going to stand for that. So my mother had to fudge the truth…a little.
“But have you heard about the fabulous bus?” she asked our friends. Actually it was my mother who looked fabulous that evening: her crisp, dark hair set off by a fire-engine red dress and big amber beads. “The scenery is absolutely stunning! You will miss it all by plane. Please! Everyone takes the bus! It is what is done. Perhaps a bit on the rustic side, but sehr gemütlich in its own way. It is the one place where adventure…and economy…meet!
“Oh, my friends: You must take the bus. Because we are all of us travelers, nicht wahr? Foreign people in a foreign land. And we all miss home, nicht? Ja, ja. Prost! Let us sing…’Edelweiss! Edelweiss!'”
So the mood is bright—if somewhat hungover—the next morning, when we all reconvene at the bus “station”—yet another manure field.
The Germans supervise as a small Ethiopian hefts their fabulous leather luggage on top of the bus, tying it all down with skeins of twine. The many Ethiopian peasants, the women in black muslin, the men in work shirts and wrinkled corduroys, pretty much ignore us, busy lifting their chicken coops and lentil baskets.
“A small detail,” as my mother would like to put it later. “A small detail” is that there is not one, but two buses heading out for Mesewa this day. We and the Germans are all put together on the first bus. Our family is further subdivided into three seats at the front—ours—and one way, way at the back among the chicken coops—my dad’s. Good!
But here’s the wrinkle. Our seats are right over the wheel. It rises in a hump under the floor. You can’t stretch your legs out. For nine hours. And, as I’ve told you, my mother is 5 feet 11.
But the bus officials do not want us to change our seats. Why? Because the first bus is totally full. As for the second bus—for some reason, they do not want to put us on the second bus.
But my mother insists. She is on fire: The Pearl of the Red Sea is so close she can almost taste it. And so, over their protests, she marches us off to the second bus, far from anyone we know. Alone among…Ethiopians.
The buses navigate down treacherous mountains. They are beautiful—if threatening—in their jagged blueness.
Occasionally a small child in a soiled galabia runs by the road, waving. The road zigzags. At each hairpin turn is a lone white cross. I drop off to sleep.
A popping—like the sound of a truck backfiring—jolts me awake. All around us, Ethiopians are dropping to the floor. There is shouting outside. And then all at once, like a congregation, they rise and begin to file down the aisle, their fingers laced on top of their heads.
My mother does not say two words to us; she kneels swiftly; her hands fly over our bags. She stuffs passports and traveler’s checks under Kaitlin’s and my blouses, smoothing our waistbands to hold them in place.
“Are we there yet?” I ask. “What’s going—?”
My mother claps her hand over my mouth and pushes me forward. When I get to the front door, I see what you get when adventure…and economy…meet: Eritrean terrorists clad in worn military fatigues, firing machine guns randomly into the air. Ahead of us, an Ethiopian peasant’s cheap black purse is cut from her arm. Obedient as Ethiopian sheep, we file down the stairs and arrange ourselves along the side of the road into what seems, sickeningly, to be firing squad formation.
All around us is the blankness of the Eritrean desert. Ahead of us, the road to Mesewa stretches out, pitted and empty. “Oh my God,” I think. “Oh my God.”
I look over at my mother. But like us, her fingers are laced on top of her head. And I realize, this is it. The end of my life. No more sour lemonade, no more hay smell. I will never grow up to be 19. I will never get to see a glittering ballroom built right over the sea.
We wait. But the bullets do not come.
It gradually dawns on us that the terrorists’ real interest is in the first bus, not the second. Indeed, 50 yards up the road, Ilsa, Franz-Joseph, and the Fat Couple have become the center of attention. They stand helplessly in their sumptuous safari outfits, hands in the air, while the terrorist leader shouts at them. My gaze slides down the line of first bus terrorees.
And there, near the end, is my father. With his small body, dark coloring, and worn rag sweater, he actually kind of blends in. And I realize, with a kind of savvy world traveler’s instinct, that my father will not be shot that day. And in spite of myself, I am glad.
Our German friends, on the other hand, are being marched toward the low brown hills as hostages.
“Ethi-i-i-opia!” It is five years later. In the safety of my parents’ living room in Southern California, my mother is concluding the Pearl of the Red Sea story for yet another group of mesmerized dinner guests.
“But, Gisela!” someone asks. “How did you—? What did—?”
“But natürlich, the bus company set it all up! It was totally corrupt! They put all the foreigners on the first bus to make it easy. Had it not been for the wheel—the wheel—I and the Putzelinchens would have been marched off as hostages also. Our German friends were released two weeks later. But their passports, cameras, traveler’s checks—they never got back….
“At that point, they may have wished they had flown. But then they would have missed all that stunning scenery!
“But who needed to see the Pearl of the Red Sea anyway? Not us. That night, we dined on hot dogs and chocolate milk at the American military base in Mesewa. We slept on metal beds. It was so elegant! Morgen früh, we were chauffeured straight back to Lalibella via military convoy. Which was fine with me, I said, as long as I don’t have to sit over the wheel!”
Everyone applauds and laughs, and so do I, wanting the story to go on and on. But as the years go by, my mother gets more and more tired of telling it.
Because the Ethiopian vacation becomes the story of her marriage—a compromise between two opposites that can never be made to work. Eventually, my parents spend all their time screaming and fighting. Then they stop talking, living together in silence, two strangers under one roof.
What my mother will do, sometimes, after a dinner party, is slip into the garage by herself. Still in her fire-engine red dress and big amber beads, she’ll sit in the Buick, turn the radio on, smoke a cigarette.
Because the true mirage turned out to be not the Pearl of the Red Sea, but that Buick. When my mother had first seen it, on that magical day in the late ’50s, it was the car of a true-blue American, a man who had truly put his miserable past behind.
But that Buick turned out to be an anomaly in my father’s life, a youthful extravagance from which he would never quite recover. As the years went by, it would make my father sick for anyone even to drive it, to waste the money on gas. So while my mother left her World War II behind, he could not forget his Shanghai. He has brought it with him, and this is where they live.
And so it is she who remains the perpetual traveler, nicht wahr? A foreign person…always…in a foreign land.
Sandra Tsing Loh is an award-winning writer/performer. This is exerpted from her monologue and newest book, Aliens in America (Riverhead, 1997).