My mother learned to shoot a gun at the age of twelve. In a requisite class at school, she was taught how to clean and quickly assemble a gun, how to load it with bullets, and how to shoot it right into the dead center of a person’s chest (preferable) or face (second best). I picture her, in a starched white shirt and pleated skirt, knee socks, a rifle as tall as her body, squinting, aiming, the kickback of the gun’s blast bruising her chest like a California sunset in late summer. If the communists from the mainland invaded Taiwan, everyone on the island would have to fight, girls and children included.
When I was in elementary school, what I wanted most—more than the privilege my mother denied me of sucking on giant popsicles that ringed my peers’ mouths with screaming primary colors, more than membership to the Girl Scouts of America—was the freedom to walk home from school alone. I wanted to be unmoored from my mother, who waited for the classroom to swallow my body entire before driving away in the morning and would already be waiting for me when the last bell rang in the afternoon. The multiple locks on the multiple gates at our house impeded each entry and exit, my annoyance multiplying exponentially when my absentminded mother forgot something inside. What was my mother was guarding so fearfully? Aside from one fox fur coat, one laser disc player, and the food dehydrator that we had ordered from a late-night television infomercial, there was nothing of value in the house. It never occurred to me that someone could break in while we were home and that perhaps not all break-ins catalyzed theft. After my parents divorced when I was six, ours was a house of dripping padded bras hanging from shower rods while the smell of hot-rolled hair like morning toast drifted through the rooms. It was just my mother and me at the dinner table, two players for every board game, two pairs of shoes by the door.
Finally, I was trusted to walk alone. I traversed the mile from elementary school to my house with the excitement that only youth can produce, an all-consuming surge that burst right through my body to commune with the world around me. Nearly home, only a block between me and my anxiously waiting mother, I rounded the corner, at which time a dog spotted me and ran down a driveway barreling in my direction. The instinct to flee burned in all the muscles of my small body and sent me running, the dog closing in on me with the focus of a terminator programmed to kill. I screamed while hurtling down the sidewalk. A few neighbors stood in doorways, passively watching. It would be many years before I would walk home alone again.
On December 11, 1986, Phoebe Hue-Ru Ho, a seven-year old Taiwanese immigrant, was reported missing. Last seen a few blocks from home walking to second grade in the morning, Phoebe’s disappearance upended the small suburb of South Pasadena in a way that its residents had never seen before, and would never see again. The similarities between Phoebe and me were, as they say, striking: We were the same age, Taiwanese, we lived in the same small city of twenty-four thousand residents, and our parents sold shoes at swap meets.
South Pasadena was a picture-perfect capsule of Americana: a proliferation of beautifully maintained Craftsman homes, a weekly farmer’s market, and a soda fountain on the main street that served cherry phosphates and sold lavender-flavored lozenges. My mother’s eldest brother bought us a house in the suburb not only for its highly rated school district, but because it was safe, the community bound together by similar upwardly-mobile values, and for its racial makeup of over 30 percent Asians. South Pasadena was so picturesque that it seemed like every time we drove down its streets, a filming crew would be setting up craft services in a driveway or a production assistant would be holding up a white scrim at different angles to diffuse the golden light of the California sun. Teen Wolf, Back to the Future, Halloween, The Terminator, Gone With the Wind, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, American Pie, Legally Blonde, and Old School, to name a few, are all movies that were filmed on location in my hometown.
Phoebe Ho walked alone to school. She had immigrated three years prior to that morning in December from Taiwan with her family. Today, a seven-year-old walking alone to school seems like a punishable crime committed by abhorrent parents. A Talk of the Town New Yorker article titled “Mother May I?” recounts a recent instance in which two children, aged six and ten, were seen walking by themselves at a busy intersection in Silver Spring, Maryland. After police returned the children home to their father, a physicist at the National Institutes of Health, five squad cars pulled up to their house. The parents adhered to a practice known as Free-Range Kids, which sends kids off on their own to find their way home, a movement that resists the overbearing parenting mores of contemporary American society. Printed on I.D. cards issued to these children were the words, “I am not lost! I am a Free-Range Kid.” That a label should be required for the once-standard activity of independent roaming, pertaining to children and appropriated from the language of the industrial agriculture of chickens, says much about our apocalyptic Anthropocene in which humans control the world yet are so afraid of its dangers that we set free the police who shoot unarmed citizens in the name of safety.
My mother sold shoes at an indoor swap meet in El Monte, eight miles southeast of our house in South Pasadena. Phoebe’s parents also sold shoes at a swap meet, though I don’t know where their business was located. Perhaps our Taiwanese families sold shoes at the same swap meet, but, because I was not allowed to wander around by myself, I did not know who our neighbors were.
If the similarities struck me as coincidental, research coheres this mysterious abstraction into a plausible concretion. Taiwan’s shoe industry began to grow rapidly from the early 1970s. Between the mid-seventies and mid-eighties, Taiwan was the world’s largest exporter of shoes. The decentralized shoe manufacturing industry on the small democratic island benefitted from its trove of supplier networks, including petrochemical and small machine tool industries that served the production of fashion and casual shoes made with synthetic materials. As a child, sitting beside a mountainous range of shoeboxes containing high stiletto heels and platform boots, the chemical smell of the plastic and glue that comprised our inventory of shoes left me dizzy and nauseous. On weekends, I accompanied my mother to the swap meet, which sold cheap kitchenware, brass knuckles, airbrushed t-shirts, and bootleg tapes.
Seven years old, forty pounds, three feet ten inches tall, Phoebe had two missing front teeth when she was, it increasingly seemed, abducted as she walked to school four blocks from home. A Russian friend once complained to me of Americans’ tendency to coddle their children. When he was six, he told me, he was riding the subway alone around Moscow, going to school and walking through the city alone, reading Tolstoy. Fast forward to New York City today, where a friend’s daughter who attended a Waldorf school could not read until her mother, alarmed, hired a private tutor to teach her to read at the age of ten, and who needed a babysitter until the age of fourteen. Perhaps this proclivity for caution was shepherded by the child-abduction hysteria of the eighties, the decade that saw the origination of the milk carton program.
In the span of two years, between 1982 and 1984, two boys were abducted while delivering newspapers in the early morning in Iowa. A local dairy company decided to print the missing boys’ photos on half-gallon milk cartons. Other dairies across the country followed suit, and the Missing Children Milk Carton Program was established in 1985.
Our kitchen table was absent of these milk cartons in the eighties. My mother is lactose intolerant, as are up to 90 percent of Asians. I remember seeing the missing children milk cartons in the grocery store and on television, but other than a few distant sightings, I was unburdened by their ubiquity. I say unburdened because I imagine the horror of being a child, daily besieged by images of their brethren—children their age, their gender, who perhaps bore physical resemblance to them—blinking away the early morning fog while subjected to the violence of the world. Child abduction and violence against children seems to defy logic and order in society. While women are, ridiculously, blamed for inviting rape by the length of their skirts, and innocent dark-skinned men are too often shot because they are wrongly perceived as a threat to police, children can never be perceived as “asking for it”; violence against them can never be justified by the media or system of law.
In our house, growing up, instead of cereal and milk, we ate congee and drank soymilk for breakfast. Milk has become a symbol of white pride due to its historic geographic correlation to white ethnic identity. In other words, the continents where white people originate from are statistically the most lactose tolerant areas of the world: Europe, Australia, and North America. That the false and dangerous belief in racial purity is now equated to a body’s production of the lactase enzyme is an uncanny subject that has deep roots in Nazi eugenics and slavery.
The politics and global economy of dairy has shifted throughout history. Once absent from the diet of Chinese consumption, dairy is now a symbol of its middle class, a western food that carries the significance of capital and power, of upward mobility and participation in a global society. As China opens to the world, in trade and commerce, so does its palate. Many modern Chinese parents eschew breastfeeding in favor of powdered baby formula, a manufactured food that simulates human milk. Gone are the days of nursing from nature’s abundant breast; today our babies suckle on the mechanized teat of capitalist commodity production. An acquaintance from Australia once mentioned that in business deals with Chinese companies, Australians now give baby formula in bulk as a gift instead of the previously preferred expensive cognac. Why would China, a country of people genetically predisposed to lactose intolerance, guzzle milk at the risk of diarrhea? For the same reason why there is a replica of an Austrian village built brick for brick in Guangdong, and why there are suicide-prevention nets covering the buildings of Foxconn’s manufacturing plant—which produces a large percentage of Apple’s iPhones and iPads—a labor camp known for their employees’ high rates of suicide: the continuation of capital colonial dependency. China’s association with the US, more than ever, is aspirational, both in terms of perceived individualism and the free market enterprise of the west.
The disparity between the prices of Apple products and the wages Chinese employees are paid in sweatshops, and our desire for the newest technology packaged in sleek metallic cases and the reality of its human cost, is one of cognitive dissonance, or perhaps, psychological repression. In February 2015, I went to the New Museum Triennial. On the first floor, I discovered, amongst other artworks, a single iPad mini mounted on a white pedestal, a dirty smock, an identity card, and a labor contract. The installation was Li Liao’s Consumption (2012), comprised of ready-made materials from his employment at the Foxconn plant in Shenzhen. Liao, who was born in Hubei, China, worked for twelve hours a day for forty-five days in the factory, the exact amount of time it took to earn enough wages to buy the iPad exhibited in the installation.
In Taiwan, before she came to America, my mother worked on an assembly line at Ampex, an American electronics factory in Taoyuan. Ampex, an acronym comprised of its founder’s name, Alexander M. Poniatoff, and Ex cellence, was also where my mother’s name originated. Her maiden Chinese name is Tseng Fan Jui, but at the factory, all the managers were American, and could not pronounce Chinese names. My mother, along with all the Chinese factory workers, had to rename themselves according to the language of the west, despite that most of them could not speak English. Therefore, their own names were something of a stranger to them. She named herself Connie Francis, after her favorite singer, unaware to the overwriting and suppression of her Taiwanese identity through the act of forced naming in the service of neocolonialism.
I have often heard from my cousins that it was fortunate we hadn’t been raised in Taiwan, or heaven forbid, China. In fact, if our family had not made it out of China, we, their offspring, would probably not exist today. My grandparents are from Hubei, China, and met when they were students at Beijing University.
Since my grandparents were academics, both professors of literature—my grandfather also taught psychology—they would have been killed in Mao’s war against his number one enemy: intellectuals. Thinking of their position in society, a paradigm shift if there ever was one, reminds me of an article I recently read stating that a police officer cannot have a higher-than-average IQ, and can be legally rejected from joining the force for scoring too high. In a New York Times article about Yale’s Canine Cognition Center that measures dogs’ intelligence, Clive D. L. Wynne, a psychology professor, says, “Smart dogs are often a nuisance. They get restless, bored, and create trouble.” Controlling the masses is decidedly easier when the masses are dumb.
My cousins’ thankfulness for being raised in America has served as the seed of many fantasies for me—imagined possibilities and alternate lives that I could be living. If they had never fled to Taiwan, if they had never immigrated to America, perhaps, like my mother and the workers at Foxconn, I too would be spending twelve-hour workdays inside a factory on an assembly line staring at the nets suspended above the concrete dreaming of escape.
Where had Phoebe Ho’s parents worked in Taiwan? The details of our lives—same age, Taiwanese immigrants, swap meet shoe seller parents, lived in South Pasadena—have left me in search of a connection between us. This is due to an instinct for storytelling that all humans have, exacerbated by my preoccupations as a writer. There is a desire that exists in me to make sense of the world. If my mother had not been so frustratingly overprotective—how I understood it at the time—I could have been the little girl missing that morning on the way to school.
On December 18, 1986, one week after Phoebe was reported missing, her body was found in a ditch near California 60 in Glen Avon, forty miles from where she was last seen in South Pasadena. “She looked like she was sleeping on her side,” said an employee of a nearby boarding home who ran to the field shortly after the body was discovered. An autopsy revealed that Phoebe had been sexually assaulted and strangled to death. What trauma to her body revealed what sexual assault? Imagining the work of a forensic pathologist is to imagine an infinitude of horrors, each one opening the door to another, each one more terrifying than the last. Before Phoebe had been kidnapped, she had lost her two front teeth, her body making way for a future that would never arrive.
Carpet fibers and paint chips found on her body matched those found in a van belonging to James Bland, a 44-year old Caucasian male who was on parole for two counts of child molestation with the use of a deadly weapon. Bland was questioned about Phoebe’s death, but was released until there was enough evidence to charge him. He had been a fugitive since early January 1987. Bland, a career criminal, was in and out of prison; he was committed to a state hospital after pleading insanity for a raping, robbery, and kidnapping spree he went on. He was repeatedly afforded the opportunities to commit violence and murder against women and children while men like Albert Woodfox, a member of the famed Angola Three, spent 43 years in solitary confinement for a murder charge that was overturned by the US Court of Appeals in 2014. Bland, who died of natural causes in prison in 2001, was a white man. Woodfox is African American. The comparison I make here is laid bare, certainly imposed by my own subjectivity, but the fact that Bland had committed such an extensive list of violent crimes and was regarded by the law as a person capable of rehabilitation would be unfathomable if Bland had been anything but a white man.
After Phoebe’s death, her parents opened a shoe store in a strip mall on the main strip in South Pasadena, just a few blocks north of the Fair Oaks Pharmacy and Soda Fountain where Adam Sandler filmed scenes for Mr. Deeds, a movie he starred in with Wynona Ryder in 2002. I heard that the community raised money for Kenneth and Sharon Ho to open the shoe store, named Ken’s Shoes, which, according to customer testimonies on the Internet, carries a good selection of kids’ shoes at reasonable prices. It is still operating today.
At the Arroyo Vista Elementary School where Phoebe was a student, two Tabebuia trees were planted in her memory. The Tabebuia genus is mostly known as species that are cultivated as flowering trees, though they can easily escape cultivation because of their numerous, wind-borne seeds. The most prominent example of swamp species of Tabebuia cassinoides, whose roots produce a soft and spongy wood that is used for floats, razor strops, and the inner soles of shoes. Phylogenetic studies of DNA sequences reveal that Tabebuia species are polyphyletic, appearing to be the same but which have not been inherited by common ancestors.
The feeling of being twinned, in some way, to Phoebe, has kept her with me all these years. Perhaps her spectre is a projection of a guilt that lives inside me, the weight of an entire history of Taiwanese-American immigration. Phoebe’s and my parents moved to California during the same wave of immigration. After the Cold War, the US recognized the Republic of China, led by the Kuomintang (the Chinese Nationalist Party), as the sole legitimate government of all of China, which included Taiwan. Because mainland China banned immigration to the US, the quota for Chinese immigration was met by exclusively emigrants from Taiwan until 1979.
My mother says that during the seventies in Taiwan, everyone wanted to come to America. The future was, for my mother and her family in the seventies, the west. The west promised opportunity, a better life, with more employment and higher education standards surpassing what was possible in Taiwan. The prevailing concept of immigration to the US lay in its ability to provide a better life for the next generation.
For Phoebe’s parents, the future held no such promise. The guilt I feel, and that of my friends who are immigrants or children of immigrants, is the historic weight I will never be able to properly carry on my shoulders, the understanding that the life I lead is only possible because of great sacrifice and only after the unknowable suffering of my parents. It’s a cliché, but only those who live to bear the weight understand the privilege of its consequences. It’s an unpayable debt.
Much of what is happening in our current political sphere is about erasure, the erasure of truth, the erasure of history, the erasure of what the previous administration had worked so hard to achieve in the name of progress in this country. It may not be enough to remember, to acknowledge erasure, but it is a start. In this way, remembering Phoebe, my polyphyletic double, understanding my position in relation to hers as the seven-year old Taiwanese girl living in South Pasadena who was not kidnapped and murdered, and writing about our lives is an act that refuses to unsee what I’ve seen, however imprecise that seeing may be and however elusive its meaning is to me. To write is to make the indistinct intelligible, to bring experience closer to interpretation, and to allow the word to give way to the sentence.