Spring 2008, Volume 4

Memoir by Letitia Moffitt

On Acronyms and Attraction

When I was an undergraduate at Berkeley, one of my roommates asked, a sly look on her face, “Letitia, do you know what an A-W-L is?”  I was an English major, she biology, and I assumed that she was testing my extensive vocabulary, perhaps as part of a bet with our other two science-minded roommates who stood nearby.  I answered, “Yes, of course:  an awl is an instrument used to punch holes into leather.”  Their instant laughter suggested that my assumption had been incorrect.  “No,” my roommate explained with a superior smirk.  “A-W-L stands for Asian Woman Lover.” 

I didn’t know what to say, or why she had asked me that or why they had been talking about such a thing, but I did know exactly what they had been talking about.  I had been living in an off-campus house with three other young women, all of varying Asian ethnicities:  Chinese, Japanese, Korean.  And all of them were dating white men.  At the same time, they often complained about certain creepy guys they’d encountered who seemed to want only to date Asians.  Now, apparently, they had a term for it:  AWL.  A man who favors petite, dainty, dark-haired-almond-eyed girls, all soft smiles and gentle acquiescence, girls who never interrupt, never push, never scold or nag, girls who are mysterious and exotic but shy from being the center of attention, instead reserving that spot for him

At least, that’s how I understood the term—and how my roommates, and their friends, and a great many other people I’ve encountered seemed to understand it.  And though of course I knew it was a gross generalization, there was something uncomfortably familiar about it—because it seemed to describe certain aspects of my own parents’ relationship.  My father is of Scottish and German ancestry; my mother is Chinese-American, and I had been born and raised in Hawaii.  For 18 years I never gave a thought to the idea that there was anything either typical or atypical about my background or theirs given that in Hawaii, the majority of the population is like me:  hapa, or mixed.  My parents’ different languages and cultures were far less significant to me than the fact that they seemed, as individuals, spectacularly unsuitable for each other.  My father wanted to explore the world; my mother wanted the world to leave her alone.  I never understood what could have made them decide to marry; they had been paired up almost accidentally, it seemed.  What could possibly have brought them together?

And now there were new questions to ask; now I wondered:  Was my father an AWL—was it that kind of relationship they’d had?

My father was born and raised in Altoona, Pennsylvania.  It was the kind of place that comedians used as punchlines:  whenever a joke failed, my father remembers, George Burns would stare at his audience, wait a beat, and deadpan, “Well, that one killed ’em in Altoona.”  It was the kind of town where, on Sunday, in the church, when the minister said let us pray, every head bowed in absolute unison.  The first time he ever saw this, my father must have been very young, but he still remembered wondering what everyone was staring at that was so fascinating down on the floor.  It occurred to him later that it wasn’t so much what they were looking at; when you had your head bowed like that, you couldn’t look at anything else.  Just the ground beneath you, just that spot holding you on earth.  That never changed. But he wanted it to change.  As soon as he could, he joined the military, left Altoona and traveled the world. 

But not just any part of the world:  Asia.  Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, places so outrageously different from Altoona they might be parts of another planet.  When his tours of duty ended he settled in Hawaii, where he met and married my mother.

My father was 40 years old when I was born.  At some point in my teen years I must have finally become aware that he wasn’t simply “my father” but also a man who had lived whole lives I would never know about.  And yet by then he was no longer a daring, adventurous young man who visited places his fellow Altoonans couldn’t even find on a map.  He was a middle-aged man whose lifelong experiences came across, at least to me, as foolish idiosyncrasies.  What did I care how many cultures my father had studied or how many countries he had lived in?  All I wanted was for him not to embarrass me when we were in public or annoy me when we were at home.  Of course, I insisted on finding him embarrassing and annoying because he was my father after all; it was only later, when I started to think about this AWL business, that I saw certain patterns in the things I found so reprehensible about him.

The main thing that troubled me was the way he treated my mother.  He absolutely adored her.  Even in later years when they couldn’t be in the same room without fighting, I knew this was still true and always would be.  And this bothered me to no end.

My father took every opportunity to praise my mother:  her never-aging beauty, her pragmatic good sense, her seemingly effortless skills with cooking.  He loved that she kept her petite figure and lineless skin year after year; he would recall girls back in Altoona and how, last he’d heard, they’d all become soft and fat and doughy, with soft, bland minds to match—they had nothing interesting to say and had no interest in what he said, unless it pertained to church or children.  But not his wife; she was different.

He loved that my mother cooked tofu in chili-garlic sauce and not meatloaf with gravy.  The more likely someone from his hometown would recoil in horror from a dish, the more he claimed to like it—and the more he would gush praises on my mother’s culinary skills. He would lean back after she had explained what it was we’d just eaten, what region of China it came from, what unusual ingredients and cooking techniques it required, and beam at her, “Clever, those Chinese!”

Even long before I’d become a pompous quasi-intellectual who quoted Said and considered herself thoroughly versed in post-colonial theory, I’d had some dim awareness of the patronizing way this sounded, and I would wince when he said it.  Later, I did more than just wince; I would sneer: “Oh, of course, if it’s Chinese it must be good.”  He never got it.  He studied Asian history, he’d lived in Asia, he married an Asian woman, but he still never figured out why his incessant praise of his wife’s cooking made her embarrassed to the point of fury.  I knew she didn’t like being complemented like that.  It was excessive.  It was wrong, even, in the way that it called attention to herself—because, in fact, my mother did hate being the center of attention.

It frustrated me that even though my mother clearly disliked his compliments, she never seemed able to articulate why; she usually just frowned and looked away from him.  It occurred to me that she might not even have realized the reason why these things he said were so wrong; she probably just considered it one more exasperating facet of her husband’s personality.  This added to my annoyance:  She didn’t even perceive that it was condescending, that he was guilty of Orientalism, that he saw her as an exotic other.

And yet she had known this man for longer than I had even been alive.  And I seemed to know next to nothing about either of them, given how much of their lives had been lived before I even existed. 

“Your mother’s had a hard life,” my father told me when I was a sullen teen.  I managed to keep from rolling my eyes or sighing rudely, but, like my mother, I looked away.  I’d heard it all before:  Hard life.  Hard times.  Poverty, war, struggling and strife.  Except that I hadn’t really heard anything; my father admitted that he didn’t know all that much about my mother’s life in China, because my mother never wanted to talk about it.  Whenever either of them did talk about it, the point of their stories seemed to me more about what a slacker I was rather than what my mother’s life had been like.  If I complained about how boring school was or how much I hated the taste of onions, I’d get a lecture:  you’re lucky you get to be bored in school; you should be grateful you have onions to eat, because when your mother was your age…and that was about the point where I tuned out, fixed my gaze on the pattern on my napkin or the spines of books on shelves above their heads and pretended to be a deaf-mute.

Eventually when I wasn’t quite so self-absorbed as to see everything in their lives as ultimately relevant to me, I tried to piece together what little I retained from those lectures.  When my mother had been my age—a teenager—her father died.  He left his widow with seven children but a good sum of money to support them.  Within a year, my grandmother had gambled nearly all of it away playing mah jong.  The result of all this was that my mother, the oldest female child of the family, had to quit school and take care of the house and her siblings during those years when her mother was never around.  Then just when the youngest was old enough not to need constant supervising, my mother had to go out and find work.  The family needed money.  My mother would provide it.

She worked.  She saved.  She continued to see to the household needs.  But she had a secret project, too:  she had arranged for sponsors in America.  She could finally leave home, go to art school, live on her own.  When she finally told her family, her mother said nothing, wouldn’t even glance in her direction.  Then she spat out three words:  Crazy.  Stupid.  Selfish.

Selfish.  For wanting a life.  Selfish for not giving everything up, only almost everything.  What did she have to be selfish about?  No husband or boyfriends, no education, her youth nearly gone, her money going to groceries and home repairs and music lessons and textbooks, for everyone but her. 

And then in Hawaii she met a man who just about worshiped her.


This is just about all I know about how Leonard Moffitt and Shan-ying Leung ended up together.  It’s not much, I realize, not nearly enough to make any sort of solid conclusions about them, certainly not enough to see them as part of a larger pattern of cultural domination and marginalization.

But I can’t ignore what I do know.  I knew, even before I’d heard my roommate’s discomforting terminology, that there was a perceivable trend here:  white husband, Asian wife.  According to the 1970 Census, 20% of interracial marriages at the time my parents married were of a single combination:  white man, Asian woman.  Considering all the different possible combinations of race and gender, this seems hugely significant.  That figure lowered to 14% by the 2000 Census, but mainly because of another phenomenon relevant to my life:  an increase in the number of marriages between white men and mixed-race women.  Both white men and Asian women are still two of the most likely groups to marry outside of their racial category.

Of course Census data can’t come anywhere close to telling the whole story, but nothing ever does.  I’ve never known why my parents got married when they seemed outrageously ill-suited for each other.  But I knew instantly what my roommate’s acronym represented.  There was a pattern, and there in my parents, my roommates and myself was the evidence:  White-guy-Asian-woman was a nameable, identifiable thing, and it affected all of us whether we admitted it or not.  My roommate only had use for a term like AWL because she was actively dating white men herself—and only white men.  Did she have a term for an Asian woman who wanted a white man but not an AWL?  If she recognized that some men bought into all those Oriental stereotypes, could she honestly say that her preferences for a future mate weren’t part of that same phenomenon?    Could I?—for, admittedly, I too was dating white. 

Obviously it’s difficult to pinpoint why exactly one person is attracted to another, and it’s equally difficult to ignore a pattern when one is perceived.  But there’s another part of the Census data that complicates this pattern:  in 1970 interracial marriages accounted for less than 1% of all marriages.  In other words, my parents had been an anomaly when they married.  Whatever their reasons, they could hardly be accused of getting on some sort of interracial bandwagon.  None of my father’s buddies were likely to have told him, “Get yourself a little Oriental cutie, Len.  They’ll cater to your every whim and they’re tigers in the sack.”  My mother probably wasn’t calculating that serving a stereotypical white husband who appreciated the tiniest things she did would be better than serving the stereotypical Chinese husband who would alternately ignore or criticize her every move.

So why did they do it?

There will never be any Census data on this, but the truth, as I see it, is that my parents were both oddballs.  They left their homes because they decided they didn’t fit in there, and spent the rest of their lives not fitting in, not with their environment nor, really, with each other.  They may have been creating a trend, but the trend hadn’t created them.  I know that they will be themselves to the ends of their lives, whether they are studied or criticized, mimicked or ignored, whether I ever understand them any better than I do now or whether they remain a mystery to me.

BIO:  “My work has been published in literary journals including Black Warrior Review, Aux Arc Review, Jabberwock Review, Fairfield Review, The MacGuffin, and Dos Passos Review. I received a doctoral degree in English and creative writing from Binghamton University in New York, and I currently teach creative writing as an assistant professor at Eastern Illinois University. ”