Colette Liu Tervalon Arrives on the Scene

October 30, 2021

I wanted to write a memoir but the connective tissue of the memoir didn’t interest me. I wanted to render memories that would pop up like mushrooms and quickly vanish. I owe much to where I was raised, in a black neighborhood where people talked to each other and spent time on the porch and on the corner, as did my brothers and their friends as they smoked weed, drank Mickey Big Mouths and Heinekens, and talked all the time about the insanity of Vietnam, nuclear war, and H.P. Lovecraft, and from there they’d segue into the adventures of the many memorable characters in the neighborhood. I tried to do that here. A new installment will appear here every Saturday this and next month.

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To witness your child being born into the world is an amazingly humbling experience, even if it was my third time watching a daughter being born into the world. Even so, I can’t say I was ready for it. I tried not to look as Jinghuan did the heavy lifting.

After Colette was delivered and she was resting with Jinghuan, I thought about her grandparents. Now they had a granddaughter from their daughter and me, their black son-in-law. Her mom’s opinion of me was so concise it made me laugh. I asked Jinghuan what her mom thought of me, and she sighed.

“She said you’re too old, too black and too fat.”

“Oh,” I said, “You know, you could have lied and not translated. You could have said they really like me even if you are too dark, too fat and too old.” Jinghuan shrugged. That wasn’t her way. She always said what amounted to the truth.

Her mom was right about me being fat, and I was much older than Jinghuan. When we met, Jinghuan didn’t know my age and assumed I was much younger because, you know, black don’t crack. I learned to like her mother. When she came to spend time with us, I saw how much she adored Colette and I was impressed that she didn’t mind helping when I had a couple of truckloads of mulch emptied in front of our house that I then had to shovel onto our yard. She matched me shovelful for shovelful until we got the task done in a few days. I cooked a few things she ate, and I think she came to realize that I was kind of acceptable as a son-in-law if you excused the fact that I was too old and too black and fat.

Then the talk turned to Collette now that she was four and the inevitable need for her and Sammy, her older brother, to spend the summer in China. My heart broke hearing that. I liked having time to myself, and having grandma around to be with Collette was great so that I could write at my favorite coffee houses and have some freedom, but being separated from my little girl for three months seemed totally unreasonable. Maybe it’s because I was left in New Orleans with my grandmother at about that age and I felt I had been abandoned by my family. I was so terrified that I hid beneath the house, almost breaking my grandmother Jenny’s heart until a neighbor found me hiding in the crawlspace under the house.

I was determined that she wouldn’t go to China for three months if we weren’t there, but Jinghuan was determined that she would go.

Until then I liked how things had been going. Giselle came to visit, and she and Elise spent a lot of time with Colette. Colette really loved being with her older sisters and with their mom. Colette immediately liked Gina, my ex-wife, and loved to spend time at their house.

It was a great relief to me, in that I wanted her to be comfortable in her ethnicity, both Chinese and African American. Jinghuan says she’s Chinese first, and I say she’s black first. And of course she’s both.

My worry was that in China, outside of family, the acceptable racism there against brown skin would eventually sting her. It was a genuine and ongoing fear for me, but I think Jinghuan just didn’t worry about that. Jinghuan’s parents wanted to see Colette and her brother as soon as possible. She’d be gone for the summer. It made me sad to even think of it. I was her daddy and I needed to be a daddy near to her and not a daddy six thousand miles away.

To understand Jinghuan is to understand that for her to accomplish anything in life she had to outwork everyone and stand up for herself, and she was willing to suffer to do that. She trains for marathons like pain is her coach and it is.

If Colette gets called something racist in China, she’ll learn to stand up for herself and in Jinghuan words I heard my mother’s voice. My mama was always on the verge of attacking somebody for disrespect. Maybe it’s part of New Orleans culture to response to disrespect with overwhelming force. Her friend, Miriam, a senior citizen, was late to leave when the light turned green in a rough part of town and a woman behind her said, “Move the car, you old bitch.”

Miriam got out of her car and confronted the much younger woman.

“So, what are you going to do, bitch!” the younger woman said.

I guess the rough-neck gangster girl didn’t notice the ball-peen hammer in Miriam’s hand that she used to hit her on the head, knocking her unconscious.  Miriam returned to her car and drove away. So that’s it. All the women I’ve been truly interested in are much tougher than me. My skill set is the bluff but the women in my life have always been about direct confrontation. Jinghuan like my mom believes that the only way a woman makes her way in this world is to be ready to get yours and knock a fool out.

Covid hit and all the talk of Colette going to China evaporated to Jinghuan’s great disappointment and my relief. Now, Collette goes to a bilingual Chinese Language school, and she attends the Heritage School, a Saturday school African American culture club.

How could we ask for anything more for Colette than balance?

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Jervey Tervalon was born in New Orleans and raised in Los Angeles, and got his MFA in Creative Writing from UC Irvine. He is the author of six books, including Understanding This, for which he won the Quality Paper Book Club’s New Voices Award. Currently he is the Executive Director of “Literature for Life,” an educational advocacy organization, and Creative Director of The Pasadena LitFest. His latest novel is Monster’s Chef.