Creative Nonfiction: Ching Ching Tan

Labyrinth

I am lost in a South Coast Plaza parking garage. Between 2005 and 2006, I commuted here every single day, but I still manage to get lost thirteen years later. I would have been panicked if it had happened then. Today is my annual summer visit to my old workplace, Orange County Max Mara.

I did not know at the time that South Coast Plaza is the largest mall on the West Coast. Imagine shopping at a 2.8 million-square-foot mall, offering the most down-to-earth brands like H&M and The Gap to the most luxurious ones like Cartier, Chanel, and Hermes. I worked for Max Mara, a high-end Italian woman’s garment store on the Nordstrom wing on the main hall, an exhibition area alongside other luxury names like Tiffany & Co., Fendi, Celine, and Giorgio Armani. No one could miss this. Max Mara gave me my first job in the United States, and labyrinthine South Coast Plaza became my first coordinate of American life. I landed on this specific point in part through my brother, in part from my determination to be different.

***

It was the last few days in 2004 between Christmas and New Year’s. I was still jet-lagged from a China to LA flight and just freshly settled in my brother’s Irvine townhome, mind dazed yet strangely alert by my new surroundings. I sat on this bed higher than any surface that I had slept on in my life, thinking about the carpet. If I fell I wouldn’t get hurt. Do all Americans think this way or are they all tall? I could hear birds, not singing, but yelling outside. Crows! The air was still remarkably quiet when I caught a second of them not yelling. In this second, I heard my own heartbeat. I shrugged off the thought that Chinese considered crows bad luck. The birds appear only in stories with funerals or images of tombs in a background of withered trees. It doesn’t work like this here. There would be so many things to make sense of from now on. And the smell. Might be the typical California townhome’s wooden structure, the freshly mowed lawn, and... the unknown. Yeah, it was the unknown. How do I begin?

My brother knocked. As soon as he entered, he threw me some local Chinese newspapers to find a job. “Look for the area code 949 or 714.” 714 is the Costa Mesa area nearby 949 Irvine. Being ten years older than I, my brother had been parenting me like my father his whole life. He wanted me to find a job close by, so he could help take care of me. Me being a thirty-two-year-old woman, fresh-off-the-boat relying on him to restart a new life, I knew what he really wanted was me to get it together as quickly as possible.

All new Chinese immigrants my brother knew worked in Chinese communities. There they found the quickest route to work involving the least language adjustment. He expected me to be a restaurant server, dental-office receptionist or the like. I didn’t know any better. My small fame in China being a radio host meant nothing here, but somehow I looked away from those “normal” posts and found a small, tofu sized classified ad, based on my Chinese measurement.

Max Mara was looking for a bilingual Chinese-English “Fashion Consultant.” This one inch of hope lit something in me. Pride is a powerful thing. It makes us snobbish sometimes, but it also pushes us to dare. My brother was skeptical but helped me prepare for the interview nonetheless. I wrote and memorized answers to questions like, “Tell me about yourself,” “What do you know about Max Mara?” and “Why do you think you can do this job?” My sense was that if I were to hire someone I would ask my potential employees these three questions. Common sense might work sometimes. I practiced my very limited English in front of my brother. He drove me to South Coast Plaza a few times to see the Max Mara store. I admired the windows from outside. The manikins, cold and distant, seemed to be saying to me, “Dare to work here?” I never hesitated. I sure do. I met their glances head-on. I wanted this job so badly and my attitude showed in all the steps of the interviews. I got a job in less than ten days in a brand new country.

* * *

Here I am thirteen years later, maneuvering through a vast parking lot still trying to understand where I am. Thirteen years. Light years ago but a split second in memory. This garage is not where I parked back then. I parked in one specific lot in precisely the same aisle over and over. I knew only two ways to get to South Coast Plaza from home, both using only local streets. My brother said I was too new to drive on California’s freeways. I obeyed. In China, I had a driver's license but never a car. Perhaps I had a bigger ambition to navigate the impending life than the steering wheel. Everything was already outside of my normalcy in a new country. I needed predictability at least on the commute. A whole new world. Let me take a step at a time, a route or two at a time. So different. Now it’s just another parking lot. I don’t need to park in that same spot anymore. I am still not sure where I am, but I know it’s only a tiny inconvenience. I pull into a random spot. No real hurry here. I decide to take my time to explore.

I find myself standing in front of Bloomingdales. A grand entrance door, heavy yet smooth enough to pull open. I inhale the first breath of cool air from the mall, a nice contrast to 90 degrees in the sun. Through the familiar mixed scents of fragrance in the cosmetics section, I trace the path of the “You Are Here” sign to locate Max Mara quickly.

“Sorry I am late,” I hug Sayuri, my former manager, who is still the manager of Max Mara today. “I got lost.”
“You’re here now.”
I thought she said, “You’re home now,” so I am hugging her even tighter. Sayuri squeezes me back, releases, cheerfully smiles and turns to her customer, winking at me as if saying, “I’ll be back.”

After I left Max Mara in the summer of 2006, I moved from Irvine to Dana Point, left Orange County for San Diego County, and later settled in the Bay Area. I studied in community colleges, transferred to be a UC San Diego undergraduate, then continued for more at San José State University. My brother never moved, so in a way, an important part of me never really left SoCal. Gradually, the routine became that every summer that I could, I would fly from San José to Irvine. However short each visit is, I come to Max Mara. One visit immediately after I received my MA diploma - or was it after I began working on my MFA? - Sayuri asked, “What do you want to do with your brain?”

Sayuri and I talk about the same things on every visit. We update how old our sons are, and that they should get together one day. We fill in what we are up to, hug, sometimes I cry then quickly take a picture, and say bye. Now she is with a customer. I continue to ponder her hug and wait for our picture. I never find Sayuri’s hugs unfamiliar. Her scent is of a Max Mara fragrance blended with her own sweat of dedication and the new garments in store. The smile of her greeting always appears obscure. I’m not sure whether it is for customers or friends. I know she must be too accustomed to the greetings of customers. It’s hard to suddenly switch to greeting a friend when all she does is to be professional on the floor day in and day out. But I enjoy that warm embrace. I don’t mind feeling ambiguous about being a customer, a guest, or a friend. I may be all or none of them. Sayuri and this place mean more to me than I do to them. My visit may decorate their day, but everything about this place is stamped deeply and permanently in me.

Today the mild feeling of loss in the parking lot reminds me of Esther. She used to be the assistant manager by Sayuri’s side but no longer works here. One closing shift at night, Esther needed a ride and I offered her one. It might have been a normal gesture for others, but it was a huge task for me. I offered it simply knowing her home

was close to mine. No one knew how scared I was inside, not even Esther. Esther happily thanked me and said she’d navigate. Turned out not only did she need a ride home, but she also had to deposit cash on the other side of the mall first, which meant outside of my normal routes. I began to panic.

I started the car from the usual spot and wiped my sweaty palms on my thighs over and over. Esther directed me when to turn left, right, and make a roundabout exit to another side of the mall. The camisole inside my wool jacket turned damp. Esther talked about her family. She was from Spain and had married a Muslim man against her family’s will. The story was already complicated according to my English, but I still tried to juggle between being an attentive friend and a competent driver. I should at least acknowledge what she said, so I nodded and hummed “uh-huh.” Then Esther finally saw my shiny forehead, “Is it hot?” I uncomfortably wiped my forehead with one hand, rubbed my lap and turned back to driving. “You drive a stick shift!” Esther exclaimed. That was one more reason I was afraid. I still did not have my own car. My brother had a beat-up Nissan manual transmission car, one that you wouldn’t feel too bad when you hit something or scratched it. I hated driving that car. It made me cry every time when I stopped uphill. How often did I pull the handbrake then terrified to release it, only waiting for cars behind me to honk, in my mind frantically, or to bypass me with an angry stare until I could work up the courage to go? I begged my brother to help me get another car. He told me to wait. It would take time searching Ebay to find me a reliable used car. Eventually, we couldn’t wait any longer as I broke the car’s clutch. By then, I had driven this clunker for three months. When my brother and I brought it to a small repair shop in Rosemead, the Cambodian mechanic, who became a friend of my brother’s after all the frequent visits, blurted, “Whoever drove this car doesn’t know how to drive a stick-shift.” My brother gave me a look. Well, I hadn’t hit anyone. Shouldn’t we be grateful for that? Not so secretly, I was relieved that I could get rid of that thing very soon.

Luckily there was no uphill or downhill around the mall. We deposited the cash, and I managed to get to Esther’s home. Esther waved me goodbye at her door. I leaned back, breathed out heavily to release my tense shoulders. I made it! I could even offer Esther a favor, like a normal person.

I took the time to collect myself and restarted the car, but...Where am I? I was very close to home, a half-mile precisely, but I had no idea how to get there. No fancy GPS back then. My mind could not come up with any normal solution, like calling my brother. I might have reasoned that I wasn’t sure how to explain where I was anyway, but most likely, I wasn’t able to think at all. To reason, you need a basic understanding. It would take me a while to achieve basic, to make sense in this world.

The driver’s side window was foggy. I wiped clear just enough to see what was outside. All the townhouses looked alike. All the streets and street lights looked alike, and no one was around. The uniform suburban townhouses turned otherworldly to me. America, you are so neat and tidy, but who are you trying to impress? For what felt like an eternity, I was disoriented in the darkness of a foreign land. I don’t remember how I managed to get back and how long it took. All I know is that on that night, I collapsed in bed with the Max Mara uniform on that was soaked with anxiety.

My memory of the early period in this country always contains an image of this dreadful old matte-gray car. I drove in, out and through all the unknowns with the fear that it could crumble at any time. I and this unsightly piece of metal navigated life in the U.S. I crumbled and fell, crumbled and fell, but like my unpretentious car, I moved along and mostly moved forward.

***

Esther was the main salesperson who took care of Spanish-speaking customers. In Max Mara, there was a Language Priority policy, meaning a sales representative took customers based on what language the customer spoke. I spoke Mandarin and Cantonese, so I would take Chinese customers. Other salespersons were from Korea, Japan, Iran, Spain, Romania, and Mexico. The judgment call of which customer to take was made based on the intimacy we could create through the power of home languages. On a normal day, you would hear different languages spoken on the floor. Chinese (Mandarin or Cantonese, sometimes Taiwanese), Korean, Japanese, Spanish, Farsi and occasionally Italian. If no salesperson could speak the language a customer wanted, then English. I did not know how unusual it was until I left Max Mara. The work environment was sales-driven and inevitably competitive, but was the only workplace I know where speaking another language was genuinely appreciated. I served my Chinese clients in Mandarin and Cantonese, and I spoke English with store managers, cashiers, trainers, and other salespersons. If moving to America meant entering an uncharted territory, Max Mara gave me the right dose of both risk taking and positive assurance. I latched onto the experience. I found a place to speak my clunky English, a word, a phrase at a time.

On the floor waiting for customers, Esther straightened her arms, turned her wrists, and clamped her hands in front of her. Sometimes she would rest one foot behind the other. When customers came, she greeted them by opening her arms slightly. When she talked, her palms faced up, her wrists twisted more so her hands were facing outward. There was some oddness in these movements but to me all within a normal range. We were all awkward, but we were taught to cover nervousness by exaggerating our gestures. Open your arms wide to appear large and confident. Make eye contact so others see you as willing to communicate. All were correct, but everything needed to come from inside. We faked confidence. Esther always remained a bit awkward. She never tried hard to cover anything. Somehow the twisting and folding convinced me that she might also feel uneasy on the floor. I connected with her this way.

Adding anxiety, I often spoke as if I were agitated. Most of the time I tried not to ask for help because it was too much effort to put a sentence together. When serving a customer, say I couldn’t find a specific jacket to complete an outfit, I had to reach out. “The jacket. Blue, where? In the back can’t find.” If speaking is like painting, speaking another language is like crafting a piece of art with a paper full of holes and missing corners. I didn’t understand what tools to use so I grabbed whatever was available in front of me. Then I would feel too shy to share it, so I crumpled the page into a ball and threw it at others. My speaking often appeared rude and inconsiderate especially when urgent. I could not help it. But with that, Esther still patiently listened to me despite the bumbling. She would try to understand which blue jacket I meant, help me find that collection and locate the sealed bag. The true sense of understanding came beyond locating a jacket or accessing the physical world. Esther took the time to see the person behind all the clunky expressions. I felt seen. I remember gazing up slightly when talking with Esther. She must be about 5’8”. Her back slightly hunched. I did not see that as a hunchback, but her tendency to always reach down to eye level with me. In a sea of confusion, if someone would stay awkward with you when you are awkward, listen to you when you struggle with words, or simply be with you however inelegant and clumsy you are, you may transform.

Esther heard the complexity in the background of my simple words. She saw me being more than the person I could speak. When “I am eager to communicate with you, but our cultures are so different and I only have these couple of words to tell you” becomes “I am sad,” to me, it equates with muteness. Esther would go the extra mile to voice the rest for me, “Yeah, I hear you. You wish you could find words to describe how different we are.” Most of the time, I spoke with simple words and people saw me as a simple person. “A Chinese who speaks broken English.” That might have been their full picture of me. To Esther, I was a living human being. Simple is not me, but I don’t yet have a language to describe the intricacy of my reality. Simple is never anybody. I think of those immigrants who hold a degree, ran a successful business in their home countries but work minimum-wage jobs as housekeepers, janitors or farmworkers in America. I think of their wisdom. How little of it can be seen? How little of it can be heard? Or, they are aliens, just immigrants or worse, they are “criminals,” “rapists,” and “terrorists.” A new country and a new language conceal complexities. Our world is complicated but our tongue does not allow us to be seen. When everything expressed is seen as simple and plain, our world turns blank. This surface is by virtue of the lack of a tool kit. We are simple, but this is what we can do now, not who we are.

* * *

Sayuri is still busy assisting her customers. I look around. Everything is familiar. Max Mara is well-known for its classic sophisticated design. Every piece in every collection makes a statement of elegance and style, a style that rarely goes out of fashion. While admiring the floor and all the current collections, my eyes are locked on this one fine red coat. The knowledge I learned as a salesperson tells me that the simplest designed, well below knee-length coat is the signature piece of the year. I am sure it is pure cashmere as all the signature coats have been. I come close to a touch. The familiar “Cucito a Mano” (made by hand) sign is under the Max Mara label. I knew it. I pull out the price tag. It reads $5,590. Max Mara is selling a cashmere coat in the summer, but I am wearing an off-white linen dress with a pair of beach flip-flops, a standard look for the season. Most malls in the U.S. keep their temperature at 70 degrees all year round. Freezing is luxurious. The magic is that although the temperature is twenty-degrees different from outside, the change is never invasive. Your skin senses the chill, but not so much to freeze you away. I may or may not need to add a cardigan in this temperature, but the 70 degrees does make me wonder about the possibilities for fall. When I worked here, I was given a Max Mara black pantsuit as a uniform, the most classic kind that is made of wool, well-pressed, sleek and professional. It was also a suit from the seasonal collection, which meant we were on the floor modeling the outfit too. I remember the two pieces cost about $1,500. Somehow I found comfort in wearing this suit. It might be that wearing it I forgot many differences between me and the customers and my colleagues. I was able to be that person who could have conversations with people like Esther, to learn from her and to be understood. It might be a feeling that on the outside, I could give a simple explanation to my old world that I was doing okay.

When Sayuri took a break, we snapped a few pictures, hugged and said until next year. I headed out and was ready for dinner with my brother's family. Wait, where did I park?

*While first accepted at Vitni, this piece originally appeared in Canyon Voices' Spring, 2021 issue*

Contributor’s note:

As an immigrant who began a new life in the US in her thirties, I often wonder if the feeling of loss has everything to do with possession. If I didn't own anything, would I feel any loss? Labyrinth tells the story of the beginning phase in the US, of a period so undefined I did not know what questions even to be asking. To me, writing about loss is a necessary stroke to create sense, to anchor my journey, and possibly, to navigate. Labyrinth will become one of the early chapters in a working memoir, Naturalized.

BIO:

Ching Ching Tan is a Chinese immigrant living in the US for sixteen years. Her journey of education and writing began in taking ESL courses in community colleges. She received her BA in Linguistics at UCSD, MA in Communication Studies at SJSU. Currently, she is pursuing her MFA in SJSU and writing her first memoir Finding the Wor(l)ds.