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My Mother, the Barber of Chongville

Image: George Chong

My sister and I in our matching outfits made by our mother.
My early years with my mother taught me how to think outside the box. I learned how to use one tool a dozen ways.

Growing Up on Nickels and Dimes

Until my mother went back to work, we lived on my father's income as a civil servant. We got by: My mother scrimped and saved, we wore handmade clothing, and ate home baked cookies. I remember one night my dad was under the family station wagon trying to hook up the loose muffler with a coat hanger, it was a life of patching and making do with what we had at hand. My mother did as much as she could herself to save each dollar.

The one and only time that I felt my mother's wrath and was almost put up for adoption was when I destroyed one of her best handiworks. I was about six years old, alone and bored. I can't remember where my mother was, but it sure wasn't in the apartment. When she got back all the curtains that she had sewn herself were cut to my height. I had taken a pair of scissors and cut the bottom half off. I truly believe that that years later, karma came back and taken its payment when one of my rescue dogs dug through the front to the back of my new designer leather couch when I was at work.

Haircuts were done at the kitchen sink. My sister and I would sit there patiently while my mother snipped away. She tried to keep it even all around; I always looked like an inverted black salad bowl. One day, my sister was not having it and she moved. The electric razor flew and there went my sister's right eyebrow. Shaved right down to the skin, and it didn't end there. There was a chunk taken out above the ear. My mother looked at the empty space once inhabited by thick dark hair and stood there thinking. She left the kitchen and came back with her eyebrow pencil and proceeded to fill in the blanks. This only worked if my sister didn't rub her face or scalp. Fortunately, her hair grew back in a week, after a whole week of careful and skillful drawing of hair by my mother.

Another time we were visiting a natural landmark in Ottawa, Canada. My mother told my younger sister to lie about her age; she was 10, not 12. The teenager manning the ticket booth looked down at my sister and asked, "what's your age?" My sister said "12. No 10"
My mother said, "She's 10!" Now, this was over a dollar difference, which was a big deal to my mom since it could buy 4 gallons of gas back then. "So what is it? 10 or 12?" asked the teen. "12. No 10!" cried my sister who under pressure cracked at the get go. We had to pay the extra dollar.

As Seen on TV

In Toronto the winters can be cold and dry, even the most youthful skin would crack and flake. My mother's cure was to slather us with cooking oil. She said it was moisturizing and great for our skin. I believe she saw this on the television, but it was for a skin cream made with olive oil. Her thinking was why only use a bit of it when you can go right to the source, and in this case a bottle of olive oil. I just remember sticking to everything that winter and smelling a bit gamey.

As I look back, I can only love my mother more for her ingenuity and enterprise. My mother was an immigrant from Hong Kong thrown into a new world and her view of it was through television and her observations of the non-Asian ladies who were our neighbors. And I have to say, she raised my sister and I well, and thanks to her we both have put her ingenuity to great use in our own lives.

Artist, designer and teacher Ophelia Chong explores her adopted city of Los Angeles with an eye and ear for the small moments that tests the duality of being an Asian American. Join her on her journey every Thursday on KCET's SoCal blog

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