ARCTIC RIFFS by Monica Woo

It was September 7, 2022, the thirty-fourth anniversary of the double homicide of my older brother Joe and his two-year-old daughter Jeanne in Anchorage, Alaska. I received a text from a stranger.

“It’s K. from The Moth…your Pitchline story stopped me in my tracks…”

The Moth is a world-renowned live storytelling program. The Moth Radio Hour garners over one million National Public Radio listeners weekly, and their podcasts have over ten million annual downloads. Five years earlier, I had submitted a two-minute story on The Moth’s Pitchline about the gruesome murder of my brother and niece in Alaska, and my journey of shame and forgiveness. K. invited me to share the full story live on The Moth Mainstage on February 15, 2023, at Anchorage’s largest venue, the Atwood Concert Hall. A popular paid show, each Moth Mainstage event features celebrated professionals and storytellers, supplemented by one to two amateurs. I never imagined being able to honor my family on the coveted Moth program, and return to Anchorage after three decades. I reread K’s invitation several times, and started weeping.

My father and Joe were early Chinese pioneers relocating from Hong Kong to Anchorage in 1968, when the discovery of oil at Prudhoe Bay ignited Alaska’s economic boom. Dad bought a hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant called the Chinese Kitchen in Anchorage’s redlight district. There were only sixty-five documented Chinese amongst an Anchorage population of over a hundred thousand.

In the summer of 1972, my mother, younger brother Vic and I also left Hong Kong for Anchorage. For her first plane ride, Mom wore a special ensemble handsewn over eight weeks by her favorite tailor in Hong Kong.

“We must look our best to earn the foreign devils’ respect,” she insisted.

Mom looked like a Chinese movie star in her emerald qipao with peach peony prints and pankou fasteners adorning the lapel and standing collar. The body-fitting qipao with two side slits above the knees accentuated her figure and shapely legs. Over the qipao, she wore a peach brocade jacket. In my mid-teens, I wore a goldenrod dress with a matching overcoat. The tailor copied the pattern from Hong Kong’s trendiest fashion magazine.

The pale-face-round-eyes stared at Mom and me at baggage claim. The American women sported sweatshirts, jeans, shapeless parkas and sneakers. Men with scruffy beards and ungroomed hair wore lumberjack flannel shirts, cargo pants and soiled hiking boots. Why was this reality so different from American movies? Where were the gorgeous women in rhinestone dresses, black satin sheaths and white-lace gowns? I wanted to discard my yellow skin and alien outfit to fit in.

When we exited to the arrival hall after customs inspection, I was fascinated and petrified by the Polar bear on display. From geography studies in Hong Kong, I learned that a Polar bear’s skin was actually jet black, and the white fur served as a camouflage for the arctic environment. How I wished I could shroud my colored skin with a magical snow-drift cloak and blend in with the Americans. The brute’s sharp incisor teeth and pointed canines were bad omens foreshadowing my destiny in this foreign land.

During my first winter in Anchorage, I learned that silk gowns, stiletto heels and dripping diamonds were just an American dream. The reality was to pile on layers of hideous garments to avoid frostbite.

The reality was that Joe was obsessed with gambling and owed money to unsavory characters. My father and Joe frequently argued over gambling, and, at times, the fights became violent.

I was ashamed of Joe’s reckless behavior and distressed by our family’s turmoil. As soon as I could enroll in college, I left Anchorage, determined never to return.

The reality was in 1989, Joe and his two-year-old daughter Jeanne were shot in their own home in Anchorage. Joe was dead on arrival. Jeanne died in my arms the following day. The murderer was eventually convicted two years later. The crime motive was a $1,450 gambling debt Joe owed the murderer.

After three decades, in 2023, I returned to the arctic dressed like a human dumpling. Underneath my North Face down parka were five layers of fleece and thermal underwear. Two pairs of socks protected my feet inside the bulky Sorel snow boots. My partner Dan accompanied me on the trip. The minute we disembarked at the Anchorage Airport, Dan couldn’t wait to find the iconic Polar bear in the arrival hall. When only a scruffy Alaska brown bear was on display, he quipped, “I guess Anchorage has downgraded their greeter with the fall in oil output.”

Once in the airport taxi, Dan was eager to share information on our next adventure: The Historic Anchorage Hotel a.k.a. HAH. “Wow! The hotel was built in 1916 and survived the Great Alaska Earthquake. Ooh! HAH is haunted!”

As our taxi approached 4th Avenue, I hardly paid attention to the HAH factoids, as I couldn’t stop thinking about the past. I remembered helping the police with Joe’s murder investigation by tracking down gambling haunts hidden inside unmarked bars on 4th Avenue. Bob Hope once called 4th Avenue “the longest bar in the world”. The area had not changed. Vulgar neon signs lit up a row of seedy dive bars. Two men staggered out of the Panhandle, one of the few bars that survived the devastating earthquake. A man sprawled on the snow-covered sidewalk.

The noise from a freight train woke me up way too early the next morning. I looked out the window. Heavy snow shrouded visibility beyond a block. Grimy yellow streetlights poked out of the soot-color sky. My iPhone reported that the temperature outside was 13°F. Across the street, an Alaska Native man feebly propped himself against the wall of a souvenir shop. He was aimlessly swinging a seven-foot metal pole, either to ward off attackers or prevent himself from falling face flat on the pavement. Half a block away, another Alaska Native man staggered on the snow-covered sidewalk, his head bowed, his back bent by the weight of a scroungy backpack. I did not remember such destitution when living in Anchorage.

We took an Uber to a local supermarket. In his sixties, our driver Barry flew drones with the “Old Farts with Drones” community when not working. Despite unplowed, icy roads and zero visibility, Barry was in full control of his vehicle. “Here, all cars have studded tires, plus I’ve learned how to drive by braille. Just by feeling the vibrations on the road, I can close my eyes and still know exactly where I am going.”

A bit anxious about Barry’s braille driving, I tried to change the subject to homelessness.

Barry explained, “Alaska Natives make up 16% of Anchorage’s population, but represent half of our city’s homeless people. It’s a big problem. My son sometimes volunteers at Bean’s Café, our largest soup kitchen.”

I reached back to my memory about Bean’s Café. In my senior year at high school, Joe beat me up after I had caught him stealing money and jewelry from my parents’ bedroom. He needed to pay another gambling debt. Dad kicked Joe out of our house and fired him as the cook at our family’s restaurant. Eventually, Joe was hired as the chef at Bean’s Café. Feeling disgraced that her son was working at a soup kitchen, Mom begged Dad to rehire Joe. Dad refused, “No! I’m sick of him disappearing from work for gambling binges. He’s must learn to survive on his own.”

My father was right. At Bean’s Café, Joe developed self-sufficiency and a sense of fulfillment for helping the marginalized.

At Joe’s funeral, I was surprised at how many friends my brother had and the stories of his acts of kindness. A homeless Alaska Native man told me that one night at the Bean’s Cafe, Joe came over, took the man’s hand, placed it on his big, round belly, and said, “Here man, rub my buddha belly. It’ll bring you good luck. Don’t you worry.” He then put fifty dollars in the man’s hand.

At his funeral, I started to appreciate a side of my brother that I did not know. I wanted to tell him how proud I was of his compassion for disenfranchised people. I wanted to hear his laughter, even his cusses. I wanted to rub his buddha belly. But it was all too late.

In the Chinese culture, every year in April during Qingming Festival, we sweep and decorate gravesites, offer food and burn joss paper. I had not visited the gravesite of Joe and Jeanne since their burials, and wanted to improvise our own Qingming even in frigid February.

A striking Alaska Native woman with long shiny hair tied in a ponytail drove us to the Memorial Park Catholic Cemetery. She wore a tee-shirt and tight jeans. Her Adidas shower shoes revealed bright red toenails. A hoodie was draped over the passenger front seat. When I complained about the bitter cold and the unexpected snowstorms during the previous two days, she scoffed, “It’s balmy today. We don’t pay attention to the weather forecast. In Alaska, no one is in control. We make the best of whatever is thrown our way.”

A FedEx truck slipped and slid in front of us. “Go FedEx!” she laughed heartily, revved up her Subaru and chased after the truck.

The twenty-two-acre cemetery was under several feet of undisturbed snow and most of the markers were buried. There was not a single soul in the Memorial Park.

Dan spurred me on, “Other than The Moth, paying respects to your family is the only reason for visiting Alaska in the middle of freakin’ winter. C’mon, let’s follow the online geo-coordinates to find the burial sites.”

Moved by Dan’s conviction, I waded thigh-deep into the snow. My behind and feet got chilled and soaked. My Sorel boots were not waterproofed after all. As we approached the proximity of the burial sites, we laughed at a sign: “Be kind. Don’t shovel snow onto your neighbor’s grave.” Finally, we arrived at a spot with side-by-side markers poking above the snow. Dan vigorously shoveled the snow with his bare hands, but could not break through the solid ice blocking the inscriptions.

“Joe and Jeanne know we are here. And The Moth story and our memory will keep them alive. Dan, let’s come back in the summer to pay our respects.” I had never imagined returning to Alaska, but my perspective shifted with this journey. While offering my parting prayers, I couldn’t stop thinking about how Mom made a show of jumping into the grave during the burial ceremony. Friends held her back. I wondered then whether it was just an act to elicit attention and sympathy.

Mom was only forty-four when we first arrived in this arctic hinterland. No English. No friends. No subtropical vibrancy. She had no choice but to follow my father to restart life after bankruptcy. Several times I caught Mom alone in her bedroom, gazing wistfully at the mirror. She was wearing her emerald qipao, favorite stiletto shoes, a gold necklace with a translucent jade pendant and a matching gold bracelet. Spread on the bed were several other qipaos. She ran her right palm over the silk, brocade and velvet garments in golden yellow, vermillion and Han purple. She traced her index finger down the hand stitched piping around the edges of the collars, sleeves and hems. She started sobbing, pushing the bracelet round and round her left wrist. A couple of years later, the ritual ended. Mom packed up her qipaos and stiletto heels in a suitcase and shoved it into the storage room.

By shuttering the beloved ensembles from Hong Kong, she finally surrendered to a life sentence in this forlorn outpost. For many years, she passively witnessed the vicious fights between my father and Joe. She submitted to the emotional bullying of my father. I resented my mother’s gutless silence. Yet, I admired her courage for surviving the death of her son and granddaughter. Ambivalence put space between my mother and me. Mom repeatedly reprimanded me for selfishly abandoning my family. The rifts between us expanded over my choice to leave Alaska to save myself.

That evening, Eric, the former president of the Alaska Chinese Association, invited us for a Chinese dinner. Preceding our trip, I introduced myself in an email to the ACA, nervous that my solicitation would be unwelcome. To my surprise, Eric responded promptly, sharing that he knew Joe and my parents, and had met Vic and me. What intrigued me the most was that he had met four times in prison with the man convicted of killing Joe and Jeanne.

When we entered the private dining room, I was surprised to see three other couples around the table. They were all former or current ACA board directors. They all knew my late brother and had met me, but I did not remember them. Like standing before the Pearly Gates on Judgment Day, I felt exposed. Did they know how gambling had wrecked my brother’s life? What did Joe say about me? Did my mother complain to them about my rebellious acts and cutting words? Mei, a feisty Taiwanese lady in her seventies smiled at me across the big round table from time to time, but appeared pensive.

Eric wanted to know about The Moth “presentation.” I explained, “The Moth is not a presentation, but a live storytelling show. It’s quite daunting, as there is a single standup mike, the large stage, the audience and the storyteller. No notes, no net. My story will be about Joe and Jeanne.”

Silence. The other guests picked at morsels of food with their chopsticks and watched the Lazy Susan going round and round. Eric then said in a subdued tone, “Our entire Chinese community was saddened by the tragedy. For over thirty years, we have buried the event in our memory and don’t talk about it.”

In the Chinese culture, protecting the face or honor of the family and community is far more important than the truth. To save face, all parties could read between the lines and repackage the facts. Many Chinese consider the American tell-all behavior as uncouth and uncivilized.

As I was growing up, I questioned events and behavior, but my parents’ reticence muffled the truth. So many secrets were locked up in the nested Chinese boxes of silence or euphemisms. Why did Joe have a different family name from mine? Why did Joe beat up a neighborhood bully who taunted him as “sampan kid”? Why did my father humiliate Mom as chau-gei, the Chinese slang for “whore”?

Through my aging aunt, I eventually had found out that Joe was my half-brother from Mom’s first marriage. I did not know that Mom was married before or what happened to her first husband. I accidentally discovered that my mother was one of Hong Kong’s most in-demand courtesans, from a friend whose father was one of Mom’s favorite clients. I learned that “sampan kid” was a disparaging term for a bastard whose mother floated from man to man. Going through Mom’s possessions after her death, I came across my parents’ marriage certificate and my Hong Kong birth certificate. For the first time, I figured out that I was born out of wedlock. Did Mom marry for love, or for honor, to shield me from the ignominy of being a “sampan kid”?

After dinner, Mei came up to me and showed me a picture on her iPhone of a gorgeous young Chinese woman.

“This is my daughter who died six years ago alone in her room in Los Angeles. She was only thirty-three. No one can understand the unfathomable grief of losing one’s own child. I accompanied your mother at the hospital the night when Joe was shot and died. Your mother suffered anguish that even time could not heal.” She hugged me tightly and sobbed.

For the first time since the burial, I finally grasped that my mother had genuinely wanted to perish in the gravesite of Joe and Jeanne. Who and what did she live for? I felt so small for belittling her distress.

That night, I lay awake, conflicted by my two cultures. The Chinese code of silence to protect face, and the American embrace of openness and a second chance. For many years, I quietly buried the shame and pain of my family’s tragedy, and only kept the souls of my brother and niece alive by remembering them. But my Moth story would expose Joe’s scars and wounds, and disgrace Anchorage’s Chinese community. I meditated on the last part of my Moth story: “In the Japanese art technique of kintsugi, broken pieces of pottery are put back together with lacquer mixed with powdered gold. A new work of art is created, with its unique beauty and legacy.” In my heart, I knew my story would pay tribute to my brother’s shattered life and reinvent his legacy. I got up at 3 a.m. and bought Moth event tickets for all eight Chinese friends.

On the day of The Moth performance, I practiced the story out loud over and over again, similar to previous days’ routine. I had already refined the story many times, but something was still not right. Each revision unlocked new truths buried inside the nested boxes of pride and denial. Joe had developed from an incorrigible gambler to a complex and vulnerable character. Meanwhile, I had evolved into an intolerant sibling concerned about preserving face. Five hours before showtime, I finally figured out what was missing.

The Moth producer announced the performance order shortly before showtime. I was slotted as the last storyteller and dreaded having to endure ninety minutes before my turn. I knelt inside the cramped toilet of the Green Room area and said a prayer.

Ten minutes before the 7:30 p.m. showtime. The Moth storytellers entered from a side entrance to Row Four of Atwood Concert hall, an impressive wood structure with three tiers. It was built to commemorate the wife of Robert Atwood who founded the Anchorage Times and championed for Alaska statehood.

I could hear the audience chatting behind us. The producer whispered, “1,800 people. 90% filled!” Never been to the Atwood, I was surprised that such an impressive venue existed in this arctic frontier.

I rehearsed my story mentally, while the other storytellers enthralled the audience with their witty and flawless delivery. To calm down, I obsessively applied Chapstick. When it was finally my turn, I almost tripped over another storyteller to walk to the short flight of stairs to get onstage. I passed by my Chinese friend Eric and his wife seated on the first row on the left.

Alone on the immense stage, I stood in front of the standup mike. I gazed into the hall but could not see the audience, only two small rows of emergency lights flanking the dark. I took a deep breath, and reminded myself this evening was not about me, but honoring my family. I began.

“On September 7, 1989, a phone call woke me up at 2 a.m. at my New Jersey apartment. My mother was screaming on the other end, ‘Joe. Jeanne. Saat sei lah! Saat sei lah! Joe. Jeanne. Killed! Killed. My son. Dead at forty-one.’ Only after a few minutes, I finally grasped that my older brother Joe and his two-year old daughter Jeanne were shot in their own home here in Anchorage, Alaska. Joe was dead on arrival. Jeanne was in critical condition.”

I could hear the audience gasp when I said, “here in Anchorage, Alaska”. When I referenced The Chinese Kitchen, members of the audience started applauding. They remembered our family restaurant! For the next twelve minutes, I continued with heart and confidence.

I heard sobs when describing how I held my niece for the first and last time in the hospital. I had to control my emotions to keep the story moving.

“…then Jeanne died in my arms. I felt unworthy of my niece who had waited to say goodbye to an aunt she had never met. I felt guilty for leaving my family in Alaska years before.

When I reached the last part of the story, I lifted my right arm to display the native Alaskan bracelet around my wrist. It was made from walrus ivory. Each link had the carving of an arctic animal. Whale. Walrus. Eagle.

“…Joe gave me this bracelet on my sixteenth birthday. I was so happy and surprised by the bracelet, but wondered if Joe had won it from gambling. But it does not matter. What matters is that my brother showed his love.”

My voice wobbled as I started weeping.

“Tonight, by wearing Joe’s bracelet, I reclaim my past, and forgive my guilt for leaving Alaska to save myself. Tonight, by embracing his scars and wounds, I ask for Joe’s forgiveness, and I forgive him. I honor my brother’s broken life and celebrate his new legacy.”

I ask for Joe’s forgiveness” was the missing phrase I inserted last-minute.

Unlike my parents who picked up the pieces even after Joe’s death, I gave up on my brother too soon while he was still alive. Blaming Joe for wrecking our family, I only learned to forgive him in recent years. But with each draft of the Moth story, I chipped away my moral bigotry and revealed the luminosity of my brother’s soul.

I should be the one to ask for forgiveness.

When I returned to my seat, the Moth fan sitting in the row behind me offered a standing ovation, hugged me and said, “What courage to share this story!” The lady sitting in front of me turned around to embrace me.

My eight Chinese friends came up to me afterwards. Were they distressed by my portrayals of the reckless and violent sides of Joe? Did they feel betrayed by the exposé of gambling vice and murders within the Asian community? I couldn’t decipher their expressions and cordial hugs. But even if my story had offended them, it did not matter. I knew in my heart that I had honored my Chinese family and community.

Before saying goodbye, Eric held my hand and said, “I hope you have found closure. I have.”

On this special journey, I found something even more precious than closure. I discovered the source of my resilience.

Alaska is more than twice the size of Texas, but has only 2.5% of Texas’ population. Like their state, Alaskans are unfinished, unbound and undaunted. Revisiting Anchorage helped me embrace their fierce independence and perseverance.

For decades, I have navigated through solid ground and quicksand, career peaks and troughs, owning multiple homes and being homeless, relationship reconciliations and rifts, love and betrayal. Like my father and so many stalwart Alaskans, I know I will prevail.

My mother endured a life of adversity in silence. She did not jump into her son’s and granddaughter’s grave, because of her will to live. Just like my mother, I will survive with fortitude and dignity.

One day, I will return to the Atwood Concert Hall to tell my mother’s story. One day, by sharing her thwarted dreams, unspoken truths, love and loss, I will give voice to my mother.

Monica Woo is an Asian American emerging writer whose works have been published in The Plentitudes, The Dillydoun Review, Sterling Clack Clack and Rigorous. Her “Leica of the Heart” was awarded second place in creative nonfiction by The League of Utah Writers Olive Woolley Burt Awards.

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