Charles and his trademark grin
Today is the 34th birthday of my dear childhood friend, Charles Hwa. Unfortunately, like so many other birthdays he celebrated, surrounded by friends and family, today we’re mourning his passing. Over Memorial Day weekend, he collapsed on a basketball court in Beijing while playing a pickup game with friends.
It just seems completely impossible that Charles is no longer with us. Vibrant and full of laughter and life, Charles was the kind of person who was hard to miss; people who met him never forgot his outsized personality. I certainly never have. I have known Charles for as long as I can remember. Our families were one of a handful of Chinese-Americans in Greenville, South Carolina, where we grew up. He and his sister, Vivian, were my very first friends, and through them I have been lucky enough to know what it means to have a lifelong friendship.
Charles was a kind, hilarious, smart guy who was good-natured sport about basically everything. His “go with it” spirit made him immediately likeable to anyone who met him, and, to those of us who were close to him, he was an easy target for both our affection and our ridicule. One of my favorite things about Charles was that he had a tendency to speak in sweeping generalizations that were completely, effortlessly and spectacularly incorrect. As kids, on one hot summer evening when I, ever the drama queen, had lamented that my ice cream was melting too fast, he tried to convince me that “ice cream only tastes good when it’s completely melted.” Even as a six year-old, I knew enough to know that statement to be completely wrong, but Charles would not waver. To prove his point, he waited until his ice cream was, in fact, completely melted. As he slurped spoonful after spoonful of the soupy, liquid mess while Vivian and I looked on incredulously, he just shrugged his shoulders and said, “Well, it tastes good to me.”
In fact, when I think about my childhood memories in the collective, I can’t separate out any distinct ones that don’t somehow end up relating back to some experience that I shared with Charles, Vivian and the other Chinese-American kids in Greenville. Like most kids lucky enough to have an uneventful, typical childhood, I have fond memories of summer camps, of hanging out at each other’s houses on the weekends, and of riding bicycles through the neighborhood. Unlike most typical American kids, I also have memories of spending Saturday mornings drudging through the rigors of Chinese language school with Charles, Vivian and a gaggle of my other Chinese-American friends. We were united then, as we are now, as survivors of torture by Mandarin Chinese language education. Our moms took turns at dragging us through the horribly boring texts, written less like language textbooks and more like lessons on morality. Every tale had a subtext of guilt (for disrespecting our mother tongue by not speaking or reading it well enough) hidden just below the surface. To make matters worse, we each had to take turns reading aloud to each other. During one lesson, Charles got assigned to read and translate a page of vocabulary focusing around the word “guo,” a root word commonly used to describe fruit. “Ping guo,” he’d said, sighing. “Apple.” “Shui guo. Fruit.” “Mang guo. Mango.” “Ru Guo.” He paused, scratching his head. The phrase actually meant “if,” and was thrown in to show that the “guo” didn’t always have to be used in the fruit context. He looked up at my mom, who was teaching that day, and said simply, “I don’t know. It’s some kind of fruit.”
My mom immediately dissolved into a fit of giggles, explaining to us Charles’s gaffe. We all roared with laughter, and Charles, instead of being embarrassed like most kids would’ve been, laughed right along with us. That was one of many moments that reminded us that Charles didn’t take himself too seriously, and we took advantage of that fact by teasing him for almost everything and anything. He was always took our affectionate ribbing in stride.
Charles also made friends easily, whether they were his contemporaries or not. The City of Greenville used to host an international festival downtown each year, and our families would host a tent for the Chinese Landsman’s Association, a community organization for all of the Chinese families living in upstate South Carolina. As part of the fundraising efforts for the organization, we’d sell egg rolls (insert stereotype here). Charles, probably around eight or nine years old at the time and ever the showman and entrepreneur, started making trays of “samples” to hand out to festival goers as they passed the tent. I’m pretty sure that he ate a sample for every one he handed out, but even still, the effect of his marketing plan meant that we raised unprecedented amounts for the organization. I can still remember the thick smell of frying oil and being sick from eating too many egg rolls. Those were some good times.
I share these recollections because they are among the most complete memories I have of my childhood days spent with Vivian and Charles. Even though I know my childhood experiences with them were happy ones, as I grieve for the loss of a friend who was such an integral part of those days, I am having trouble remembering just one story, with a complete beginning, middle and end, that can adequately and fully encapsulate what Charles and Vivian’s friendship meant – has meant – to me. I remember the day Charles and Vivian’s younger brother Jason was born, and at how much they relished in caring for and doting on him. I can still smell the warm, homemade baozi (pork buns) that his mother so expertly made, and how much fun we had spending countless afternoons at each other’s houses. I remember how close-knit all of the Greenville families were, so much so that it was often hard to know where my family ended and the next began.
The Hwa family moved away from Greenville when I was in middle school. I cried buckets of tears at losing my dear friends, just as we were entering into the treacherous, self confidence-ruining middle school years, a time when leaning on your real friends was a necessary tool for survival. My mom comforted me by telling me that Charles and Vivian were the kind of friends that would stay with me, and even though our paths were diverging, we’d always be a part of each other’s lives.
As a gangly, glasses-wearing twelve year-old with some seriously awkward years to follow, it felt at the time like a huge chapter of my life was ending, but my mother was right. Charles and Vivian ended up in Beijing, China by way of Massachusetts, and we continued on our separate ways as we grew older and went on to college, graduate school and adulthood. Still, over the years we found ways and reasons to reunite – a Thanksgiving or Christmas here and there, with a pig roast or a Lowcountry boil thrown in. Every time Charles showed up, he was the same goofy, confident kid. Our jokes and retelling of stories, well-worn with the treads of time, still made him belly-laugh as if he was hearing them for the first time. Every time it was like no time had passed.
It’s a hard thing to say goodbye to someone who has been such a big part of my life; someone who, like family, has shaped who I am. I don’t know if Charles ever knew what his friendship meant to me, and it breaks my heart to think that I won’t ever be able to tell him. It’s so hard to accept that our paths won’t cross again. Perhaps part of me will always be looking for him at our family gatherings in the years to come.
I last saw Charles in Beijing two years ago. I was pregnant at the time and had a free afternoon to spend with Charles while my husband and in-laws hiked the Great Wall. Charles suggested that we meet in the 798 Art Zone, a redeveloped industrial park in Beijing that had become the home to the city’s avant garde galleries and cafes. When I arrived, I knew immediately why Charles had chosen to meet me there -- because it was a place he’d thought I’d like. He was right. I circled the park for a half an hour, stopping to peek in at various artists at work while Charles and I tried to find each other, limited both by our shared bad sense of direction and my lack of Chinese reading skills. When we finally found each other, Charles immediately relished in introducing me to the latest rage in Beijing, a local yogurt drink. We sat outside, enjoying an uncharacteristically cool summer day and catching up again like we’d just seen each other yesterday. He was excited about starting a new chapter in his life, including his studies at Tsinghua University. We caught each other up with news about our families and soon he had me doubled over with laughter as he relayed his upbeat accounts of encounters with sluggish Chinese bureaucracy and the annoyances of living in Beijing. He was also excited about my son’s upcoming birth, telling me he felt like we were finally growing up.
A few months later, Charles e-mailed me a photo of him pointing to a bottle of Chinese juice labeled “Ru Guo.” “It’s apparently a blend of starfruit and apple,” he wrote, and even over e-mail I could sense his smugness. “It only took me 20 years to prove it.”
For once, I let him have his moment, and congratulated him on his win. “Bask in the warm glow of your victory,” I’d written back.
Today, I’m the one basking in the warm glow of that victory, and many more memories I have of Charles. Even though our paths are diverging once again, I know he’ll always remain a part of my life.
Take care, buddy.