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Senior Correspondent

When East Met West: The Coco Connection

When Jane and I meet people for the first time, they usually ask, “How did you two meet?” Perhaps they ask because Jane is Chinese and I’m Caucasian, and they think we must have met in China. In case you’re wondering, here’s the answer that we give, without all the details.

It was during my Spring break from Arizona State University on March 17, 1993 (Saint Patrick’s Day). I had just finished making a home visit with one of the stepfamilies I had been counseling. I decided to have lunch at Coco’s Restaurant in the Town of Paradise Valley, Ariz., which is an upscale town between Phoenix and Scottsdale. For those of you not familiar with the Coco chain, it’s not a fancy restaurant; it’s just one step above Denny’s. After lunch I was waiting in line to pay my bill, behind a very attractive and friendly Asian woman with striking dark eyes, dressed impeccably. She started a conversation, and by the time we got to the cash register I had asked for her phone number, but she preferred that I give her mine, so I gave her my business card. I thought, “It would be great if she called but she was probably just being polite.”

As I found out later, Jane is one of those people who never met a stranger. It was not unusual for her to strike up a conversation with this stranger. I also believe that it was providential that the line to the cash register was long, and we did have an interesting chat that extended to the parking lot, before Jane had to get back to J.C. Penney, where she was an employee in the accounting office. I hoped she would follow up with a phone call.

That night I received a phone call from Jane, under the pretext that it was to continue our conversation. After a lengthy conversation, I invited her out that weekend for dinner. We had dinner at Chianti’s, a small but authentic neighborhood Italian restaurant.

After a memorable meal we went to the Royal Palms resort where Maxine Andrews, one of the famous Andrews sisters, was performing as a solo act. She could still belt out a song, but it was not the same without her sisters. Even so, it was nostalgic to see and hear Maxine sing some of the songs I grew up with during WWII. In addition to her singing some of their hit songs, she did a brief monologue about her sisters and some of the famous leading men they had performed with, like Bing Crosby and Bob Hope.

After Maxine’s performance, the Royal Palms had a trio for dancing. Before we got out on the dance floor, I warned Jane that dancing was not my forte and asked for her indulgence. Jane loved dancing and was a great dancer. She could even accommodate my two left feet. Despite my being dancing impaired, with Jane I felt like Fred Astaire. It was a wonderful night, and from that night on we started to go out on a regular basis.

I knew after that first date that this was the woman I wanted to dance with for the rest of my life. Before we could tie the knot, I had to pass inspection by her family. The first step was to meet Jane’s mother, the matriarch of the family, affectionately known as Mama Li. Jane made arrangements for me to meet her at her apartment at the Honling House, which was a home for Chinese elders. She was a very distinguished looking woman in her early eighties, and very active in the cultural activities at the Honling House. She loved living at the Honling House; all the residents spoke Mandarin, and most were born in China, but mainly because she always had partners willing to play six hours of Mahjong with her at the drop of a chop stick.

When I met Mama Li for the first time, she was dressed in the traditional Chinese dress, the “cheongsam.” She spoke very little English, and I had a limited vocabulary in Mandarin. She was delighted when I responded, ”Xie xie” (thank you) when she offered me a cup of tea. She told Jane later that she liked me and that Jane should marry me. Her reason was that I had big ears, and big ears in the Chinese culture are a sign that I would live a long life. God bless Mama Li!

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