When I met Loni there were only a handful of Asian American films at the time and of course, Loni was a prominent figure in any study of them. Ron Chew gave me the privilege of hooking up with Loni to plan her itinerary of interviews and visits whenever she came to Seattle. Each call with her would last at least 45 minutes, even if it was just to confirm her flights. My hand-written notes look like the chalkboard in A Beautiful Mind–frenetic scribbles, a series of abstract questions, locations, ideas… my nervous hand trying to keep up with her stream of consciousness way of illustrating for me the people connected in space and time by the great land bridge called immigration. Her words sounded like free associations that were intuitively anchored to historical accounts and threaded by the movement of people through generations and across oceans. Her words meditated me to the place where a single person could have an insurmountable misfortune, make a decision and a journey to leave everything comforting and familiar, and then find himself working with uncertainty in the depths of an endless lonely forest stacking one rock at a time neatly, high and wide for miles.
It was a bit of a hike getting to the Chinese Walls in Granite, Oregon. On the Ancestors film shoot, it was the one time it was her who couldn’t keep up with us, the crew. The site was a mountain range of individual rocks balanced effortlessly as tall as the forest that grows at its foot. Through the trees we heard Loni in the distance encouraging us to keep going ahead and then yelling up to our guide “How many more blocks is it?”
Even though we were in our twenties, and Loni was in her 60s, she probably needed six or seven of us to keep up with her but the three of us did our best. She would go from one thought to the next to the next, constantly synthesizing the interviews and site visits we had just completed into the amalgamous experience vision that she was constructing. Each perspective was a point on the surface of a sphere, and she was piecing it together in order to get to the essence at the center of it. At the end of an 18 hour day we would finally get to a hotel room that we shared and place our binders head to head reviewing all the points of the day, digesting, and reformulating how ‘what we learned today’ informed ‘how we would experience and learn from tomorrow.’ When she would finally go to bed, she would sleep heavily—sleeping as deep as she could go long. I remember that first morning, with a foggy heavy head, feeling the weight of Loni sitting right next to my pillow on the bed, with her itinerary, talking to me as if I was already awake. It took me a while to make out the words “First thing, we have to go see Dale Hom. We have to go to his home. We have to see how he lives and what his family is like. Does he have chickens….” Such were my days and nights with Loni. However much time I spent with her, I could never get enough.
Loni taught me that tapping the table on the side of your tea cup was a polite way of saying thank you for pouring me another cup without interrupting the conversation. She was considerate of old world graces—like choosing to send a telegram to an elder to whom she wanted to show respect. It was her sixth sense to tune into one’s unique social disposition. Her interactions were exceedingly thoughtful of that. Loni knew that when you gave your seat to her at a full table it wasn’t because you thought she needed to sit down. It was upbringing.
Likewise, it was so wonderful and easy to do things for Loni because she took everything in so completely—every savory moment no matter how unassuming. I stayed with her for a time in her house on Washington St. and in Berkeley. On a grocery shopping trip with my future husband Bruce, he once picked out a specialty salami with the idea that maybe we should get this for Loni, who was our soft button for doing something extra special. But in this case, I called him on it. He totally wanted it for himself! So I smirked at him and then, put it in the basket. Now, whenever we don’t have any good reason for wanting something special it’s always “Maybe we should get it for Loni” and then we crack up because she’s hundreds of miles away…
Loni was a powerhouse and an incredible human being who put a million billion facets of our humanity into perspective. Being with her I felt like I was with a close confidant, my oldest relative, and all my ancestral roots in one precious human vessel. She was a great mentor, and through her generosity, confidence, and persuasion, I had some of the most incredible life-changing experiences—some over a single dinner conversation or a long car ride, and definitely the 14 seater prop plane between Boise and Salt Lake City.