Chapter 4: On Mom, The Librarian

August 16, 2009


I don’t really remember much from the rest of my early elementary school experience.  There really wasn’t much worth remembering I guess.  Life leapt from unremarkable event to unremarkable event.  It’s funny how every little thing seemed of the utmost importance as a child.  After I leapt over the language barrier, it was much easier for me to make friends.  Participating in after-school activities like Cub Scouts and Little League helped speed along the process of course.

By this time, my family had comfortably settled in our own home.  We weren’t relegated to crowdedly coexisting with our relatives, my dad had found a decent job and my mom was working as a waitress at my uncle’s local Chinese restaurant (go figure).  The hours were long and she was always home late so eventually she decided to find another job – one where she could work from home so she could look after my brother and I while we grew up.

In elementary school, my mom decided to take some time off during the workday to volunteer a couple hours at the school library, clearly the good suburbanite housewife thing to do.  Oh how exciting it was to see my mom outside of her element.  It wasn’t an easy thing for her to do. My home wasn’t exactly the type of home that the cool kids flocked to.  I rarely had any toys.  Just a flaccid Styrofoam-stuffed ninja turtle that we all took turns pummeling in a set rotation.  The only reason some of my friends came over was because my house always had the most up-to-date computer technology because my mom had started a job as a computer programmer and her company always regularly upgraded her computer hardware.  This only meant we could always play the latest computer games at my house.

The one instance I do remember of one of my good friends coming over ended up a disaster.  My friend Peter and I were just horsing around, as boys often do, and since I’m Asian and obviously born skilled at the martial arts, we decided to have ourselves a little sparring session.  I don’t know how things escalated.  Who played dirty first?  Who was running their mouth?  But I do clearly remember losing my temper, balling up my small left fist and popping my friend as hard as I could just below his chin in the Adam’s apple.  Bad idea.  He instinctively wrapped his hands around his throat, his face contorted in pain as he struggled to breath in and out, in and out to no avail.  Terror was written all over his features, his eyes tearing and his movements more frantic.  His face was turning purple, his freckles less and less prominent as color rushed to his normally pasty white complexion.  He was alternating between gagging and gasping and all I could do was stand there frozen in fear, gawking uneasily.  After what seemed like the longest thirty seconds of my life, my friend was finally able to draw a full, life giving breathe.  Afterward, Peter sat hunched over, visibly shaken.  I was relieved.  How could I have done something so awful to my friend?  I didn’t really want to hurt him.  He’d always been nice to me.  Sure, friends have their disagreements sometimes, but is it worth engaging in this gratuitous violence and reactionary hatred?  He isn’t so different from me.  We’re all human – our lives equally as precious and deserving of that next breathe.

So my mom’s volunteer work at the library was really that significant.  It was her own stand in a society that found her and her kind alien.  Her broken English, her quirky Oriental way of thought – all of that separated her, but she was still willing to attempt to lay her differences aside and challenge herself, all for the sake of her sons.  Instead of just being the courteous waitress that served you at the local Chinese restaurant, my mom became the Asian librarian that everybody knew to be my mom – just a little bit out of place, but still able to hang with the best of them.

Chapter 2: On Moving To The ‘Burbs

March 20, 2009


There are probably very many reasons my parents would give for uprooting our family from the southern crawl of Oklahoma to the fast-paced hustle and bustle of the East Coast, specifically to the Connecticut suburb of Westport, and I am thankful for every single one of them.  A better job market, the proximity to New York City, and filial piety all seemed to play a part, but I’m pretty sure my paternal grandmother’s presence there was the determining factor.

I flew to John F. Kennedy Airport with my mother and my toddler brother, David.  My father had decided to drive a U-Haul truck the whole distance with a family friend so we wouldn’t have to pay a moving company ourselves.  It wasn’t that hard to pull off.  My family hadn’t accumulated that much stuff at that point in our lives.  I remember arriving in Connecticut to the welcoming arms of strange relatives I’d never seen before and anxiously awaiting for my father to arrive with more familiar furniture.  For some unbeknownst reason, I remember a very palpable fear regarding his safe reunion with the rest of his family.

The only family I had known before was the Bible study group in Edmond that I had grown up a part of.  My parents may have taken me back to Taiwan when I was younger to see my maternal grandparents and other relatives, but if this had happened, it was at too young an age to have created any sort of lasting impression.

All of a sudden I was being thrust into a familial structure foreign to me.  What was the hierarchy here?  Who was the top dog?  How exactly am I related to these people?  It was quite overwhelming for a mere five year old boy.  So many new faces were presented to me at one time, but I could always take comfort in the crinkled and affectionate gaze of my grandmother.

To call Westport, Connecticut a mere suburb would be an understatement. It is not the classic image of the suburb one might get when imagining white picket fences and cookie-cutter houses, mainly because of the lingering influence of ‘old’ (or settled) nouveau riche in the area.  In fact, F. Scott Fitzgerald had lived in Westport, Connecticut at one point in his career and had loosely based the classic novel, The Great Gatsby, on the life he experienced in the small town off the Long Island Sound.  Westport gained some more notoriety when Ricky and Lucy of I Love Lucy moved to Westport in their attempt to flee the rigors of city life and fall back on a lifestyle they considered to be synonymous with classic suburban living.  Residents of Westport never fail to mention that Martha Stewart, a woman that has become almost a national emblem of all things suburban, has a residence in Westport (in fact, she was placed under house arrest at this residence during that whole insider-trading fiasco in 2005) and that she’s not really all that nice of a person – an interesting insight into the repressed reality of the modern suburban existence.

Every house in Westport is different.  Different shapes, different styles, different colors, different acreage, and even different mailboxes.  The town is about history, and every house has a different and unique story.  Westport had been the point of entry for the British in their invasion of Danbury during the Revolutionary War, and to me, it always seemed like Paul Revere’s hoofbeats were still echoing in the archaic streets of Westport.  With about as rich a history as one can get in the United States, there was a lot of pride to be had in living in Westport, Connecticut. Unfortunately, such pride can only be underscored by exclusivity and internalized racism, which I would experience firsthand for myself soon enough.

Chapter 1: On Being Born An Okie

March 11, 2009


I have no idea how I ended up being born in Edmond, Oklahoma.  Well, I do have a little idea.  Talk about an odd place for a freshly formed American-born Chinese infant to open his almond eyes in wonderment for the very first time.  Both of my parents graduated from prestigious Taiwanese universities, so how they ended up in a small nondescript public university (Central State University, since renamed to the University of Central Oklahoma) in the middle of nowhere has always been beyond me.  I always just figured that graduate schools were easier to get into in the Midwest, especially for international students who just didn’t know any better.  “Everything from America must be great!” the sentiment must have been then.

Most of my memories from early childhood are pretty fuzzy.  One part of my life that actually takes the form of a tangible image in my mind’s eye is of a single story brick house accented with hues of yellow and brown.  A quaint image.  Maybe I lived there.  In the realm of my memories, I’ve certainly convinced myself that I did.  Some of my earliest memories of my days in Oklahoma are of a Bible study group held in this humble home.  I remember our idyllic earthy house packed full of Chinese international students (practically to the limit) and I, the precious young toddler that I was, being passed around like a freshly-rolled joint at Woodstock.  Every adoring female in the group cooed at me and took their turn holding me, dreaming up machinations of one day being able to mother a child of their own as cute as me.

It was in this frenetic environment that I received my very first scar.  Apparently I wasn’t very attached to my mother, as any normal toddler would have been, but was perfectly content being passed amongst these family friends.  One fateful day, I found my way into the hands of an “Auntie” who was pretty new to this baby-holding thing and she abruptly tried to hold my tender and helpless body too high up on her shoulder and, like a fulcrum, my body pivoted around her shoulder and flipped over on to the ground, headfirst.  Yes, I know.  This childhood trauma explains a lot about how I’ve turned out today.  I’ll be the first to admit it – I was dropped on my head as a baby and I have the scar on the corner of my right eyebrow to prove it.

I don’t really recall any instances of blatant racism in my time spent in Edmond, Oklahoma.  Maybe I was too naïve to notice any of it, or maybe my white friends were too naïve to have developed it.  I remember playing in the sandbox with a friendly neighbor just about my age – Peter, I think his name was.  Peter and I played with miniature plastic soldiers, waging epic wars together in the neighborhood sandbox, almost a prophetic representation of the United State’s future conflict in the sands of the Middle East.  These were good times – so surreal in my memory that I’ve tricked myself into thinking I’ve seen this same scene painted and hung up in a Norman Rockwell exhibit somewhere – little yellow boy and little white boy, playing together in a true testament to the solidarity of middle-class America.

My next solidified memory is of when my family decided to up and relocate to Tulsa, Oklahoma, just about 100 miles away.  I don’t know the circumstances of our move but for some reason, I get the impression that we shared a house with a nice white family.  I was a little bit older now, and my kid brother David (three years younger than I) had been born and was still a nursing infant.

My family has always been one that spends thriftily, so I’m sure I didn’t really have that many interesting toys of my own.  All of a sudden, I was placed in close proximity with a well-off white family, playing with a white boy who had a collection of fantastic toys I had only previously seen on the TV screen in commercials.  One toy in particular captured my heart.  It was the Saturn-shaped toy that kids squeezed between their feet and bounced on, similarly to a pogo stick minus the stick.  I remember coveting it.  That purple rubber dome bisected by the orange disc is still very deeply etched into my memory.  That toy was almost legendary; I had never seen it before and have never seen it since.  My singular desire was to try it out – just once – to see if I had the knack for it.  I don’t know if it was because I was too young, or maybe because I’m Asian, cheap and undeserving of such interesting and cutting-edge toys, but I never got the chance to try the toy out, and that incident broke my wee little heart and has stuck with me since.

It wasn’t until I came back to Oklahoma almost ten years later that I realized what a destitute and homogenous place I had grown up living in.  I was different and there was no two ways about it.  I remember upon this revisitation of my childhood home, I got challenged to a snowball fight (snow? In Oklahoma?) by a neighborhood kid cozied up in his snow fort.  “America versus China!  Come on!  America’s going to beat China!” he was chanting, issuing a challenge that I could not ignore for the sake of my heritage.  He was hitting a nerve by drawing attention to this racial divide but he was just an ignorant white kid, probably one of many in this forsaken place.  Luckily for him, I’d been groomed as a pitcher ever since I first picked up a baseball years before, so this kid got a good pummeling and a small victory was won that day in the name of the China Reds, grudgingly delivered via red-blooded American baseball prowess.

The Chinese international students from that original Bible study group years ago in my old Edmond home have since spread out all over the United States, but some have stuck around in Oklahoma, clumping together in little cultural enclaves like grape clusters on a variegated grape vine, stretched thinly across a parched terrain.  Sure, it was pretty amazing when I came back and found out that my original home in Edmond was now on the market again for less than the price of a decent family sedan, but this just validated the fact that Oklahoma was not the place to be, especially for an upwardly-mobilizing Taiwanese family destined for more than small town sentimentality.

Preface: My Work in Progress Memoir

March 7, 2009

I’ve decided to pick up an old project that I’d left gathering dust in my miscellaneous documents folder for about two years now.  It was a memoir project that I put together for a combo-final for two of my classes at the time (Spring semester, 2007) and was the most fun I’d ever had putting together a final project in all of my scholastic career.  I’m going to polish each episode, add and subtract from each and hope that you, the readers, will find the experience enjoyable.  Hopefully you guys comment on each episode, help me expand and contract at necessary points and give me a focus and introduce ideas for new chapters when I’ve run out of the material that I’ve already written.  This’ll be fun, at least for me.  There’s nothing more fun than putting intimate details of my life on the interweb as general knowledge!  Okay, let’s get into it.


I dedicate this to my parents and my brother (who are as much a part of this assignment as I am), to the victims of the Virginia Tech massacre pierced because of misdirected hatred, to Professors Tongson and Yamashita, whose classes I enjoyed the most the whole of my collegiate career and have learned so much from, and to my friends, y’all know who you are (circa 2007)


I guess this is where I write about what this piece is all about, what my influences are and what it is, exactly, that I hope to accomplish in my attempt at writing it.  I wonder if real authors write this before or after the actual writing of their book/novel/poem etc.  To be brutally honest, I’m only attempting this because I have two classes in my last semester at the University of Southern California (ENGL-478 and AMST-449) that have given me the leeway to creatively develop my own final project, and I’m trying to kill two birds with one stone.  Both projects have to have a textual equivalent of at least ten pages, so we’ll see how long this thing ends up.  ENGL-478 is an English class that centers around the spatial construction known as the suburb, something I feel I have experienced intimately all of my life, and AMST-449 is a class on Asian-American literature based out of the Los Angeles area, something that I feel I have greatly expanded my knowledge in after having taken that class and now have the authority to develop my own response to.

I’ve lived in a realm of stereotypes all of my life.  My ethnic forwardness that just comes from the look I’ve inherited from my Taiwanese immigrant parents has cordoned me off into an imaginary corner sometimes, but its something that I’ve always dealt with and have easily come to terms with.  Life isn’t fair for the minority (model or not), regardless of whatever country or enclave you choose to live in.  With the recent massacre of thirty-two people at Virginia Tech on April 16th, 2007 a mere two days in the past, I can only wonder what the cultural backlash for such a tragic act will be.  Cho Seung-Hui, from all “the facts” that have arisen so far in the news, was a very disturbed young man.  The scary thing is that this malicious killer, on first glance, isn’t all that different from me.  A loner at times, male, Asian-American (he came to America when he was still young and impressionable, so I consider him to be at least from the 1.5 generation – I mean, most FOB immigrants here in America for overseas studies don’t end up studying English), twenty-something, and an English major.  So am I being profiled now?  Am I an unstable, emotional wreck mere moments away from lashing out in an uncontrollable rage against all that is rich, White and representative of all that had unfairly limited my life in America thus far?  I know I’m not, but as a person who has lived with the weight of stereotypes on me my entire life, I can only wonder what baggage this ordeal will add to my identity as an Asian American male.

This is my attempt to reconcile my experiences growing up as an Asian American in suburbia with that of others like me out there.  I know there are others like me out there, but from what I’ve read so far, no literature has been written from this perspective.  Maybe this is just the beginning of a longer work, but I feel there is a place for this writing, and I also feel that in the process of writing this, I’ll find my own niche in this vast and immeasurable patchwork known as literature, and be able to show the world that not all twenty-something, Asian-American, male English majors are dark, sadistic and impulsive in their demeanor and writing (like Cho Seung-Hui), but there is reason to hope and learn from the inequality of living in America for the sake of others like us, stuck in the same position, feeling like there is nowhere to turn – as idealistic as that sounds.