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.