Preface: This was my winning entry in the 2018 Kelly Jo Feinberg Memorial Essay Contest. It was chosen for its honesty, depth, and voice. I was so happy when one of my favorite teachers, Dr. Beth Connors-Manke, was the one who handed me the award and said a few words about this piece. This essay–and the recognition for it–triggered one of those few, wonderful moments where I am able to tell myself “Hey, maybe I can do this writing gig as a career, after all!”
I hope you like it. 🙂
It’s hard for me to remember exactly when I started being a racist. I remember listening, wide-eyed, as my parents warned me about the “Browning of America.” Hours of my childhood were spent listening to my mother’s stories about black criminals, middle-eastern terrorists, and the Mexican gang-bangers that hung around outside her school in southern California.
“I don’t hate Mexicans,” she would carefully say, “I just hate chicanos.” I nodded in blind acceptance.
“What are chicanos?” I’d ask, rolling the accent on my tongue.
“Well, they’re gang members!” She laughed. Oh. Obviously.
“They would threaten to stab me every day on my way home from school.”
“What?!” I cried, stunned. Stab my mom? Who would want to do that? Thinking back, I’m pretty sure the answer to that question would have been “Quite a few.”
I was completely confused, then, when we decided to move into the house on Wrenfield. The subdivision was brand new when we toured what would eventually be our house—many homes were little more than wooden skeletons with exposed veins of electrical wiring. Those that were finished were full of first-generation families from Vietnam, Tibet, and Laos. In a bubble of color, our whiteness was an anomaly.
“Well, it looks like we just missed the boat these guys got off of!” My dad laughed as we crawled down the street in our late 80’s DeVille. My mother smirked, shaking her head as she turned around to check on my baby brother. I sat up as high as I could on the squeaking, cracked leather seats, peering through the scratched window tinting and taking in the late-night scene.
Since everyone was still moving in, the neighborhood spent the first year and a half of its existence as one big housewarming party. Garages stood with fully-raised doors, filled with stackable, padded chairs and collapsible tables stacked with strange foods. Tiny deep-fryers on the ground beside them, gleefully spitting grease on the wall behind.
Strange smells of basil and anise and shrimp and deep-fried pork permeated the air like a thick, exotic grease. Guttural, clipped sounds came from dark, tilted faces: jubilant cheers, children’s cries, scolding mothers, drunken men rousing one another in a game of cards. And everywhere, people. Short, delicate, dark-haired people, pausing to watch us as we rolled by. Bright, black eyes, curious, and warm with celebration.
It was all bizarre, loud, and uncomfortably foreign to me, but it was intoxicating and lovely and full of things new and different.
But I didn’t need acceptance from new and different.
I cracked the window, unbuckled my seatbelt and stood on my knees. I pressed my forehead to the roof of the car so I could shout over the edge of the tinted glass.
“Go back to where you came from!” I yelled, laughing and glancing at my father expectantly.
“Tiffany!” My mother scolded as we pulled into the driveway. No one outside of the car seemed to have heard my slur. “Don’t say things like that! That’s racist! And put your seatbelt back on!”
As we got out of the car, I could see that the house was beautiful, albeit blandly modern. Its traditional style featured vaulted ceilings, a bay window, and an artful, swooping pattern stuccoed to the ceiling. The living and dining rooms were tucked respectfully to one side of the home, with a half bath strategically positioned between them and the kitchen and family rooms: separation of home and business.
Upstairs, a pair of French doors that locked, but were entirely too easy to push open, swung grandly into the master bedroom suite, revealing an accompanying full bath, walk-in closet, and two sinks. The second-largest room, soon to be my room, was next door, and had a window that overlooked the backyard. At the other end of the hall were two final, smaller rooms and another full bath.
“I love it,” my mother cooed. My father nodded agreeably as I poked around my room with the baby. “My bed would go here, my dresser would face this way…” My mother turned to the contractor.
“I just…I wonder…there are a lot of people outside…are they always out this late?”
“No,” he smiled, “They’re just celebrating their housewarmings right now. It’ll settle down soon. They’re great people.” My mother smiled patronizingly, skeptical.
A month later we moved in, backing the black and yellow moving truck up the driveway like a bloated, swaying hornet. I hopped out of the Cadillac and immediately spotted the nearest group of neighborhood kids. From this distance, the only discernible sounds were garbled shouts of teasing or encouragement. They were playing a trading card game. A skinny kid with a blue-and-teal-striped polo and a shit-eating grin sat on his knees across from a frowning chubby kid with a long-sleeved, red-and-white-striped polo. Both were holding a fist full of cards. Several younger voyeurs surrounded them, their small, bright eyes wide with excitement and anxiety.
“Where do you think you’re going?” My mom unbuckled my brother from his carseat, shooting a dangerous look over her shoulder. “Get over here and take Andrew. You don’t know those people. Keep your brother busy.” She stuffed the babbling child into my arms and joined my father, who was already unloading the first boxes from the truck.
Several days later, I was adding the final touches to my room, when I heard a voice in the house that didn’t belong. I set down the frame and padded down the stairs.
Placed neatly next to the front door was a pair of size five, raffia-wrapped platform wedges, with wide, gold buckles at the ankle straps. A light, unfamiliar voice was coming from the kitchen, interspersed with friendly exclamations from my mother. She was using her Company Voice. I peeked into the kitchen and saw a tiny, dark-haired stranger standing in our kitchen. A bowl of spiced, cooked ground meat sat on the counter, its plastic wrap cover dripping with condensation inside.
“This is Hoa Truong,” my mom explained in her you’d-better-make-a-good-impression tone. “She’s our next door neighbor. She’s brought us something delicious!”
Hoa turned to me with a smile that reached her large, almond-shaped eyes. At five-two, and maybe 115 lbs, she was dwarfed by my decidedly full-bodied mother. Her smooth, black hair was trimmed into a sleek bob that both complimented her heart-shaped face and revealed a fine, gold chain resting delicately on her slender neck. She wore an orange floral tank top that floated lightly on her shoulders, and a pair of black polyester capris. Her bare feet were smooth and clean, and her toes had been painted a tasteful mauve, with tiny white flowers in the corners. A pale green and white bangle adorned her right wrist, smooth as glass, and carved from a single piece of jade. For years after, I would wonder how she got that bracelet on in the first place, and how she would ever get it off if she got too fat to wear it. Around the same time we left my father, I realized: she just never got fat.
Hoa reached her hand out to me, fingers splayed, palm facing down. She shook it a bit, like she was patting a seat. I took her hand obediently and glanced quickly at my mother as Hoa led me to the counter. As she peeled back the plastic, a bouquet of smells erupted from the bowl: sharp, fresh ginger, rich, savory pork, the intoxicating aroma of garlic.
“You eat it like a sandwich,” She explained as she leaned forward, pretending to lift a sandwich to her mouth. Her thick Vietnamese accent was musical, each syllable measured and pronounced with precision. It was still indecipherable to me, though, as she had dropped all “ch” and “sh” sounds, as well as the “s”s in the second half of her words.
“You wrap it up with lettuce,” she said. I frowned with confusion.
“With lettuce. Like a sandwich,” she repeated as she continued to make the eating gestures—a bite for each syllable.
“I—I don’t know—like what?”
“Like lettuce, honey,” my mom quickly jumped back into the conversation, and comprehension finally dawned on my face.
“Oh! Lettuce! Okay, it smells really good, Mrs. Truong. Thank you very much.”
As Hoa continued to bring us mouth-watering dishes with strange spices and unintelligible names, we learned more about her family. Their immigration was sponsored by her mother-in-law, and they arrived in the United States in the mid 90’s.
This is Pho.
They had owned a jewelry manufacturing company in Vietnam, but now worked full-time at the Nike world headquarters sewing shoes.
Have some eggroll.
They had a dog who bit Kenty when they went back to visit, because he no longer remembered his old family.
Try this fish sauce.
They also told us about our neighbors: Que, the manipulative backstabber who traveled to the U.S. as a child, clinging to a raft with her baby sister after her mom had fallen overboard and drowned. About Tenzen and Tashi’s family, who fled Tibet after years of rapidly-shrinking rights and job opportunities. About the Hmong family down the street, who came to the states as Laotian refugees. Of course, we shared parts of ourselves, too: my mother’s recipe for pineapple upside down cake, help with Hoa and Ca’s english—the Word of God. The cake and educational assistance were accepted gratefully.
The years passed, and our families grew closer—started to meld into something cohesive. Small trips were planned, family gatherings, combined. During a visit in late March, Hoa told us that they were planning a trip to Vietnam for a month, and would like to bring me along.
“Well…we’ll think about it,” my mom said politely.
Later that evening, as dinner was cooking, I pleaded with my parents.
“It’s just…it’s so far away,” My mother said, stuffing an over-roasted bell pepper with greasy hamburger. “I mean, part of me is genuinely concerned that they’ll marry you off to Kenty over there and I’ll never see you again!” She laughed uneasily, looking at my father for support.
“Yup,” he smirked, “They’ll have some weird wedding ritual—one day, they’ll put you in a dress and have walk around a table with him three times and then—bam!—you’re married!” He laughed heartily at his joke.
When Kenty and his family came back from their trip, I was bombarded with stories and glittering souvenirs.
“You don’t want to eat the food on the street,” Kenty said, “it gave me diarrhea for like three days. Oh, here are some bracelets my mom got you. This one’s silver, that one is just metal. It’s supposed to help you pray.” I held the dainty trinkets in my hand: the prayer bracelet had tiny oval charms embossed with various religious figures: Jesus, the Virgin Mary, the Buddha. I was never allowed to wear that one—too idolatrous, my parents said.
When we left my dad three years later, we said nothing to Hoa or her family. I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone about what was going on, so one day we were there, the next we weren’t. Everyone thought we had gone on vacation without my dad, until the “For Sale!” sign went up in the front yard. We became ghosts of happy memories. When we finally moved into an apartment, Hoa and Kenty came to visit—with a platter full of eggroll to celebrate our new home.
“You were so happy,” Hoa said, a pained, puzzled expression on her face. Her English was much better now—or maybe we had just gotten better at listening. “You were the perfect couple—the perfect family.”
“No, Hoa,” my mom shook her head (a bit too) tragically, clasping her hands together and leaning forward on a chair I’d dragged into the combined living/dining room area.
“No, we weren’t.”
Three years later, I would be at Fort Lewis, attending a mandatory, Family Day Barbecue for my husband’s battalion. Hundreds of families were packed into a large hanger to avoid the heavy rain outside. With the smell of hamburgers, propane, and engine grease in the air, Aaron introduced me to specialist after sergeant after staff sergeant, each name fleeing my brain as another was introduced.
“That’s sar’nt Kon,” he said, as the tall, smiling man went to help his pregnant wife find a seat. “He’s Korean or something, I dunno.”
“He’s Japanese,” I said, matter-of-factly.
“How can you tell?”
“His face…it’s longer, more angular, and he’s pretty tall. I mean, they all have pretty distinct features…Vietnamese people tend to have more heart-shaped faces, and Chinese—” Aaron shrugged, cutting me off.
“I dunno, sweetie, I can’t ever tell the difference. Hey, have you seen the inside of a Stryker before?” I frowned as he eagerly trotted across the hanger. I missed my family. I missed the people that had made me feel at home. It’s hard for me to remember when I first became a racist, but I think the day Hoa walked into our kitchen, bowl of food in hand, it started to die.