5: Where 8-year old me lost some trust and stopped bringing toys to school

One day, I decided to bring my favorite action figure to school: He-Man, he of the tight red speedos, long blonde Achilles hair, and gravity-defying sword. I wanted to show him to my friends. In particular to my best friend Terrence. Terrence was quiet and calm and always ready to play. His desk was next to mine. That proximity is probably why we became close friends in the first place. That’s just how little kids do it.

As expected, He-Man was a hit. I was the center of attention among the boys that morning, had a few more friends than usual. You have to remember this was an elementary school in urban high crime low rent Philadelphia, and brand new action figures were simply not casually displayed like Teslas in a Google parking lot.

Everything was great until lunch rolled around. Upon returning from the cafeteria, I opened my desk drawer to find that He-Man had disappeared.

I promptly freaked out as only an eight-year old can. Opened the drawers of nearby desks to quiet stunned protests. Combed the carpeted floor. Dug through the bookshelves. Questioned likely suspects. Attracted so much attention that our teacher Mrs. Frank asked me in a pitched and snappish voice to come here right this minute and why are you causing all this ruckus child.

I walked over, upset and defiant and beginning to despair. One of the few action figures I owned, my current favorite, shiny and without a scratch, and now my ego had brought him to school and my ego had lost him.

As a crowd gathered, I described the case of the missing toy. In the middle of telling my story, a sudden intuition hit me with the force of He-Man’s sword: I knew who done it.

Intuition seized my body and the actions that followed were automatic and uncontrollable. Thus began a behavioral pattern that would repeat itself many times: an overpowering instinct causes drastic action causes momentous life change and also, sometimes, regret.

“I know who has it!” I shouted. Before Mrs. Frank could respond, surrounded by a circle of spectators, I rushed straight to the cubbyholes where each student stored their belongings. I went straight to Terrence’s cubby and pulled out his green Jansport backpack. Brought it over to her desk. Shoved my hand in. Didn’t feel anything, just papers and small sticky objects.

But then — I felt a shape. Pulled it out. Thrust it triumphantly in the air. It was my He-Man. No one said anything. Terrence hung his head.

I remember little of the aftermath. But Mrs. Frank was more intent on resuming order than on playing detective or arbitrator. People dispersed. The drama was over. I put He-Man in my drawer and never brought him to school again. Terrence and I still spoke, but whether due to my anger or his shame, we drifted from close to casual. Maybe I learned something, probably I didn’t. Because just weeks after the incident, I brought two unsharpened glittery pencils to class. And they, too, vanished.

**

This is one in a series of personal reflections. I’m writing them in chronological order, starting with childhood. Click here to see what’s been published. Thanks!

Hi! I write about habits and spirituality and random whatevers. Click here to see the daily habits that I track. Find me on Twitter @kgao.

4: To a young boy, race is just something you do with your feet

To a young boy, race is just something you do with your feet. Every group of kids knows who is fastest among them. I never held that title. My closest friend was a Mexican boy named Carlos who lived downstairs in our two story motel-style apartment complex.

I can’t recall a single conversation with my parents about race or ethnicity or Chinese-ness. Perhaps they harbored the hopes of immigrants everywhere, that their offspring could be a reboot, a blank slate of sorts, who could be raised free of the handicaps imposed by their own heavy awareness of racial identity and its perceived limitations. Perhaps as a result they tried to keep our house clear of as much Chinese identity as they could.

There were no Buddhist or Daoist shrines placed above the living room fireplace, no honorary pictures of dead relatives hung on hallway walls, no mention of the words feng shui, no bamboo trees or good fortune plants, no long parchment scrolls with images of calligraphic Mandarin characters or junk boats in misty bays or rice farmers hunched shin deep in watery fields. Even the red envelope, the Chinese 红包, a frequent finalist in the “What is the most Chinese thing you can think of?” contest alongside the perennial contender the restaurant fortune cookie, was foreign to me. I never gifted one to others. Neither did I receive one until our first trip to China in middle school, when a crinkly eyed uncle with a big toothy smile furtively handed me a glossy red packet and patted me on the back. Inside were grey-blue renminbi notes. I pulled them out and rubbed them. They had the sandy texture of dollar bills that had been passed through a wash and dry cycle.

**

This is one in a series of personal reflections. I’m writing them in chronological order, starting with childhood. Click here to see what’s been published. Thanks!

Hi! I write about habits and spirituality and random whatevers. Click here to see the daily habits that I track. Find me on Twitter @kgao.

3: A black elementary school that made me self conscious but not of race

My first four years in America were spent in Philadelphia, in a neighborhood made mostly of poor Asians and frustrated blacks, two minorities sometimes thrown together like unwelcome guests at a house party. I watch the United Airlines video where a 70-year old Asian doctor is forcibly removed from his seat – he’s already seated, jeez – and yanked out of his chair with nose bleeding and glasses smashed and head slumped, he is dragged down the aisle in full view of the stunned customers. And I see the black guy who did it, and I think: Does it have to be a black guy? Why does it always go down like this?

But moving on. Chinese immigrants are ok with small houses and used cars so long as their children, their 宝贝, go to the best school their diligent savings can afford. But my parents were two graduate students, and their student stipends didn’t go very far. Some things haven’t changed. The best elementary school they could manage was the public school nearby our apartment complex. It was all black kids. I don’t remember white students except a few lonely clusters in the honors classes. Speaking of honors classes, I wasn’t in one because as a still-fresh immigrant, my English sucked. Eventually I would pass the tests for the math-y subjects, but literature and grammar continued to elude me. Plus, my parents were distinctly un-tiger-like in their willingness to wheedle and cajole and pressure the education system.

At school the kids teased me often. I was an easy target. It started of course with the Asian slanty eyes. They used their fingers and palms to make those classic slanted caricature eyes we know so well. Some of the more creative students would squish and flatten their noses, monkey and gorilla like. Then contort their mouths and sneer their nostrils and generally just make clown fools of themselves. It bothered the hell out of me. An easy target I was, an alien who didn’t speak English so good, sensitive to their ridicule. In addition to the eyes, my oversized ears would have looked funny on any kid no matter their skin color or gender. Not only large in size, they also seemed to defy gravity, sticking out like smooth teacup handles.

I grew to dread school lunch, a free-for-all battle zone where these packs of little boys became bully mobs without the teachers’ watchful eyes. Only lunch ladies were around, and tired as they were, they gave no fucks. On one occasion I begged the cafeteria cashier lady to help. She looked at me with sympathetic eyes, but said and did nothing as I stood beside her, crying. Like peeing your pants in a fist fight, it only made things worse. The other students, anyone resembling a friend, stayed away from me during lunchtime lest they too became targets.

This caused no end of anxiety in middle school. Even after I had a group of reliable and close lunch buddies, if there was even the slightest risk of needing to eat lunch alone – whether one friend was sick, or another had switched lunch periods – I would do everything in my power to stay in the classroom during lunch to assist the teacher, help other students, pretend that I didn’t need to eat or had already eaten – simply to avoid the drowning awkwardness of having to exit the cafeteria serving line, tray in hand, and spend five painful seconds gazing around for friendly faces amid an ocean of eyes and mouths and gossip and judgment.

Those small serious worlds that we children build. Nietzsche said the struggle of maturity is to recover the seriousness of a child at play. My flapping ears would become such a lasting source of insecurity that even now, twenty years later, I still mention them to every new barber in an attempt to make light of the very vivid fear that the new guy might shave off my sideburns or cut the sides too short, thus leaving my ears exposed. And as a kid, with easy kid logic, I would make myself sleep on my sides, alternating left and right, right and left, in the hopes that by pressing each ear systematically against the pillow, I could, with time and pressure, cause those ears to fold back and disappear.

**

This is one in a series of personal reflections. I’m writing them in chronological order, starting with childhood, and hope to arrive at the present day. Click here to see what’s been published. Thanks!

Hi! I write about habits and spirituality and random whatevers. Click here to see the daily habits that I track. Find me on Twitter @kgao.

2: Philly

We landed in Philadelphia after what must have been an exciting first flight for me and an exhausting one for the grandparents. As a kid I loved to fly and would always order a cup of hot cocoa to drink, not realizing then how much extra work this required of the overworked flight attendants. And as a kid that steaming mug of watery cocoa was divine. Kids create their own world and to paraphrase David Foster Wallace, it is a small and serious one. Kids see everything the way they want to see it, which is what makes them so inspiring yet so ridiculous. For child me, airplanes = hot cocoa and turbulence = a mild roller coaster. All that’s changed now of course. Adult me is too embarrassed to order cocoa in economy class as you’d get either a flat “we don’t serve it” rejection or a harassed acquiescence. And every mid-flight dip or pilot announcement of upcoming turbulence makes my hands sweat as they flee to the hardened safety of the arm rest.

Today when I think of Philadelphia I think of UPenn because my first girlfriend – my first love – went there. I think of squeezed and packed philly cheesesteaks wit wiz, of a street grimyness and art culture and a particular kind of American pride, part nativist and part clan-al, a tight East Coast us-versus-them set that is parts amusing and inspiring and foreign to my Austin and Bay Area sensibilities. I think of our apartment building pot lucks, where Chinese immigrant families gathered so the kids could run amok and the parents could chatter loudly and play rousing games of Monopoly.

We were poor, and not just grad student poor, but immigrant grad students with a young kid poor. Census poor. Like certain sections of San Francisco today, we lived in a Philly neighborhood where it was not uncommon to find your car with its windows smashed, car radio taken, or wheels replaced by cinders. My Dad used a red steering wheel lock and I always thought it looked like a ninja weapon. In fact I was disappointed when we later moved to Florida and stopped using it. Only today do I recognize the stress he must have shouldered from the very nature of having to use and think about those lack-of-trust devices.

We were poor but with a key difference: We were immigrants. Immigrants are like newborn babies, sucking at the teat of the American dream. Everyone in America is an immigrant, but the newer immigrants retain hope. Hope in the right hands is more valuable than cash. Hope made my parents work hard. Hope made them endure whatever indignities surfaced daily, helped them plan and save and worry and push until they carried us up the class ladder, rung by rung. In America, they did what they were told, and they resented it later at home.

**

This is one in a series of personal reflections. I’m writing them in roughly chronological order, starting with childhood, and hope to arrive at the present day. Click here to see what’s been published. Thanks!

Hi! I write about habits and spirituality and random whatevers. Click here to see the daily habits that I track. Find me on Twitter @kgao.

1: America bound

Nine months after I was born in small town China, six months after receiving the smallpox vaccination that would leave my left shoulder with a bullet sized scar, a patchy circle that is the Asian Fob scarlet letter, I was left in grandparental care as my parents flew to east coast America to become STEM graduate students.

Thus I was raised in those early years by both sets of grandparents. I have always felt the deepest and easiest bond with Dad’s Dad, though of course I love them all. And three years later, I was reunited with my parents in winter Philly. There is an old colored photo of my China sendoff: carried in the arms of Dad’s older sister, surrounded by a big group of relatives and friends outside the airport terminal. I’m wearing a child’s sailor outfit and a baby resting bitch face. It is very cold outside as evidenced by the sea of red cheeks and the vapor trails of exhaled breathe. There are many faces gathered, some small, some tall, some young, mostly old, all clothed in puffy jackets of dusty blue and faded black. Familiar faces all, in the way you just know a face, but I can’t tell you any of their names or how to properly address them. And I haven’t seen most of them since I left.

**

This is one in a series of personal reflections. I’m writing them in roughly chronological order, starting with childhood, and hope to arrive at the present day. Click here to see what’s been published. Thanks!

Hi! I write about habits and spirituality and random whatevers. Click here to see the daily habits that I track. Find me on Twitter @kgao.