By Justina Chen
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Table of Contents
A Preview of Return to Me
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1 Belly-Button Grandmother
While every other freshman is at the Spring Fling tonight, I have a date with an old lady whose thumb is feeling up my belly button.
I turn my head to the side and catch a whiff of mothballs and five-spice powder on Belly-button Grandmother's stained silk tunic and baggy black pants. At this moment, Janie and Laura are dancing in the gym that's been transformed into a tropical paradise for the last all-school dance of the year. Me, I'm stretched out on this plastic-covered sofa with my T-shirt pushed up to my nonexistent chest and my pants pulled down to my boy-straight hips.
"You gonna get in big accident," announces Belly-button Grandmother in her accented English, still choppy after living in Seattle for over fifty years. She smacks her lips tight together, which wrinkles her face even more, so that she looks like a preserved plum. The fortune-teller closes her eyes and her thumb presses deeper into my belly button.
"When you fifteen," she says. A bead of sweat forms on her forehead like she can feel my future pain.
I muffle a snort, Yeah, right. Considering my life is nothing but school, homework, and Mama, broken with intermittent insult-slinging with my brother, there's hardly any opportunity for me to get in a Big Accident.
"Aiya!" mutters Belly-button Grandmother, on the verge of another dire prediction.
If my mom wanted my future read, why couldn't she have found a tarot reader? I'm sure somewhere in the state of Washington there's a Mandarin-speaking, future-reading tarot lady. Or a palmist who'd gently run her finger across my hand. Someone who would say, My goodness, what a long happy life you're going to have.
But no, my future is being channeled through my belly button.
As soon as Mama heard from The Gossip Lady in our potluck group about Belly-button Grandmother, she packed me up and hauled us both down the freeway. This is my mom, the woman who drives only in a five-mile radius around our home, a whole hour south of Seattle. The woman who has driven on a highway maybe twenty times ever. The same woman who looks at maps the way I look at her Chinese newspapers: unreadable.
Belly-button Grandmother's bone-dry thumb presses harder into my stomach like she wants to dig right through me. If she presses harder, I won't have a future. I wince. She scowls. I would say something profound like, Hey, that hurts! if I wasn't afraid that the old lady was going to change my future.
Belly-button Grandmother sighs like my life is going to be filled with even more disaster than it is now with this Mount Fuji–sized pimple on my chin.
"You gonna have three children. Too many," she pronounces. For a brief moment, she releases the pressure on my belly and stares down at me with her cavern-dark eyes. "You want me take away one?"
I want to say, Get real. How can I even think about conceiving three kids, much less discuss family planning, when I can't even get a date to my school dance?
Belly-button Grandmother's frown deepens as if she read my insignificant thoughts. Her thumb hovers over my stomach. Quickly, I shake my head. I don't need my mom to translate the look on the fortune-teller's face: Oh, you making a big mistake.
Now I turn my face to the side so I don't have to look at Belly-button Grandmother and her disapproval anymore. Above the couch, white paint is peeling off the wall next to the picture of Buddha, his smooth, flat face serene. I wonder what other predictions he's heard Belly-button Grandmother make and whether he's having himself a good belly laugh about how the closest I've ever gotten to Nirvana is winning a sixth-grade essay contest about why I loved being an American. My field trip to Nirvana was a short one. Steve Kosanko didn't see me as anywhere close to being a true red-white-and-blue American. The day after I won the contest, he cornered me at recess and serenaded me with a round of "Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees, look at these." As an encore, he held me down in the mud like it was some squelchy rice paddy where my dirty knees belonged.
Another sniff, this time of incense, makes me want to gag. I need to sneeze, but rub my nose hard instead. A sneeze would probably contract my abs, and then, God, my whole life course could be altered.
What I really want to know, desperately need to know, is whether Mark Scranton, Mr. Hip and Cool at Lincoln High, will ever notice me. Well, technically, he does notice me. I did write his campaign speech, after all. But it's too much to hope that I'll actually get a chance to date him, not with Mama's no-dating-until-college edict (strike one), Mark being a white guy (strike two) and me being a bizarrely tall Freakinstein cobbled together from Asian and white DNA (strike three). I'm out before I've even scooted off the bench.
So a more realistic miracle that I'll take to go, please, is an Honors English essay, one that needs to be started and finished this weekend. The same essay that the rest of the class has worked on for nearly the entire year.
I don't need a miracle, tarot reader, palmist, or even a Belly-button Grandmother to tell me what my mom is doing out in the waiting room. She's praying to Buddha: "Please let my daughter marry a rich Taiwanese doctor." But then, in an act of practicality, she amends her prayer: "A Taiwanese businessman would be acceptable. Acceptable but not ideal."
I would've settled for an acceptable but not ideal date to my Spring Fling.
Belly-button Grandmother yanks her thumb out of my belly button and calls sharply, "Ho Mei-Li!"
The door opens immediately. Mama's face tightens as she peers accusingly at me. Her permed hair is a damp halo around her furrowed brow. She glances at me and speaks in a rapid Mandarin so that I can't follow what they're saying.
I tug my T-shirt down and sit up. Who needs a translator when I see my mother's frown and the shake of her head as Belly-button Grandmother chatters?
"Be-gok lan?" Mama says, slipping into Taiwanese in her shock.
Belly-button Grandmother nods once, solemnly, even though she doesn't understand Taiwanese. Whatever the language, I have no problems divining what's being predicted here. According to my navel, I am going to end up with a white guy.
Mama glares at me: Oh, you making a big mistake.
I walk to the window overlooking the International District, all crowds of black heads and neon lights. And I'm surprised that I just want to go home. Not out to my favorite Chinese restaurant, not even to the dance, but to my bedroom.
I touch my belly button. Maybe there is magic in there after all.
I know what I'd wish for.
As Mama and Belly-button Grandmother confer about my life, I rub my stomach three times for good luck, just as if I were a gold statue of a big-bellied Buddha.
Then I wish to be white.
After we collect my big brother, Abe, who's been poring over Japanese comic books in a manga store, Mama conducts the Chinese Food Census, her preferred method for selecting a restaurant. No studying of menus or trusting food critics for Mama. Instead, she stares into a window—never mind if she freaks out some poor diner who happens to be eating by said window—and tallies the number of black-haired heads inside a restaurant.
Her theory is straightforward and accurate: a high black-hair-to-blond ratio equals a good Chinese restaurant. High blond-to-black-hair equals food fit for pigs. I would have said dogs, but some people are under the misconception that all Asian people eat man's best friend. We don't. The only part of a dog I have tasted—by accident when I laughed while within licking distance of a golden retriever—was its slobbery tongue. However, inquiring minds want to know why we don't hear people retching over the Rudolph-the-Red-Nosed-Reindeer-eating Norwegians or the whatever-the-hell-is-haggis-chewing Scottish.
Mama squints, shakes her head and scurries on, passing one restaurant after another. Finally, we're sitting inside a Cantonese restaurant, packed with huge families, loud chattering intergenerational micro-villages. Our tiny family of three is a raft bobbing in a sea of Chinese conversations. A lone wave of English washes over from a Tourist Family, who are goggling like they've flown into Shanghai, not Seattle. Over in the corner by the fish tank, a herd of kids pounds on the aquarium, but the fish don't swim away. I want to warn those cooped-up fish, Beware of the Big Net. Since fighting is futile, I don't say a word.
Above the Mandarin and Cantonese, the clicking of chopsticks, the pouring of tea, Mama and I face off. We sit across the table from each other like two generals negotiating a delicate truce. At the far side is Abe, Switzerland in this battle of words. His dark eyes are locked on the dumbed-down English menu like he's cramming for a final tomorrow in a class I could teach: Multiple Disorders of Dysfunctional Half-Asian Families.
"You going to summer camp," Mama announces to me without looking down at her menu.
My heart stops. I can already picture the hell that my mother wants to send me to. You can bet that this is no camp with horseback riding or archery. There'll be no in-depth sessions on anything remotely cool, say multidimensional printmaking or Italian cooking. My stomach starts making worrisome gurgling noises as I recall the "accelerated learning programs" Mama made me apply to for the summer.
All I know is that I better parry back, and fast. "No, I'm going to be working. Remember, you said I had to get a job this summer."
Score two points for me.
"You don't have job."
Five points for Mama. But I recover quickly: "I've got three weeks before summer starts. And Belly-button Grandmother said that I was going to find a great job."
Shoot, Mama frowns and leans toward me. "When you out of college. No job at mall again. You spent more than earned last summer."
Ouch. Ten points for Mama. From the grim look in her eyes, I can tell she's not finished with this volley. Like always, she goes from our current fight to future doom-and-gloom in two seconds flat. "You need save money. Work hard. Go to good college. Get good job. Take care of self. No one take care of you once I gone." Her lips purse the way they do whenever she makes an oblique reference to my long-gone father, still a sour memory after thirteen years.
I make a tactical error; I hesitate when I should push back hard with a comeback.
Like the brilliant fighter that she is, Mama drops the bomb just as a stocky waiter stops at our table: "You going to math camp."
"At Stanford." Mama becomes too engrossed in ordering our dinner to embellish further. Anyway, she's won this skirmish.
While Mama's conferring with our waiter about the freshness of the pea vines, I'm steaming like braised cod. A week with geeks while my friends are funning in the sun? I deliberately torpedoed my application to math camp by asking the one teacher I was sure hated me to write the mandatory recommendation. Obviously, my torpedo was a dud. Or was it? Mr. Powell couldn't be taking revenge on me for me talking one too many times in his Geometry class, could he? Con sidering that we were studying tangents, I thought my own about maximum heel height before you approach sluttiness was an appropriate application of the concept. (Inci dentally, the consensus was three inches for the optimal sexy-to-slutty ratio.)
"Bo po mo fo," mutters Abe, sneaking a peek over his menu. He's barely containing a laugh.
I choke on my jasmine tea. Suddenly I'm tripping down memory lane to the year when Mama read an article about China's enormous potential as a trade partner. Never mind that Abe was in third grade and I was in kindergarten. No matter, the two of us were going to learn Mandarin, our first baby step to financial security. While all the three-year-olds sailed through to the conversation classes, Abe bo-po-mo-fo'ed his way through the Chinese alphabet for an entire year. Mama finally realized she was just wasting her money on Abe, and he became a proud Chinese School Dropout. Unlike me, the Chinese School Drudge who had to keep going until ju nior high.
"What's Abe doing this summer?" I ask as soon as Mama finishes with the waiter. I figure, whatever Abe's doing, I'll do, too. After all, this is my survival, my summer, my reputation at stake.
Abe reluctantly hands over his shield of a menu to the waiter. Vulnerable to attack, but highly trained in survival tactics, Abe gives up neutrality. He cracks his knuckles the way he does before pitching a no-hit game, and blurts out, "I'm going to be so busy preparing for Harvard."
The Harvard card, I should have guessed he'd play it. Three hundred points for Abe.
Mama nods, looking at him proudly. Bonus, twenty points.
Since the thick crimson ac cep tance packet was wedged in our mailbox a couple of months ago, Abe has transformed from Boy Who Wasted His Time Weight Lifting to the Pride of the Potluck Party. For once, Abe is the kid all other Asian parents compare their children to. I mean, why else is Mama so thrilled to host the upcoming potluck party? Abe's given her a free pass for the next century to boast, brag, and generally rub his brilliance in the envious faces of her so-called friends.
"Like what?" I demand. "What do you have to 'prepare'?"
Abe shoots me a dirty look.
"I've got to pack my room, and I've got a job," Abe, the perfect eldest son, responds.
Presto-chango! Witness another magical transformation, care of Harvard. Suddenly, being a lifeguard trumps tutoring for big bucks like he did last summer.
"You meet some nice girls," says Mama to me, wiping her chopsticks on the paper napkin before arranging them straight on her plate. "And boys."
I have a reasonable handle on English, can speak Taiwanese as well as a preschooler and could find my way around in Spain. My grasp of Mandarin has faded to the first four letters of the alphabet, "thank you," "this is delicious," and "you are a bad daughter." But I am absolutely fluent in Mama-ese: a "nice" boy means he's Taiwanese.
Not even gua-shing lan—those Nationalist Chinese who fled the mainland and overran Mama's beloved Taiwan some fifty years ago.
And certainly not white. Having two half-Asian kids obviously hasn't made up for the great regret in Ho Mei-Li's life: marrying that yang gweilo. Well, what do you know? Two more Chinese words I remember. How can I forget such an appropriate term to describe my father—the white foreigner ghost whose absence haunts our lives?
"Great, I get to date geeks," I mutter.
"Not date!" Mama shakes her head emphatically. "It take long time know someone. Find Good One first. Then be friends long time. Then marry."
Subtext: don't pick a Bad One the way Mama did.
I check my watch. At that second, the only Good One I want, Mark, is probably slow dancing with his date, the most beautiful, blond ju nior varsity cheerleader in Lincoln High history. That thought mummifies my heart, wrapping it in endless layers of wanting but not having.
I don't need to go to summer math camp to add one plus one. One: Mama must be so rattled by Belly-button Grandmother's prediction that I'm going to end up with a white guy that she's pushing me to fish for a nice Taiwanese boy. Plus one: said Taiwanese fishing hellhole is math camp at Stanford. Equals: I am so screwed.
Negative infinity points for me.
For a split second, I think I've yelled out loud. But no, it's Teenage Tourist Girl leaping out of her chair. Glowering, the waiter holds a bucket before her table. A fishtail flops over the brim, and Mom Tourist joins in with a shriek. The waiter stalks off, his face tight because how would you like to be part of some strangers' anecdote for the next twenty-five years? Look! They actually bring you a live fish! Can you imagine that?
The same waiter hauls a bucket to our table, glaring like he's practically daring me to make a scene, too. But it's not me the waiter should be worried about. Mama nods fine to him and our netted fish, and turns her eyes back to me.
"I don't want to go," I say feebly, knowing it's futile to fight The Big Net that is my math summer camp.
Mama glowers at me. Oh, no, here we go again…
And she bites out the dreaded words: "You have it so easy."
The Mama Lecture Series Lecture 1: You Have It So Easy
Greetings and welcome to The Mama Lecture Series, brought to you by the first-generation Mamas who left the Old Country for Brand-New America. But first, a message from our proud sponsors. While audience participation, such as talking back, is forbidden, tears of guilt and effusive apologies are more than welcome. Please be advised that there is no need for copious note-taking. These lectures are freely given at every possible opportunity. And we do mean, Every. Possible. Opportunity. Thank you so much and enjoy the show.
"You have it so easy," Mama repeats, jabbing her chopsticks in the air at me with each point she makes, not caring that her voice is escalating or that everyone in the restaurant is watching. "Whenever you want something, you hold your hand out. You need a new book? I give it to you." Jab. "You need some new pants. I give it to you." Poke on the table. "You need, you need. When I was little, we so poor even though my father was dentist. But who could pay him? Not with money." A couple of raps on her empty plate. "Maybe a little rice. Or a chicken. We were so poor sometimes my mother grind up cockroaches for us to eat."
At this point, I know better than to gasp in disbelief or contort my face into a disgusted expression. Audience interaction like this usually means an unwanted and often-prolonged jaunt into Ingrate Land.
Still, Mama sniffs indignantly, as if to say, Can you believe how much I have suffered in my life? Trust me, I can. I stare down at my hands clenched tightly on my lap. Honestly, what's unbelievable is that I'm not hunchbacked with guilt from the number of times she's told me and Abe how easy her life would have been if she had only married her Taiwanese suitor. Not our white guy of a dad. As if we chose our father, not she.
Mama breathes in sharply. She must be smelling my exasperation polluting the air.
"You think you too good to eat ground-up cockroach?" Mama scowls at me. "If you starving, you hold your hand out for cockroach. You say, please don't grind up. I eat whole."
I catch Teenage Tourist Girl looking like she's going to projectile vomit. She shrieks, "Gross!" while staring at me with her mouth misshapened with disgust like I am a Teenage Tourist Girl from some primitive civilization. For the first time since this miserable day started, I am glad that the all-school dance is tonight because it means that no one I know, especially Mark, can waltz in and witness just one more moment in the Patty Ho Hall of Mothering Shame.
Mama finally recalls the purpose of her lecture, which is not to reminisce unhappily about long-ago hard times so much as to give me a hard time for my in-her-face too cushy of a life. She shakes her head like it's a saltshaker full of self-pity: "I would have given every thing to attend math camp if I had the opportunity."
The coup de grace, like always, gets delivered in a tone of deep disappointment: "You are so lucky."
When this lecture is delivered in the comfort of our own home, my shriveled-up shitake mushroom of a heart usually gets a good rehydration when I cry on my bed. One that I am so lucky not to have to share with a sister the way Mama did growing up.
Here in the restaurant, the bad part of me (OK, the ungrateful daughter in me) wants to say, "If I'm so lucky, then why did Daddy leave me here with you?"
But of course, I keep my mouth shut.
3 The Truth About Banana Splits
Any mention of the "H" word—homework—usually stops all of Mama's lectures in their tracks. So as soon as I step through the front door, painted cherry red last summer to flag down some good luck to our house, I plaster a serene expression on my face. Instead of saying, Thanks for another anti-pep talk, Mama like I want to, I force my mouth to say, "I've got a report I have to write by Monday."
If my brain weren't whirring with worry, I'd give thanks, cry hallelujah, weep tears of gratitude for my ability to procrastinate. My laziness has saved me from hours of lecturing.
I can't run up the rosy carpeted stairs to my bedroom fast enough. I've had it with Mama and her quack of a fortune-teller and her warped idea of summer fun being equating while trolling for some "nice" Taiwanese boy. All I want is a nice soccer boy named Mark.
I jerk open my bedroom door even as every brain cell is screeching, Don't do it! What lies ahead of me is a blank computer screen. Suddenly, I wonder if I shouldn't suffer Mama's lecture. You know, I could just focus on her moving mouth and fill in other words like a badly dubbed foreign flick. Who am I kidding? There's no time to play the subtitles game with Mama tonight. I've got to write an entire fiction about myself.
What I haven't told Mama, what I've been trying to pretend all year that I've got under control, is that the essay is due Monday, thirty-six hours away, and I haven't had the guts to jot down a single word.
On the first day of the year, Mrs. Meyers announced to our Honors English class, "In three years, you'll be applying to colleges and your competition isn't the person sitting next to you."
You could have heard every one of our brain cells churning as we all thought, It's not? We stared at Mrs. Meyers, willing her to tell us who was. Tiny, dark, and handsome, she simply smiled her Sphinx smile at us as if she hadn't caused shock waves to course through the class. Rumor had it that Mrs. Meyers was too smart to be a high school teacher. Rumor also had it that her husband was some computer guru who had hit it rich in the Silicon Valley. Why someone would willingly subject herself to this hellhole, better known as High School, was beyond me. But there I was, watching her like a kid at a magic show, completely transfixed.
"The young people you will be competing with to get into Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, Yale, any of the top-tier universities," Mrs. Meyers said in her lilting, perfectly cadenced King's English, "aren't the students in Twin Harbor. They're the ones at the private schools in Seattle: University Prep, Seattle Academy, Bush. Lakeside had triple the admittance rate to those universities compared to Lincoln." She crossed her thin arms. "Triple."
Was it my imagination or did I just hear the morale in our class splinter into tiny slivers? Next to me, my best friend, Janie, shot me a can-you-believe-this-crap look as she silently bid her spot at Brown good-bye.
But Mrs. Meyers was just getting started. "You can bet that each of those students has been practicing writing essays since second grade. They know how to write beautifully crafted sentences and smart, articulate paragraphs. They will write compelling college essays, ones that will prove that they are intelligent. Accomplished. Would thrive in any Ivy League."
"So we shouldn't even bother to apply, is that it?" asked Anne Wong, a new transfer student from the Land of Bizarre. Both her parents are engineers, so maybe that explains her intensity. Or not.
"But," said Mrs. Meyers, holding one finger up, "the one thing those students haven't been taught is to write about…"
We waited as Mrs. Meyers, looking almost dreamy, now fixed her coffee-colored eyes out the windows. What was she thinking of while we were sweating it out? How far she had come from her hometown in India? Why she was wasting her time with a bunch of Waspy kids?
Finally, Anne blurted what we were all thinking: "What?"
Mrs. Meyers stepped to the clean chalkboard. Slowly, she picked up a piece of chalk and scrawled one word: Truth.
"What does that mean?" Anne muttered even as she copied it down into her notebook. I couldn't help cringing. Why did Anne have to be such a good, studious, brainy Asian student?
"It means that Cole's going to write about what a dork he is," called out Mark, his enormous brown eyes crinkling at the sides as he grinned. Looking altogether quite adorable, I might add. Jordan, his freckle-faced soccer buddy, cackled along with him.
"It means," said Mrs. Meyers, perching on the edge of her desk and swinging one leg like a young girl, "that this year, all of you are going to write the Truth about yourself. What matters to you. What you believe in."
Mark and Jordan stared at her, joking forgotten. For all of us, the realization sank in that the rumors about Mrs. Meyers were true. Not a single one of us was going to escape her scrutiny, which meant that we'd actually have to work in this class.
Mrs. Meyers stopped moving her leg and leaned ever so slightly toward us, her voice dropping to a low, conspiratorial tone. "Because you cannot begin to write any personal statement, answer any college essay, until you know who you are. And that is what freshman year is all about—self-discovery." She laughed lightly and ran one hand through her short, dark hair, a dime-sized diamond winking at us. "The Truth, and nothing but the Truth. And, by the way, half of your grade at the end of the year will be based on what you write."
So here I am in a bedroom that looks like Christmas gone Chinese with a green shag carpet and five sprigs of lucky bamboo jammed into a vase, oxblood red for fortune, of course. With three weeks left to go of freshman year, all I've got is my name in the center of an otherwise empty page on the screen.
I lean against my chair and look up for divine intervention.
There isn't so much as a single crack in the ceiling for me to draw some inspiration from. Nothing but smooth white surface, drywall covering up all the family secrets in our home, like Where's my father? Why did he really leave us?
Tapping my foot on the floor impatiently, I wonder how exactly I'm supposed to write the Truth when I don't even know those basic facts about my life. Besides, what's the point of writing a Truth Statement when half the time people embellish the Truth to make themselves feel better (I am so a 34B, and don't let Abe convince you otherwise).
I sigh. The sad truth is, my computer screen is still blank. And I still have no idea where to start.
- On Sale
- Apr 1, 2007
- Page Count
- 256 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers