You and Me

Dad says the doctors tried to kill me when Mom found out she was pregnant. Because he looked older and white and she was young and brown, they gave her the abortion pill, just in case. Mom’s water broke a week before I was born. That makes twice that I could have died. But I didn’t and the nurses said I was the loudest baby in the nursery. Dad says he knew I was going to be trouble because I smiled at the boy in the crib next to me. I think the trouble started when I was born Chinese. Not that there is anything wrong with being Chinese, but I was born with fair skin and straight black hair and slanted eyes and by a few months old I had brown skin and curly brown hair and wider eyes. So from the very beginning I was hard to pin down, like a chameleon, I could change.

            Four years later, I watched you being born. Mom was in the hospital bed with her legs up and she was yelling and squeezing Dad’s hand. I remember wondering why she was hairy down there, but then someone moved me to the side of the bed. I spent the rest of your birth clenching Dad’s leg and waiting.  Then you were born and I got to hold you second. A nurse came to clean up the blood on the floor and I told her I was going to name you Prince Charming, like in the movie Cinderella. Of course, that isn’t your name. It wasn’t until years later that I realized you were born brown and stayed brown, race would be static for you.

            People always ask me if I was traumatized by watching your birth, but why should I be? Babies have to be born, it’s nothing unusual. Besides, I was excited for you to finally come out. There are some things I can’t recover from, though.  Some events that leave impressions, like the molds that children press their hands into, forever. Like how, as soon as I could talk, I had to learn to look someone in the eye and lie so that I could navigate the politics between our aunts and uncles. And how I still love Junior Mints because Dad always used to buy them for me on our walks to the park. Eight years of home schooling is one of those events.

 It started with the fact that I didn't share the same childhood experiences as other children did. They remember superman lunchboxes and first-day-of-school outfits, while my memories begin with the excitement of opening large cardboard boxes containing the school year’s curriculum from Bob Jones University. Ripping off the plastic coverings to smell the new book smell. And while other kids rode to class in a bus or in the back of their mom’s white SUV, I went to class in my pajamas. Mom, in an attempt to mimic the school-going experience, would chug through the halls of our house rotating her arms and legs while singing the “wheels on the bus.” She would knock on the doors of my brother’s and my bedrooms waiting for us to fall in line behind her as we paraded up the stairs and down the hall to the schoolroom where she drudged up old Trinidadian games from her childhood.

As a result, we learned the ABCs and multiplication tables through rounds of heads and tails. Not knowing she was putting one more step of difference between me and them-combining Trinidadian slang and British spelling with our American standardized text books. She taught us from her old primer and our freshly printed books. So along with the long “A” sound we also learned about how Twisty the screw rode his bike to school. The only other pupil in the classroom was you, four years behind me you rushed through your pre-school workbook eager to conquer the second grade material I faced.

We finished our lessons more quickly than the public schools did, leaving more time for extracurricular activities, more games Mom made up, sports she pretended to know, trips to the museum and the park and the groups where we met other homeschooled children supposed to be like us but not. Kids whose development level stopped at childishness, stagnant from their sheltered lives. Children who used baby talk while, I, a competent reader was used to conversing with adults. Their American parents left these children unaware of the world they would have to face while ours, immigrants, expected nothing less of academic and social excellence. The tradition of grades earned by beatings not yet gone from their Third World memories.

At the numerous churches we went to throughout our childhood, I dressed to the nines in stockings, kid heels, and puffed sleeves, would socialize with regular kids, mostly boys. They, older than me, found me amusing in my Sunday outfit with my innocently overly mature ways, my calabash purse filled with plastic makeup and you, little brother, as my shadow. A devout Christian and a precocious know-it-all, my hand shot up first to answer every Sunday School question, much to the chagrin of the nose-picker in the back row and the pastor’s kid in front. My superiority distracted me from the distance between me and my peers, your position as the baby insulated you.

When I was twelve Mom went to work in an office and Dad took over our education. Unlike Mom he did not waste time on fun and games. Instead, drilling into us the discipline he learned in the Air Force and the math formulas he had long ago forgotten. Making me write essays once, twice, three times on my tear-stained paper in a quest for perfect penmanship, which I quickly abandoned once outside of his classroom. He added his first language of Spanish to our course list, teaching us to write sentences grammatically correct, forcing our gringo accents out of us, instructing us on rolling our R’s correctly and how to pronounce an N con una tilde.

Instead of the kid-friendly lunches Mom made, his were full of misplaced creativity. One day the entire contents of our refrigerator combined with cheese and egg in the semblance of a Spanish tortilla. The next day Jell-O with sprouts and ham that we were forced to eat between grimaces. We waited for Mom to come home and release us back into the childishness we had shed for Dad. He was not unkind, not unloving, but he didn't possess the air of someone who was used to playing with children. I don't resent his treatment of us, the differences between him and my mother cemented the paradoxes of myself. I was at once joyful and sardonic, free-spirited and disciplined, hot and cold, Mexican and Trinidadian. On the outside I looked like Mom, on the inside Dad, treasuring the differences of their unique cultures, combining them into myself.

By the time I reached the eighth grade, my last before high school, we had moved to a small town in the back woods of the Pacific Northwest. The town was small enough that it was deemed safe to go to public school. You entered the third grade. The other children liked me and I slipped easily into their ranks, breezing through the material that I’d covered at least a year ago. I enjoyed my first day of school so much that my stomach, wound up from the excitement, caused me to throw up upon entering our front door. In the mornings I was unable to eat breakfast, nervous with anticipation for the day to come. But those days also made me aware of the differences I had from my peers. My speech combined the Trinidadian and British words Mom taught us and my voice had hints of Spanish, Trinidadian and American accents hidden in it, so much so that I couldn’t figure out how to pronounce words like the other kids. My caramel skin so many shades darker from their transparent white. My dark cobweb soft curls, which I had inherited from our French great-great grandmother, different from their straight blonde hair. Their slang foreign to me, their games unheard of, their cuss words harsh to my ears. My clothes at first shapeless and style-less in a way, I would come to find out, every immigrant parent dresses their children.

I participated in sports, clubs, student government, easily making my way to the top of the class and securing for myself a free college education. I was not a statistic for my races but an exception. My first kiss was freshman year, seven months after graduation. I let him touch me and felt his tongue trace the edges of my mouth. I loved him as much as anyone could and never went out with him again after he closed the door behind me, not even kissing me goodbye. But we stayed friends for years, the things unsaid more than those we did say until our friendship trickled away, sometimes haunting me with its loss. By the end of the fall, he had a girlfriend, platinum blonde and all-American in a way I could never be, and I, at 18, was dating a guy four years older than me. It started a habit I would take past my twenties. I was never lacking in male followers who would leave as quickly as they came once my differences, ethnic or religious, made themselves evident. Comfortable with the pattern, I learned to detach as quickly as they did, resigned to my perpetual singleness and stream of unsuitable suitors.

In college it became clear that my differences were not something I could unlearn, as I had previously believed. I was American yet distinctly un-American, there was no one culture which I could claim to be. Uninhibited, laughing freely, speaking openly, dancing wildly at parties and yet painfully inhibited unable to sync with my peers unless they too were of various ethnic backgrounds. At gatherings I quickly fed off the energy of the room, producing my own, drawing people to me- once someone spoke to me. But if no one made that first move, that first eye contact, I was stilted trapped behind my own glass wall unable to join the group. It was as if without someone to open the door I was unable to turn the knob myself and walk through. My two selves were painfully confusing, how could I, at times, the small silent girl in the corner also be the domineering, sharp tongued and lively person I was at other times.

As in high school, I excelled in class, finishing not one, but three majors in four years. Writing for the paper, joining clubs and gathering around me a small group of close friends, all ethnic minorities or majorities depending on the level of political correctness you choose to employ. Maybe there were more brown people than white on campus but we huddled so closely together it was often hard to tell. Pakistani, Indian, Chinese, Mexican, we so varied from the mainstream that we were the same in our oddness.

By then I had learned to dress according to the latest fashion, but even in that I could not betray my difference, combining Mexican silver with Indian bangles, Chinese silk with blue jeans. Mexican style plantanos with Caribbean style curry as Mom had taught me. Strange but acceptable. I also possessed an unruly amount of ambition, which often clashed with my morals allowing me to become only as cutthroat and ruthless as my Christian beliefs let me. I collected academic awards along with prized jobs, but even at my highest points could not shed the out-of-place-ness I felt. Happy but constantly aware of being a piece of the puzzle that fit perfectly with the whole except on the one side that simply would not line up.

Meanwhile, you, brother, were spared the awkwardness of difference. Starting school in the third grade you had time to learn the secret language of children. Time to polish away your oddness. Learning sports the way they were intended to be played, not how Mom and Dad remembered them, you could play the games the others played. You were young enough that kids could not remember when you wore the wrong clothes, said the wrong words. You didn't have to learn to smile twice as I did. Once for the smile and laugh I practiced in the mirror as a child and yet again to forget what I had taught myself.

By high school you were on the basketball team, perfectly blended into the crowd, so as to become more like them than me. You did not eat the old food, treasure the Old World ideals as I did. Our multiple ethnic identities did not affect you further than having to decide which box to check on forms. You had a fixed self and did not change to exercise each side of yourself the way I did. Popularity came easily to you, and you could strike up a conversation with anyone. You didn't hold back, overly self-conscious as I did. It was as if we were two generations of the same family.

I was glad that you had a freeness, a sameness that I never possessed and never learned. But I was never unconscious of the fact that my coming first was the cause of our inequality. I was the one our parents over sheltered. They taught me their old worldness. It was I who possessed their immigrant awkwardness and embodied both of their differences. You drove at 15, I at 17, went to co-ed parties at 12, I at 16. With you, our parents had none of the hesitation they had instilled in me. I had shown them it would be alright, I taught you from my experiences. It was me who brought home the latest movie, learned the latest slang, kept up with pop culture so religiously that I read every magazine, pushed every limit. It was you who benefited. Easily slipping into the path I had already carved, picking up the pop culture that I dropped along the way-Americanness, normalness would come effortlessly to you.

Next to you, four years older but seven inches shorter, I looked like a child, unsure of herself. Yet it was me who had gone to college and grad school, lived in both LA and New York, traveled Europe, wore the latest fashion, dated a string of unremarkable men. No matter how hard I tried, what I wore, I was unable to blend, unable to look sophisticated as if I belonged and you, even if you did not belong, had a calmness of one who did. Perhaps our parents had marked me as a striver, in the way of immigrants, inherently not belonging, perhaps they had tried to mark you but you had escaped. No matter, this new world belonged to you. Even if I had conquered it, I didn’t belong to it. Our parents’ different origins made it impossible for me to retreat. For me there was no old country, only an unending new country. I belonged everywhere and, thus, nowhere.

The summer you spent with me when I was in my twenties showed me that you were the missing link connecting me to the world around me, just as I connected our parents. You were young enough that our age difference still gave me an advantage, but you were beginning to see my deficiencies. I didn’t hide them. By then, I already knew that we weren't the same. I was only glad that the gap wasn't yet as wide as I had suspected. It was the last time we could relate to each other as older sibling to younger. You would never know the pain I felt when our mutual ancestors became the only link we shared. In the day, you found your own amusements as I worked and prepared my grad school applications, a thing which did not interest you. Only at night, over music and movies and food would the bond of our childhood be rekindled as you shared your latest interests with me.

When we met again as adults in our thirties, you were married to the type of all-American girl I would never speak to by choice. Pretty, normal, nice, unexceptional, no hint of strangeness. You were doing well in a good job in the financial sector, a quite happy American family. I was happy for you and yet secretly despised you for blending with the status quo, a thing that I could still not do, not only because of pride in my difference, but also because I was unable to. I had a job, not just good but exceptional, a car, a house, expensive clothes but I had also just broken up with yet another man who didn't “get” me, who would have preferred it if it didn't take so many words to describe me. I promised myself that next time I would settle, that I could have a normal relationship, let go of the idea of a soul mate I had created when I was too young to know what one was or, at least, young enough to think it was worth waiting for.

Your wife smiled sweetly, talked about starting a family, discussed with our mother the right color of paint for your kitchen. She did not try to include me, knowing that this was a world I would not join. So I sat like the matriarch, as thus I had become, comforted and disturbed by the fact that your wife also recognized my difference from her.

In the years to come, I would bring your children presents from my travels, quickly dropping in and out of your life. I would eventually marry a man who, though he couldn't be described as perfect, understood my oddness enough not to mention it and had arms strong enough to hold me. When our parents could no longer live by themselves they came live with me and my family so that yours would not be disturbed. My kids learned enough Spanish to speak to Dad, who was now forgetting his English. They learned to enjoy the strong flavored dishes our mother did. And when you visited for Thanksgiving and Christmas your children nodded in confusion as mine pointed out the foreign food and words that you had neglected to teach them-that you had all but almost forgotten yourself.

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