I first read The Good Earth by Pearl S Buck for a reading assignment during my freshman year in high school. This was shortly before I moved to Nebraska to live with my father in 1984. I was 14 years old. My well-meaning English teacher thought it would be a good idea for me to read something “Asian” and suggested I read this book for my report. Already struggling to put my roots into my origins, I devoured the book. I later read many more of her books, but The Good Earth was the one that planted a seed in the soil of my empty garden. One that I now wish I’d cut out and thrown away.
In order to understand my perspective, you have to get a full grasp of my surroundings at the time. When I say small town, I mean a population of roughly 2000 (correction: 1000), one car wash, one cafe, one grocery store, two gas stations, one bank and one set of railroad tracks that divided the black and white sides of town. The first non-white families didn’t move to the “white side” of the tracks until some time in the 80’s.
My home town was so small that we all went to a neighboring larger town about 15 miles away to do all our shopping. That’s also where everyone went to have fun; go to the movies, eat out and if you were a teenager with a car, that’s where you went to cruise and hang out. Going to Dallas to eat or shop was a BIG deal reserved for special occasions and school or church field trips. To drive through from one end of town to the other took about five minutes. It truly was a town that you’d miss if you blinked.
The main road through town consisted of a two lane road, only one of two in town that actually had yellow stripes. It took an average of 2 minutes to drive from one end to the other if you were going the speed limit of 10 mph. On one side was a strip of shops including a grocery store and furniture store owned by the same family. The other side had a bank, barber shop, and gas station. Intersecting the main road was highway 66, the other road with stripes. This is how I remember it from my childhood. I haven’t been back there in years. My mother, who still lives there tells me it’s growing and changing as all towns do, just very slowly.
Imagine trying to find something “Asian” in a town that didn’t even have a public library (that also was in the neighboring town) and where the only other Asian in town was struggling to “whitewash” himself. So what did I have? You guessed it. Other than the few books I could dig up in the school library, I had the television. Ohh boy, Kung Fu Theatre on Saturdays and Kung Fu The Series with the white dude. That and Pearl S Buck’s The Good Earth was all I had from which to draw my image of what “Asian” meant. It’s quite alright to start laughing at this point. I laugh, too….and then I cry.
Note: I use the term “Asian” rather than my nationality of Vietnamese to emphasize my situation. If finding anything related to Asia was difficult, you can see how impossible it would be to find things related to my home country. Given my absence of association with anything specifically Vietnamese and because of my lack of resources, I was forced to broaden my margins. I have no idea where this is going so the end will be as much of a surprise for me as anyone else.