I don't want this to be a bitter story. I have many wonderful memories from my childhood. From an outsider's view, I grew up in a healthy and happy environment and indeed I did for the most part. Most of what I talk about is something that occurred inside and wouldn't have been apparent to anyone else. The teasing and harrassment could be viewed as "just kids being kids". I never talked about the feelings of rootlessness or isolation then because I don't think I understood them myself. Much of what I recall is in retrospect from an adult and hopefully much wiser viewpoint.
I think at the time I felt conflicted between wanting to be like everyone else and wanting to become more familiar with my heritage. I had plenty of examples of how to be "like everyone else" but nothing except the heavily stereotyped Asians in movies, books and television shows from which to model my concepts of "Asian-ness". Now begins the embarrassing part.
I was in sixth grade when my teacher announced we would be putting on an international bizarre for the entire junior high, faculty and of course, parents. Each student was assigned a country. Guess which one she gave me. I was to research facts on China, come up with some semblance of native dress and make a traditional Chinese dish to serve at the bizarre. Noooooo problem!
The research facts were simple enough to dig up from the encyclopedia. Remember the internet didn't exist back then. Native dress? What do Chinese wear? Miracle-Mom found a Halloween costume pattern and my ever resourceful grandmother did the best she could. The result was a pair of pants, a blouse that buttoned up the side and a long sash to tie it at the waist. Hmmm, what about the shoes? I asked my teacher, telling her I have no idea what to do about the shoes. She suggested I wear a white pair of socks and a pair of thong slippers. "The Japanese wear their shoes like that," she said, "no one will know the difference." Hmmmmmkay.
Now the dish, what the heck do Chinese eat? This one really stumped me because I had only eaten at the Chinese restaurant twice. It was in the next town and their Mongolian beef rocked. It was the only dish I knew and had no other source for recipes. I needed something simple that could feed a lot of people. My aunt came up with the brilliant idea of fortune cookies. It seemed like the perfect solution but where to find a recipe? After digging through every source available, my ever-persistent mother called the Chinese restaurant and simply asked for the recipe. The poor guy on the other end was completely baffled. With less than a week left to go until showtime, my mother and I were becoming a little frantic. Luckily, my family was very close and by now this had truly become a family project including cousins. It was one of my cousins that found the recipe in a magazine. So the baking began with me writing out tons of fortunes by hand on tiny slips of paper. My mom would take out the cookies and I would stuff and fold them.
International bizarre dawned too soon. All dressed and ready to go, I looked in the mirror. There I stood, a hodgepodge of "Asian-ness"; a Viet-girl with Japanese feet in Chinese clothes with a tray of fortune cookies in my hand. I can't really say what was happening in my mind at that moment. I know that for the first time, I saw myself differently. I didn't see a "gook" or a "chink". I had been magically transformed into a "China doll". I liked what I saw reflecting back at me from the mirror. I think it was at that moment the soil of my little garden became fertile ground for the planting of "O-lan's seed".