- Courtesy of Carlina Duan
By Carlina Duan, Magazine Editor
Published February 2, 2014
When I was eleven, I was called a Chink by three boys at a water park. I was wearing my favorite blue Nike suit, had just gotten my first period a month before, and adored my fish tank of silver guppies, which swam mercilessly back and forth through a sleeve of cool water each night.
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I didn’t understand race, and I didn’t understand love.
What I understood was that on Multi-Culti Day in the sixth grade, my mother had made six containers of dumplings for my class. The moisture had condensed on the Tupperware lids in shameful, wet circles; Casey had wrinkled his nose and asked, “What’s that smell?”
What I understood was that I smelled differently. I wasn’t allowed to shave my legs, I didn’t know how to translate “deodorant” into Mandarin, and my favorite meal involved pouring cheddar cheese Goldfish crackers on top of a bowl of rice.
Still, I waved the American flag. Still, I loved comic books and strawberry popsicles. At home, my mother spoke to me in Mandarin and I responded back in English. As an American-born girl of eleven, we had a system. In public, I became the mom — checking out our library books, enunciating English words for her at Kroger’s, translating Mapquest directions so she’d swerve left onto Newport Road. I was the one who taught my mom how to make macaroni and cheese. I told her what to write to my teachers when I was sick and couldn’t come to class. We fell into familiar rhythm. Eventually, she stopped using her Chinese-to-English dictionary and started resorting to me: “You’re the expert,” she’d say, “I don’t know anything.”
At some point along the way, I lost my Chinese.
Chinese, my first language, gradually became my lost language. Born in Seattle to parents who had emigrated from China, I attended preschool in Ann Arbor with almost no knowledge of English. I was placed in a toddler’s ESL class, where we bound picture books in sparkly pink wrapping paper, and I learned the language through flashcards: A IS FOR APPLE, M IS FOR MILK.
At home, then, the rules were softened. As a kid, I’d persuade my mother into buying us “normal” food: vanilla wafers drenched in icing, chicken nuggets, wide hunks of pepper jack cheese. I reprimanded her for braiding my hair with Hello Kitty elastics. All the white girls at my school used simple hair bands of neon blues, pinks. My mother went to Meijer and bought me a jumbo pack of black hair scrunchies the next day. I called my mother a bitch when we fought, mostly out of cruel spite. I knew she wouldn’t understand the curse word. After all, I was the wise, cultured American. She was just the Chinese mom who listened out of love, out of a desire to see her kid not get bullied in a school system that was predominantly white. In retrospect, the games I played as a kid must have been humiliating for my mother: a brilliant woman who’d studied agriculture in college, mastered Japanese, loved butterflies and the smell of lavender perfume.
With my mom, I cultivated a sense of authority that I couldn’t fully grasp in the classroom. Placed next to my all-American friends with mothers who understood that mustard was not a salad dressing, but a condiment; that hot dogs were not literally heated animals with tails; that tampons were more popular than pads … I’d never be the expert.
In school, I was shy. Ate white breads, tossed dumplings in the trash can, raised my hand only when I was sure I could pronounce unknown words exactly right. Played it safe, partly because I was afraid to lose the wicked sense of authority I’d cultivated at home.
Growing up as a minority, I found independence in these mottled, urgent ways. At a water park, at age eleven, being called a Chink was just another new occasion for me to disassemble and learn the English language. To claim it in all its pricking points of ugliness. To be bullied and loved, relentlessly, by the alphabet. Chink, Chigga. Banana. Twinkie. F.O.B. What my Chinese mother could never teach me, I had to learn and seize on my own. What’s more, I felt fiercely protective and embarrassed by her. In the U.S., she was vulnerable, sometimes timid, girlish. Couldn’t hold the language. My job as her American-born daughter was not only to teach, but to also defend.
In middle school, “Yo Mama” jokes infuriated me. My mother was so Chinese she couldn’t eat a hamburger without pinching her nose. She was so Chinese she wore bamboo slippers, pickled sea cucumbers, fried rice. But she was also a badass. Mowed our lawn every week, fixed the broken roof herself. Knit scarves, baked bread. Climbed ladders. Sacrificed her Chinese citizenship for an American passport — not out of duty to the country, but out of duty to my sister and me. “I want to live in the same country as you when I’m older,” she said. At my high school graduation, she recited the Pledge of Allegiance with her left hand over her chest, beaming.