I am five. I am sitting in the front part of a big truck, between my father, who is driving, and my mother, who leans her head against the window. We are moving to a new town, a new state. My father has found a better job, a better place for us to live. He loves the future. He craves newness and possibility and adventure. He is happy. He is always happy when he is taking care of his family, so he drives. My mother has no choice but to follow him, because she already made her choice when she married him. She doesn’t love the future. She accepts it. She has moved from Okinawa to the United States, as his wife, the wife of a soldier. She has moved from Manhattan to Chicago to Phoenix to Plainsboro, NJ, following his jobs, his dreams. She knows she can’t go back to her poor island, her poor family. She is not happy, but maybe she is more relieved than resigned. She leans her head against the window.
And it doesn’t bother me in the slightest, staring out the windshield at my old house, my old neighbors, who are waving goodbye as we pull out of the driveway and turn around. Past and future have no meaning for me yet. I don’t know what it means to miss a place. I just want to be wherever my father is.
We live in Fairport now, a suburb of Rochester, NY. My father chooses Fairport because it boasts the finest public school district in the western region of the state. Well, second best, after Pittsford, the neighboring district, but he can’t afford for us to live there. At least, he hopes, not yet.
My father owns a business now, a chain of video stores called Shows to Go… During the weekends, I make sure the cassette tapes are inside the right covers. My father pays me three dollars a day until I save a hundred dollars and then I can buy a bicycle, which costs much more than a hundred dollars. During the weekends, I watch movies all day, in the office or on the big TV at the front of the store. One of my favorite movies is Karate Kid II, which takes place in Okinawa. I know my mother is from Okinawa, but that doesn’t make sense to me. Okinawa is a piece of fiction, as foreign and exotic to me as it is to any other five-year-old kid growing up in the United States. When I have questions about their strange practices, like catching flies with chopsticks, I ask my father. He is the smartest person in the world because he is from Manhattan. I watch the dancing and tea ceremonies with fascination, but I feel no pride, no connection. Mr. Miyagi is also a piece of fiction. A character, a caricature. He is like Yoda, like a doll. He talks funny, like my mother.
Fairport has a population of roughly 6,000 people, ninety-nine percent white and one percent everything else. The only other Asians I know work at Fuji-Ya, the restaurant where my mother works as a waitress. The restaurant is owned and managed by a Chinese couple, Mr. and Mrs. Lee, and staffed by more Chinese, Koreans, Japanese and a couple Okinawans, who work the front of the house. The Vietnamese, Thais, and Laotians work the back of the house. I can’t tell the difference between them. Here, in the United States, Asians are all the same. The details of our histories, languages, and cultures are negligible. Here, in Fairport, in 1986, Asian/Black/ Latino/part-Asian/part-Black/part-Latino are all the same. We are simply Not-White. I don’t understand, and I won’t for a very long time, why I will try to stay as far away from the rest of that one percent as possible. For much of my life, I won’t want to be associated. Or too visible.
During the week, my mother picks me up from school and brings me to the restaurant. For hours, until my father picks me up, I sit at a table and roll small white towels, then put them in a big rice-cooker to be warmed, then I feed koi fish and fetch pennies from a slate rock fountain plugged into the wall, then I watch waitresses wrap themselves in kimonos and tie their sashes in elaborate knots. They speak to each other in languages I can’t understand. When they speak to me, I still can’t understand.
After my father picks me up, he takes me to McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King, Pizza Hut, or Boston Market for dinner. At home, we watch the news for a while and then change the channel to Nick at Nite. We watch Bewitched, Mr. Ed, My Three Sons, and The Patty Duke Show. Sometimes I stay up late enough for Donna Reed, but that’s my least favorite. We laugh. When I don’t laugh, he explains the jokes. By the time my mother comes home from the restaurant, I’m already asleep. Sometimes I pretend to be asleep.
Sometimes, on the weekends, my mother drives me twenty minutes to Penfield, another suburb of Rochester, to Quin’s house. Quin is the dishwasher’s daughter. She is Vietnamese. She thinks and speaks in Vietnamese. I think and speak in English. We don’t know what to say to each other. We don’t know what to do together except sing karaoke. I sing Whitney Houston and she sings songs I’ve never heard before. I sing in English. She sings in Vietnamese. She makes me uncomfortable because I don’t want to see the ways we resemble each other. I find her quite ugly. She has short black hair, a flat face, and “slits” for eyes. She wears thick, bifocal glasses. Her clothes are cheap. She lives in The Pines, an apartment complex, where poor people live. I hate how her apartment smells. Like fish.
Sometimes my mother drives me thirty minutes to Irondequoit, another suburb of Rochester, to Christine’s house. Christine is another waitress’ daughter, the other Okinawan’s daughter. Her father is also white. She also thinks and speaks in English, but doesn’t look like she thinks and speaks in English. She is a “half-breed,” a “Twinkie,” just like me. When I come over, all I want to do is hang out in her basement. We watch The Parent Trap twice, play fifty rounds of Super Mario Brothers and Duck Hunt, eat a large pizza and two bags of Doritos. We leave grease and powdered cheese on the controllers. We are fat. We are gross.
I don’t understand why mother wants me to spend so much time with these people. I don’t want to see what we have in common.
My father tells me that, at school, I will finally make friends. Instead, I’m hardly noticed. Except sometimes, some of my classmates stretch their eyelids with their fingertips and sing the song “We Are Siamese If You Please” from Lady and the Tramp. Sometimes they call me Data, the “booty-trap” setter from The Goonies. Sometimes they call me Tinkerbell, because of my slanted eyes, or Miss Piggy, because of my pug nose. I don’t understand that these names they call me are racist. I am not yet aware of the damage this daily teasing will cause. It seems harmless. Lots of other kids, who are uglier and poorer and happen to be my fellow one-percenters, get teased just as much as me, if not more. For much of my life, I will feel as if I have no right to complain. Because being ignored or belittled isn’t so bad. I am not feared or hated or oppressed.
I start to drop things a lot. I can’t open the tiny cartons without spilling milk all over my desk. I can’t carry the lunch trays without splattering food all over the cafeteria floor. As punishment, my teacher says I must stand at the sink to drink my milk or above the trash can to eat my lunch. I become known as “the girl who is clumsy,” and this pleases me. To be known for something that is cross-cultural, non-restrictive. I start to drop more things. I knock over chairs and bookshelves. I make myself trip and fall. Kids laugh. Teachers yell. I relish the attention.
Very often in the movies, kids who get laughed at or yelled at turn out okay in the end.
When my mother looks at me, she sees her daughter. She sees the part of me that is like her, the part of me that is Okinawan: my hair, my eyes, my nose, my lips, my skin tone, my reserved and deferential temperament. She sees the onigiri, the ramen or miso soup she feeds me every day, unique family recipes I can’t help but find delicious. She sees the time I get sick with pneumonia and have to be taken to the hospital, but the doctors are slow and indifferent, so she feeds me a stew of seaweed, green tea, and herbs until I’m cured. She sees the time Oba, my grandmother, carries me on her hip, how natural and at ease I look, pointing and just starting to mumble words in her language. It does not cause her shame or aversion or confusion to see me this way. I still come from the same place as her. She just wants to be close. She just wants to be home. She doesn’t understand — and I don’t either, and won’t for a long time — why I feel so different from her, why I want so desperately to be so different from people like her.
When my father sees me, he sees his daughter. He sees the part of me that is like him, the mind he is trying to shape. He sees my imagination, my proneness to daydreaming. He sees the books he reads to me every day: Peter Pan, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Alice In Wonderland, as well as both Aesop’s and Anderson’s fairy tales. He sees the time he takes me to a showing of Fantasia at the theater, how I am so exhilarated, so grateful, as if he has taken me on a hot air balloon ride. He sees the time he plays Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony on the record player, how I lie down on the floor to get my head closer to the speaker. It causes him pride and fondness and reassurance to see me this way, because I can transcend such peculiarities as race and ethnicity. He just wants me to be like him, like everyone else he’s ever known. He just wants me to be a cultivated American. He doesn’t understand — and I don’t either, and won’t for a long time — how his rearing of me will complicate how I see myself and my mother, how it will distance me further from her.
On Saturday and Sunday mornings, after cartoons and before we have to work at the video store, my father and I make pancakes from scratch, which is what his father made for him when he was a child. We make a dozen pancakes. We set the table. We spread butter and pour maple syrup. My mother joins us. She is still groggy from sleep, still tired from the night shift or hungover. She can barely eat more than a few bites. I prefer to lick the batter from the bowl and can also barely eat more than a few bites. My father eats six pancakes and throws the rest of them out. He doesn’t mind.
When we don’t have to work at the video store, my father and I spend our weekends at the YMCA of Pittsford. He has to pay extra fees because we don’t live in Pittsford. He drives us twenty minutes along the Erie Canal. We catch glimpses of the brown water through the trees and talk about what time of year the locks will open or shut. We listen to the radio and talk about the songs we recognize. I can remember titles and the artists who sing them now, and my father is very impressed. We park outside a big brick building with a neon ‘Y’ sign. We check in at the front desk and are greeted by our names, Mr. Brina and Elizabeth, father and daughter, because we come here almost every weekend. He goes upstairs to run on the treadmill and lift weights. I stay downstairs and go to gymnastics class. I learn cartwheels, then back-walkovers, then back-handsprings. I learn how to do each move on the balance beam. Halfway through class, my father walks through the door and stands against the wall. I wave. He waves. He is the only father who watches, the only father who cares.
At first, my coaches and classmates ask, “Is he your father?” And I say, “yes.”
At first, I don’t notice their expression, and then I will not quite understand what it means, and then my coaches and classmates will ask, “Are you adopted?” And I will say, “no.” They will pause for a moment to figure out what to ask next.
I start going to gymnastics class every day after school. My mother drives me twenty minutes out of her way on her way to work. She drives while I nap. She drops me off at the curb. She doesn’t check in at the front desk and isn’t greeted by her name. Halfway through class, she doesn’t walk through the door and stand against the wall. She doesn’t watch. I don’t mind.
About once a month, a YMCA in the area hosts a competition. My father drives us thirty minutes to Palmyra, forty minutes to Henrietta, an hour to Auburn, Batavia, Canandaigua. He sits on the bleachers for hours, chatting with the other parents and pointing at my name on the bulletin board. My coaches and classmates know him. They know he helps pay for the new leotards and the pizza parties. When it’s my turn, he watches. Sometimes I win second place in floor, fourth place in beam, eleventh place in vault, but there is no award for eleventh place. On the way home, we dream about training with Bela Karolyi and competing in the Olympics. My father knows this is impossible, but he lets me dream.
About twice a year, the YMCA of Pittsford hosts a competition. If my mother doesn’t have to work, she attends. She sits on the bleachers for hours, blinking and nodding, surrounded by the other parents who are asking her questions and talking too fast. Eventually they will give up. She smiles at me, but I think she looks a bit odd and out of place, as if she wishes she could just go home. And to be honest, I also wish she could just go home. I feel bad for wishing she could just go home.
Her fear embarrasses me. Her fear is always embarrassing me. At the grocery store, at the mall, she asks me where to look for things, how to find things. When cashiers and clerks ask her to repeat herself, sometimes I have to interrupt and speak for her. I’m afraid to let her speak. I’m afraid of how her accent and pronunciation reflect upon me. Or maybe it’s my fear that embarrasses her.
My father tries to teach me how to ride a bicycle. He only lets me ride on the flat sidewalks beside our house and won’t let go because I beg him not to let go. One day, while my father is at work, my mother takes me to the top of the tallest, longest hill in the neighborhood. “Just go down,” she says. “Okay, but don’t let go,” I say. At first, she clutches the seat and runs with me, but then she can’t keep up anymore. She lets go. I don’t panic. I don’t lose balance. I ride faster and faster down the hill and when I get to the bottom, I squeeze the breaks and stop. I look up at her from the bottom of the hill. She is laughing and clapping. I realize she has purposely disobeyed me and I almost get angry. But I’m too excited. For whatever reason, my mother will always trust me more than I trust her.
I am seven. For Christmas that year, instead of visiting my grandparents in Manhattan, we have to stay in Fairport because my father has to work. I’m mad I won’t get to cross the George Washington Bridge, or see the big tree in Rockefeller Center, or eat linguini with clam sauce and struffoli. I let them know I’m mad. I know exactly what I’m doing.
My mother takes me shopping. I pick out three dresses. My father takes me shopping. I pick out three Barbie Dolls. Now I have forty. We wrap the gifts together even though I already know what they are. My mother takes me shopping for my father. We pick out three ties and a wallet. On the night of Christmas Eve, I look beneath the tree at all the presents. Six for me. Four for my father. “Does Mom have any gifts?” I ask my father, as if they would magically appear, as if he were Santa Claus. He shakes his head. “I didn’t have time, sweetheart. We’ll get her something after.”
Part of me thinks that’s okay, because my mother never really cared much for Christmas. Another part of me knows that’s not right. I know that everyone is supposed to get something on Christmas, not after. So I gather my crayons. I’m going to write “I love you” on a piece of pink construction paper but then get the ingenious idea to write the phrase in Japanese. I ask my mother, “How do you say ‘I love you’ in Japanese?” She smiles and says, “Watashi-wa anata-o aishiteimasu.” I ask her to write the phrase on a post-it note. I carefully copy the hiragana on a piece of pink construction paper, but the lines are all jagged. I cut out and glue on a big, red, misshapen heart.
On Christmas morning, when the three of us sit around the flashing tree to open our presents, I give my mother the gift I made. I can’t decipher her face. It tenses and twists like she is about to cry. I look at the three dresses, the three Barbie Dolls, the three ties and the wallet. We should have bought her something.
Later that evening, I steal the gift she has tucked into the top corner of the mirror on her bureau. I tear the gift into pieces and throw the pieces in the garbage. When my mother realizes what I have done, she covers her face with her hands and weeps. “Why?” she asks me. Because the gift looks bad, makes me look bad, and it belongs in the garbage. “I’m sorry, Mom. I promise I’ll make you a better one,” with glitter and paint, with the lines curved correctly, with a perfectly shaped heart.
But I don’t. I never will.
A Puerto Rican family moves around the corner from us. The mother, her sister, two sons and two daughters, along with the wife of the older son and their baby, live in the same house. It is strange. It is scandalous. The youngest daughter is my age. She has crooked teeth and her skin is dark, but she never makes fun of me because her name is Dorcas. Her name sounds so much nicer in Spanish. Her brothers and sister call me Mitsubishi, but that’s really the worst of it. I go to their house every day after school. The mother cooks plantains and chicken stew. Dorcas and I ride our bikes to the convenience store and spoil our appetites on Skittles. My father picks me up after work, looking sharp in his three-piece suit, making the mother and her sister blush. He brings video tapes, video games, and fresh bread and pasta from Lombardi’s. This is payment for letting me come over and stay all afternoon, for welcoming and being nice to me, as if such acts require payment.
But then Dorcas and her family have to move. Back to Puerto Rico. Suddenly, and we don’t know why. She calls once in a while, but eventually forgets how to speak English. Then I forget about her.
By the time I turn nine, my father’s stores go out of business. Now we have to move, too. He considers Manhattan, but he can’t afford to live in the nice parts and send me to a fine private school like where he went, at least without borrowing money from his parents, which they gladly would have loaned. But my father is a man. He’s a “Rugged Individualist,” a “Social Darwinist,” some of the words he spews at talk show hosts. He can do everything by himself. So we move into an apartment complex. Not as bad as The Pines of Penfield, but still an apartment complex. I finally make friends, though. Their names are Sarah, Meghan, and Kim. They’re poorer than I would have wanted them to be, than my father and even my mother would have wanted them to be. White trash, I hear people say. Their parents are divorced. But they’re pretty — blond-haired, blue-eyed, fair-skinned and freckled — and they want to hang out with me. Sometimes they call me Tinkerbell. Sometimes they call me Miss Piggy.
I am so happy about having friends that I don’t care how badly they treat me. I don’t care that when we go on dates with the New Kids On The Block, I am paired with Danny, who they say looks like a rat, even though Jonathon, who they say is the second ugliest, is totally available. I don’t care that one time they steal three large vases of coins from my mother, coins she has saved from years of waitressing tips, and blow them all on games at a carnival. I don’t care that, another time, they steal a diamond necklace from my mother’s jewelry box. Or when they steal cash from her secret wallet in the first drawer of the china cabinet.
I don’t care because I’ve already learned my place. I’ve already learned my mother’s place.
In fifth grade, a black kid moves to our town from Houston. Now we have three. All of my friends think we would make the cutest couple. On a Saturday, on the playground in the fields behind our school, they demand we kiss. I close my eyes. I lunge forward but that’s a mistake because girls are supposed to stand still. I bash my teeth into his teeth and bust his lip with my braces.
They laugh at us. He dumps me the next day.
In middle school, the names get worse. Sometimes they call me Chink or Gook, and when I tell them I’m not Chinese or Korean, they call me Jap, as well as a more original yet terribly unclever pejorative, “Gorilla Woman,” because of my flat face, pug nose, and thick eyebrows. They tear pictures of gorillas, chimpanzees, and monkeys from magazines, then shove them into my desk and locker.
This is before the obligatory people of color are presented to mainstream America through Gap and T-Mobile ads. I guess I look strange, unfamiliar. I guess the way I look makes them uncomfortable. This is still 1991. We are still extras, one-dimensional villains or sidekicks.
But I don’t know if anything can account for how cruel I am to my mother.
I ignore her as much as I can, disregard her as much as I can. I never stay up late to talk to her when she comes home from the restaurant. I pretend to be asleep when she comes into my room. I don’t want to eat the meals she spends all day preparing when she doesn’t have to work. I mock her pronunciation behind her back, and roll my eyes or snicker to myself when she can’t read the basic instructions on a shipping label at the post office.
I cut up a bunch of her clothes, dresses and kimonos she has stashed in boxes. I cut them because sewing patches onto jeans and jackets is the latest craze. I cut them because they’re hers. I don’t ask permission. She never wears those dresses and kimonos anyway.
Sometimes she gets so frustrated at not knowing the words that she hits me. She slaps me across the face, or smacks me on the head repeatedly, or pulls my hair so hard that part of my scalp forms a tiny, throbbing bump.
Sometimes my father has to yank her off of me. I never hit her back though, not because she is my mother and I respect her, but the exact opposite. She is weak. She is strange. She looks strange and talks strange and cooks strange food that no one else eats.
And she gets drunk. Mostly on her days off. She never drinks when she is alone with me. But when she starts, she can’t stop.
She drinks sake and wine. And when the sake and wine run out, she switches to bourbon, my father’s booze of choice. She calls her mother and three sisters in Okinawa. She talks to them on the phone for hours. Then she bursts into tears as soon as she hangs up.
Sometimes my father has to block her from the front door. She charges and crashes into his stout pillar of a body, trying to escape, then he wrestles and restrains her, pinning her to the floor until she punches, kicks, wriggles free, and starts charging again. She wants to go back to Okinawa, she screams, but she is shit-faced and barefoot and wearing only a nightgown.
Sometimes he has to drag her to the bedroom by her armpits, her legs kicking and flailing, still screaming, and then he tosses her — gently, of course — onto the bed. She is tired but belligerent, crawling to the edge of the bed, trying to escape again. My father waits at the edge, ready to block her, ready to grab her and toss her — gently of course — back down to the bed. He stands guard for the rest of the night, with one foot propped on the edge of the bed and one elbow propped on his knee, assuring me with a smile that she will feel better in the morning.
We stand guard and watch her together, making sure she doesn’t leave.
Because, even though I don’t want her to be my mother, I don’t want her to leave.
We stand guard and watch her together until she whimpers herself to sleep.
I wish I had crawled into bed with her, told her not to worry, told her that I am her daughter, I am home. But I was a little girl then, and more than a little scared and selfish, and I didn’t want to be near her.
Sometimes I wonder how different our lives might have been, if we had lived in Manhattan, even the not so nice parts, even Brooklyn or Queens or the Bronx. If we had lived in Seattle or San Francisco.
Or what if I grew up now? Is the world kinder, better now? Or am I just older?
Elizabeth Miki Brina received an MFA in Creative Writing from University of New Orleans. She is currently working on a memoir that focuses on her mother, the history of Okinawa, the legacy of trauma, and the complications of growing up biracial. Her work has appeared in Bad Pony and Hippocampus, and is forthcoming in Crab Fat, Hyphen, So to Speak, and Under the Gum Tree. She teaches ESL at a community college.