There’s that quiet again. It’s the weighted silence right before anyone tries to say my name, the uncomfortable pause that makes me embarrassed as much as it does them. It has made me want to hide under my desk since I was five, in pigtails and a Toronto souvenir t-shirt with a big red iron-on maple leaf and still does at sixteen in 1991, with my dyed black cropped hair and New Order t-shirt. You can’t pronounce it, think it’s strange. But you couldn’t be bothered to try and learn it beforehand – you, a teacher. To – mo……ah? ay? Over the years we’ve been through every version except the right one. Sometimes you try and cheerfully deflect. Well now, that’s an unusual name. And you’re such an unusual looking girl! This always makes me cringe. Because of course what you want, no matter what age you are as a kid, is to be singled out, to be unusual. Is it really so permanent, to forget what it is like to be young? I tap my mechanical pencil on the top of my desk, give a bright smile, and launch into the little speech about how to pronounce it and where it’s from, the way I have done every year since I was five, in every class on the first day of school.
They Shape You As Best They Can
They mean well, my parents. They’re so determined to teach me to see past the small Wisconsin town with its pleasant but closed minds that without knowing it, they isolate me. When I am a child, all I want to do is play. What I get instead are a sofa and a stack of books, and in the long summers of the 1980s, a schedule from my mother of the things I am meant to study on my own, or sent to music camp where I play the viola in sterile college practice rooms, a Minnesota language camp where in a dry, pine scented heat I speak German; both badly, or classes at the local university. Tiny me, on the bus with a bag of workbooks, looking at everyone on their bikes while I go dissect rats and learn to program on Apple IIe computers with kids older than me, listening to my footsteps echo down the long empty halls while I walk from one course to another. I read, learn and pretend I fit in with the others even though they view me a polite, detached curiosity. I wish I were anywhere but here, just like they want. But in secret my fantasy is to be like everyone else. I want to play with Barbies and Easy-Bake Ovens. I look in the mirror and wish my eyes were blue and rounder, my hair was blond, that I looked like Heather Locklear in T. J. Hooker. Even my happiest summer memories, of being in Japan with my mother’s family are bittersweet. I am part of a family, but not quite fully part of her culture, a ghost child trapped between worlds. I tie paper wishes to sacred trees at Shinto temples and hope the gods will hear me as they sway gently in the breeze coming from the mountains.
There are moments when it’s not all bad. After watching Spider-Man cartoons one afternoon while my parents are out, I tie jump ropes to the kitchen cabinet handles and holding the other ends, try and swing from one cabinet to the other. I tear off one of the doors and go hide under the dining room table until my parents come home. I get in trouble, but not as much as I thought. Later that night I sneak to the landing at the top of the stairs and hear my father laugh as he tells what happened to someone on the phone. When he is not taking me to museums in Chicago where we move silently and dreamlike between displays of armor, paintings and mummified bodies, he takes me to the movies, even though my mother disapproves of it. We see Tron, The Empire Strikes Back, and any other sci-fi, because that’s what he likes. At home on Saturday afternoons we watch old movies: black and white ones, such as the Sherlock Holmes with Basil Rathbone, or garish Hammer horrors while eating pistachio ice cream he brings back from Baskin Robbins. Don’t tell your mother, he says. She’ll have a fit. We laugh. He teaches me how to play chess at a young age. You’re old enough. It’ll be good, to teach you how to think about things. He is patient, talking to me like I am an adult, gently correcting me when I move my bishop the wrong way or jump too many spaces with a pawn. He doesn’t lose on purpose, but the first time I win he is full of praise for days, and the warmth of this lingers like the scent of his sticky-sweet pipe tobacco.
I get used to my isolation when I am a little older. Now they sometimes give me a little more freedom in the summer, and I like to cycle down to the nearest library. It is mostly empty then, and I sit downstairs in the children’s department on my own in the cool half-darkness, reading Fangoria magazines from cover to cover and listening to Tears For Fears and Duran Duran on the radio I play quietly. Rose and Daisy, the two elderly sisters who are the librarians, call me on the phone when something new has come in. They find my love of horror movies funny, when a girl my age should be starting to talk about boys and playing with makeup. I try to read the young adult books but they mainly seem to be about girls worried about what boys or other girls think of them. I don’t think I care much about what other people think of me. This half tired, half obstinate acceptance must be what happens after you get tired of wishing to be like everyone else. One day I pull a book from the shelf to discover my name is on it; a fantasy story about a woman warrior. This fills me with happiness, to see my name exist in the world outside of me in a small way. In high school I discover Orwell, Fitzgerald and Schwarz-Bart, read during still nights as I lean outside my bedroom window and take some comfort in literary isolation, whether societal or personal. I start to feel better about who I might be, become.
The Main Attraction
They have been telling me since I was little that I am smart. I don’t believe this so much. It’s probably only because of how much I am always reading, or because they think any kid who is part Japanese must be. Whatever the reason for smart, they pull me out of kindergarten to go upstairs to first grade during story time, so I can read with the older children. They give me the reading book, and I take it home and read it from cover to cover one night. Then I go back to reading Ray Bradbury. My first week of first grade, they pull me out and put me into second grade. Everyone stares at me, and I wish I could fall through the floor. My mother comes and does a presentation about Japan, dressed in an elaborate silk kimono. No one asked me about this. The other students are respectful, but I am mortified, and wish with guilt that she was just like the other moms – smoking Virginia Slims, going to aerobics classes at the local YMCA, drinking coffee bleary-eyed in the mornings, too tired to make breakfast other than pouring out a bowl of Alpha-Bits – not talking to me in Japanese while she makes me elaborate traditional breakfasts with a permanent smile on her face. When I start junior high at the age of ten, they pull me out of gym class and put me in a room on my own with no explanation. A woman made up like a pageant queen surrounded by clouds of Giorgio Beverly Hills comes in, puts an empty tin can on the table and asks me to name as many things I can think of that it can be used for while she times me. I think this is stupid but do it anyway. She smiles and nods while making serious notes on a pad. I know they are serious because her brow furrows when she writes. Afterwards they put me in a ‘special’ section of the school for the smart ones.
Culture Clashes, Assimilation
I respond to this new upheaval in the only way a ten year old who is sick of being moved around and taken away from others as soon as they start to make friends can: I don’t pay attention in class or do my homework, unless it’s literature based. As a result, my mother has a breakdown. I am not conforming to appropriate half-Japanese good daughter rules. She was the perfect obedient daughter, and has always expected me to be the same. America, she thinks, has ruined my potential. One night she runs away from home, overcome by this academic disappointment, but I am not repentant because I would like someone to ask me what I want, for once. My father talks to me and promises that he will try to give me some more space to be myself, and if it feels like they’re hard on me, it is because they want to make sure I grow up right. I’ve never known him to break a promise, so I make one of my own to try a bit harder. I manage to get on the honor roll, which placates my mother, although deep down we both know our relationship will never be the same. When I get to high school, there are no special classes anymore. I make real friends. I am bored, in that way every teenager is, and this pleases me. Art and literature are of interest but not much else, although I manage to hang on to decent grades. All my time outside of school is spent with friends: smoking black and gold banded clove cigarettes, drinking schnapps we get older men to buy for us by flirting with them outside liquor stores, going to concerts and making mixtapes in my room late at night while reading Spin magazine.
There are only two things that isolate me now. One is that I don’t look like the others, but this only bothers me when things like Homecoming and Prom roll around. Boys like me, but in secret. Small town sociosexual rules seem to dictate that you only go out with the normal looking girls unless you want to risk your position at school. This I don’t care about so much. My friends have had so many party date-rape stories that I want to call the shots on my own experiences, and that means not wasting my time on these boys. The other is that I still can’t wait to get out of here. Everyone says how great high school is and they don’t want to leave. I can’t see why you would want to be stuck in the same loop for the rest of your life, or why you wouldn’t be curious about what is out there beyond where you’re from and who you know. I want to leave everything behind; place, people and memories, erase and begin again. I want to go to England, where my favorite bands come from, and Paris, where my favorite authors lived. I want to be the one they talk about back home when they talk about who they grew up with. Her? She moved away, she lives in X, and does this. She’s never come back….
Charlie Hill is an ex-art school delinquent who fled to London to pursue a philosophy degree. In spite of this, she still doesn’t know any good Socrates jokes but she can tell you exactly how much Plato you can read without getting a headache. She is currently living and writing in a converted lunatic asylum near London.