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Grown-Up Child: A Memoir

Chiufang Hwang, M.D.


Grown-Up Child: A Memoir, Published May, 2017

Copyright 2017 Chiufang Hwang, M.D.

Compiled by Lilian Duval and edited by Kathleen A. Tracy

Proofreading by: Karen Grennan

Interior layout and cover design: Howard Johnson

E-book formatting: Maureen Cutajar

All photos are owned by Chiufang Hwang, M.D.

Cover photo credit: “Spring Landscape Watercolor,” Created by Freepik

SDP Publishing

Published by SDP Publishing, an imprint of SDP Publishing Solutions, LLC.

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ISBN-13 (print): 978-0-9986730-1-1

e-ISBN-13 (ebook): 978-0-9986730-2-8

Library of Congress Control Number: 2017941704


To all the struggling immigrant children who assume adult roles by default. A child is not a miniature adult. Like you, I grew up far before my time, and I suffered the consequences.


Table of Contents

1 TRUST

2 SHARDS OF GLASS

3 HOW COULD YOU?

4 CUSSING

5 LITTLE TRANSLATOR

6 SWEET AND SOUR

7 ON THE RUN

8 SWEET HOME ALABAMA

9 GIRL ON A BUS

10 UNWANTED GUESTS

11 TO PROLONG HER LIFE

12 REMISSION

13 COLLEGE STATION

14 A TETHERED GOAT

15 TEENAGER

16 SECURITY DEPOSIT

17 ILLUSION

18 EPILOGUE


DIARY ENTRY, AGE 11

You always have to be ready.

You never know when your little brother’s practically going to slice his finger off. Or when your baby sister’s going to start convulsing, and you leave your food half- eaten, chopsticks poking into their bowls, and you speed across town through all the red lights, hoping you make it to the emergency room in time.

You go to sleep thinking that you’d better keep your clothes on and you’d better have your things ready because in the middle of the night your cozy trailer home might succumb to flames.

You never know when the next crisis will happen. So, you always have to be ready.


Chapter 1

TRUST

When my mother and I emigrated from Taiwan to join my father in the United States, I was two years old. The first place we lived was Hempstead, Texas, near Prairie View A&M University, where my father taught math from 1968 to 1969. We rented a room on a farm, its entrance hidden by dense, overgrown grass and brush. You couldn’t even see the fence around the property, which was home to farm hands, ranch employees, and our little family.

Our rented room was in a row of one-bedroom units at the end of a narrow, dirt road littered on either side by loads of farm equipment. The main house in front was nicer. The farmers who lived there raised chickens, and their blond daughter, Kim, was my first friend. She was a happy, carefree girl not quite three years old. Because the snake-infested brush grass was so high that I couldn’t see above it, my mother would carry me to Kim’s house so we could play together.

After a few months we moved to Prairie View, closer to the university. Our squat apartment building was a road-side fourplex sandwiched between a Greyhound depot and an Esso gas station. A few months later, we moved more than a thousand miles east to Rock Hill, South Carolina, after my father got a job teaching math at Friendship College, a well-known black school. We lived in a school-owned two-bedroom trailer situated on campus between the women’s dorm and the math department. The school had provided the trailer as free housing. We shared it with another math teacher, Vikram, who was from India.

Right after we moved in, I managed to lock myself in the bathroom. I couldn’t maneuver the knob to unlock it. And my parents couldn’t open it from outside the door. So, my dad summoned some of his students to help. The tallest one climbed onto a ladder or chair, reached in with his long arms, and pulled me out through the small, porthole-style bathroom window.

It was spring, 1969, and I had just turned three. One Saturday evening after dinner, my father offered to drive my mother and me to the mall while he played ping-pong at the YMCA. He was a big fan of the game and was delighted with the good players in Rock Hill.

The YMCA was in the middle of town, not far from Friendship College, and next to the daycare center where I stayed on weekdays. My mother was working a few hours a day without pay at the college, part of the agreement for us living in the trailer for free. None of her work required the use of English.

That night we drove down a two-lane highway surrounded by open land, pastures, cows, farms, and very tall grass. Malls were a new concept in the ’60s, and we rarely went there.

“You can walk around inside,” my father told us when he dropped us off around 6:00 p.m. “Look at the American fashions. I’ll be back at nine.”

It wouldn’t be hard for him to find us because this mall was a one-level structure with a relatively small selection of stores, nothing like the giant malls of today. My mother took my hand and walked me around the entire mall window-shop-ping. Even strolling it didn’t take us long to explore everything, so we did it twice.

Nine o’clock came and went, but my father did not return. One by one, shop owners turned off their lights and locked their doors. We kept checking out front for our car. At 9:30, the mall was about to close for the night, so we went into a coffee shop that was still open. They let us wait in there, even though we had no money for snacks. Through body language and gestures, they understood that we were waiting for someone to pick us up.

By 10:30 the mall was nearly empty. There was no way to call my father. This was long before the advent of cell phones, and my mother didn’t know how to ask directory assistance for the number of the YMCA since she spoke no English. And I was three.

The last waitress left, and the proprietor held the door open for us to exit.

“Sorry,” he said, his keys jangling.

We followed him out, and a security guard locked and bolted the mall entrance, jogged over to his car and drove off.

We’re going to be stuck out here all night, I thought but didn’t say a word. We stood silently in the dark outside the door.

Around 11:00, my father pulled up in his decrepit, blue Plymouth and waited for us to get in. He was in a cheerful mood; evidently, his match had gone well.

But my mother was stone-faced, her cheeks flushed in anger. “I thought you were going to pick us up at 9:00, or at least by 9:30. The mall was closing,” She complained. “It was good that the restaurant people let us wait inside there, but then the whole building shut down.”

My father looked stunned by her reaction but didn’t answer. He started driving down the highway. In the back seat, I kept perfectly still, as quiet as possible.

“Why didn’t you come earlier? ” She demanded.

He glanced at her, his profile cold, tight. She had broken some unspoken rule. “I told you where I was going,” he said in a low voice. “You knew I was at the YMCA playing ping-pong. You know it takes time.”

She folded her arms and looked straight ahead.

“I was in a match,” he spat.

She rustled through her handbag.

“We played until we were done.” he accelerated, furious that she did not respond. “You can’t just stop and walk out at a certain time.”

My mother half turned to face him, and I shrank back into the plastic upholstery. This conversation was escalating out of control. Just be quiet, I warned her inside my head.

“You left us there,” She accused in a high pitch. “We were stranded.”

“I didn’t do anything wrong,” he barked. “You should be grateful that I brought you out there to the mall.”

No answer.

“You should be thankful that I had the consideration to take you somewhere so you could keep yourselves occupied because if you came with me, you’d have to watch me play ping-pong for hours in a hot gym.” he waited. She stayed silent. “Miles out of my way so you and the kid would have something to do. I come pick you up, and I get this.”

“The security guard sent us outside in the dark.”

“What?”

He didn’t scream. That wasn’t the style of their arguments. But their tones of voice got meaner and uglier. In the back seat, I wanted to plug my ears.

“You were very, very late,” She whined.

“Unbelievable. I come to this country, get a master’s degree, a teaching assistantship, I’m applying for a PhD program. I am the breadwinner of this family. And this is how you treat me when I come pick you up? ”

“It was dangerous,” She insisted. “You shouldn’t have done that.”

That was it. He slowed the car and glowered at her, a look of hatred burning in his eyes. “That’s enough! You’re going to get out of the car.”

I’d only known my father the few months since my mother and I had arrived from Taiwan. He was almost a stranger to me. But I knew him well enough to understand that this wasn’t an empty threat and that he lumped me together with my mother as one unit. Wherever she went, I went. And he was going to leave us both right there on the side of the road in the dark. There were hardly any street lamps, maybe one every half mile. It was dark; it was scary.

I looked at my mother cringing in the passenger seat.

Don’t say anything, I pleaded with her silently.

You would think my father would love his daughter and wife enough not to deposit us on a dark highway in the middle of nowhere and abandon us there. We had no money, and neither of us had command of the English language. Through the car windows, I saw no buildings at all, no place to seek refuge. We were nowhere near our trailer home in Rock Hill.

My mother scrunched down into the seat. Don’t say any-thing, I kept thinking.

The car steadily slowed down as he waited for her to challenge him.

She did not.

He sped up almost imperceptibly.

She didn’t talk.

He accelerated. The crisis was over. We were going home.

Witnessing his fury, I vowed never to get him mad anymore, even though I knew that I’d played no part in this violent clash. That night was the first time I saw my mother and father fight. It was also when I learned you couldn’t trust your parents. That incident in Rock Hill was a precursor to my father’s chronic tardiness, a problem that would plague the rest of my childhood.

My mother was subservient to some degree—a typical, Asian wife. However, she always bickered with my father over trivial things in a tit-for-tat exchange.

“Can you bring me the tea?” he might ask.

“Well, I already brought it once,” she would complain. “Can you go get it yourself?”

They would argue over minor, inconsequential things, and he would give her unnecessary orders: “Can you go get me a pencil? Can you get me a Sheet of paper so I can jot things down? ”

She sometimes would and sometimes wouldn’t. Their conflicts were never-ending.

I learned early on to keep quiet and not add anything to the discord.

Occasionally the acrimony would escalate. I remember an especially brutal confrontation when I was four. My mother had refused to bring my father his tea, which infuriated him. He grabbed a broomstick and lunged for her with such intense rage that he would have killed her if I hadn’t been standing there right next to her, glued to her side like a miniature bodyguard. She defied him in her own way, showing no fear or acquiescence; had she done so, he might have stopped of his own accord.

Meek and helpless, silent tears coursed down my face. Terrified of my father’s angry threat, I wouldn’t dare scream or say anything in the heat of the moment, sensing it would only make things worse.

Father saw the terror in my eyes. He held up the broom-stick in midair. “Do you want me to hit her?” he waited for a response while my mother crouched passively on the floor.

“No, no, no, she’s my mommy!” I sobbed.

My compassion melted his fury, so he dropped the broom and spared her. But it would only be a matter of time before another senseless conflict would boil over. Even as a little girl, I knew they were both wrong.

I could never understand my mother’s stubbornness. As I grew older I would think: Geez, Mommy, you know he studies every night at this time, so why don’t you get the teapot boiling? It’s just hot tea; it’s not your personal worth. W hen he’s studying, why can’t you simply set out some pencils and paper on the table nearby? This is not like asking you to cook a gourmet meal or pick up horse manure. His routine is so predictable and easily anticipated. Why don’t you give in a little bit and make it easier on yourself and keep us both out of danger?

Their marriage was never joyful. My mother had not earned a college degree and always needed to prove to him that she was just as valuable as he was. In return, he degraded her in any number of subtle ways, day after day, year after year. It tore me apart. They were twin stars revolving around each other in a merciless, loveless orbit.

When they weren’t fighting, my parents were sedate and sterile. I have never seen them do anything more than hold hands. Nothing they did suggested an intimate relationship, but they must have been intimate at some point because they ultimately had three children. In a Chinese family, whether in the US or back home or anywhere, you don’t say you love somebody; you show it, but never conspicuously. The principle is that you don’t need to tell a person something that’s obvious. But sometimes we desperately need to hear those obvious things. It’s good for the soul.

Part of their way of showing me love was to establish expectations that I would be studious—beginning at age three. The math workbooks my mother bought provided the raw material for my education, which involved lots of practice and repetition. My dad showed me how to read them, and I would write in the answers. My mother would make ten copies, and have me work on them one after another over the course of a month until I got a perfect score. She also drilled me on multiplication tables. That was good coaching, and it put me way ahead in math.

English was another story. I only spoke Taiwanese at home. The English I picked up was compromised by its sources: the children of domestics and construction workers in the housing projects we inhabited, and the no-frills kindergarten where I had begun my education.

My father encouraged me to learn. “You have an excel-lent memory.” he wasn’t trying to boost my self-esteem; rather, he wanted me to be aware that I had the ability to succeed in school. For fun I memorized phone numbers, street names, and addresses in English.

Other than going to the student rec room or the dining hall, my life centered around the trailer—until its propane tank caught fire.

I was about three and a half years old, but the memory remains as vivid as the fire I stood watching. Our trailer home had erupted in f lames in front of me, the heat stinging my arms. All around me were students from the college watching the back end of the trailer burn. I’m tiny for my age, practically eye level with their kneecaps. They were all saying the propane tank had blown up.

It’s a two-bedroom trailer, one bedroom at each end. In the middle are the living room, kitchen, and all-in-one. On the right side was where my mother and father and I all slept. The fire had started on the left side from our vantage point, the bedroom where Vikram was staying. Like my dad, he was a math teacher at Friendship College. Luckily, the fire started at noon when none of us were inside.

We were waiting for the fire trucks to arrive, but the back end of the trailer was already gone. I listened to the adults talking. My mother wasn’t there; I didn’t know where she was, but that’s normal. She let me run around a lot then. But being unsupervised was not the same thing as free.

It was the middle of summer, very hot and humid, reaching ninety degrees on most days. I wore cheap, made-in-Taiwan f lip-f lops, and I can feel the hot gravel through my fake rubber soles. I scooted over onto what was left of the dried-out grass.

I remember thinking: We were just in there last night eating. W hat about our chopsticks? Are they burning up? W hat about the plates we were eating on? The plates were given to us—scratched-up white plastic decorated with faded autumn leaves. Still, we were so grateful to have plates to eat on. Now they were burning up along with everything else.

I didn’t know where we were going to do that now. As I watched the fire, my big question was: W here will we all go?

I was very frightened.


Chapter 2

SHARDS OF GLASS

The following year, 1970, my father was accepted into the PhD program in mathematics at the University of South Carolina, so we moved to Columbia, seventy miles south of Rock Hill. But our living conditions did not improve. Our new home was in a low-income housing project that looked like army barracks. There were 110 two-bedroom apartments in Henley Homes, and all qualified residents were assigned units with free electricity and very low rent.

The kindergarten I had attended didn’t prepare me at all for first grade at the private school, Timmerman. When my father caught wind of a family who’d enrolled their kid there at age five, he signed me up too when I was five. Not because I was so smart. I wasn’t. Everybody else there was already reading fluently, while I couldn’t even manage dick, spot, and Jane. I was way behind. It was that starting school early was in fashion among some of the immigrant Chinese families. Plus, the first year was free.

Despite my age, I didn’t feel younger than the others; I felt that I was in the right grade. Although I was struggling with reading, school was not the source of my worries. I was preoccupied with problems such as: Where are we going to live tomorrow? Are we going to pick up and move tonight or next month?

I would often start crying. When the teacher noticed and asked why, I answered, “My father won’t come pick me up; I know he won’t come pick me up.”

It was clearly not an unwarranted fear.

On my report card, the teacher wrote plaintively: Chiufang cries every afternoon. Perhaps some reassurance that you will pick her up will help.

Two teachers were on duty during dismissal and pickup, and one of them would try to stay until the last kid was gone. All the other kids were picked up within fifteen to thirty minutes. My father would be at least forty-five minutes late. Sometimes he was two hours late, and the janitors would be waiting to lock up.

My brother Chi-Cheng was born when I was nearly six years old, and I was so excited to have a living baby doll to play with. No longer the only child, I was overjoyed from the first moment I saw him. In the Chinese tradition, I called him Little Brother, and when he learned to talk, he called me Older Sister.

During my mother’s pregnancy, I didn’t ask any questions about the process, nor did anyone offer an explanation. That was standard for me: you wonder, but you don’t ask. It was a long time before I learned that you had to have sex to have a baby.

Americans say: Oh, congratulations! About a visible pregnancy, but in Asian culture a woman doesn’t want to tell people she’s pregnant, so my parents were very low-key about it. It was either something to be embarrassed about because you obviously had sex to get into this condition, or maybe you dreaded the possibility of miscarriage, so you didn’t want to make a big deal about it.

In those days fathers were not allowed in the delivery room. They waited outside, and then when the baby was delivered, the father got to see it and sign papers. There’s a picture of me next to my mother beside the Plymouth, and a nurse is holding my baby brother. My father brought me to the hospital to take them home, and he took the picture.

I held my baby brother as I would hold a doll, but babies—and children—were not cuddled. As a child I didn’t think that was unusual. None of the other Chinese parents, such as other graduate students, did that with their kids either. It was normal; I didn’t feel that I lacked anything.

I had a toy doll my grandmother in Taiwan had shipped to me. She also provided most of my clothing at that time. My mother grew up in a middle-class family, so they had good pro-visions. So, there I was, a little girl in a housing project, with custom-made, very high-end clothes and an expensive Japanese doll that opened its eyes.

I loved that doll. But I loved my real, live baby brother a million times more.

My parents were so proud that they had a son—very important for an Asian family and big news to send to our relatives in Taiwan. They were prouder still of his birth weight. Both of my parents would announce to anybody, even into the air, just to hear the sound of it: “A nine-and-a-half-pound boy!”

Our family had a short honeymoon where everybody felt happy. Because my brother was born in the middle of December, She had one week off for maternity leave plus one week off for Christmas and New Year’s, and that was that. This stingy leave of absence was more than most new mothers got.

So, two weeks after my brother was born my mother had to go back to work. We needed the money. She was a sewing machine operator at stone manufacturing Company, where She worked the 7:00 a.m.–5:00 p.m. Shift on the assembly line, sewing parts of undergarments together—bras and men’s and women’s briefs.

We needed a babysitter fast because my mother was re-turning to work the next morning. So, the three of us—my mother, my infant brother in her arms, and me—went out the back door to our nearest neighbor.

“Knock,” my mother said.

Each unit had an inner back door and a screen door, and my little five-year-old fist didn’t make much of a sound. No one answered. The baby whimpered, and we walked on. My mother couldn’t speak any English, so I was ready to ask the questions she had coached me on.

The second apartment’s inner door was open. Through the screen door, we could see a massive shape silhouetted against the open window on the opposite wall. The TV was turned to a quiz show. I knocked as hard as I could, bruising my knuckles. The woman who responded was the largest human I had ever seen—morbidly obese and out of breath just from walking a few steps across the room. I could hear her breathing, and she coughed with a vibrating, rattling sound, like coughing up clams.

From my adult perspective as a physician, she must have had diabetes and might have had emphysema or chronic bronchitis. From my point of view as a little girl, she was a giant who coughed like a reverberating bass drum. With horrible fascination, I stared at her upper arm, much wider than my mother’s slender waist, barely two weeks after giving birth. I thought to myself: If I get on her bad side and she whacks me with that arm, I’ll be flattened.

“Yes?” She said through the screen, holding her lit cigarette out to the side.

We didn’t enter the house, nor did she ask us to. I hoped she would say no when I asked, “Do you stay at home?”

I didn’t want her to touch my baby brother. But my mother’s qualifications for a babysitter were limited: was she female? Did she stand up? Did she answer the door? And did she answer yes to my questions?

My mother looked at me and motioned to the baby in her arms.

“We need someone to watch my baby brother,” I said.

The woman agreed. I negotiated the price with her. Here my memory is fuzzy because we had a series of babysitters for my brother, and some were paid more than others. Along the way, my mother had to raise the rate because babysitters would complain that the pay was too low. All our neighbors in Henley Homes were on welfare and did whatever they could to bring in a little extra cash.

I watched the woman shuffle back to her TV but didn’t say anything. These days, people ask for references for dog-walkers and pet-sitters. Here was my precious, baby-doll brother, only two weeks old, being left with someone who looked terribly unhealthy and untrustworthy, even to my little girl’s eyes. I could hardly sleep, and the next morning came all too soon. Standing there, I watched my mother hand over the baby to the huge woman. She didn’t even step into the house. They passed the baby over the threshold like a sack of flour.

Months passed by and first grade was coming to an end. Near the beginning of June, my mother and I went to the fat lady’s house one evening to pick up my baby brother, but he wasn’t there. Her teenage daughter came to the door saying that her mother had caught pneumonia—in the summer?—and was in the hospital. I had seen her coughing blood into a hand-kerchief more than once; looking back, I suspect that the real diagnosis was tuberculosis or something worse.

The baby had been transferred to the woman next door, the first door we had knocked on back in the winter. I translated for my mother, and she casually stepped over to the next door. The woman who lived there had a daughter about two or three years old, too big for a crib, but didn’t let my baby brother stay in the crib.

I saw for myself what happened when I stayed there on a day I was off from school, and my father couldn’t take me with him to college. All the welfare apartments had two floors, and this babysitter kept my brother in her upstairs bedroom on the floor all day. He was a peaceful infant, sleeping most of the day. When he woke up, she would let him cry for a while, give him his bottle, and then put him back on a thin cloth on the floor to go to sleep.

I was horrified but couldn’t say anything to her, so I sat on the floor next to my brother all day, stroking him and whispering to him. At home that evening, I told my mother all about it.

“She doesn’t let him sleep in the crib?”

“No, he’s on the floor all day.”

“Then she doesn’t want to get the crib dirty.”

“The baby isn’t dirty,” I countered.

“He’s on the floor, so he can’t fall down,” She said calmly.

I began to cry. “I don’t want little brother to stay there anymore!”

“You don’t know,” my mother scolded me. “I’m the parent. I know.”


Chapter 3

HOW COULD YOU?

First grade was over, and my parents had to figure out what to do with me all summer. My mother worked at the factory, and my father was in his master’s program at the University of South Carolina. The solution was to put me in his charge for the summer.

I was lucky to survive. My father’s idea of childcare was to leave me in a library. All day. Every morning we would drive to the campus so he could attend classes. He would deposit me at the data Processing Center’s graduate math and engineering library around 7:30 or 7:45 a.m.

“Stay in here. See you at lunchtime,” he would command and then hurry to his 8:00 a.m. class.

We had thirty minutes to eat and then we’d walk back to the library, where I remained until 5: 00 or 6: 00 in the evening. My father never asked me what I did all day. No one in the library ever asked me what I was doing there alone all day. My first week at the library I discovered the Encyclopedia Britannica, which became my best friend. I would pore through articles from A to Z, spending hours on each. Thanks to the encyclopedia, I managed to entertain myself all summer.

Even so, by 5: 00 or 6: 00 p.m. I was ready to go home for dinner, but he often wasn’t done yet. In those days, computer programs ran on key punched cards, and he would have to run his cards before we could leave. He often had to wait in a long line behind other graduate students to run his deck through the machine. And if the cards didn’t work, he’d have to redo them. Sometimes we wouldn’t get home until after 9: 00 p.m. My mother never said anything about our late hours. That was just the way it was. And by that time, even her greasy cooking tasted good.

Whenever my father had errands to run on campus—to drop something off, see an advisor, process some keypunched cards, or whatever—he would lock me in the car. He saw it as a matter of safety and convenience. The parking lots on a college campus were far away from where you had to go, so his main concerns were avoiding long walks, not putting money in parking meters, and having someone sit in the car to ward off parking enforcement. If there’s a passenger sitting in the car, then it looks like the car is there only temporarily.

He coached me on what to say: “Tell the meter man that your father went to drop something off and will be right back. That way I won’t get a ticket.”

One steamy July day, we parked at a meter along the curb in front of the DPC. He didn’t put any money in the meter because he said he was going to be really quick. “Stay in the car,” he ordered. “I just need to run some keypunched cards. Roll up the windows, so no one will kidnap you.”

It was so unbearably hot and airless in the closed car that I could have died from suffocation. I waited until my father was out of sight and then rolled down the windows a little but not even the tiniest breeze was blowing. People on the side-walk stopped and stared at me sitting in the car. That time he was gone at least half an hour. He hadn’t even left me with anything to drink.

This happened again and again. I had a cheap watch, and I would time him. He’d be gone for thirty minutes, forty-five minutes, or sometimes an hour. Every time he returned to the hot car after one of his prolonged errands, his first words would be, “Oh, good, I didn’t get a ticket.”

I reported him to my mother more than once, but all she said was, “Your father shouldn’t do that.”

On another occasion when I was six years old, I was locked inside the car somewhere in town. It was the middle of the day in South Carolina in august. Luckily, the windows opened manually. I waited half an hour, one hour, and he didn’t return. By that time I had figured out how to open the door, so once in a while I’d get out and quickly try to cool off before jumping back in the car and closing the door. My father would have been very angry to see me outside the car.

Three construction workers were sitting on the steps of a nearby building, eating their lunch. I was sitting in the car crying when I noticed them pointing at me. One man got up and came over with a cold can of Mr. Pibb, a weird-tasting soda popular in the south in the ’70s.

He popped it open. “Here, sweetie, you need to drink this,” he said, and left the can on the hood of the car.

I was so hot and thirsty that I gave in. I got out of the car and drank the whole can so fast that I got burps from the bubbles. After they finished their lunch, the kind and generous men waved goodbye and went back to their work. It was a genuine act of kindness.

When my father returned, my hair was wet and hanging in my eyes, and my T-shirt was soaked to my skin. He didn’t seem to notice.

“Did the police come?” he asked.

“No.”

“Oh, good, I didn’t want to get a ticket. I was afraid to get towed.”

At home, while my father was in the shower, I told my mother about the man giving me some Mr. Pibb because I’d been left in a hot car.

“Oh, your father shouldn’t do that,” she said again.

Looking back as an adult, what saddens me the most is not my father’s negligence but my mother’s indifference. It was her responsibility to take care of her child, and she barely reacted.

By the end of august, I knew everybody who worked in the library, and I recognized all the graduate students who appeared briefly during breaks between classes. I knew the librarians, guards, and custodians.

Most of the students were tall, thin, and in their twenties. One day a man showed up who looked old enough to be someone’s father. He had thinning dark hair, a mustache, and glasses. I thought to myself: This guy is not right.

I was in a study carrel in the back of the library, the place where I always went when my father dropped me off. The guy sat down in a study carrel three seats away from me, and I knew that he was not there to study. Everyone else, including me, had books or papers on their desks, but this guy just slumped in his seat. I scrunched down under the desk and looked over at the creepy guy, who was bent over, staring up at the crotch of the young woman in the next carrel.

Oh my God, I thought. This guy’s peeping at women’s underwear.

No one had ever warned me about people like this. When he saw me looking at him, I waved at him, and that startled him. He popped right up and left the room. For half an hour, I didn’t see him, so I went back to the article I was reading and tried to forget about him.

When he came back, he sat two study carrels away from me. My heart started beating fast. So, I turned around and bent down underneath the ledge of the desk and looked at him upside down. This time, I just stared at him and didn’t wave. He got scared again and left the room.

The next day, he wasn’t there. The following morning, he returned, and I played this charade again. For me it was an enjoyable game. That library was my domain, my playground. I was bored, and here was this strange guy, playing games. I found it funny that he was afraid of me, afraid that I was going to turn him in. No one had to tell me that peeping under skirts was wrong. There was one female student between the creepy guy and me, but she soon walked away. Maybe all that rustling under the desks was distracting her.

At noon, I stood by the library entrance, ready for lunch. My father came to pick me up, and just then, the weird guy came along, heading for the door.

“Hi there, hello, forgot your name,” my father said to him. He was always friendly. “Which classes are you in? Haven’t seen you in a while.”

And I thought: Oh my God, my dad knows this guy. This guy is a pervert; he’s weird, he’s scary.

My father said, “I need your address and phone number.” That was standard for him; he would always get out his pad and pen. So, the guy wrote it down. I kept staring up at him, watching sweat form on his temples and trickle down his face. He was probably worried that I’d spill his secret to my father.

On the way to Hardee’s, I said, “Father, that man, your friend, he is strange. He is weird. He is not right.”

“Oh, really? He’s one of the grad students.”

“He peeps at girls’ underwear.”

“Why would he do that? He has a wife and children.”

I’m not sure my father believed me. A few months later my parents sent out Christmas cards to everyone, but the pervert’s envelope came back marked: Return to sender, no for-warding address.

If that guy really wanted to see girls’ underwear, he should have gone to the main library, the Thomas Cooper library, where there were lots of education majors and music majors, prettier girls. But later I realized that the graduate library was more secluded, and he could not get caught—except by some six-year-old who spoiled his routine.

The public schools that I attended after my year at Timmerman had mixed student bodies. For second grade I went to A.C. Moore elementary. About 80 percent of the kids there were children of construction workers and lower-class families who lived in Henley Homes and another housing project, rosewood. The rest had parents who worked at the university, and they were a very different breed. They spoke clearly and knew many more words than the housing-project kids. Their families lived in middle-class neighborhoods, in nice homes with two or three bedrooms.

Two of the middle-class girls, Ellen and Janet, were very nice to me. Janet’s mother drove me in her station wagon during a field trip. The other passengers were daughters of professors; listening to them converse with Janet’s mother and among themselves was a revelation. I hadn’t known that family life could be so nice and peaceful and that socialization could be comforting instead of competitive.

In class, I was very serious about my studies and did just what I was told. Math was easy, thanks to the workbooks my mother had given me. But reading was a big challenge, and I had to work very hard to get the hang of it. My goal was to be teacher’s pet, and I always was. I wasn’t the smartest, but I was the most compliant, and I loved being the teacher’s favorite in every grade. I was comfortable in my role as mother’s right-hand man and father’s sidekick. Teacher’s pet was a step up from that.

In 1972, there were no after-school programs, no child-care centers. Most women were housewives, or they worked nearby and could come home to take care of their children. My mother had to leave home at 6:30 a.m. To catch the bus to work, returning home twelve hours later. My father studied numerical analysis by day and worked the graveyard shift at the magic market convenience store.

We had to take action. My mother took me around the neighborhood two weeks before second grade started so that I could hire my own babysitter. We went door to door until we found the right person—which meant until we found the first person who agreed to watch me. The prospective babysitter’s qualifications were not relevant.

All the houses in our neighborhood had the same floor plan: the front door opened into a small living room. Next was a bedroom, which you walked through to a kitchen-dining room combination, and then out the back door. Looking through the front door of each house, you could see straight through to the back door.

My mom would take my hand, and we would walk from house to house. She knocked briskly on the door and then motioned to me. That was my cue to look up at the woman answering the door and ask in a clear voice, “Do you have any children?”

If she said yes, then I would ask, “How old are your children?”

If the children were of school age, the next question in my script was, “Can you babysit me after school?”

It didn’t matter if the woman was a drug addict, an alcoholic, a shoplifter, a prostitute, or all four. The goal was simply to designate a babysitter. I did all the talking and all the negotiations and persuasion. I had to convince our neighbor to take me in. I was very shy, very sweet, and stressed I wouldn’t get in their way. She eventually said yes. The agreed-upon rate was a dollar a day.

My first babysitters were the Chavis family, and I loved them. There was Dorothy Chavis, her construction worker husband Junior, and the grandmother, who slept in a big, high bed in the front room. Doris was in fifth grade, bubba, the only boy, was in third grade, and Jenny was in first grade.

Even though I was terribly shy, I absolutely loved being in their home. The atmosphere was lively with children, activity, and conversation. I soaked it up. The Chavises also had a cat—we never had any pets. Mrs. Chavis always treated me like one of her own kids. I felt so lucky that these nice, normal people would let a total stranger enter their home and take part in everything they did.

The family fed me every evening, cheerfully setting an extra place and pushing over an extra chair. It took me no time at all to prefer authentic southern food to my mother’s home cooking, which typically consisted of white rice with beef chunks and green beans. Sometimes we had cabbage, or my mom also cooked fried rice made with frozen mixed vegetables and ketchup.

The first time I went to a Chinese restaurant years later, I was very pleasantly surprised by the appetizing variety. But as a child I feasted on Cap’n Crunch cereal, which I preferred to the meals my mother fixed.

Their house was on stilts and had a big crawl space underneath, populated by a zoo’s worth of possums, raccoons, marmots, skunks, stray cats, and whatever rodents the cats didn’t catch. You could always hear animals running underneath the house. Regardless, I loved being with the Chavises. The coolest thing was watching shows like Gunsmoke and Bonanza with the kids and Grandma on their black-and-white TV. They took me in as one of their own, absorbing me into their lives with no questions asked. They were not an educated family, but for the year and a half I spent with them, they were the best family I ever had.

Despite being a good Chinese daughter, my submissive demeanor at home masked my growing inner conflict. By age six, I had already lost faith in my parents’ infallibility and had begun to question their judgment. But to openly confront them was as unthinkable as getting into our beat-up, old car and driving cross-country alone. Instead, I had imaginary dialogues with my parents in which I played all three roles: father, mother, and the daughter who was forming her opinions about her family.

It hurt me to defy my parents, even in my imagination. Defiance was flagrantly contradictory to my culture’s ingrained respect for elders. But these dialogues played out in my mind day after day like a private soap opera for an audience of one.

And each episode began with the little girl asking the parents, “How could you?”


Chapter 4

CUSSING

I liked school, but I liked afternoons with the Chavises even better. Bubba, Jenny, and I would walk home from school together and eat snacks, like chewy now & later candies that stuck to the roof of your mouth and tasted so good.

One day they asked, “Hey, you wanna come to Piggly wiggly with us? ”

“Yeah, let me go!”

They’d never invited me before, and I was thrilled. Six years old and going to the store with my friends—such a grown-up thing to do. For only a dime, you could buy a lemon or a big pickle. The pickles were savory, and I’d learned to enjoy the taste of lemons.

Bubba and Jenny took off running across the street to the store, and I took off after them. Rosewood drive was a busy two-way street, and you had to jigsaw your way through the traffic. Sprinting to keep up with my friends, I looked to the right, confirmed that nothing was coming, and started to dart across the street. I didn’t know you had to look both ways before crossing.

Out of nowhere, a car came screeching like a cat fight in the middle of the night. It was the loudest sound I’d ever heard. The brakes were gripping the hot road for dear life—my life. Stunned, I stopped in my tracks and smelled the burning rubber on tires that lurched to a stop inches away from me. The car and I were both trembling.

The driver jumped out of his car hollering, “Girl, you almost got run over!” he was red in the face and panting.

“Sorry,” I said, but I don’t think he heard me. He took my hand and walked me the rest of the way across the street, holding out his other hand to stop traffic.

Bubba and Jenny were waiting on the sidewalk. “You almost got run over!” bubba scolded. “Why’d you do that?”

“I was just trying to cross the street with you guys.”

“But you have to look at the cars!” he said.

“I didn’t see any cars coming.”

“You have to look to the left and the right,” Jenny instructed.

“Well, I didn’t see that car coming,” I insisted.


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