BY JENNIFER MOORE
During winter months at Farley, I was a member of “the walking crew”: a hoard of students that walked behind a designated teacher down the red-carpet-concrete to the train of cars that waited to pick them up. It was my favorite part of the day. When glue sticks were taken out of mouths, scissors were put away, and classes ended, we exercised our tiny feet across the basketball court and down the driveway to meet our parents. I would hear engines hum, faintly smell cigarettes and see the exhaust billowing out of the tailpipes like staggered chain smokers. My mother’s car was traditionally parked a street away from the school to avoid the crowd. She’d get out of the car and stand at the chain link gate where we dispersed from the crowd. Mother was short like me, always wearing a large purple jacket with arms anxiously outstretched waiting to warm me before getting in the car.
As a child, I wanted nothing more than to fit in - because I didn’t. The evident slant, almond, or “China eyes” as some called them; the-rite-of-passage brown spots that were unique to Asians; the oddly shaped nose; the seemingly stunted growth; all of these characteristics (and more) made it difficult to assimilate and conform. My exterior worked against the grain. I begged my mom to sit in the car and allow me to seek her out like every other child did with their parents. Nevertheless, she insisted. The other students would always ask me:
“Where are you from?”
“Massachusetts,” I’d reply.
“No, where are you really from?”
“Framingham,” with irritation.
Everyone seemed disappointed, frustrated, and angered at my response as if I knew less about my racial origin than they did. They were dissatisfied with my dissonance from their pale skin, so much they wished I was from somewhere else to justify it. Despite my vehement disagreement with my mother, I faithfully embraced my purple marshmallow just as I always did every time I saw her. One day when I was marching along with the slow regiment of students, my mom wasn’t waiting for me. I started the walk home in case she got caught up in traffic and to get a head start on the journey home after a long day of vocabulary words and rudimentary physical education.
A few streets away from the school, I saw my mom pulled over on the side of the road with a police officer perched behind her. I got in the car without hesitation and the citation continued - failure to stop at a stop sign. It wasn’t a big deal. My grandmother smiled at me from the passenger seat, with a clean bill of health as she had just been driven from a doctor’s appointment. I saw my mother in my grandmother’s smile. It was a mirror image. It was a glimpse of tranquility in a moment of discomfiture. From then on, I made it a point to understand my purple marshmallow. I no longer concerned myself with the fragilities of social norms, or others’ perceptions of me. I didn’t care if she stood out from the crowd, it was the essence of her presence that was important. I donned a thick pink jacket from then on, ready to serve as my mom’s sidekick; marching to her car, while searching for my purple counterpart.
My mother always liked to be cautious of my Asian-ness in school. She named me Jennifer instead of Yienn. The name she wanted was too yellow and mispronounced in English. She would make plate upon plate of pho soup, banh bou, and fried rice but she never packed them in my lunch box fearing that they smelled funny, looked strange, and didn’t conform to the American lunch box. They were indigestible and incompatible with the healthy plate initiatives in school. Durian was much too smelly and gross looking for others to look at, while I would smirk, and put a dollop of ice cream next to one of its sections and enjoy a dessert. I got fed up with having to wait for dinner to enjoy these homemade delicacies and started packing them myself, throwing in a jello snack that my aunt brought back from China for me. I did this because I ate alone at school, and figured that no one would care what I ate, or how I ate if they weren’t there to witness it.
Mother whitewashed me because my Irish heritage was more valuable at school than my Chinese-Vietnamese identity. She didn’t want me to be treated differently. There was no procedure for her to follow as an immigrant parent, to teach her child how to be an American student. No parenting manual or school guide could teach her how to raise me in American society, but I wanted to learn to be a student; not an American student, but my mother’s daughter. I was the only Asian in school, and I wanted to be that capital A-Asian. I wanted to be that Asian. I proudly squawked my middle name whenever it was asked of me, because it is beautiful. Tuyet: the name of a bird in the Vietnamese mountains. Not Rose. Not Lee. Not Anne. Not a middle name that was free of red underlines, and didn’t get autocorrected by keyboards and tongues.