When I was kid, I had such absurdly high self-esteem that I once confessed to my best friend that I was seriously afraid to sing in public, lest some music mogul accidentally overhear my beautiful lark voice* and force me to become the world’s next singing sensation, whereupon I would be forced to go on to win a bunch of Grammys and have so many devoted fans that I would have no choice but to continue singing, in order to—you know—give the people what they want. When she burst out laughing, I was offended.
“You don’t think I need to worry about that?”
“Um, no,” and then, “HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA.”
My grandfather used to pick me up from preschool on his bicycle every day. He’d bike across Shanghai with me on the back of the bike, legs dangling. I would tell him stories about my day—mostly tall tales and little fibs like how we took a class trip to the zoo and were allowed inside the lion’s cage and I was the only one brave enough to stroke that magnificent cat’s long mane of hair. When we arrived home, I’d follow him up the stairs, still talking about my day, and as he unlaced my shoes in the living room, I would still be telling him about my day, and I’d follow him into all the rooms of our house, talking talking talking, and then finally, in Chinese, “OK, Grandpa, show’s over. You can go now.”
When I moved to New York City at the age of five, I spent a lot of time in the backseat of my parents’ car. Every time we hit traffic, I would unbuckle my seatbelt, take off my shoes, shoot my legs up in the air, hang my head off the car seat like it was a monkey bar, and begin to “entertain” the cars behind us.
“What’re you doing, honey?” my mom would ask me in Chinese.
“I’m entertaining, Mom. Can you not interrupt me?”
In fourth grade, there was a period of time when three different boys liked me, and there was a rumor going around school that the three of them were planning on fighting for me. Needless to say, my self-love was spiraling out of control.
Something changed when my family and I moved to a new town in the middle of seventh grade. It would be easy to blame it on my sudden growth spurt the previous year. I was so skinny and gangly that my babysitter would regularly pull me aside and whisper into my ear, “Are they feeding you meat or just vegetables?” It would be easy to blame it on the tooth I lost when I was nine in a bike accident that was subsequently shoved back into my mouth where it rotted for years and messed up my gum line and the rest of my teeth so badly that I had to wear a combination of braces, rubber bands, and retainers for the next six years, and I remember this kid in sixth grade advised me to keep my mouth closed, “if you want a boyfriend someday.” It would be easy to blame it on the glasses I had to wear all the time, starting in sixth grade, and my messed-up nose, which used to make every pair of glasses look crooked on my face. But I think what really happened is that I finally became aware of what was going on around me. The idea of my essential self was finally corrupted by others—I realized that the charming, charismatic, beautiful, and brilliant entertainer I thought I was existed only in my own tiny universe. To other people, I was just some shy, weird, annoying, weak-looking girl with crooked glasses and really bad teeth.
Once I realized that the person I thought I was had very little to do with the person other people thought I was, I couldn’t stop the rush of revelations—each day the fog over my brain lifted a little bit, and I hated what I saw. I would replay certain memories only to remember horrifying details that I hadn’t noticed before, like a nightmare where you’re standing in front of a picnic table covered with delicious food, but you find you can’t move your arms and legs at all, and suddenly the chirping birds have become horrible, extinct pterodactyls, and the park turns into a forest with mangled trees, and what had looked like a bunny from a distance is actually a man in army fatigues running toward you with a syringe full of heroin.**
It dawned on me that the neighborhood boy, who used to walk with me in the mornings on my way to school, wasn’t a nice boy who just wanted my company in the mornings, but he was, in fact, a raging racist who would shout racial epithets at me the entire time. He would pull his eyelids back and ask me if I knew how to Ka-rah-tay.
The girls who came up to me during recess and told me that I was a “such a ho bag” for wearing a crocheted white sweater without a bra weren’t paying me a compliment at all, but were giving me my first taste of slut-shaming.
There were entire incidents that I blocked out because they didn’t fit with how I saw myself. There was the time this boy followed me around for a week and threw rocks at my back, and when my mom found red marks on my skin, I told her that a friend had done that to me, and she sat me down and tried to explain why a true friend would never do that.
There was the time in fourth grade, when my friend M., out of nowhere, began to obsessively call my house in the afternoons and ask to speak to my father, and when my father got on the phone, M. would get her sister on the phone, and her sister would pretend to be their mother and say, “I just want you to know that your daughter is a fucking bitch,” while M. shouted, “Bitch, bitch, bitch, bitch,” in the background. At one point, they started calling so often and leaving such graphic threats on my answering machine that my parents saved the tapes in case we needed them for evidence later on, and unplugged the phone for five days.
Now when my friends and I talk about middle school and high school, I’m always quick to identify as someone who was bullied. It’s become a reflex. When someone says something nice to me, I make sure to respond with, “Oh man, you should have seen me in high school. LOSER. Big loser. Everyone thought I was a weirdo. People actually shouted ‘freak’ at me when I walked down the hallway. Boys would pass fake notes asking me out on a date and if I showed even the slightest hint of a smile, they’d all die laughing and be like, ‘Oh shit, she thinks she’s your girlfriend. That’s mad disgusting, yo.’ I mean, I might seem kind of well-adjusted now, but I was a such a loser in high school. Oh, but thanks for the compliment!”
In middle school and high school, I had a family friend, C., who was five years younger than me. Her mother and my mother used to live in the same longtang in Shanghai, and their mothers were close childhood friends who still went over each other’s houses to play mahjong and drink tea.
“Be nice to her, OK?” my mother instructed me when I first met C.
“I’m always nice, mom,” I said.
C. and her family stayed with my family for a month, when I was 10 and she was five, while they looked for housing in New York. I found C. annoying right away. She mimicked my every move. When I yawned, she yawned. When I laughed, she laughed. When I sipped my soda, she sipped her soda. When I said, “Mom, tell Dad to leave me alone,” she said, “Mom, tell Dad to leave me alone.” When I asked for more broccoli, she asked for more broccoli (and then spit it out into her mother’s hand because she didn’t actually like broccoli). Wherever I was, she had to sit next to me.
After a while, I began to play little tricks on her. Once, I tore off a piece of paper and put in my mouth and pretended to swallow it, knowing that C. would probably copy me, and she did. Another time, I sat next to her at the dinner table and said, “I think I’m stupid. I wish someone would slap me. No one is my friend,” and C. repeated after me.
“Ha ha ha,” I said. “You said you’re stupid. You said no one is your friend.”
“Ha ha ha,” C. said. “You said you’re stupid. You said no one is your friend.”
Two years later, my family moved to Long Island, and I saw C. less frequently, When we did see each other, she no longer imitated me, but she still followed me everywhere.
“She’s so annoying,” I told my mom.
“She’s not annoying. She just worships you,” my mom said. “Be nice, OK?”
“OK,” I said. But I wasn’t nice. Whenever I went over C.’s house, I always suggested we play in the basement, because I knew her parents wouldn’t bother us there. I made her play house, or more often school, which was basically the same concept as house, but instead of getting to do fun things like pretend to bake cupcakes and feed them to pretend babies, we did horribly boring things, like copy the dictionary and practice writing in script. I anointed myself head teacher, and C. was my sole pupil.
I made her read Wuthering Heights even though she was only in second grade. I gave her 10 minutes to read the entirety of Romeo and Juliet and then ordered her to write a 100-page book report comparing and contrasting the romance in Romeo and Juliet to the romance in Wuthering Heights.
Another time, I “loaned” her my “credit card,” which was really my mom’s credit card, long expired—the numbers were almost entirely scratched out, and it had a huge crack that ran halfway down the metallic strip on the back. I told C. to put it in her toy wallet.
“If you dare take it out of your wallet, if I see a single thumbprint on it, if you show it to anyone else, if you tell your parents that I let you borrow it, if you try and do any of these things, I’ll never speak to you again. I’ll punish you so bad you’ll wish you were never born.”
The next week, she returned my credit card, and I thought the crack along the metallic strip had gotten worse, so I pulled her into my room, locked the door, and started yelling. I remember being frustrated when she didn’t cry. Cry, I thought to myself. Cry horribly! Why aren’t you crying horribly?
I was yelling so hard that my mother had to knock on the door and take me aside and tell me once again, “Be nice.”
“I am being nice, mom. She did something really bad. She did the exact thing I told her not to do. Don’t you think she deserves to be punished for going against me like that? I have to yell at her to teach her a lesson.”
“No,” my mom said. “Just be nice. She’s only eight years old.”
So what, I thought. I’m only 13.
J. was one of the popular girls who had tried to befriend me in middle school, when I transferred into seventh grade in the middle of the year. She and her gang of cruel, confident, and pretty girls told me they were so going to give me a makeover. It was the year Clueless came out, and J. and her posse immediately sized me up as the shy, Asian version of Tai. I wore my glasses crooked, had special braces that turned putrid green when I ate too many sweets (my orthodontist said it was the only way he had of keeping me honest), and I let my mom dress me in head-to-toe monochromatic color every day. At lunch on my first day, J. and her friend L. took me to the library and brought me a stack of recently checked-out books. This was the ’90s, friends, and each library book had a little card where the person checking out the book had to write his or her name and the date he or she checked it out.
“Loser,” J. said pointing at a name. “Loser. Weirdo. Freak. Loser. Mega Loser. Don’t be friends with her. This girl claims her uncle tried to molest her but no one believes her. Loser. Loser. Loser. Freak. A total nobody.” It was like she learned how to talk by watching coming-of-age teen comedies and memorizing the mean girl’s role.
When she was done assessing each person’s value, J. pulled out her notebook, scribbled something down without letting me see, and then folded the paper neatly into fours, and passed it to L., who passed it to me.
“This is your first note! Aren’t you happy I wrote you a note? You should save it forever,” J. said.
“You should save all the notes we give you,” J. added.
“Yeah, like we pass them to each other all the time in the cafeteria.”
And then, I did something that I believe may have sealed my miserable fate for the rest of middle school and high school. I took the note, crumpled it up into a ball, and tossed it in the garbage.
J. wasn’t exactly my main tormenter in middle school and high school, but she was always there, on the sidelines, cheering on the boys who slipped fake “Will you go out with me?” notes into my backpack. When a bunch of boys followed me all day, dropping rocks in my hood, she was the one who asked me, “Why don’t you put your hood up? Aren’t you cold? Everyone’s got their hood on.”
In pre-calc, we were allowed to borrow the school’s graphing calculators for our problem sets and tests. J. scratched my name into one of the calculators and told my teacher that I had defaced school property. Unfortunately for her, my teachers all loved me and thought I could do no wrong. Immediately after J. tried to frame me for the graphing calculator, I snatched it from her hands, and used a pen to scratch her name over my mine.
“Now who’s going to get in trouble,” I said to J.
“Too bad my name doesn’t have a Y at the end.”
“Too bad my name doesn’t either,” I said, even though it did.
Once in gym class, we were playing tennis, and J’s tennis ball rolled into my court. I picked it up and hurled it outside the school’s fence, and then told my gym teacher that some of the girls were purposely hitting the tennis balls into the street.
When my father finally installed AOL dial-up, I started to waste hours each day joining chatrooms and meeting all kinds of perverts, which gave me the idea to make up a fake screen name, pose as a really hot Abercrombie & Fitch–type high school boy, instant-message J. as said boy, and basically stop at nothing to ruin her life. It turned out I wasn’t all that great at posing as a hot, preppy, jockey high school boy, and on top of it, I found J. to be deadly dull. Our AIM conversations would go like this:
Poppedcollar4life69:*** hey, ur profile seems interesting
Poppedcollar4life69: it means age, sex, location
Jshoppingmall1983: 15, F, Long Island. u?
Poppedcollar4life69: muscular 19 year old, male (duh), Long Island
Poppedcollar4life69: so. what r you doing?
Jshoppingmall1983: watching tv, u?
Poppedcollar4life69: just wondering how many STD’s you have
Jshoppingmall1983 signed off at 4:14 pm.
I would make up new screen names and space out the number of times I contacted her so that she wouldn’t get too suspicious. Once, I invited her into a chatroom for teens, but it was really a chatroom filled with lonely men trolling the internet for underage girls. I remember she wrote, “what is this?” and then left the chatroom. I remember feeling disappointed that she didn’t stay long enough for one of the dudes in the chatroom to send her a picture of his penis.
There was that girl who committed suicide after her neighbor and her neighbor’s mother created a fake MySpace account and basically used it to fuck with this girl’s head in every which way. They reportedly sent her a message that said “You are a bad person and everybody hates you. Have a shitty rest of your life. The world would be a better place without you” not too long before she hung herself in her bedroom.
They were so cruel with her, I remember thinking when I read the news report. And then once, in college, in the middle of gleefully telling my boyfriend the story of how, in high school I had tricked my bully, J., into joining an Internet chatroom full of pervs, I suddenly started crying, and I could not tell if I was crying because I felt exposed, or if I was crying because I had not yet exposed myself.
I keep hearing my mother telling me, “Be nice.” ♦
* I did not, and I do not, have a beautiful lark voice. I have the kind of singing voice that prompts others at karaoke to say, “Wow! You get really into karaoke, don’t you?”
** Uh, one of my reccurring nightmares. Please don’t psychoanalyze?
*** Made-up screen names!