Here’s how the first half of seventh grade went down: I was living in Queens, New York, in a neighborhood that was once the residence of white, working-class folks who, in the six years that I lived there, all moved away, one household at a time. They were eventually replaced by Latin American families, whose children played soccer in the street, and Korean families who were seemingly always getting into minivans that took them to church, and Chinese families, like mine, that I can’t quite reduce down into an easy, tidy description because when you really know something, when you’ve lived it and are it—whether it’s being a girl or a teenager or a person of color or trans or queer or identifying as a wallflower or an outcast or whatever—you know that there’s nothing tidy or easy about it.
My parents and I lived in an old-school colonial house with another family, sometimes renting out the attic, sometimes not. There were rats in the walls, and when we boiled water in the kettle to make ramen, we would often find flattened cockroaches floating among the dehydrated peas and carrots. My next-door neighbor, a retired, third-generation Italian guy in his 60s who had an outdoor pool that I stared at from behind the wooden fence that separated our backyards and a German shepherd he loved to death, who once asked my dad, “Is it true—do you eat dog in China?”—this man, who was the last remaining holdout of a bygone era in which everyone who lived on my block was a third- or fourth-generation Italian, once let me hold his daughter’s pet snake, and another time, he told me that he liked me because I spoke English so well, because this is America after all, and if you’re going to live in America and reap the benefits and services that were built on the backs of hard-working taxpayers like him, then you could at least learn to speak the language properly.
“I learned English in six weeks,” I told him gleefully, wanting his approval the way I wanted my English teacher’s approval, the way I once wanted the approval of this girl in my fourth grade class who had platinum-blond hair and promised me that she would be my best friend if I would bring her 20 perfectly sharpened no. 2 pencils every day, which, of course, I did. “Good for you,” my neighbor told me. “They should all be like you.” They? I thought. That wasn’t my first taste of feeling like the “other,” and until the day I die, there won’t be a last.
When my friend Joy invited me to ride horses with her out in Montauk, I begged my parents to let me go, only to call them desperately from a payphone the first day, pleading with them in my I’m-gonna-cry voice to make the two-hour drive to Montauk to pick me up and take me home because the riding instructor mistook my crippling shyness for not knowing how to speak English.
“Can someone translate for her?” he asked whenever my horse stopped in his tracks, exasperated with me for holding up the group. I was upset with myself too for playing along—I became mute, the enforcer of my own silence, unable to explain that my horse just would not stop pissing and shitting and bucking, unable to say the words I wanted to say: “I’m doing everything you told me to. I’m pulling on the reins like you said, but my horse just wants to stop and poo every two minutes. And by the way, I speak and understand English perfectly, you waste of a bunghole.”
Most of the kids in my elementary school were Latino, Asian, Middle-Eastern, or black. In my sixth grade class, there were two white kids—one of them smelled like Cheetos, and the other had recently moved from Ohio and got his kicks by going around calling Farshid, the Persian kid in my class, “Fartshit,” and trying to come up with other ways to insult my classmates who had names and faces that revealed they were “not from here,” even when they were, and even though I knew that it was all bullshit, I struggled to articulate why it was just as right to point out that someone with a last name like Smith, or Henderson, or Gingrich, was also someone who was “not from here.”
I wanted desperately to get out. My friends spent the summer before seventh grade, the first year of junior high, plotting which gang they were going to join. Maybe it was nothing more than some kind of “I’m tough now, fuck you” act, and maybe for some kids in some neighborhoods in some parts of the world, the act is the reality, because how does one get to be tough as shit without having to pretend, at least a little at first? All I knew was that I wasn’t tough as shit. I was weak as a dead flower, ready to crumble at the slightest touch and fearful of everything, of going outside and being laughed at, of walking to the public library lest some older girls follow me and throw their McDonald’s french fries at the back of my head (which happened quite frequently). I was afraid of having to always prove to people that I could, in fact, speak English, afraid of not knowing how to respond whenever someone casually mimed exaggerated kung fu moves in front of me, or whenever someone asked, “Are you Chinese or Korean? I’m not trying to be offensive, I just can’t tell you apart.”
I wanted to live in a place where I didn’t have to remember to check the kettle for cockroaches before making ramen. I wanted to live in a house that I didn’t have to share with another family. I wanted to live in a neighborhood where it was unheard of that someone could be robbed at gunpoint on their way home from the subway, because I wanted to live in a place where there were no subways, just shiny cars that took bored, beautiful-looking teenagers everywhere. And oh yeah—that summer, I was slowly easing into becoming the classic textbook case of a moody teenager who was unceasingly dissatisfied with herself. I felt hideous, stuck in a body that made me feel vulnerable, like at any moment, someone was going to point at me and say, “HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA! Look at her!” And sometimes someone did.
My family finally splurged on a basic cable box when I started seventh grade, and I sustained myself on a steady diet of puffy Cheetos and MTV music videos. I obsessively studied and desperately envied the girls in these videos—sulky rather than aggressive, oblivious to their own beauty, effortlessly cool, dreamy but put together, wild but not disturbingly so: it was a standard of perfection that I thought maybe I could rise to if only God or whoevs would send me a pair of tits already and make my voice less squeaky and annoying-sounding and give me bigger, rounder eyes, and longer, fuller eyelashes, wavier hair, a more mysterious, intriguing personality, and so on and so on.
Here’s how the second half of seventh grade went down: I moved to a suburban town in Long Island where there were no subways or soccer games on the street. The streets were empty. The kids in my classes seemed perky and untroubled. Most of them didn’t need to take the bus to school because they had parents who could drive them everywhere—to the movies, to their extracurricular activities, to sleepovers and hangouts and all the things that I was beginning to want but didn’t know how to be part of because most of the kids I had known were immigrants or children of immigrant parents who worked long hours, sometimes more than four jobs between them, but still couldn’t afford a car, and lived in apartments that were too small and cramped to host slumber parties.
If I had been lightly bruised by my previous brushes with racism—and no matter how well-meaning the perpetrator’s intention(s) might have be, being on the receiving end of racism will always hurt—then I was fully getting my ass beat after transferring to my new school in the suburbs. I went from a school where there were two white kids in my class to a school where the vast majority of the students were white. I was one of a handful of Asian kids in the whole district and one of two in my grade.* When we did a unit on World War II, the boys in my class took to calling me a “Jap,” even after we spent an entire class session talking about the war crimes the Japanese committed against the Chinese during the Nanking massacre. There was a girl who loved to remind me that I looked exactly like this one Korean girl, T., in the grade above us. Every time we passed each other in the hallway, she’d stop in her tracks and put her hands on my shoulder and say, “Wait, are you Jenny or T.? No offense, but it’s fucking hard to tell you apart.” And then she’d pat me on the back and continue on to class.
* Adding insult to injury, the one other Asian kid in my grade not only refused to admit that he was Asian, but he also constantly made fun of me for being SO ASIAN.