I Had Him at Sixteen

A few months after I arrived in Winnipeg and started the second grade, I was told by my parents that I was going to be taken away from them for a few days to stay with a foreign family –and by foreign, they meant foreign to us– in other words, white.  They were very excited.

“A little foreign girl has invited you to stay at her house for a few days!”

“She’s never met a Chinese girl before!”

I was less so.  “Why do I have to go away for a few days?” I rightly ask.

My parents shrug.

Of course, there was a part of me that wanted to live the life of a little foreign girl for a few days, for investigative purposes.  Like most kids, I was embarrassed by all of the ways my family fell short of “normal.”  I wanted to keep secret, for instance, that we rented out one of our two bedrooms to a stream of single male Chinese graduate students, even though I liked many of them and even developed a wistful crush one of them –a tall and slim man named Lee who laughed like a boy. At night, in addition to fantasizing about being asked to join the A-team, avenging bullies, or marrying Lee in a bizarre plot twist, I would lie awake in my bed –which, along with my brother’s crib and my parents’ bed, all fit into one room– thinking about home improvement:  new curtains to replace the torn ones that came with our apartment, hiring a professional carpet cleaner, having my own bedroom, and most elusively –wallpaper, that fanciful western invention, like giftwrap, for houses.

Noticing the abject horror on my face, my dad exclaims heartily, with a patriotic gleam in his eyes, “Oh, come on now!  You’ll teach the Canadians about the glorious Chinese culture!” Not noticing that the expression of abject horror remained impervious on my face, he pats me happily on the shoulder and walks away.

I start to panic.  I could barely speak English and had developed a debilitating shyness after leaving China, how could I possibly teach anyone anything?

“I think they want to bring you to the little girl’s school,” my mom explains much too nonchalantly.

What?

“Her class is learning about China right now, and…”

What?

“I’ll pack a pair of chopsticks with you, so you can show them how we eat.”

What?

It was slowly dawning on me what I had become: another kid’s show-and-tell object. I knew all about show-and-tell. Every week we sit in a circle on the carpet and take turns showing off our new pogo-balls and non-violent action figures. Although I had a cornocopia of toys in Winnipeg, I never participated in showing and telling them for two reasons: one, they were all purchased from garage sales, a shameful secret that I had no moral qualms lying about if pressed, but at the same time did not want to voluntarily assume the risk of being found out; and two, they were all Transformers, which I knew would forever banish me from ever being invited to the popular girls’ birthday parties.

Didn’t my parents know that offering me up as a sacrificial ambassador for Chinese culture to an entire school of homogenous kids was the very anti thesis of my existential struggle to be as identical to everyone as possible?

“You’ll be okay,” my mom murmurs, as she smoothes down the jet-black fly-aways on my head.

The she packed my bag and sent me on my way.

And she was right, it was okay. I got there on a Friday afternoon. Katie was nice and turned out to be two years older, which made her automatically cool; I was hanging out with a fourth grader! Her parents welcomed me warmly into their home and set-up a bed for me in the spare bunk in Katie’s room. When they saw me looking at their daughter’s porcupine shaped pencil holder with interest, they bought one for me the next day –one of my few “new” possessions. The weekend went by quickly with no fights, no tears, and shockingly no homesickness.

Then came the big day. The day on which I would “teach them about the glorious Chinese culture.”

I sat in the back of the car holding a pair of chopsticks that my mother had wrapped in saran wrap for me and shoved in my hand before I climbed into Katie’s car on Friday, like a Japanese peasant woman shoving a small jade switchblade into her young daughter’s kimono as she is being led away to a geisha house, hissing, “Take this, use it to defend your honour!”

In addition, my mom also had the foresight to pack a small plastic baggie with unshelled peanuts, which I was holding in my other hand.

“Use the chopsticks to pick up these peanuts, they’ll have never seen anything like it,” she had said with glee.

“Aw Katie looooook!” Katie’s mom said as she got into the driver’s seat.

“Ying Ying’s brought her own snack!”

“Look mom, she eats them with chopsticks!”

They look at me with delight. I look back at them, each hand loaded with a plastic wrapped item, realizing that in our attempt to teach foreigners about Chinese culture, my parents and I had ended up spreading rumours about the curious snacking habits of our People. The misunderstanding, combined with the fact that this was possibly one of the first times I had ridden in a car, was nauseating.

I opened my mouth, and threw up.

On myself, on the car. Maybe even on Katie.

“Oh dear,” Katie’s mom says and turns the car around.

Half an hour later, we arrive at Katie’s school after driving past rows and rows of large houses and lush lawns.

I follow them inside with a certain forbodement that lasts only until I am fanfared into her homeroom like a celebrity. I had thought that I’d have to do something, perform Chinese culture, spread out my peanuts on a desk and pick them up with my eyes closed and humming the Chinese national anthem, something.

Instead, I stood in the eye of the storm doing nothing as everyone fussed around me, pointing out the projects on China that were hung up on the walls, the Chinese art that someone had found in Winnipeg’s limited Chinatown, tossing me lowballs like, “do you speak Chinese?” and shining their eyes prettily when I nodded yes.

A giant pot appeared, set on a small table. The teacher lifted the lid and a white scarf of steam rose up to reveal a massive amount of white rice.

“Rice!” everyone yelled around me in rowdy delight as they lined up for a small paper cup serving, eaten with a plastic spoon.

I held my cup of rice and looked at it with familiar distain, the way enemy cowboys from the same town look at each other when they come across each other at the annual horseshow in the city. My parents always try to get me to eat rice without drowning it in stirfry sauce, and no doubt would be impressed by the sight of twenty foreign kids happily gorging on plain white rice.

“Hey,” a boy beckoned to me in the courtyard during recess, while I was surrounded by a wreath of adoring, older, and popular girls, who were petting my head and exclaiming to each other, “Oh my god, feel her hair! It’s so smooth!!”

A little bit of this hair petting happened at my own school too, but I felt like at Katie’s school in the middle of a sea of big houses and plush lawns, I was possibly the first Chinese kid they’ve ever been close enough to touch.

I looked at the boy and immediately developed a crush on him. The beta males in his entourage stood behind him, wearing friendly faces that they were clearly unaccustomed to wearing when so close to a female entourage.

After developing a crush on him, I wondered if he was going to beat me up. Up until sixth grade, all my contact with boys were of the knuckles-to-body variety, mostly their knuckles, my body.

But this older boy was different. He had a question.

“Hey, what’s 1 plus 1?”

“Two,” I reply immediately. In my first Canadian math class, I had jerked my head up from the worksheet and looked around the room with a huge “you-got-me” grin, waiting for Mrs. Bainbridge to say, “Gotcha! Haha, I gave you guys math problems from the local daycare center!” When Mrs. Bainbridge did not say that, I then thought that the trick was more sinister, that perhaps the problems are much more difficult than they appeared. Although my dad taught me algebra when I was four, it was only after we moved abroad and were handicapped in every which way but math, that we began to believe, really believe, that I was good at math. Twenty years later, I realize that I am no mathematician, just a fan.

“Okay, what’s two plus two?” the older boy shot back.

“Four.”

“Four plus four?”

“Eight.” By now the girls have stopped petting my hair and everyone is silently watching the odd showdown before them.

A trace of a smile appears on the older boy’s lips. “Eight plus eight?”

“Sixteen.”

“Whoa!” he shouts with a genuine comraderie. His reaction revereberrates throughout the crowd that had gathered around us. Everyone is smiling with open mouths, the smile of the surprised.

Standing there, in the middle of beautiful, affluent, foreign, older kids, being their center of attention for a whole day and culminating into this climatic victory with a cute boy, wearing Katie’s nice, store-bought clothes because I had puked on my own, a small bag of peanuts and saran wrapped chopsticks hidden deep in my bag, basking in this unimaginable celebration of me-ness, I felt like a triumph of epic, fairy tale proportions.

For years I would gratuitously replay this scene, except instead of stopping at sixteen, I would go higher and higher, until I got to 4096, at least!

“How was it?” my mom asks as soon as she lets me go from a suffocating hug; despite the seeming cavalier way in which she sent me off a few days ago, she had missed me more than worried about if I had been a good ambassador or not.

“It was okay. I got this.” I rummage through my bag for the porcupine shaped pencil holder.

She smiles. “Did you teach them about China?”

I thought about the false impression regarding the peanuts that I had made and failed to correct due to my morbid shyness. I thought about being inside a house, rather than an apartment, for the first time in my life, about being driven to school for the first time in my life, about listening to Canadian students do presentations on my country, about talking to an older boy without getting suckerpunched. Finally, I had participated in a Show and Tell, though I was not the shower or teller, but the shown and told.

I smile back at her, “Yeah, I guess so.”

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