I was the first Asian child to ever enroll at Henry H. Houston Elementary. Over the next two decades, Cambodians and Laotians and Vietnamese would fill in the crevices of Chinatown and South Philly, then trade up to formstone row houses in Northeast, but few other refugee families would creep as far north and west as ours did, where the slither of the Skuykill River and Wissahickon Valley formed a spine from which stretched sloped spikes of tall-treed settlements, each share with its large colonials and Victorians hidden behind tall hedges and deep set back from the roads. Stray farther from the park and the houses and lots shrank down to more modest blue collar rows. The suburbs and horse country were just a mile north over the city line. Only the Chestnut Hill commuter train and a few public bus lines crossed over this moat of green from downtown.

I developed the Rosses’ flawless Midwestern English and a steady competence in school. I watched Matthew MacGregor, Marc Hopkins, and Eric Olson play wall ball, tracking the frayed yellow green ball through its three-point bounce – thwacked by an open hand, rebuffed by the wall, skidding on the ground, then all over again. I watched for so long that they lobbed a few easy ones for me to try before realizing that I did not need the handicap. Is there anything you can’t do? Eric asked sarcastically.

I found that the tonal Vietnamese had nurtured neural wiring my school mates did not have, such that I could map and mimic all their varied speech patterns, from the black girls’ guttural drawl and seesaw rhythm to the Highland twins’ terse, clipped vowels and Ilana Cohen’s lush consonants. I slipped in and out of this group and that one, a lingual Zelig, sounding just enough like them so that I could stay and take note of their other habits. In this way I learned that to look chipper and confident I should walk on the balls of my feet and with my toes pointing out like Heather Egan did, and that I could always carry a book under one arm like Jennifer Highland, to purposefully whip out and read under a tree if there were no school yard games I could join in.

But there were many other things I didn’t know or understand and many gaps in my new existence. How to host a birthday party when my parents could not invent treasure hunts with clever clues and my friends would not take to the dried squid that my family would consider a worthy find. Where to get the funky thrift store clothes that Christina Clawson wore. How to put French braids in my stubbornly slippery hair. Who I should go to when darkness and depression set in and it was impossible to name it out loud at home.

“No one ever offered to help,” I complained to Blue, “I could walk for miles alone and no one would stop me to ask if there was anything they could help with.”

They still don’t, I pointed out to him bitterly. They took little notice of my spiraling anxiety as the career successes piled on. What do I do next? Am I still an ingénue? Or am I supposed to become a statesman now, dial down the provocative outbursts in meetings? Do I ask for more authority? How much and when? Or am I overstepping my place…..The palpitations made my head pound in an ever more frantic rhythm, and yet everyone around me seemed content to let it play out on its own.

“Is it possible,” he asked, “that it didn’t occur to anyone that you needed help?”

“How can that be? I was seven. I was tiny.”

“Is it possible,” Blue tried again, “that things would have been much easier for you if you hadn’t passed so well for normal?”

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8 Responses to Passing

  1. bmorrison9 says:

    Your discussions with Blue here and about an unobserved life are interesting. I, too, spent much of my childhood hiding–I called it “walking like an Indian” (i.e., being able to move through the forest unseen and unheard, leaving no traces)–and in my memoir I talked about trying to be “the invisible girl”. Interesting to consider what other options you might have had besides passing as normal, most of them precluded (in both cultures) by strictures on how little girls should behave.

  2. Mai Pham says:

    It’s true that Asian girls are generally not encouraged to aggressively ask for what they want or need, But then, a child may not always know exactly what it is that she needs.

  3. bmorrison9 says:

    Very true.

  4. Linda Davis says:

    Your prose is beautiful and makes me want to read more. Have you written a memoir/book that I can read?

    • Mai Pham says:


      I’m hoping readers can help me get the memoir published as a book!
      What I am sharing on the blog are chapterlets from the approximately 80$ of the book that I have written. I still have a lot of drafting and rewriting to do. Would love to get your feedback on how to improve it. Please spread the word, especially to people/sites you know of that focus on memoirs and women’s stories….

      Thanks so much for reading.


  5. maryandmusic says:

    Hi Pham,

    I like your writing very much. I saw the link to your blog from your husband’s post on Google+, and I have spent the whole night reading your stories. I echo many of your feelings. Your writing is beautiful and carries a certain poise in it, something calm but powerful. I have also read your husband’s book Due Diligence and think it is very well written.
    I am Asian (Chinese) and I do feel Asian girls are not encouraged to talk what they want. Many of my female Asian friends (and me) are often unsure of ourselves, and I’m quite frustrated by this. Thanks for putting down your thoughts. I will keep reading your blog and recommend it to my friends.


    • Mai Pham says:

      Thank you for commenting, Chuhang. Connecting with other Asian women is always precious to me. I remember very well being young and not feeling that I had “voice.” Have you read any of Maxine Hong Kingston’s works? I read Woman Warrior ( when coming of age — that awkward time between school and adulthood. It is all about finding voice. It changed my life.

      • maryandmusic says:

        Thanks for your reply, Mai. I have just borrowed this book from my school’s library and will start reading it tonight. Thank you very much for recommending.


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