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?”