Amy B Hoang
The First Time I Learned About America
It came before anyone provided me with a definition, before I learned in school what Independence meant or who the Founding Fathers were.
It wasn’t big. At seven years old, the larger history behind my immigration hadn’t concerned me yet. I didn’t care about nation, nor was I seeking opportunity. I didn’t know that I was “Asian,” hadn’t learned yet about race. I believed that Vietnam had been all of it, the entire planet. The only thing I understood was that we had moved far away and were never coming back, and that parents, my sister, and I were going to sleep in this room called a garage where my aunt used to put her cars but now there are beds.
The First Photo I Took in America
My parents, my sister, and I had just been picked up by my dad’s family at the airport.
I was wearing a stiff plastic headband that tugged at my scalp but managed to feminize a bit my dull hair which had been cut short like a boy’s. I had thrown a massive fit at the salon, especially at the moment when the hairdresser scraped her razor along the nape of my neck. Later my mom would explain that she didn’t know when would be the next time I could get a haircut, that was why I had to endure looking like a boy.
Over the years, I would closely study that photo of my family and my dad’s family at LAX. There was my uncle, my grandpa, and my aunt’s family, including my cousins Lucy and Sophie. Lucy was smiling broadly and Sophie wore a mischievous sideways glance, as if to foreshadow the legacy of biting, hitting, and hair-pulling she would later inflict on my toddler sister. As for my parents, I don’t have any post-Vietnam recollection of them looking as radiant as they did in that photo. It wasn’t so much their well-rested youth that was foreign to me. I wasn’t sure what I was seeing. Was it merely the combination of brazen optimism and wide-eyed alertness? It was something in their expressions, something which conveyed the impalpable quality of adult innocence.
The First Word I Learned in America
When we arrived at my aunt’s house for the first time, two things happened. One, my sister sniffled and sat down on a plastic blue stool in the living room. Two, within seconds Sophie pushed her off and yelled, No! You will get the chair sick.” My dad’s family laughed and insisted that of course, my sister was welcome to sit in the chair.
Sophie scrunched up her face and, verging on the brink of a fit, insisted that she couldn’t. And so the adults relented in her favor, as they would in the future, even as my mom showed them the bloody scratch marks on my sister’s face. Kids will behave as kids, they explained.
As for me, I would never protest hard enough whenever Sophie terrorized my little sister. I too wanted a spot in that plastic stool. This was my first lesson on the capacity of humans to be cruel when it came to territorial matters, and my own complicity when it came to my desire for inclusion.
We went to the garage where we were to live for very low rent until my parents could afford their own place. My grandma showed me my bed, which had pink sheets with wands, tiaras, and the word “PRINCESS” printed all over them. She explained that “princess” was the English word for công chúa.
“In my eyes,” she told me, “All my granddaughters are princesses.”
The First Toy I had in America
She wore a frilly bonnet and a white onesie. She came with a plastic bottle. As I turned her on her back, her eyelids slowly closed, and when I turned her upright, she was awake again. When I picked her up, she wailed like a baby robot. When I pressed on her stomach, she wailed like a baby robot. When I accidentally dropped her down the stairs, she wailed like a baby robot.
My mom’s friends had taken me to the theme park and gotten me a battery-powered baby doll. I used to dread those trips because we always had to sneak out the back door or else my cousins would find out and my grandpa would yell at my mom. Then we’d return home and Lucy would be mad at me for a day.
“Waahhh! Waahhh! Waahhh!” My grandpa finally snapped from where he was sitting at the dining room table. He walked down to the garage. I stared silently at him, doll in arm, shame flushed all over the face. “Do you know that Grandpa hates that damn doll of yours? I hate it.”
I knew. To this day I have contemplated why he hated it so much. I knew he hated my mom. I knew he hated the side effects of us living here. I knew he hated a lot of the things that I did, perhaps even me. I had forgotten to flush the toilet once and henceforth, despite my record flushing, he would complain that my excrement lingered and smelled.
After we moved, his love for me grew, my love for him grew. Maybe he had simply resented me before, the product of my parent’s union, which had delayed my dad’s entry to the United States. Maybe his love for my two cousins had been so deep that he couldn’t love anybody else who shared their space. My aunt cleaned my grandparents’ room last year and found a box of handmade cards collected over the years. Of the countless cards they received from all six granddaughters over the years, they had only kept the ones from Lucy and Sophie.
When I woke up the next morning, I realized that my doll had gone missing.
The First Cheeseburger I Had in America
Lucy’s dad came home with McDonald’s after work. Lucy didn’t want the cheeseburger, so her dad gave it to me. I took it reluctantly, because I knew I hated bread. I only wanted the meat inside. I tried taking out the bread bun, but everything was stuck together. A fat slab of yellow cheese in the middle made the sandwich gooey like a string of boogers. I took a bite. Oh, my god. Little pungent and sour pieces, all over my mouth. Blech! I gagged. Disgusting. Not everything in America was better, after all.
The First Kiss I Received in America
I was the tallest girl in the first grade. Rotsen was second-tallest. We went to the bathroom together at recess. She wanted us to share a stall and take turns. After we were done she giggled and whispered, “You look like a boy.”
Americans, she explained, kissed on the lips. “Do you want to try kissing on the lips?”
I did. We each leaned closer to the other and pressed our lips tightly together. No open mouth, no pucker, just pressed lips, for some length of time. Her lips were dry and scaly like mine.
Did I enjoy it then? I don’t think I felt any particular way about it. I simply found it intriguing that Americans kissed on the lips. It didn’t matter how little English I knew or how few friends I had; I always liked school at that age. I thought my classmates were fun. Second only to Nickelodeon television, they taught me most of the things I knew about America.
The First Friend I Made in America
I was sitting cross-legged on the cool, stony driveway of a stranger’s house. I thought I had walked some mean distance, but in reality it couldn’t have been more than three blocks away. I was fuming with anger. “I’m not going back,” I staunchly told myself, “I’m not going back.” They’ll be sorry.
As an act of revenge, Sophie had spread toothpaste all over a stuffed bear my mom’s friend had just given me. Clamoring for justice, I went to my grandma, the same grandma who had shamed me for playing in Lucy and Sophie’s backyard even after I had resolved the argument with Lucy in which I told her I wished she hadn’t been born. Accordingly, I thought my grandma would like to be notified of this recent crime against me. Instead, she said, “Don’t you dare come to me again for matters like this.” So I tossed my slain bear into the trash and decided never to return to this horrible place.
Sitting on the driveway beneath the blue sky, I was beginning to feel quite serene.
Several minutes passed. My mom came around the corner and took a seat beside me. I didn’t know it then, but she had just been trailing several yards behind me. She said nothing, just held my hand as we both sat on somebody else’s driveway.
A few days later, my dad took me to Toys ‘R’ Us and told me I could pick any bear I wanted from the stuffed animals section. There were primarily white bears dressed in pink tutus and coffee-brown bears dressed in bows and suits. I chose a rather large, saggy bear that someone had dropped on the ground, whose color was an odd beige that wasn’t quite brown and whose coat already looked worn and matted due to its excessive shagginess. My college friends have remarked that Beary looks very worn down. Is it because he had been loved for so many years? In fact, I tell them, he had always been quite an ugly bear.
That night, I slept with Beary for the first time and told him about that morning when some boys at school laughed at the way I said “preschool” like “pri-SKOOL.” I didn’t want to be laughed at, but more importantly, I wanted to sound American. And so, in total darkness, and the company of a nonjudgmental bear, I contorted my mouth to make the sounds that I wanted to hear. “PREES-skool… PREES-skool.”
More than a decade has passed and I remember fewer things from two years ago than I remember from my first year in America, which remains vivid in my memory.
I am not sure whether to attribute my memory to the effect of immigration. Immigration has changed my life trajectory, splitting my ongoing reality away from the alternate reality of a parallel universe in which I grew up in Vietnam. Amy and Em My, we shared the same childhood up to the age of six, but since then have led entirely different lives. Immigration has shaped my vision; I had been a blank slate, mute and receptive, and thus my surrounding environment became the model for how I came to see the world, human nature in particular.
Yet I try to make sense of the first word, first toy, first burger, first kiss, first companion because I know that they carry something separate on their own. Sometimes I convince myself that in moving, a new part of me had been born. In all of their particularities, my firsts provided me with the context from the life which I had entered. In all of their materiality, they made up the texture of the landscape where I had become a part.