Chapter 5: Different but Normal
On the Move: An Immigrant Child's Global Journey
I started the following school year in a gifted and talented second grade class at Grant Elementary School, located in the suburbs not far from my home. After two consecutive years of starting school as the new kid in class, I had already grown accustomed to the anxiety of entering a classroom filled with strangers who looked nothing like me. I was not nearly as nervous this third time around; at least I didn't need to learn a new language. I also felt more comfortable going to a school in my own neighborhood rather than in the downtown ghetto, and I wasn't sad to leave anybody behind since I never really got to know my first grade classmates at Jackson Elementary to begin with.
When I walked into the classroom on the first day of class, I was amazed by the abundance of whiteness—the teachers, the students, and even the school building were all white. Just like kindergarten in Switzerland, but in stark contrast to my inner-city experience of the previous year. Grant Elementary was a lovely-looking school nestled amongst huge magnolia trees in a quaint suburban neighborhood. There were large open spaces, lots of trees in the playground that we could run around and climb on, and plenty of grass and leaves everywhere, as opposed to the Jackson Elementary scenery of badly-manicured fields encased by barbed wire fences. But what amazed me the most was how polite and friendly the people were towards me. It seemed like true Southern hospitality at its finest. Maybe part of the reason why I felt so welcome was because it was the first time that I could understand what other people were saying to me when I entered the classroom. I'm sure that my teacher and some of the kids at Jackson were just as nice to me, but I could not appreciate their kindness since I did not understand English at the time.
Second grade was so much fun. I made friends fairly quickly since I now felt comfortable in my environment. The two gifted second grade classes contained mostly kids from my middle-class suburban neighborhood. Most students were white, but there were also a few Asian, Middle Eastern, and black kids. I truly appreciated having friends at school after spending two consecutive years as a loner. Most of the kids in both classes got along really well. Whenever someone had a birthday party, he/she would send out invitations to everyone. My classmates and I went on field trips to the zoo, played with caterpillars in the playground during recess, and even cleaned up the classroom together one morning after it had flooded during a heavy thunderstorm. Over the course of a few months, I gradually shed my Southern black accent as I picked up the local white dialect from my friends. We took our class picture outside on the steps in front of the school, surrounded by beautiful magnolia trees. The radiant sunshine and the cordial smiles on everyone's faces perfectly captured my feelings about second grade. That was the first class photo in which I was actually smiling.
My mother did not need to drive me to school anymore since school buses went around the neighborhood to pick up and drop off the students. I looked forward to chatting with my friends on the bus and, on special days, I would get off at one of their houses to go play. By this time, my father had moved to America to live with us after closing his restaurant in Switzerland and was attending graduate school at LSU. He was home whenever he did not have classes, so he could take care of me in the afternoons while my mother was at work. In my abundant free time, I loved going over to friends' houses to play video games, having water balloon fights on the streets, riding my bike on the sidewalks with other neighborhood kids, and playing Little League baseball in the park. That year was the closest I ever came to experiencing what I envisioned to be an ideal suburban childhood.
Ever since I left China, I knew that I was different from everybody else, but these differences never mattered much to me until I started making friends in second grade. In Switzerland, everyone was white and I was the only Chinese kid in my class and probably in the entire school. During first grade at Jackson, almost everyone was black and I was still probably the only Chinese kid. I had grown accustomed to the fact that I was different, so I didn't closely associate with any of these people who looked nothing like me. I didn't know about their culture, I didn't know about their families, I didn't know about their traditions, customs, or values, and I had no way to learn these things since I never made friends with anyone during kindergarten or first grade. I was just trying to survive.
But second grade changed everything. I could talk fluently about baseball cards, Ninja Turtles, video games, and other topics that little boys liked, so I made friends fairly quickly. As I became better friends with the kids in my class, I went over to their houses more often and saw their family interactions and customs firsthand. I soon began thinking about how their households differed from my own.
I always loved going to my friends' houses much more than having them come over to mine because I thought their homes were so much more interesting than my minimalist immigrant refuge. They always had so much stuff in their houses, plenty of decorations, artifacts, and knick-knacks, so many family pictures with grandiose frames, refrigerators filled with American snacks, and beautiful antique furniture, while my house was much sparser and less glamorous. My parents valued practicality over aesthetics, so our house was comfortable but by no means luxurious. We used aluminum foil to cover the greasy stoves, old newspapers to serve as mock-tablecloths, and grocery bags to hold the trash. We had mismatched furniture everywhere since we purchased chairs and tables at the lowest prices from various flea markets, garage sales, and second-hand stores. Our refrigerator was nearly empty except for the bare necessities of meat, vegetables, and soy sauce; my parents never bought any of the food I saw advertised on TV—snacks, desserts, frozen dinners, butter, and condiments—because all they knew how to cook was Chinese food (their one attempt at baking a pizza was disastrous). As an immigrant family with only one source of income—my mother's modest assistant professor salary minus my father's business school tuition—our house reflected our frugal lifestyle.
The more my friends' families welcomed me into their homes, the more times I played Nintendo or football with them, the more home-cooked American meals their mothers prepared for me, the more times we rode our bikes together, the more I began to realize just how different I was from them and the more I wanted to be just like them. My friends' mothers were always at home cleaning, cooking, doing the laundry, and politely offering me food and drinks whenever I came over to play. I didn't know that mothers could stay at home; that was a strange concept for me since my mother was always at work. If only my mother could stay at home, then I would be one step closer to being normal like everyone else.
Whenever I ate meals at my friends' houses, the father would always propose a moment of silence to pray and say Grace, something which my family never did. At first, I didn't know what to do so I just sat still, but when I saw everyone else with their heads down, eyes closed, whispering words of gratitude to God for the food and His blessings, I surmised that this was some sort of ritual white people went through before eating every meal. I was too ashamed to ask my friends about the meaning of this ritual for fear of sounding like an uncultured foreign heathen. They already thought that I was different since I was not white, so I didn't want them to learn that I was also not Christian.
I was never able to find anybody to play with me on Sunday mornings. I used to wake up early on weekends to watch cartoons. At around 9:00, I always called all of my friends to try to find someone to go play. Every Sunday morning, I called friend after friend, but nobody was ever home. At first, I thought that everyone just woke up really late on Sundays, so nobody bothered to answer the phone in the morning. My parents couldn't explain this phenomenon either. However, I eventually learned that everyone went with their families to church on Sunday mornings. Every single one of my friends. Everybody in my neighborhood. Except for my family.
Why didn't my family ever go to church? Why didn't we pray to God before eating every meal? Why didn't my mother stay at home to bake cookies for my friends? Why didn't our house smell fresh and bustle with activity so that I could invite my friends over to play without feeling embarrassed? Why couldn't we be just like my friends' families so that I wouldn't have to go to their homes so often in order to experience what I could not get in my own? Why couldn't my parents talk without foreign accents or understand American culture just like my friends' parents? Why couldn't I be white just like almost everyone else I knew?
I remember making a shocking realization one day while sitting alone in my room: I could never be like my friends, no matter how hard I tried. I could never be white since I was not born that way. I could never live their lives since I was not destined to do so. It was horribly disheartening for me to realize that I was so different. The problem wasn't that other kids ostracized me for not looking like them. On the contrary, almost everyone at school made me feel very welcome, and my white friends and their families were always nice to me. But rather, the problem was that I did not like myself for being so different. The firsthand exposure I had gained to traditional devout white Southern households with stay-at-home moms made me realize how much my family did not fit that norm.
As an immigrant child, I was constantly on the move, so I didn't have any firm roots in America. In contrast, most of my friends were born in a hospital less than 15 minutes away from their homes, their brothers and sisters enrolled in the same schools they attended a few years earlier, and their parents and grandparents had gone to school on the other side of town. I didn't have any of that continuity in my own life. Why couldn't I be just like them? I realized that my childhood experiences were so much more turbulent than those of my friends, and for the first time, I desperately longed to have my memories erased and to start a new life, a tranquil domestic existence living in the suburbs of Baton Rouge, a stable life with bike rides, with my mother at home baking cookies, and with my family dressing up to go to church on Sunday mornings. I wanted to wake up one day, look at myself in the mirror, and see a handsome Caucasian boy with blue eyes, blonde hair, and an All-American smile. I wanted to see that white kid whom I knew I wanted to be.
Good thing I didn't wake up one morning and have my wish suddenly come true. Very good thing. I eventually learned to accept my own heritage and not be so envious of the ideal Southern household. I grew accustomed to masking my differences in order to fit in with my white friends. Second grade ended up being the most fun year for me throughout all of elementary school.
However, I only had a year of attending Grant Elementary before returning to the ghetto once more. Grant only had the gifted and talented program from kindergarten through second grade. The nearest elementary school with a gifted program from third through fifth grades was Davis Elementary School, located directly in the middle of downtown only blocks away from Jackson, the place where I spent ten hours every day during my first year in America. Any second grader who wished to remain in the gifted program had to transfer into Davis to begin third grade.
I was not shocked to re-enter the ghetto on the first day of third grade, but I could see the anxious looks of the other kids on the school bus. My suburban classmates were probably scared because they had never spent much time in downtown Baton Rouge, which was widely regarded as a dangerous neighborhood. They might have been intimidated by the sight of the masses of black kids walking towards the school as our bus (which only carried mostly-white kids from the suburbs) pulled up to the main driveway. I was already used to being in the same playground and classroom as kids from the ghetto, so the transition to Davis was fairly smooth for me.
I looked forward to starting third grade because I knew that it was going to be the first year when I could walk into a classroom on the first day and actually see familiar faces. Every prior year, I started school by entering a classroom filled with strangers. I had arrived during the first day of classes as a nervous new kid for the first three consecutive years of my elementary school career. I always had the butterflies-in-my-stomach feeling because I knew something unknown awaited me. Now I actually received a genuine welcome from my friends on the first day of school. This gesture was something that everybody else took for granted since they had pretty much seen the exact same kids in class since kindergarten or even preschool. It was ironic that I felt so comfortable going to a ghetto school that was so physically and demographically similar to the one I had attended only two years earlier. It was all because I now felt comfortable with the kids around me. Even though we were in the ghetto, at least we were all here together.
I went to Davis Elementary for two years: third grade and fourth/fifth grade. I began fourth grade in the gifted class with all of my friends, and then one quarter of the way through the year, my parents decided to have me skip a grade. They reasoned that it was a good idea because I was much more academically advanced than the other kids in my grade. At first, I strongly objected to the idea: I didn't want to leave my friends, and I didn't want to step foot into a new classroom filled with strangers once again—this time, older strangers. In retrospect, I'm really glad that I skipped a grade, and I have grown to appreciate the accuracy of my parents' foresight. I think it was one of the best decisions they ever made for me during my childhood.
At the time, though, I was unhappy, but my parents did not give me a choice. When I told my friends that I was going to skip to fifth grade, they felt genuinely upset and betrayed that I was leaving them. Some of my friends pleaded me not to go, and I was touched by their sincere loyalty. It was the first time that I felt like I was abandoning people I had grown up with; this group of friends was the first that I had remained close to for more than two years, which was a long time by my childhood standards.
In fifth grade, I spent more time on academics and less time playing with friends. My proudest accomplishment that year was winning the school and county social science fairs with my project on contrasting simple versus compound interest rates. My father taught me basic concepts from microeconomics and referred me to a few textbooks, but I developed the project completely on my own. I made all the charts and diagrams using computer programs such as Harvard Graphics and Microsoft Excel and then printed and arranged them on a three-panel presentation board. Everyone else's parents pretty much created their kids' projects, but like many immigrants, my parents had no sense of what it took to make such a project and also had neither the leisure time nor the enthusiasm to work on it with me.
I impressed the school judges by being able to eloquently explain economic and mathematical concepts that were far beyond fifth grade level. I answered their questions with natural confidence instead of simply reciting notes from pre-written scripts like most other kids did. I won first place in the school competition and then advanced to the Baton Rouge county competition. I did the best I could, and I was surprised that I took first place there as well. However, at the Louisiana state competition, my charts and math equations didn't stand a chance against the elaborate three-dimensional models that the parents of many other finalists carted into the auditorium.
My three years of living a relatively normal childhood in Louisiana were so much fun that I didn't want them to end. I accepted my differences and thought that I had finally found a home, a place to settle down and to grow up as a proud Southern boy. But my childhood journey was far from over. I would soon have to experience two additional cross-country relocations—first to New York, and then to Los Angeles.
Copyright © 2007 Philip Guo