In middle school, my teacher, every once in awhile, asked all the white students to stand, followed by all the black students and then she tallied the results. At the time, there were only two Asians in the class: a Vietnamese girl and me. We both looked at each other, not knowing if we should speak up. This purgatory confused us: we didn’t know what group we belonged in. We were more white than black, so did that mean we should be included with the white students? Then again, the black students were considered minorities, so it was probably more appropriate for us to join their group. To make matters even worse, the teacher neglected to even include us, which made our status even more ubiquitous.
It turned out, the teacher was conducting a survey of the ethnic makeup of the class. She saw the class as black and white, with no shades in between.
When we did speak up, she looked at us, her eyebrows cocked unevenly as she wondered how to categorize us. She wondered out loud what box she should place us in. She took some time and decided to include us with the white kids. The first time we didn’t argue. However, the second time she conducted the count, I decided to take a stand.
“I’m not white,” I said, “Nor am I black.”
She stuck her pencil in her mouth and began to chew on the eraser. My words, like water dripping from a crack, seeped in her mind.
“Don’t you consider yourself white?” she asked.
I shook my head no but secretly I had been. My friends were white and everything I’ve come to associate with America thus far had been through the perspective of a white American. But for some reason, this time I wasn’t content to being lumped together with a group of people that was completely different from me. Something was nagging me to be more authentic.
“What do you consider yourself as?” my teacher demanded.
“Vietnamese,” I replied.
“There is no category for Vietnamese. I will just have to make another category and label it as other.”
Other, the catchall category that combines together every ethnicity other than black and white. It’s the closet you hide all your junk in when you want to do a fast clean up. I hated the word other. It always connoted something that wasn’t a first choice: the other women, the other friend, the other child. I didn’t want to be other.
“Can’t you write Vietnamese instead of other?” I asked.
She looked at me, her lips pursing as if she just licked an invisible lemon.
“No, I can’t because then I would have to write something different for everyone. It’s easier to just write other.” She said this congenially like a parent convincing a child to eat his vegetables.
“It’s not that important anyways,” she added.
At the time, I was hard press to argue otherwise. Being Vietnamese was the least of my priorities. If a friend had a plastic Superman watch, I wanted one. If one had a GI Joe lunch box, I wanted one. I was taking my cues on how to be an American from them. I tried to dress like them – I even wore cowboy boots with shorts because a friend did so, much to the ridicule of my siblings. I tried to get my parents to buy a set of Encyclopedia Britanica because after all, according to the brochure, almost every American family had a set. I tried to match our thrift store bed linens together, so that our beds would look like the model beds showcased in houses christened the American Dream by television commercials.
But my family showed no interest – they cared less about encyclopedias and were happy with the mismatched sheets and pillowcases. It was hard for me to be an American in a Vietnamese family.
It didn’t help that my mother planted her rau muong or water spinach in the ditch in front of our house. Similar to the texture of spinach, rau muong is a popular staple in Vietnam. It only needs a steady supply of water for it to grow so when my mother saw the ditch, she knew it was a perfect place to plant it. In no time, my mother had a nice crop of rau muong sprouting in front of our house. When she wanted some, she headed out to the ditch and snip the stalks with scissors leaving the roots behind. Freshly clipped, the tips of the roots poked out of the ground liked newly transplanted hair plugs. When my friends came over, I never mentioned the garden. To the untrained eye, the plants looked liked over-run weeds. My mother usually picked the plants in the evening before dinner, so I didn’t have to worry about my friends ever seeing her, but once she decided to pick the plants a little earlier and as chance may have it, my friends and I happened to walk by. They saw my mother in the ditch, squatting on her haunches toad-like, snipping away. All she needed was a conical hat and you could imagine her planting rice in the waterlogged fields of Vietnam.
“What is your mother doing?” one friend asked.
“Nothing,” I quickly replied.
“Does your family eat grass?” another questioned.
“No, we don’t eat grass,” I replied angrily.
“It looks like grass to me,” the friend said.
The rest nodded in agreement. That’s how it came to be that my family ate grass. A running joke that surfaced when any of my friends cut their lawns, how they would save the clippings for us. If I had been savvier, I could have retorted with a clever comeback. My mother was using the exotic miniature leaves as garnish or in a wedding bouquet or that she was a horticulturalist conducting research. But I wasn’t very clever, so I endured the ribbing.
After much pleading, my mother later moved the garden to the backyard. I figured if I couldn’t uproot my past, I could uproot the garden. The garden didn’t last and the plants died. She never grew rau muong again. From then on only cooked what she bought at the store. My mother never expressed her disappointment in the garden or in me.