Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
China Boy

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The majestic mists and roars of the Niagara Falls stopped being awe-inspiring about three hours ago. My travel companions, five-year-old Guai Guai and his father, had elevated levels of grouchiness due to the uncharacteristically scorching September heat. The unexpected multitudes of crowds and long lines interfered with everything we needed to do, even something as basic and simple as using the toilet.

"Stop. Wait for me," Guai Guai repeatedly whined, "I can't keep up with you."
I halted from a snail stroll to a full stop. "But Guai Guai, we were hardly moving."

"You're not being nice to me." Guai Guai ran away petulantly and hid behind the dehydrated trunk of a mature pine.

Guai Guai's father, David, and I located a miserable patch of shade and sat down on the bare dirt. The heat was insufferable for both of them. The walk was too much for Guai Guai. Irritated, I failed to comprehend why the physically active Guai Guai could not handle what was, from my perspective, such a small and well-paved park. I fantasized about disowning Guai Guai as soon as we returned home. I was also irritated with David, who should not have exacerbated the already difficult trip with his fastidiousness. Was it necessary to insist upon hand washing before snacking on grapes or peanut butter jelly sandwiches? Any hand-washing facility was at least a one-hour wait in line.

"Maybe he's hungry," I said.

I didn't get a verbal response, just a sullen look-away look. I included David in my fantasy about disowning my child. A divorce would take care of two birds with one stone. I vowed to never ever travel with Guai Guai and David again.

Evening came. We succeeded in dragging our weary selves to a cheap pizza joint for something Guai Guai would eat. The heat relented somewhat after a few welcoming drizzles. We sat on the sidewalk, hoping the breeze would also calm Guai Guai. I kept checking my watch and started counting down toward Guai Guai's bedtime. He would go to bed at his usual 7 p.m. No exceptions.

Instead of feeling the calming effects of the breeze and the prospect of food, Guai Guai became energized, or rather, annoyingly energized. He began to find amusement in rocking the unstable aluminum table on the uneven sidewalk, delighting in spilling water from our Styrofoam cups.

"Stop it, Guai Guai, or you'll get yourself in trouble." David and I took turns shouting out our futile warnings.

After Guai Guai grew bored with threatening to tip the table over, he ran away with my sandals. Although the sandals eventually materialized after repeated pleadings, they were replaced with yet another form of amusement. Kicking us under the table brought Guai Guai great merriment.

"Stop it, Guai Guai, I don't like what you're doing," David said through a mouthful of stromboli.

"If you keep doing to other people what they don't want you to do to them, you're not going to have any friends," I said, wishing I still lived in Taiwan where public (and, needless to say, private) spanking continued to be acceptable.

"But other people do things to me that I don't like," Guai Guai argued, "And I still talk to them."

When did Guai Guai learn to knot his eyebrows?

"For example?" David asked.

"Well, the first day of kindergarten everybody in class kept calling me China Boy, China Boy, China Boy. I didn't like that and asked them to stop. But they still kept calling me China Boy."

My stomach felt like it had been weighed down with pebbles. I saw the image of my blind hands desperately fumbling for words in the dark void of my brain, but to no avail. I had lost all the languages I knew -- Taiwanese, Chinese, English. I had lost the ability to think. I looked helplessly at Guai Guai's father. David, too, looked lost for a response. Thankfully, by this time, Guai Guai had discovered another form of amusement by checking out garbage bins on the sidewalk and running away in dramatic fright from the bees.
After taking a few more bites of his pasta, David finally said, "Did you tell your teacher about it?"

"I finally did. The teacher asked them to stop, so they stopped." Guai Guai danced back to our table to take a bite of pizza.

"Why didn't you tell us right away?" David asked. A week had passed since the first day of school.

"Well, they stopped after the teacher asked them to. And I just forgot about it until today."

David and I hurried down the rest of our dinner in silence. I had wanted to only taste the buffalo wings, but ended up taking comfort in the whole dozen, my fingers and chin dripping with orange-colored grease.

Back at the hotel, Guai Guai pleaded to have a few turns on the escalators before bedtime. I looked at my watch: 7:30. Guai Guai's eyes gleamed and widened with anticipation. I looked for traces of the China Boy in him, whatever that term meant. He looked like a unique mixed-blood to me. My unique little boy. His engaging, dark brown eyes narrowed into crescent moons when he smiled: "Please, Mama, please." Why did I ever think of disowning him? We were on vacation. We could make exceptions to bedtime rules.

I told David we could use a drink. We were partners again, our minds preoccupied with the same thought. The difficult afternoon seemed a remote memory.

"What are we going to do?" I asked David.

"I don't know," said David.

I didn't know either. Could Guai Guai have made up the story? At the information meeting before the start of the term, didn't the Principal of the elementary school advise the parents not to believe every word our child told us?

"Nah, not this kind of story," said David.

"Right. I don't think he'd even heard of the phrase 'China Boy' before," I said.

"These kids must have gotten the phrase from their parents," David said.

As we sat at the bar watching Guai Guai ride up and down on the escalators, I sensed impotent anger rising from my gut. I recalled telling David, after the Principal's introductory address, that Guai Guai would be the only kid with "a questionable racial profile."

"This is precisely why I was worried when I saw that all of the parents were white, except for me. Can't we move to a big city where there are more colored folks?"

My comment was counter-productive. Yet, feeling powerless to protect Guai Guai, I vented my anger on David for choosing to live in such a provincial little town. Somewhere, in another city, where the races mingled, would be a perfect world where nobody would pick on Guai Guai. I knew that dream world existed. Somewhere.

I also recalled a conversation with neighbor Bill in the yard in August. David had inquired about the heightened security during a basketball game hosted by the local high school. Bill explained rumor had it that about 70 percent of the audience would be black, and said, "You know what them blacks are like, and that's why the police blocked off traffic to the residential areas to protect us." It turned out not a single black person was in the audience.

David received a look from me that he knew all too well. It was a why-are-we-living-here look. A why-are-we-associating-with-this-kind-of-person look. I wanted to get up from the lawn chair and retire to the house. Instead, I sat politely and smiled awkwardly as Bill gulped down his can of Old Style. I was disgusted with myself for not knowing what to say to him.

"I think we should talk to the teacher," David suggested.

"The teacher -- by the way, where was the teacher during that time?" I raised my voice.

"I was thinking the same thing."

"You talk to the teacher." I took shallower, quicker breaths. My nostrils twitched. "I'd be so angry that I'd alienate the teacher. You're the diplomatic one."

Two days after we had returned to Illinois, David went to see Guai Guai's teacher.

"Well, Mrs. C said she was just as shocked as we were to have heard of this incident."

"You mean according to Mrs. C, Guai Guai never talked to the teacher about it and nobody asked the kids to stop calling him China Boy?" Once again, I was lost. Could my child be a congenital liar? Could it be that the whole China Boy incident never happened?

"That's what she said. She said if it did happen, she wasn't in the room."

"But Guai Guai said he did ask the teacher to intervene." Being a loyal mother, I wanted to believe his story. "Don't kindergartners always have a teacher in the room with them?"

"Mrs. C suggested I check with the Extended Care Program."

David's talk with the head teacher of the ECP produced the same result as with Mrs. C. The head teacher had not heard of it, but promised to check with the other care-takers at the after-school program. David did not hear from her again.

"I think we should let it drop," David said when I suggested we follow up with the ECP teacher, "We've already alerted two key persons' attention to this issue."

"I can't believe this. Nobody was willing to admit that the kids called Guai Guai 'China Boy.' "

"Perhaps we didn't talk to the person who intervened."

"You don't think Guai Guai made up the story, do you?"

"No, I don't think he did."

"Shouldn't we write a letter to the Principal?"

"Pursuing it any further might create an adverse effect."

I understood what David was thinking. He, too, wanted to protect Guai Guai. He did not want to give the impression that Guai Guai's parents were troublemakers. He wanted Guai Guai to be liked by his teachers.

We never talked to Guai Guai about how we felt, or about having talked with his teachers. We knew we should have, but we did not know how or what to say. We also knew that Guai Guai would be confronted with names like this again, perhaps many more times throughout his life.

About three months after the Niagara trip, when Guai Guai and I were shopping for Christmas presents at Barnes and Noble, he asked out of no context,

"Do I look Chinese, Mama?"

"Er . . ." I looked at him intently and paused for a long time searching for the right words, "I don't think so, Guai Guai. You look like a good combination of Baba and me."

"Are you Chinese, Mama?"

"I'm Taiwanese."

"Are Taiwanese also Chinese?"

"Some people might say that." How could I begin to explain the cultural-political implications?

"Maybe that's why the other kids called me China Boy."

My stomach felt heavy, just as the first time Guai Guai told us the story on the sidewalk outside the pizza joint in Buffalo. My mind started churning: either kids at school were calling him China Boy again or Guai Guai had been processing the problem and the healing by himself. I did not know how to discuss this issue with him, but I knew that his father and I could not be with him all the time to protect him. It was necessary then for Guai Guai to sort some things out for himself.

At the bookstore, Guai Guai was standing in a small rectangle of sunlight, his hair a lighter shade of dark brown than mine mixed with a reddish tint from his father. My throat tightened, and a sour sensation crept up my nose.

"Come, Guai Guai," I patted his head, comforting him the only way I knew how. "Let's have a piece of cake and some tea."

Shu-Huei Henrickson is a writer from Taiwan who lives and teaches in Rockford, Illinois. Her work has appeared in Fiction International; Toddler: Real-Life Stories of Those Fickle, Irrational, Urgent, Tiny People We Love; Susie Bright’s The Best American Erotica 2005; and elsewhere. Prone to frequent attacks of wanderlust, she has traveled to Morocco, Russia, Japan, Malaysia, Turkey, Norway, England, and dozens of other countries.

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