My mom meets me at the bus stop on the corner after my first day of first grade. On our walk home, she asks me about my day.
“What did you learn today,” she asks.
“They called me Chinese,” I say, incredulous. I know better than to be Chinese. I was adopted from Korea, which is better than China because no one knows what it is. “Like this,” I say. I stick my pointer fingers in the side creases of my eyes and pull them so hard they shut. I stop walking because I cannot see.
“I’m not Chinese. I’m adopted.” I don’t say anything more because my mom is so quiet that it feels like there’s something wrong.
“Do you like your new teacher?” she finally asks.
I shrug. I don’t really care. She is just a lady. I do what she says, and that’s all that matters. She could be any lady. I am well-trained. I know how to please adults, to make myself acceptable.
When we are almost home, my mom puts a hand on my shoulder. We stop in the middle of the sidewalk.
“Tell them they have beach ball eyes,” she says. “When they do that to you, you do this to them.” With her pointer finger on her top eyelid and thumb on her bottom eyelid, she pries her eyes open as wide as she can.
I laugh. She looks funny. I wonder if the neighbors are watching us out there on the sidewalk. I always wonder who is looking at me.
“Practice with me,” she says, but I can’t stop laughing and I like that she looks happy again.
I push my eyes open as wide as I can, as round as possible.
“Yeah,” she says, satisfied. “Like that.”
My mom is trying to help, and it comforts me, but I know I could never do this in school. They all have beach ball eyes. The kids in my class. My teacher. My family. My mom.
Every single one of them.
This is an excerpt adapted from Joon Ae Haworth-Kaufka’s novel. All rights are reserved by the author.
Cover credit: chali_studio/Shutterstock
Last modified: October 31, 2022