What was it like as an Asian American (adopted) kid in white America? Sometimes it was hard to tell what was real. Sometimes you made real what you felt.
When I was growing up, I had one Asian friend. I can imagine my parents thinking about friendship analytically at first; I was adopted from Korea when I was 2 and a half and the adjustment was difficult. I worked with speech and physical therapists, unable to form English sounds and beaten down by disease and neglect. I nearly died from hepatitis. As I grew up, I stayed with this friend after school until my parents finished teaching. His house was a place where I could eat rice that stuck together, not what my Korean wife now would call “flying rice.” I’m not sure whether people realize that adopted kids think of themselves as the race of their parents—I must have been in elementary school before I realized I looked different from them. I felt both different and eerily similar to my Taiwanese friend, T., and his traditional—so it seemed to me—mother and father.
I can barely remember most of this; my memory has never been good. Much of my childhood feels more like a photo album. I have some vivid memories, but in between them, there’s nothing. There’s barely any context, only the feeling attached to the picture, like a ghost flitting through the frame, a chill arising seemingly out of nowhere. With T., the photo album includes Nerf gun wars, Jesus Christ anime, rice with dried fish flakes, catching falling leaves. But our favorite thing to do was to hike through the woods to the sand dunes out behind his house, where people skeet-shot and we could find bullet casings and occasionally whole bullets, which we treated like capsules of magic.
The sand dunes dominate a certain part of my imagination. Even now, I dream of being lost in those woods between the dunes and T.’s house. When I write, the woods and dunes seep into my stories. A boy in my novel-in-progress gets lost in those woods and stays up all night and something changes in him. I think I was always afraid we would somehow lose our way. T. always knew where to go. I would have gotten lost on my own—I had a terrible sense of direction even then—and I was afraid of being left behind.
The way I remember it, my imagination often built our games back then. I was the type of kid who could block out reality; when I read, my parents would shake me and ask why I hadn’t responded, and I would have no idea that they had spoken. There was a long time when I could see a book, forget that I was reading it. The words faded. I couldn’t tell you a single line I read, but I could draw the scenes for you. At some point, I lost the ability to create these mind-movies. Now, as an adult, I love words, the way they fit together, their sounds, but somehow they seduced me even more when I didn’t notice them creating in the background. Maybe this ability I had was a function of being a quiet kid, a kid who had to learn the language the hard way, who was uncomfortable with English for so long. Words were alive in a different way then. The whole world was.
In our games, I invented new worlds, which we interacted with mostly through awe and violence. I can’t remember which enemies we cut down with our sticks, or why we had to slide down the dunes to escape, but I can remember that we lived between those lives and the lives our parents described. Of course, the Asian American dilemma. The adopted child’s dilemma. The place where we were, the sand dunes, was real to us, but that real world seemed nested inside a larger and more powerful imaginary world, like Russian dolls.
As we visited the dunes more and more often, I hid what I could from my parents, sensing that they would not approve. Shell casings jingled in my pockets, and I knew what they were; I tried to explode the bullets we found whole by smashing them with rocks. I’m not sure why my friend’s mother let us roam so freely. She seemed to have a strict hold on T. when he was at home. He was homeschooled for part of elementary school and all of middle school, if I am remembering correctly, though I used to envy that, to think that was freedom. I wasn’t the most popular kid, and if not for sports would probably have been ostracized completely. Though I also won the class plenty of Pizza Hut trips, which were the prize for the school reading program then.
Even when we were both young, T. seemed to me an entirely wholesome child, as if he could never have survived public school. Perhaps that is how I set myself apart from him. Perhaps I was trying to scare him. There is one day at the dunes that sticks out in my mind in particular. We had eaten and then set out as usual to look for shotgun shells. When we came out of the woods, the dunes stretched up in front of us slightly and then down into a valley, rising up again on the opposite side. There were houses over there, in the trees. My house was somewhere over there. We climbed up the first part of the hill and threw rocks or something; I am remembering a game where we threw one rock and then tried to hit it with others, a crude form of bocce. Then we started down into the valley.
I am not sure whether I was the one who stopped us, but I remember we stopped. There was a man across from us, on the far slope, standing in front of his house. We had never seen anyone else at the dunes before, even with all the shells. We occasionally heard the shots, but we were never brave enough to seek out an encounter. Now I think we must have been extraordinarily lucky to have been alone before, though perhaps the adults were all working at that time, like my parents and T.’s father. The man stood on the dune watching us, and then, it seemed to me—I think by now my imagination had taken over again—he lifted a gun (though a pistol, not a shotgun; perhaps this sheds more doubt on that memory as real).
We ran. I was leading this time, though I was unsure of which way to turn. We ran through the woods that seemed so tall and crowded to us but which I am sure no adult would find so deep. We kicked up pine needles, past trees we had marked—I must have been asking T. which way to go as I led. The image of the man with the gun was still in my mind, and I felt sure he was either shooting at us or about to. I was zigzagging, as I must have read somewhere to do to dodge a bullet.
Then from overhead came a sound—and here I am not even sure whether there was a sound at all, I think I was already conflating the two nested worlds in my head, letting the outer imaginary world poke through the shell of reality. I know I was convinced, but I could have been convincing myself. I was good at the self-delusion necessary to immerse myself in imagination, but even in my delusion I was not obtuse—I knew I was imagining, I was simply embracing what felt most true. The sound swooped low overhead and I yelled out that a helicopter was chasing us, that the man had sent a helicopter, and T. and I ran as hard as we could; I believe he completely trusted me.
When we got back to the house, we were abuzz with the sensation of danger. Yet we knew enough, or doubted enough, to secret the experience away. We didn’t tell our parents. I don’t think this omission was because we were afraid of being banned from the dunes. I think it was because we didn’t want to spoil the memory, we didn’t want that memory to come up against the edges of the monstrously powerful suggestion of our parents’ truth. I, certainly, didn’t want anyone to take away from us the way we had survived against guns and helicopters. The imaginary accomplishment was worth far more than finding out what had actually happened.
Now, as I look back on that “chase,” I think T. must have been as eager to believe in something else, something extraordinary, as I was. It’s amazing that he didn’t question me. He was my best friend, and maybe friendship was a large part of why he didn’t. I’ve never asked him about it. I’m still secreting this memory away. At that time, I needed something to hold onto that made me a survivor of the world I was still getting used to. And now, I need the memory of a time when those worlds were blurred.
This is an excerpt from the anthology, Daddy Cool. About the book: Being a dad doesn’t mean you have to be a square. No one proves that more than the writers in Daddy Cool. Edited by Ben Tanzer, this anthology features over twenty dads writing for and about kids. This book is unlike any other, spanning all age groups, it’s a treasure to share with the whole family, and to span your child’s entire life.
–top photo via Flickr/Capital Arts Photography