Can I Sit with You?

Two Braids
January 16, 2008, 8:01 am
Filed under: elementary school, fitting in, hairstyles, race, school bus

N. Chandani
Elementary School

Both of my parents came to the United States with the hope of prosperity. My mother and father, both doctors, met each other in New York and shortly after, got married. I have one brother who is four years older.

I still vividly remember the first years of grade school with horror. Growing up in India, my mom always had long thick black hair that was made into two braids like Pippi Longstocking. So in turn, she dressed me the same way for school in the United States. It was difficult enough to have a different name than everyone else, let alone I was the only girl in first grade to have long thick black hair and two braids attached to my head. Let’s just say Pocahontas was my newly established name. All of the other first grade girls had simple and pretty names like Sarah and Julie. They had short blonde hair with cute barrettes and ribbons. I pondered time after time why couldn’t my mother see this? Was she blind? At that moment I didn’t want to be Indian, I just wanted to be a normal first grader. Every day I would beg my mom profusely, to please, let me have one braid. I would have done anything: eat my vegetables, do my homework, anything to get rid of the dreaded two braids. But no. Every day she would put those two ugly braids in my hair and off to school I would go.

I had one trick up my sleeve. As soon as I got on the big yellow bus to go to school, I would wrap one braid around to the other shoulder to give an illusion of one braid. It was pathetic, yes, I know, but all I wanted was to fit in so desperately. I remember one time in particular when I had school pictures. My mom, as usual, made two braids in my hair and even got a little fancy with pink sparkly barrettes and a little rouge on my cheeks. This time when I got on the bus, I got the courage to take out the braids completely. Finally, for the first time, I felt like everyone else. I took my first grade pictures confidently with my hair free and flowing.

A couple of months later my mom received my school pictures. She didn’t say much but the look is one I will never forget. It was a look of hurt and disappointment. A look of pain that only a mother could have. At the time I did not realize what the big deal was. I thought my mother’s goal in life was to make me miserable. What was the big deal if my hair was in braids or just let loose?

I am twenty-one now and I believe just recently, I have understood why this meant so much to my mother. The braids were meaningless, but the symbolism of them was everything. You see in my mother’s eyes her little girl was denying her culture. Every time I asked her to take out my braids it made her feel as if I was embarrassed of her and where we come from. My mother knew that over time I would lose certain parts of my culture but I don’t believe she thought it would begin so early. Perhaps this is why she held on to the braids. She wanted me to have piece of who she was. She never asked me to put the braids in my hair again, and to be honest I was not about to ask her to.

Today, I still have a tough time looking at myself as the world truly sees me. When I look at myself, I see me as I see everyone else around me; sometimes I forget that I am not Caucasian. I am Indian. No matter what I do I can’t run from it or deny it. Not even freeing myself from Pippi Longstocking and Pocahontas can help me run away from who I am. I am, and will always be, the little girl with long black hair and two braids. I will always have the name no one can pronounce, the name that stands out. There will never be a time when I can be the girl with blonde hair and blue eyes. I won’t have the family who drinks milk with their dinner and – I am happy for that. Even if I don’t look, act, or sound like everyone else, that’s okay. There comes a point in each person’s life when they can either use their differences as an advantage or be inhibited by those differences.

Never let adversity define your life.


Schooltime Story
December 3, 2007, 8:01 am
Filed under: cruelty, elementary school, fitting in, race, self esteem, yearbook

by Mariann Vlacilek
Fifth Grade

Back in grade school, in Huntington Beach, California (in the 1940s), I felt so out of place, plain and unnoticed. I was very thin, and olive complected with long, straight, dark hair plus I felt like I was all arms and legs. I was born in Panama and my mother was Castilian and French, ergo the complexion that is now called “Mediterranean.” I grew to envy all the girls at school with light skin and blue or green eyes. One girl in particular had red hair and green eyes, and I though she was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.

Sometimes, I was mistaken for another race and even called by a racial slur. At one point, this actually led to an altercation in the nurse’s office. I am a very laid-back person but enough was enough! This was so very hurtful and damaging to me and I became even more self-conscious, and suffered a great loss of self-confidence.

It was a custom at my school that members of the graduating class would compile a list of underclassmen’s traits that they admired and would like to have, and then publish it in the yearbook. Imagine my utter amazement and disbelief when my name appeared on their list not once but twice — it had been unanimously voted that I had the most beautiful eyes and hands! Me … the fifth grader with the long dark hair and olive skin. ME!

This was somewhat of a turning point for me. It made me realize that I wasn’t an unnoticed nobody, and that there was something of me that was admirable. I should have learned from this, but the previous hurts were so deeply embedded that I bottled them up inside me, for years.

I didn’t fully realize the lesson of being listed in the yearbook at the time. It didn’t hit me until some thirty years later, when I looked in the mirror one day, and that little girl seemed to reflect back at me. At that moment I learned from her that, although thought of as pretty, I was also someone of value. That changed my life.

Every so often, I think back and am once again thankful and amazed that these “older” girls actually wanted something of mine that they didn’t and couldn’t have!

Spitting Image
November 1, 2007, 7:01 am
Filed under: elementary school, middle school, name-calling, orchestra, race, school bus

by John H. Kim
Age 10 at the time

Fifth grade was a low point in my life. I had finally made some friends in third grade, and gotten through fourth. Then we moved to the other side of the mountain, to a huge, run-down old house overlooking the Hudson River. My parents had bought it as a fixer-upper, and I think got a real deal. It had a four-and-a-half acre mostly wooded lot, with a garage that used to be an old stable. There were no other houses for quite a distance, which made it kind of lonely.

We lived off highway 9W instead of a regular street, so the school bus didn’t stop near our house. I walked to school instead, which was only a quarter-mile if I cut through our enormous mountain lot to the dead end of Franklin Street. This involved trekking through a wide grassy path through the woods, past an old swimming pool. The walk was bearable some days, but when I had orchestra practice and had to lug my French horn, it was a real pain.

I had a hard time adjusting to the new school. I missed my friends Mark and Jason, and would call them on the phone a lot. At some point into the school year I finally invited someone from orchestra over to our house. I can’t remember his name anymore. I remember he played a woodwind of some sort, certainly something a lot lighter to lug to my house than a French horn.

When he came over, my mother was home. She brought us some snacks, then we looked through my stuff and around the house. We didn’t talk about anything in particular, and didn’t play games like I did with my old friends. Then we went outside to the big yard. The garden was still probably a mess, but it was big. Suddenly, he got mad over something, and yelled, “The problem with you is that you think you’re the spitting image of your mother!” Then he stalked off.

I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about.

I couldn’t recall exactly what we had been talking over, but it didn’t seem to involve my mother. I cast my mind in all directions, trying to think what it could mean. Was it some sort of clever dig at my looks? I hated clever insults, or rather I hated being embarrassed for not understanding them. Was it a play on words, something about “spitting”? Insults often seem to invoke mothers.

Then something occurred to me. My mother was white, and my father was Korean. Did that have something to do with it? I still didn’t understand why he said that, but it did seem to make a sort of sense. In fact, I realized he was right. I didn’t think of myself as Korean at all. I didn’t interact with my father much, so most of my mannerisms came from my mother.

Still, it was a puzzle. My visitor was white, but I think he was from an immigrant family of some sort, maybe Eastern European. What would make him say that? I couldn’t remember what would prompt that, but then, I didn’t remember much about what we talked about anyway. As far as I can remember, we didn’t talk or hang out after that for the rest of the year. I certainly never asked him what he meant by it, or what made him say it.

It did make me think about a lot of things. I still remembered some of the popular chants from elementary school. One was “A fight! A fight! A nigger and a white!” Another was “Chinese; Japanese; Dirty knees; Look at these!” — done pushing up and down your eyebrows, then pulling out your shirt like breasts. I didn’t understand what was behind those rhymes as I thought about what he had said, but I somehow knew they were related.

I made it through the rest of the year at that middle school, but I never made any friends. The next year, my parents put me in a private prep school across the river. It was a long bus ride, but the bus would stop at our house. Some things changed, but others didn’t. I still didn’t think of myself as Korean for the most part, but sometimes I would stop and think about the incident, and my image.