My sister Lisa, my brother Adam, and I are the three youngest in our family: we are the American-born kids all relatively close in age, so we spent a lot of time together playing as kids.
One game that we came up with in our childhood was called “The Carpet Game”: in our first house, our parents had a lot of carpets/rugs throughout the first floor, sometimes even carpets-upon-carpets. So our game consisted of jumping from each carpet and make it through the first floor without touching the floor, aka the “hot lava”.
When there weren’t any carpets, we would step from chair to chair to make sure we wouldn’t touch the hot lava. It was quite an obstacle course to get through! I remember one time we had tried to switch the game into opposites, stepping onto the floor instead of onto carpets. That served to be even more difficult, so we gave up on that idea.
I was relatively injury-free as a child except for a few times where I hit my nose (more on that in a later post). I loved wearing dress shoes when I was a kid, despite the fact that these shoes had no real traction when walking. My grandparents’ house was two houses away from my home, so my brother Adam and I walked a lot back and forth with our grandmother since she was our primary guardian during the early years of grade school.
Once, I was walking from my grandparents’ house back to my house alone: not quite sure why I was walking alone considering I was still under the age of ten, but it wasn’t like the neighborhood was dangerous. The only road I had to cross was a small side street, Madison Street (or, as the sign was misspelled for many years, ‘Madsion’).
I was wearing my dress shoes during this time and had just crossed Madison Street when suddenly I slipped right outside the fence of my house. I immediately felt a sharp pain in my foot and, according to my sister Lisa, I was screaming so loud that she ran out to find me on the side of the sidewalk crying and screaming. I couldn’t walk right, so she helped me limp my way into the house.
I don’t recall what happened next, but I do remember I had to go get x-rays and the doctor said I had sprained my left ankle. I had to get a cast: since it was around Christmas, I chose a green cast with little Santas printed all around. I stressed over what I was going to do in school since I had to use crutches: the first day I went back to school with my cast, I remember my dad carried me into the multi-purpose room (where all students sat and waited for class to begin) on his back, and I felt embarrassed for some reason. After that day, I got used to using my crutches.
Showering was also a hassle with the cast on: since my parents and my grandmother were paranoid about my cast getting wet, they took garbage bags and put my leg into one while I sat in the bathtub letting one of the adults bathe me.
I don’t remember how long I kept the cast on, but I know that after I got my cast off, I never wore dress shoes again.
Like most immigrant parents, my parents wanted my siblings and me to have a more-or-less typical American childhood, with our Chinese heritage weaved in there for good measure. We participated in activities through school: sang in choir, joined after-school programs, et. al. I know for certain that my sister Lisa and I were in Girl Scouts when we were kids (unsure of my oldest sister though).
I joined Girl Scouts because my sister told me how she enjoyed the program. One of my classmates’ mom was a troop leader, so I joined her troop as a Brownie and stayed up through sixth grade. I didn’t quite understand the concept of badges, other than the fact that perhaps I should collect as many as possible. I admit, I cut a few corners when it came to earning badges in Girl Scouts (maybe I wasn’t the only one? Who knows…), and our troop leader didn’t have much of a verification process, so badges were handed out like candy.
My sister and I were stars at selling Girl Scout cookies though: we had the advantage of our parents’ restaurant, all their employees, plus customers and family friends. We would pin up our order form in the restaurant and retrieve the full form at the end of the order period; it was very effortless. When it came time for the cookies to be delivered, we would accumulate many boxes of Girl Scout cookies in our study upstairs in our house and spend time counting out each cookie box and type to set aside for our customers.
One early memory of my being in Girl Scouts and then realizing I was different from the other kids happened sometime in first grade: I was inviting home a classmate to play with me after school! I was excited and remembered I couldn’t wait to show my classmate my toys. We got a ride home from my dad and was greeted by my grandmother. I spoke to my grandmother in Taishanese and my classmate gave me the side-eye. I then proceeded to give her a little tour of our house, showing her our incense area in the back room and then going upstairs to the study to show her my toys. Lots of Girl Scout cookie boxes were sitting on the couch upstairs in the study at that point.
Out of nowhere, my classmate started crying and I couldn’t understand why. I tried to comfort her with promise of a Girl Scout cookie, but she refused. After only a short time at my house, she requested to call her mom to take her home. I still didn’t understand what had gone wrong since we were supposed to play until dinnertime.
Her mother came to my house and picked her up and I still didn’t know what I had done to make her feel upset. Our friendship at school stayed lukewarm and she never spoke of the reason why she was uncomfortable.
Even though I thought I was like the rest of my classmates and fellow Girl Scout members, I realized after that moment that I was different, very different.
My parents owned a Chinese restaurant named Canton (named after the region my parents grew up in in China, now known as Guangdong) in our little town of Radford for about thirty years. Growing up, I knew that my relatives and my older siblings helped out at the restaurant while my grandparents took care of me, my brother Adam, and our younger cousins.
The first time I was exposed to Sunday lunchtime at Canton was in grade school, after attending Sunday school with my siblings. We were dropped off at the restaurant and sat in the kitchen, watching in amazement as our dad multi-tasked, directing orders to employees and cooking at lightning speed for both eat-in and take-out orders. Meanwhile, our mom ran around helping out with any frying needs and packing up the takeout orders meticulously, checking off each item on the takeout menus.
As I grew up and got to help out more at the restaurant, I got to experience this organized chaos a lot more, and found it both mesmerizing and frustrating: for instance, in the dining area, it was also chaotic, with many locals lining up outside the door waiting to be seated. Some parties arrived with eight or more people, expecting there to be a table ready for them, despite the fact that none of them called in reservations. I’d go running into the back of the dining area, scooting tables together haphazardly and apologizing profusely to the waiting parties.
Considering the lunch options were limited in town, we got most of the locals in on Sundays, and the big rush really only occurred between 11:30am and 1pm; the rest of Sunday after that was pretty slow.
Looking back, I am amazed that we did as much business as we did, especially with the limited staff on-hand. Most of the credit goes to my parents though, for being able to still work efficiently under pressure.
I remember being carried around in a mei tai, or a baby sling, by my grandmother. We had a mei tai in a basket-weave style, and I remember watching my grandmother tie the sling onto her while my brother Adam or any of our younger cousins waited patiently on her back.
I remember thinking that these mei tai looked complicated to get on! But as you can see from the video above, they’re actually easier to put on than expected. I know these days (and maybe even back then in the late 1980s) that there are more ‘advanced’ models of baby slings, but I am curious to find a traditional one like what my grandmother and my mother used.
My brother Adam said one of his earliest memories from childhood was of falling asleep in a bag and then waking up on my grandmother’s back as she carried him in a mei tai walking the three of us back to her house (my grandparents’ house was only two houses away from my parents’ house).
Maybe one day I can find a similar mei tai that my grandmother had; I don’t think my parents have any more of those since I don’t recall my older siblings using mei tai when their kids were babies.