Chapter Four in The Guidebook to Orange County, California, 1994 edition, said coyotes mostly avoided humans, but I’d skipped that part. Before moving to America, I read that damn book from cover to cover, everything but the chapter on wildlife. In Singapore, the only wild animals we saw were mongrels and feral cats. Dad always talked about America like everything there was bigger, like shit that happened there actually mattered. Mom laughed, called him a Yankee potato-eater, but I guess he wasn’t kidding after all. In fact, it was as though this fanged motherfucker showed up on our front yard just to prove him right — four days before Christmas, three months before my seventeenth birthday, our first week on American soil.
The coyote inched closer. I froze. Screaming was no use – Mom and Dad were out back with the realtor, and Debbie was upstairs, asleep in her bassinet. Great, I thought. After selling everything we owned, crying tearful goodbyes, and crossing an ocean, this is what I get. Death by Cujo. Welcome to America.
When the coyote stopped moving, I bent down slowly to pick up a rock. As my fist tightened around it, his ears pricked up. He darted away, swift as a comet, zig-zagging through the blow-up Santas and nativity scenes. I didn’t let go until his bushy tail disappeared from view, until all I saw was a blur of manicured lawns at perfect right angles, inlaid with beige, nondescript tract houses. He disappeared behind the Padgett’s ridiculous sleigh display, and I heard Ed Padgett yell Fuck! Fuck! Stop pissing!
I won’t lie, that shit made me laugh.
Three days earlier, Ed had been the first neighbor to say hi. He loped up the driveway while we were unloading boxes and suitcases, breath foggy in the brisk December air, wearing shorts and a thin T-shirt with a tank-like imperviousness against the cold.
Ed pumped our hands, said he lived five doors down, pointing at a house identical to ours, except his dripped with Christmas lights and had two hulking Escalades parked out front. He asked Dad which part of China we were from (no, no, Singapore, is different country); why we chose to settle in Orange County (Land of the Free, also house was cheap!), and when he and Mom were signing me up for the Miss America pageant (this one? Oh no, she studying to get into good college).
“Nancy and I are having a Christmas party on Sunday. You guys should come. Couple of neighbors are swinging by.”
“Cool,” said Dad. I shot Mom a look. Who was this guy? He’d never used that word before. “Cool” was what Singaporean teens were obsessed with in 1995: fake Michael Jordan “23” jerseys and Fresh Prince of Bel Air re-runs on Channel 5. “Cool” was bootlegged Cypress Hill CDs and contraband Beavis and Butthead posters sold by Indian merchants at Far East Plaza. “Cool” wasn’t my Dad, the Recent Chinese Immigrant, Mr. FOB-alicious himself, rolling down our street in a white Toyota minivan and matching white Nikes.
“You might wanna put up some Christmas lights, by the way. Don’t want people around here thinking you’re Jewish, know what I mean?”
Mom and Dad laughed politely. I raised my eyebrows. We knew exactly what he meant.
The night of the Christmas party, Mom broke the garbage disposal. We couldn’t find any Chinese markets in Anaheim Hills, so we gave up on the idea of a home-cooked Singaporean dinner and bought a bucket of chicken from KFC instead. The realtor had told Mom that garbage disposals could handle any type of food waste, so in went the chicken bones, plastic lid, and scrunched up bucket.
“It’s jammed!” yelled Mom, “something’s burning!”
Dad sighed, flipped the switch off and reached into the drain hole. “Aiya, Meng, how could you be so careless? You just can’t stuff things in there. How are we going to survive here if you can’t even…”
“Me? I didn’t want to move, it was you! You, you, you! We had a big family, had a maid, I didn’t have to mop the floors like a servant! All because of your stupid American dream, our daughters will grow up and marry white guys and my grandchildren will stink of hamburgers and won’t look Chinese…”
“Enough lah! We have a party in thirty minutes!”
“A ‘paw-dy?’ Listen to yourself, talking like ang moh. Are we going to walk into an orgy? Who knows what white people do behind closed doors, so dirty-dirty…”
Meanwhile, behind the wall with the free Singapore Botanical Gardens calendar, up the white carpeted stairs that Mom covered in plastic sheeting, past the second-floor bathroom with its unfamiliar bidet, I stared at a pile of clothes, agonizing over what to wear for My Very First American Party.
It wasn’t an easy choice. In Singapore, I was a slam dunk nerd at St. Nicholas Girls’ School, a girl so terminally awkward and gangly, even the outcast lesbians on the softball team pointed to my flat chest and yelled “Airstrip!” But I was a Tan; shared a surname with two cousins, both St. Nick’s grads and Ivy Leaguers, could barely sneak a cigarette in that tiny city without someone running and telling my mom.
No one knew that under those neatly-folded layers of collared shirts and chaste below-the-knee skirts, I had amassed a growing repository of rebellion. Exhibit A: a CD of the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks, banned in Singapore, purchased furtively during a family trip to Kuala Lumpur; Exhibit B: a dog-eared copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves, responsible for my explorations on the bathroom floor with a small hand mirror, and the happy accident of my first orgasm, and; Exhibit C: the April 1992 issue of Sassy Magazine with Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love kissing on the cover, proof that bad girls were the shit.
This was it, my one chance to shake off the manacles of nerd-dom, break out of my Perpetual Virgin funk; embrace California’s tradition of shameless reinvention. I ran my hands over the lacy, black Wonder Bra with its tags still on. I never wanted to hear “Airstrip” again.
By the time Dad called up the stairs for everyone to leave, a whole hour had passed. I met Mom on the landing. We eyed each other in disbelief. I was in a P.J. Harvey T-shirt, ripped jeans, steel-toed Docs, and eyeliner that flared out in thick black wings. Mom wasn’t wearing her usual shorts and flip flops. That night, she rocked a crisp navy blue skirt suit with brass buttons and patent heels. Two women trying our hardest to look formidable. Visually un-fuckwithable.
“You look like the devil,” said Mom.
“And you look like…a Chinese Hillary Clinton.”
During the walk to Ed’s house, Dad fussed with his Windsor knot and suit jacket, which told me he was nervous too. Mom, with Debbie slung over one hip, was uncharacteristically silent, the only sounds she made the soft click clack of heels on pavement, this from a woman whose running commentary on life should have landed her a reality show. It was so quiet that if not for the line of cars around Ed’s house, you’d never know there was a party going on.
A Singaporean party would have announced itself from blocks away. First, the smells of sizzling bak kwa or rojak, poh piah if your folks were going big that night and wanted to impress the guests, Mom warning you and your cousins not to sneak bites at the buffet table before the adults had filled their plates. You wouldn’t care anyway, just roll upstairs with them to trade Doraemon comics or giggle at hentai porn, maybe head back down again when someone’s granddad unfurled the mahjong table and shouted for XO shots, shots you and your friends would snake when no one was looking. By 9:00pm, Second Aunt, who detested fake Hermes scarves and her husband with equal passion, would descend into a full-fledged screaming match with him. The elders would mediate, recite that old proverb, “Four Generations, Peaceful Under One Roof”; the kids scurrying into the den, distracting themselves with the home karaoke machine.
“Some party,” Mom sniffed. “I’ve been to wakes with more noise.”
Dad rang the doorbell.
What happened next was like that Martin episode where Gina rolls up to a party with her new guy, a richboy and confirmed herb, and the record screeches to a halt while everyone swivels around to scope out what’s what.
That actually happened, except with an ocean full of surprised white faces. White, white. As in: L.L. Bean-wearing, Hope Figurines-collecting, unironic Christmas sweater-wearing, white. Mom, old Commonwealth schoolgirl’s manners taking over, handed Debbie over to Dad while extending a smooth hand to Ed’s wife like a mayoral candidate.
“This is my sixteen year old, Beverly; this is my husband, Dennis. The little one’s Debbie – she’s sound asleep because she just had her bottle.”
“My,” said Nancy Padgett, all platinum hair and frosted pink lips. “Welcome. You’re all very dressed up. Didn’t Ed tell you we keep it casual?” I stole a glance at Dad, now glowering at Mom, and knew they’d be beefing into the night because she’d insisted he wear a tie for a “proper impression.”
Nancy waved two teenagers over. Even under the soft recessed lighting, the constellation of freckles against their milky-white faces was dizzying. “This is Scott and Paige. Paige graduates from Canyon High this year; Scott’s a junior at UCI. My big babies.”
“Mooom,” Scott groaned.
She pouted and patted him on the shoulder. “You kids go show Bev around. I’m sure she doesn’t want to hang out with the oldies. You don’t have to take off your shoes, dear.”
I stopped unlacing my Docs and looked at Mom, who shot me a look that said go along with the crazy white folks.
On the way up the stairs, I tried not linger at the framed photographs: twenty-something Nancy on her wedding day, all smiles and big ass tulle ballgown, sharing wedding cake with Ed, who looked like a younger, huskier version of Marlon Brando. Further up, a diapered baby Scott sprawled out on a shaggy blue rug, peering unsteadily into the camera. Every few steps, the people in the photos aged by five years, until we reached the top, and I was faced with a shot of the Padgetts in camping gear; Ed and Nancy toasting with Rolling Rocks next to a campfire; Scott and Paige in the foreground, marshmallow skewers crossed in combat.
So it’s true. White families actually go camping. I couldn’t wait to call and tell Xuejiao back home. I must have been staring too long, because Paige noticed, rolled her eyes dramatically. “Ugh. I hate that picture. My thighs are like, gigantic in it.”
“You’ll have to excuse my sister, she’s always on a diet,” said Scott. “Check out her room.” He flipped the lights on. It was like being suctioned into a hundred Calvin Klein ads. Every square inch of Paige’s bedroom was covered with moody black and white shots of Kate Moss: Kate Moss, naked, hair slicked back, doe eyes leveled at the camera. In an aerial shot, lit cigarette trellising smoke in one hand, the other carelessly flung above her head. She was even on the ceiling, all elbows and jutting collarbones, peering down with eyes so vacant my head spun and I had to look away.
“It’s motivation, Scott,” said Paige.
“You really don’t need to diet,” I said, “you look good.”
She shook her head. “I’m like, a total heifer. I’m on diet pills. Mom says I have another five pounds to go.”
In Scott’s room, we sat on the floor while he rifled through his CD collection.
“What do you listen to? I have Oasis…Weezer…Pearl Jam…”
“Scott, she’s Japanese, she’s into to Japanese stuff. Duh.”
Were these people for real? “Uh, no. I’m from Singapore. Cypress Hill’s big there. And Nirvana. You have any of that?”
They exchanged bemused glances.
“I don’t have Cypress Hill here, I don’t think,” said Scott carefully, “that’s more of like, an L.A. county gangbanger thing. I’ll put on some Chili Peppers, how about that?”
Downstairs, I could hear the din of the party growing, Ed’s voice rising above the chatter to tell some story about this Southwest Airlines stewardess who had a set of gams like you wouldn’t believe, how he picked an aisle seat just to watch that perfect ass push a drink cart up and down, how Nancy lucked out when he got home because that gal sure did prime him, haha. Somewhere in the ripple of ensuing laughter, I heard Dad and Mom chuckling politely, Nancy chiming in with an indulgent Oh, Ed.
“He loves that story,” said Paige, “I don’t know why.”
I nodded. “Yeah, my Dad’s like that too. It could be a generational thing. I’ve told him how sexist he sounds sometimes. He won’t listen.”
“I mean, I don’t know if my dad’s sexist,” Scott frowned, “He doesn’t buy that Women’s Lib bullshit, but he totally thinks women should have the right to vote. He’s just being funny.”
“Totally,” said Paige, “I’m not, like, a feminist, you know? Because I can take a joke?”
“I guess you’re right.” Fucking speak up for yourself, I thought, but I knew I wouldn’t, knew it the minute that shit flew out of my mouth, but how could I call them out, after they’d invited me to sit Indian style on the floor with Give it Away playing, after I’d heard Mom asking Nancy for her eggnog recipe, surely our first step to becoming American?
Over there, you can say or do whatever you want, said Dad, but here and there had swapped places, and I was trying to fit in again, not speaking up like a dumb bitch again, just like I’d done back home. So far, America didn’t make me feel more free; it just reminded me of all the different ways in which I stuck out, a list that was growing by the day.
Scott waved a hand in my face. “Are you okay?”
Not really. Your freeways are wide and terrifying; cars go too fast, cars of all kinds, but no one walks. There’s no life in your streets; no night markets with hot snacks or diesel fumes or gossip, just gray arcs of concrete studded with billboards of laughing people. I’m supposed to kneel and kiss the ground or some shit, but I feel like we’ve made a huge mistake. Worst of all, Singapore’s thirteen hours behind, which means I literally have to travel back in time to go home, so I can’t. Ever.
“Yeah, sorry. Just thinking about some stuff.”
“Okaaay then,” said Paige, “relax. Are you Japanese always this intense?”
Downstairs, I found the only room with no one in it; the formal living room. The beige leather couch was so unused it still smelled new, on a vanilla-colored rug which was the exact same shade as the walls, on which hung a cross-stitch tapestry that said Be Still and Know That I Am God. I swear that shit was color coordinated too. The Christmas tree blinked red and green in the corner, and from the backyard, I could hear some woman laughing in the way that married white women do when they’re tipsy and flirting, but have to tone it down because their man’s close by. Someone had changed the CD to an Eagles album, and you could tell by the way some guys were singing along to Hotel California that the song meant something to them, like maybe it reminded them of a time when they weren’t adults in beige houses with matching wallpaper. I thought of Mom and Dad out there and smiled; Dad never sang, only tapped his feet awkwardly to Chinese oldies; Mom hummed along to old Rodgers and Hammerstein records. This crowd wasn’t jamming to Tong Nian or Happy Talk any time soon.
I’ll have that someday, I thought, with my own friends. We’ll sit around a beach bonfire, but first I’ll have to learn the chords to “All Apologies”. Maybe a guy will ask me out, preferably someone who looks like Johnny Depp and surfs.
I didn’t notice Ed until he was right in front of me, arms flung wide, bursting into song.
“Theere she is, Miss Ameeerica!”
“Hey, Mr. Ed.”
He tipped his head back and laughed so wide I could see the fillings in his back teeth.
“Oh man. You’re funny, you know that?”
“Mr. Ed. The TV show. With the talking horse. You guys didn’t have that in China?”
I let that one slide. “No, I don’t think so.”
“Too bad. Call me Ed. None of this mister business.” He hoisted up his jeans and plopped onto the couch, throwing his legs on the coffee table. I could smell him from where I was sitting, all cologne and musk and whiskey, with something artificially sweet, like peppermint mouthwash. He swirled his drink, ice-cubes clinking against the glass.
“Kids gave you the grand tour?”
“Yes, your house is beautiful.”
He leaned back. “They’re nice kids. Paige I don’t have to worry about, little on the chubby side, but she’s got a good head on her shoulders. Scott on the other hand, kid has it tough. Too shy, not a lot of luck with the ladies, just doesn’t have that…killer instinct, you know?”
I nodded, but all I could think about was how fucking awkward this was, how in Singapore, I’d call him “uncle,” not “Ed”, and everything was so much simpler, adults talking like regular adults, not acting like they were your friend, not sharing their feelings and sprawling out and taking up space like both of you were sharing the same bed.
Ed’s bloodshot eyes were animated. “He asks this girl to prom, right? And before the limo comes, I take him aside and tell him, Son, two things you need to know. One, gotta use a rubber, always. Two, you’re taking a Mexican girl; she’ll give it up easy, but you gotta take her to breakfast the next morning, make her feel special, or she’ll get all Fatal Attraction on you. Know what this kid does? He drops her off and comes home by 12! Says to me, Dad, I didn’t even try.”
Outside, the opening bars to Conga started up. Someone yelled “whoooo” and a loud splash came from the pool. Everyone cracked up, even me, mostly at the corny 80’s tunes, but also because I remembered Second Aunt’s karaoke bit to Gloria Estefan; Second Aunt with her thick Teochew accent, who would down a shot of XO, grab the mic, and bust out some truly horrible moves with her arthritic hips. Cousin Grace once laughed so hard she pissed her pants, which only made us scream harder.
“…Nancy, man, Nancy’s babied that kid too much. Made him soft. Does him no good in life. I mean, would you go for him?”
“Don’t be shy. You heard me.”
Don’t talk about Scott’s acne. Or his Bart Simpsons shirt. “Maybe. He’s nice. I wouldn’t know. I’ve never had a boyfriend.”
Ed shifted in his seat. “Naaw. You’re shitting me. Pretty girl like you? How old are you, anyway?”
“Sixteen. Seventeen in August.”
He whistled in disbelief, and I noticed for the first time how flushed his face was, how the red traveled all the way down his bulbous nose and wide neck, snaked through the swelling arteries in his forearms, emptied out like tributaries into pink, sausage-like fingers that held his glass in a vise grip.
“If I were my boy,” he growled, “I’d ask you out in a second.”
Near my feet, someone had worried a threadbare spot into the carpet. I covered it with my big toe, felt the heat rising in my face, felt my jaw lock, toes scrunching while I sat wishing that maybe, just maybe, if I didn’t move or breathe, a force field would fly up, block out Ed and his whiskey-mouthwash smell, deflect those beady eyes that bore through me when he thought I wasn’t looking. He stared at me dead-on now, face congested and grim, so close I could see my reflection in his glasses, hear his breaths getting heavier.
“What, people don’t give compliments where you’re from?”
“No. I mean, yes. Thanks.”
He tossed back the last of his drink and crunched on an ice-cube, staring into his glass, drumming his fat fingers to an Eric Clapton song that I knew would always remind me of this moment, always make my skin crawl, years into the future. I opened my mouth to say something, but it went dry, so I just folded my arms across my chest and dug my fingernails in, hard. Don’t look at me like that, I thought. Don’t look, don’t talk, don’t ask, just don’t. Please.
I didn’t look up until someone slid the door open, heels clacking, voice slurry and asking for “the little girl’s room.”
Ed scratched his cheek and stood slowly. “Kid, you gotta relax” he said, “This ain’t China. Free country; you don’t have to be this intense.”
When I went outside to look for Mom and Dad, they were nowhere to be found. Nancy Padgett, soaking her feet in the pool with an empty wineglass and her sandals kicked off, told me they’d gone home an hour ago, Mom holding Debbie in one arm, the other dragging Dad home through a haze of eggnog.
“She went looking for you and couldn’t find you so she left, said to tell you to stay and meet new friends,” said Nancy. “I think they had too much eggnog. I should’ve warned them it was spiked.” She giggled and held up her thumb and forefinger, “juuust a little.” From the patio table next to us, a cluster of people laughed boozily.
I didn’t say goodbye to Ed and Nancy, didn’t thank them for their hospitality or a wonderful night, didn’t poke my head into Scott’s or Paige’s rooms to tell them I had fun, that we should hang out sometime. I didn’t even stick around to sneak eggnog or take home leftover gingerbread cookies. I just asked to use the bathroom. Once the door was locked and I was soaping my hands in the sink, I tried hard not to cry. The tears came anyway, hot and angry. I looked at my smeared eyeliner in the mirror and decided to split right then and there. Start walking, just get the fuck out. I doubt anyone noticed. I didn’t care if they did.
On the way home, I drank in the night air in deep gulps, holding my breath until it burned, exhaling slowly to quiet the crazy pounding in my chest. I jammed my hands in my pockets, glancing back every few seconds to see if someone was following. There was nothing except my own long shadow, but I still couldn’t shake the feeling of being hunted. Then I pictured Ed, still reclining on the couch, leering through pale, hungry eyes, ice-cubes melting in his whiskey glass.
I broke into a furious sprint.
Flying past the perfectly-edged lawns, spitting sprinklers, and neat rows of mailboxes, I saw two gleaming eyes flash by. It could have been a house cat, maybe someone’s Golden Retriever, but once I reached the front door to our beige house, heart racing, part of me hoped it was the coyote. Ears pricked, legs already picking up speed, cutting through the flat stillness, running until the paved streets fell away and there was nothing else but hills and brush and wild bramble.
Beverly Tan Murray is a Chinese-American author who was born in Singapore and immigrated to California at age 16. She now resides in Miami with her husband and a terrier-mutt named Larry David. Beverly is a VONA/Voices alumnus, and has been published in the Huffington Post, AWAY Magazine, Linden Avenue Literary Journal, and Lime Hawk. She writes short stories about life in liminal spaces, and continues to search for that perfect carne asada taco. More of her work can be found at backthatsassup.com. Selected by Vanessa Martir.
Image copyright Larry Lamsa via Flickr Creative Commons.