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By Aimee Liu
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2000 Aimee Liu
All rights reserved.
MINE WAS A CHILDHOOD frosted with affluence, filled with adventure, and sprinkled generously with loving care. Throughout the early years I led a cupcake existence, wrapped in my parents' unspoken promises that they had me destined for the best of all possible worlds. They would treat me to experiences out of the ordinary and nourish me on the good fortune of their success. They would educate me, groom me in keeping with their impeccable taste, and then, one day, would release me to take the reins on my own. But first they would make sure that I appreciated the special kind of wealth to which I'd been born.
My earliest recollections date back to the two years my family spent in India. I was just three when we moved there. Scott, my brother, was eleven. My father spent the better part of those years winging about the Orient as he searched out films for the United Nations Documentary Film Department, and my mother spent her days organizing the Emporium, an Indian design center for handicrafts and hand-loomed fabric. But neither Scott nor I felt any sense of neglect. We attended school with our international compatriots — the children of State Department representatives, of Ford Foundation workers, and of delegates of other assorted global agencies. It was, as I look back on it, an idyllic life for a child.
We lived in the diplomatic enclave in a house that shimmered under the care of a small host of servants. As per the norm for Westerners residing in Delhi, we employed a cook, gardener, sweeper, bearer, and a sequence of ayahs to look after my brother and me. In addition to the members of our own household, however, we had at our disposal an overwhelming array of neighborhood playmates, their servants, and a constant, astonishing native street parade of passing bullocks, bicycles, tongas, and pedestrians. The sights were both thrilling and alarming. There were sometimes elephants with bells on their tails, but I also saw starving babies peppered with flies and wraithlike ancients plodding miles to do work for pennies. We visited emerald gardens watered by shooting fountains and punctuated by scarlet, ivory, and golden blossoms, but we also shopped in Old Delhi, where skeletal beggars pawed at our sleeves. There were snake charmers and sadhus, temples to rats and monkeys, and thousands sleeping in the streets, but to me it was all an integral part of the mystical, outrageous place I called home. Too young to worry at the suffering and too naive to ignore it, I accepted it as an unavoidable part of life in this crazy world. Healthy, safe, and happy myself, I watched the contrasts weave through the streets and took pleasure in the exhilaration of constant surprise. Not for many years would the paradoxes come back to haunt me. In the meantime I felt spiritually at ease, as perhaps only a child can.
India glistens in my memory like a brocaded tapestry of color, sound, and scents. We take trips into the mountains where Kashmiri houseboats float on water-lilied lakes and Kiplingesque hill stations overlook citrine valleys. Bejeweled temples glitter with thousands of candles during the nights of Diwali, the festival of light; and during Holi, the celebration of fertility, the streets blaze gaudily with explosions of colored water. The climatic changes are just as startling as the cultural displays. One night the air feels balmy and sweet, the next it turns to poison. Sometimes storms leap, like the cyclone in The Wizard of Oz, out of nowhere. In summer we sleep on the roof, our beds crude charpoys. These cots are wood frames strung with hemp rope. They are uncomfortable, but the sky twinkles with diamond stars and the darkness smells of flowers, and I don't mind that it's hard to sleep. But then the winds begin to churn. The dust storm is coming. My parents yell for us to go downstairs. They grab bedding and slam doors and windows as we descend. For days the choking attack may last. It fills the house with veils of dirt, despite all attempts at insulation, and whirls across the desert city like a mad hatter. And while my mother despairs of the filth and worries over the fate of the homeless poor, I thrill to the excitement with a three-year-old's careless delight. Danger and despair are foreign to me. I stand laughing with my back to a splintery window jamb. My brother plays tag with me this afternoon while my parents are off at a tea party. Taunting me from across the room, he can't see the scorpion on the ledge behind me. He goads me toward the window where the deadly villain tickles my fingertip. I think the itch is a bit of screening come loose from the frame, but as the irritation continues I look down and scream. It's horribly ugly, but dangerous? The thought never occurs to me. In fact, I'm pleased to discover that my life was in danger. It makes me feel special that I've been so spared. I must have an important future ahead of me.
Each home in the diplomatic enclave is surrounded by a high wall of mortar and clay. The grounds inside these fortress walls seem like fairytale gardens designed for small children at play. Cut off from the native bustle and stilled by the beat of the desert sun, they flourish under the care of full-time gardeners. They become, with a quick wish, jungles of Africa or tropical rainforests. Alone at play beneath the shrubs that border our yard, I hunt wild game. The earth under my knees feels moist. It glows with the reflected daylight, slightly green through the leaves. I push confidently through the tropical petals and vines, stalking the beasts whose eyes blaze at me from behind the trunks of imaginary trees. Beyond the sheltering vegetation the day swelters and glares, but deep within my fantasy woodland I feel only the heat of the hunt. When suddenly I meet my prey, however, he defies me to harm him. I can't. He is a determined little fellow the size of my fist, his shell a perfect spiral the hue of sand. We share an immunity to danger. I respect his intrepid determination and sense of direction. We become instant friends, this fearless traveler and I, and though we won't ever meet again, I will always consider him a symbol of freedom and bliss.
It is October 1958 when we return to Glenridge, Connecticut. We drive from the docks of New York in a green Mercedes that my parents bought in Germany on the way home. Home? I balk at the word now. As far as I'm concerned we've left my home. As we speed along concrete byways past franchised supermarkets and barren shopping centers, I recognize nothing of America and like little of what I see. I refuse to pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States ...
We turn up a drive between evergreen shrubs and steep glacial rock formations, round the top of the hill, and slip into the somber pocket of land where my parents tell me we live.
The neighbors have planted a multicolored sign at the fork in the road, lest we have lost direction after two years away. Cheery balloons fly from the post, and a painted clown laughs and points out our way. (Is this a homecoming or a birthday party?) But despite the merry guidepost, this place feels eerie, too quiet and empty. Where are the children, the animals, the beggars, the sounds? I miss the drumbeat, the tempo of my former life. Here there's not a soul in sight, only the crimson leaves of autumn falling to greet us.
The house in which I will spend the rest of my childhood looms handsomely before us. The antithesis of our whitewashed, Delhi domicile, this sprawling lodge boasts fieldstone, Cyprus wood, and glass. My parents view it proudly. They built it themselves before I was born. My brother leaps from the car and runs to explore. He remembers the way the living room snuggles into the crook of an abandoned rock quarry. He has played for hours in the graveled patio out back, splashed in the fountained goldfish pond, and hidden in the crannies of my mother's rock garden. I recall none of it. Following my mother through the cathedral-like living room, I feel a dwarf and an outsider. Slate floors, windows twenty feet high, great beamed ceilings, and everywhere the aura of forest (real this time, not make-believe) — I don't know what to make of it.
At the front we have pasture, on the sides woods, and at the back sweeping lawns and gardens. But unlike the yards of India, ours here has a wild look about it. Not manicured by gardeners, not fertilized and pampered, these grounds seem almost self-sufficient. I listen for the chant of bear and monkey wallahs, for the pipe song of snake charmers and the rasp of sweepers' brooms. But the only sound is the chilly moan of breezes among the pines. This place promises loneliness and an inexplicable sort of gloom.
My father takes me for a tour of the neighborhood and tells me its story. I try, for future reference and to establish a sense of belonging, to get the details straight. The marble amphitheater (facsimile of a Greek arena), hidden in the back woods, was built in the spirit of bygone eras. Sparkling white and flanked by a ring of overgrown Christmas trees, it is a freak product of the Great Depression. Its creator was one of the fortunate few who could afford to be generous during hard times. An architect unscathed by the crash, he designed a house for a client in Vermont who paid him in marble instead of dollars. The ingenious Mr. Blanchard had his prize brought in trainloads to Connecticut, drew up plans for his personal stage, and set the hungry laborers of the area to work. At about the same time he had built for his children two clay-floored tennis courts and a fifty-foot swimming pool, which resembles a Polynesian watering hole. It is fashioned into a bed of natural rock and fitted with a circulation system that works by means of waterfalls. A sand-filled sunbathing area lines one side, a tiered rock garden the other. I imagine it filled with laughing children diving inexhaustibly into water that shimmers in the sunshine. I pretend that we can hear the chatter of grown-ups as they volley in the courts across the way. For now the courts are empty, overgrown with goldenrod, and frogs leap in the stagnant puddle of water that still remains in the bottom of the pool. The owner, a retired actress, doesn't care to entertain any longer. My father tells me that in the old days, before I was born, there were grand parties here. All the neighbors gathered for barbecues. They hung paper lanterns in the trees and floated watermelons in the pool to chill. That was when my brother was my age, and the other kids of the community had not yet gone away to boarding school and college. Why did I miss out on all the fun? Why is there no one my age here now to keep me company? I feel cheated and alone.
All the splendors of field and stream can't comfort me. We visit a secret pond over the hill behind our front pasture. Water lilies float on its surface. Skunk cabbages flourish on its shore. We sight a muskrat scurrying for cover in the woods and tiptoe across the dam that drains this man-made lake. Then my father shows me an island which I may take for my very own. It rises out of a bog on the edge of our property and has a carpet of moss all over it. Its only resident is a single baby oak tree and an imbedded rock, the ideal seat for me. I plan to play explorer here, to build bridges around it and, after winter snows, to shovel roads across the surface of the bog and make towns in miniature on the ice. But I don't want to realize these plans all by myself. As my father proudly assesses his estate I try to echo his delight at coming home, but the nudge of loneliness spoils my best intentions.
On the Monday of our second week back in the States my mother takes me to school. North Mianus has been in session for over a month already. I feel like an interloper, walking into classes in progress. My mother and Miss Bloom, the kindergarten teacher, pore over my registration papers while I survey the situation from a corner by the door.
I am different from the other children in the room. I am one-quarter Chinese. I have lived in the Orient. I have sailed across the ocean and flown in planes. I have applauded dancing bears, taken a seat in Nehru's lap, and cast marigolds on Gandhi's tomb. But the little girls I see playing store by the opposite wall think all Indians wear feathers in their hair. Their world stops at the edge of Candlewood Park, and their notion of a great excursion is a trip to New York City. Everyone here has fair skin and a well-nourished air. The scene before me looks like an advertisement for Sealtest milk, quite a contrast to the environment I have left behind. Whether my difference marks me superior or inferior worries me. I feel both at the same time and wish I felt neither. But the fact remains: The homogeneity of these kindergarteners excludes me. I feel as though I've just dropped in from another planet.
Then my mother leaves. The panic that results is like nothing I've ever known before. Stranded, I view this antiseptic playroom world with mistrustful eyes. Miss Bloom acts friendly enough, but the little people threaten me. Tina, Kimmy, Wendy, Cappy, Susan, Peter, Connie, Kenny, Sam, Billy, Stan — the names wash over me at random, all too American. I am used to mingled nationalities and strange-sounding titles. It's fun to roll the vowels and consonants of exotic languages across one's tongue. When everyone's a stranger, struggling with communication barriers, everyone somehow belongs. Here, where all the names sound flatly alike, any deviation from the norm strikes out. A-I-M-E-E, I spell, L-I-U. The other kids look at me as though I'm crazy. I try to explain, my first name is French. My last is Chinese. But they can't, or won't, understand, and the teacher interrupts to tell us it's time for cookies and milk.
Not hungry, I eat. It's a constant game of follow-the-leader, this kindergarten business, and it bores me. We must bring blankets from home, spread them out on the floor and, in the middle of the day, pretend to sleep. The drawn shades and doused lights can't fool me. I am not used to naps, don't like to rest, but because I am obedient, I close my eyes and stretch out, stiff as a twig, until Miss Bloom allows us to rise. It makes no sense, but I comply, just as I make believe that I like to play house, skip rope, and construct skyscrapers out of blocks. When my mother picks me up at the end of the day I wail of frustration and boredom. Still, another side of me longs to fit in.
A strange new craving for companionship overwhelms me, but it is thwarted from the start by circumstance. If my family lived in Candlewood Park or on Primrose Drive or Mimosa Lane, my problems would be solved. I could learn to like the other kids if I lived around them, played with them after school, cruised with them on weekends from backyard to backyard. They would include me in their plans and learn that I am not weird after all. They would have me over for dinner, and afterward I could join too when the neighborhood youngsters came out to play softball in the street. During the winter we would all sled together, and skate on the Mianus River. We would trade boyfriends and best friends, the girls down the block and I, and give each other surprise birthday parties (with the help of our mothers, of course). But the only assistance my mother is able to give me is to drive me over to visit those paradise neighborhoods. And no matter how frequently I come to play, no matter how familiar my face becomes in the community "gangs," we all know that I remain an outsider.
It isn't only physical distance that separates me from them. Our lifestyles, our parents, our habits too have little in common. My home is a world unto itself, my family unlike any other I meet in Glenridge. Ozzie-and-Harriet patterns really do predominate in the suburbs, but not at our house. While my schoolmates' parents meet for bridge games and backyard barbecues, mine attend receptions at the French Embassy, balls at the Waldorf, and openings at the Metropolitan. And, to the stupefaction of the Candlewood Park crowd, they frequently take me with them to these functions. At penthouse dinner parties I steal the show. That I am the only seven-year-old among ambassadors and presidents never bothers me. I strut like Shirley Temple through the reception lines and chat freely with foreign ministers until my bedtime, when I trundle off to some darkened bedroom to doze between mountains of coats and furs until my parents are ready to leave. There are recitals of African music in the nave of the General Assembly, sessions of the Ecumenical Council. I cultivate a taste for caviar, brie, and strawberries in wine, and learn to address adults by their first names. The world of the elite, a fantasy land far from my daily woes, delights me. The scent of protocol tempts me to grow up, or at least pretend to grow up, very fast.
Thanksgiving 1960. It's the year the Jones boys slather their pumpkin pie with ketchup while our parents argue over chestnut dressing and creamed onions about the future of JFK. It's the year my brother and Chas Jones, both fifteen, remain downstairs after dinner with the grownups while Cliff Jones and his buddy, Dick, take me up to the attic. Aged twelve, they laugh. Aged seven, I don't.
Excerpted from Solitaire by Aimee Liu. Copyright © 2000 Aimee Liu. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1. Backward Glances,
2. Puberty Blues,
3. Lean Dreams,
4. Thin Fever,
6. Less Becomes More,
After the Fast: A Postscript,