“Speak English?” Mr. Woodruff asks in a drawn-out twang. The principal of Starlight Elementary. Silver brows gather. Oyster eyes curious.
My daughter and I are not obvious in Los Angeles. Here, a small town, the deep south, our dark hair, epicanthic fold of eyes stand out.
“Yes.” Lilly, my timid child, winces in a tiny voice.
My armpits are wet and warm. I take a deep breath and count to five.
Lilly, miniature in that large armchair. Wrings my heart.
I present Mr. Woodruff Lilly’s report cards from second grade and the recommendation letter from her previous school master for the placement in gifted program. I assure Mr. Woodruff that I supported classroom activities, volunteered for lunch hours, and helped with fundraisers in Lilly’s former school.
Silver brows relax, oyster eyes glow, he assigns Lilly to the gifted class and appoints me as the Room-Mom.
“Most people in this community are French, German, Japanese expats, Americans from up north or the west coast.” Kim, our realtor, explains the reasons why she recommends Falls Haven.
Move from the hotel room into our new home by the Enoree river. A neighbor knocks on my door when I unpack. Floral maxi dress, a shock of silvery short hair.
“Hello, I’m Donna, your Neighborhood Greeter, is this a good time?”
“Of course, please.” I hold the front door open and shuffle the boxes aside with my right foot. “Sorry, it’s a mess.”
“It takes forever. we moved here three years ago, and I still have boxes in the garage.” She frowns.
Another transplant. “Where were you?” I ask.
“A long way.”
“Yes, here’s a gift from the neighborhood HOA.” Donna puts a wicker basket on a box.
In a dramatic wave, she pulls away the squared plaid cloth over the basket.
“Wow!” The clean, sweet aroma of warm baguette wafts. An adorable rustic jar of peach jam. A blue ribbon tied a couple of red apples and a yellow squash in a seraphine glossy bag from a local organic grocer. Sheets of coupons from restaurants, salons, bars, skating pavilion, health clubs.
Donna chats in her crisp California inflection; tells me about the ladies’ craft club on Tuesday morning, women’s Bible study group, and invites me to a jewelry show at her home.
“It’s different here.” Donna whispers, as if passing on occult knowledge. Her eyes are gentle, her voice warm. She pats my shoulder when she leaves.
“I’m invited to a neighbor’s for a jewelry party.” I say as my daughter, my husband and I sit at the kitchen counter for dinner. The dining table is occupied by boxes of plates and bowls.
“Go.” Ming says.
“I don’t know. They are white Americans. I think.”
Placing the stir-fried beef and broccoli noodle on the counter, I serve a spoonful to Lilly on a Dixie paper plate with a plastic fork.
“It’s a great opportunity to be Americanized.” Ming flashes a mischievous grin and takes a sip of his dinner wine from a plastic cup. I give him a stern look.
“Party starts at six o’clock, dinner time. How about you and Lily’s dinner?” I groan, hesitate.
“Lilly likes Charlie’s BBQ, don’t you, Lilly?” Ming replies.
“I want BBQ pork sandwich with fries and ketchup.” Lilly chimes in with her mouth full.
“What if they ignore me?” I grab a paper napkin and wipe Lilly’s mouth.
“Then you just eat and drink and shop, get drunk there. Lie on the sidewalk and we go load you into the trunk.” Ming winks at me and Lilly.
We laugh like nothing can be funnier.
A short leisurely stroll to Donna’s house on the tree lined sidewalk. I stand on the front step; the door is ajar.
“Hi, you are new. Donna told us you are from LA.” A brunette lady with deep-set brown eyes. “I’m Amy. I lived in Japan for three years, when my husband stationed there.” She hands me a flute of Prosecco.
“I’m Ping, yes, just Ping.” I swallow a big swig. Icy thrill hits the bottom of my gut and soothes my stiffened neck and shoulder.
“We transferred here from Ohio, BMW, the car industry.” Amy says.
“A lot of snow in winter in Ohio.” Slow and distinct, I pronounce each syllable of every word.
“Yes, the climate is much better here.” Amy smiles. “I took doll making classes in Japan; come see my dolls. I live in 321 Woodway, here is my phone number.” In her Midwest, clear English connotation. “My daughter is also in third grade. We can carpool.”
Relief. Amy has genuine sentiments for me.
I tilt my head back to empty the flute. Examine the jewelry. A curious twisted heavy piece of silver hung on a braided jute cord catches my eyes. Attracted by the earthy strangeness, I take hold of it before anyone else grabs it.
“Oh, that is a lovely piece!” Palma comes up to me. Curly hair, sheared close to her skull, as if a knitted wool cap. A full-moon face with enormous round eyes. Heavy accent. European?
“Isn’t it unique?” I show her the necklace.
“I got a set of turquoise earrings. Yes, they are designer pieces, no one alike.” A pair of earrings in her small palm. “I supply the warm baguette for the welcome baskets.”
“Oh, it’s you! That baguette was delicious, thank you.” I can’t hide my wine induced excitement.
“I bake baguette for sale every Thursday, if you enjoyed it.”
“Of course, I love fresh bread.” I write my number on a napkin for Palma.
“I am French. We came with Michelin. My name is Palma Rosa Jeanne Dela Cagna Baptiste.” She smiles.
Grinning at my open mouth silence, Palma understands.
“Just call me Palma.”
“Palma, I had to stop my French class for this move. Will you help me continue learning French?” I cannot believe my luck.
“Ok, don’t forget. Give me your number so I can remind you.” I giggle. I seldom drink. One flute of Prosecco in an empty stomach delights me.
To inoculate Lilly from exclusion in South Carolina, I don’t know any other ways but to volunteer at her school and extra-curriculum activities. When her geography lessons cover Asia, I make posters of Taiwan, dress in my qipao, hang scrolls of art works around my booth. Students form a line to request sheets of black ink writing from my paint brush. I recruit Amy to dress in her Japanese Kimono, display her dolls from her Japan craft lessons, and exhibit large posters of the Japanese Islands. We are the most popular booths; a local newspaper comes to photograph us, and the TV station conducts interviews of us. Amy lines up Lilly, her daughter, and Palma’s little girl for the TV camera and says they are the American Girls today.
For Lilly’s birthday, I prepare small packets of treats of origami cranes, rice crispy treats for each student. Lilly makes friends; she gets invited to birthday parties, pool get-togethers, even summer vacations to people’s beach resort homes in Florida. In her Brownie’s uniform, she looks heartrendingly American with her sash of badges and green beret. A profound solace and a sense of pride washes over me with her assimilation into the mainstream. She has grown to be a fearless first generation American. She is here to stake her claim.
I morph as well. Mimicking a collector, I collect Southern slang and idioms: “Hon.” “You all.” “Bless your heart.” “Sweety pie,” spill out of my mouth, with an inevitable Mandarin modulation.
In LA, the large metropolis has different pockets of diverse international ethnic groups. Here in Greenville, South Carolina; the internationals seep into nooks and crannies in the entire community like moving water. No “town,” “quarter,” or “diaspora” to confine them.
Catherine C. Con, English Literature (BA) Fu-Jen Catholic University, Taiwan. System Science (MS) Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge.; a Computer Science instructor, University of South Carolina, Upstate. Published in Emrys Journal, Tint Journal, The Bare Life Review, The Petigru Review, HerStry, Shards(Shards.glassmountainmag.com), Dunes Review, Emrys Journal Online(Medium.com), National Women’s History Museum, Catfish Stew, Change Seven, Longridge Review; Limit Experience Journal, On The Run, Light House Weekly, New York Times. Nominated for 2020 PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers; selected for “2020 Local Authors” by Greenville County Library, South Carolina. Finalist for the Anne C. Barnhill Prize for Creative Nonfiction, Fall 2021. Serve on the Board of Director of South Carolina Writers Association 2022-present. First place for Lighthouse Weekly March Fiction Contest., March 2022.