The Magician and The Wolf

She’s too American.

She’s not Vietnamese enough, no discipline.

She’s spoiled, doesn’t understand what it is to be Vietnamese.

Late 70’s, new immigrants in Texas.

Ngu quá…

These phrases were part of a list that completed a repertoire of what was said about me or to me during my childhood. I never really believed them. I was a stubborn child. As a young girl, I loved taking tap dance and ballet. I refused any help from my mom when it came to putting on my tights or socks before dance class. I would carefully scrunch up the tights until I got to the widest opening of the foot, then I’d proceed by pointing my toes, carefully trying to touch as little of the arch and the top of my foot against the fabric before the seam lined up with my toes; evenly distributed from pinky toe to big toe. If the seam wasn’t even or felt uncomfortable, I would start over. Often my mother had to hurry me into her red Pinto hatchback with my tights, ballet slippers and tap shoes still in hand; my focus undeterred as my small body slid against the red leather seat with each sharp turn of the road. It was probably a distant aunt or uncle that said dancing would never lead to anything significant, how was I suppose to play the piano with ballet slippers or learn Beethoven with tap shoes. I traded my dance shoes for an upright piano; I never did win any awards and after learning to play some of Für Elise for my upcoming piano recital, I quit.

She quits so easily.

She never got far because she’s lazy.

She has no discipline.

She’s too American.

Once in High School, I started to wonder if these phrases had merit. In High School, all my Vietnamese friends spoke Vietnamese at home, they were enrolled in Honors or advanced courses, were members of the math club or Academic Decathlon- until then I didn’t have any Asian friends and I predominantly excelled in sports and drama. Also, I was one of the oldest students in my freshman year because I repeated the first grade for not speaking English. Within the first week of my freshman year, I was called down for an academic aptitude evaluation. The woman across the table pulled out a stack of heavyweight flashcards with cartoon-ish characters in different uniforms or showing action. One picture was of a man in a black tuxedo pulling a rabbit out of a hat.

“What does this man do for a living,” the evaluator asked me.

“Um, he’s a musician,” I said. I said um a lot as a kid, something my mom was quick to point out, “Don’t say Um, um, um!”

The woman gave me a doubtful look, went through her stack of cards and pulled out another card of a man playing a guitar surrounded by floating keynotes.

“What does this man do,” she asked.

At that very moment, more so than any other moment leading up to this, I realized that maybe I was stupid; a ngu quá. My brain was searching for the word that differentiated the two pictures but I couldn’t find it; I was fifteen years old and did I really believe a musician was a man who played the guitar and pulled rabbits out of a hat?

All that would come out of my mouth set me up for embarrassment and determined the fate of my Freshman year of High School, and though the answer was correct this time, I understood exactly what was about to happen.

“He is a musician,” I said.

The woman set the rest of the cards aside, I could see her breath filling up to her collar bone as she pushed both of the pictures across the table towards me and repeated my answer as she pointed to the man playing the guitar, “So you’re saying he is a musician,” then she pointed at the man with the rabbit, and asked, “So what does that make him.”

I attempted to say the word musician with different vowel sounds, like I so often did as a young child with my English tutor Ms. Cook.

“Maa, moo, mii, muu, musoo, mussoontion?”

The woman pressed for an answer until the end of our session; finally with pierced lips, a raised eyebrow and a shake of her head, she said, “This man is a MA-GI-CIAN.” Once she said the word, I understood that he was a magician but to add insult to injury, when she asked me to repeat the word, what came out of my mouth was, “musician”. She proceeded to write notes in her notebook; I was dismissed without even another look.

“You can go.”

My fate was sealed, my High School curriculum was different from the other Asian kids; the classes my friends were taking had Roman Numeral II or III at the end of their course description, my courses ended with I or ‘Basic’.

As long as I could hide the fact that I was a poor student, my mother was pretty forgiving. My Junior High School Drama schoolteacher encouraged my mother to send me to a magnet school for Drama and Arts; during 6th-8th grade, I was cast to play the leading roles in our school plays. My first role was as Little Red Riding Hood. I don’t remember why or how I got into drama but I was good at memorizing line and even during rehearsal, when I was on stage repeating my lines, I was never me and I loved that. At the start of my all-to-short experience as an actor, my drama teacher spoke to me privately after a rehearsal one day.

“Coco, can you repeat the line, ‘Thank you Wolf’”, she asked.

“Thank you Woof,” I said not understanding the question.

She replied with a smile, “Again, thank you wolf,” exaggerating and elongating the last word.

My drama teacher was also my computer science teacher, and unlike the other teachers at the Catholic school, most of them being Nuns or Priests, she looked modern and stylish. Even now, I can picture her in her mid-length skirt and knee high boots, plaid button-up shirt with a ruffled collar, her curly shoulder-length brown hair pinned up on one side with a barrette and her lips painted red.

“Thank you woof,” I said again, only louder.

“Coco, can you hear it when you say the word? Listen to how I say it –‘Wool-f’. Do you hear the difference; I’ll say it both ways; woof like what dogs do. WOOF-UFF. WOLF, WOOL-Fa, with an ‘L’.” We sat on metal chairs near the stage; the heavy drapes were drawn open but all the stage lights were off; sitting next to her, I repeated the words that seemed to echo throughout the empty auditorium; that echo sound that made one more acutely aware of what silence sounded like, as if when the words left my mouth, it came out cool to the touch like the metal chairs we sat on.

Her eyes studied my lips as it formed itself into different shapes trying to pronounce the sound of ‘O and L’ until finally I said the word ‘Wolf’ as if almost by accident but she smiled, pressed my hand and said, “Very good.” Even now, and probably for the rest of my life, for no apparent reason, I say the words to myself, my lips moving into an ‘O’ shape, feeling the ‘L’ sound pulling at the back of my throat, “wolf, wolf, wolf.”