On another trip, en route to another flight. Sometimes I fly out of JFK instead of the customary EWR because of significantly cheaper fares. The shuttle would drive on the Cross-Bronx Expressway or the Long Island Expressway and I find myself gazing towards the Verrazano Bridge, shimmering seaboard of the Atlantic and feel suddenly nostalgic.
I am a New Yorker, by birth. As the city evolved from Koch days to Dinkins nights to Guiliani's revolution, I learned to identify myself by my birthplace the farther I ventured from the proximity of the Big Apple. I remember crossing 42nd St with my mother. "Close your eyes!" she admonished, fearful of some triple X vision that would steal my innocence. There was her unfailing closeness to my every step, watchful of potential kidnappers. Strangers tried to give me candy, and she intervened so I never knew if it was an innocuous lollipop or a pedophile in disguise.
Bay Ridge. There was the omnipresent shore a few miles away; we would either go to the beach every weekend or eat fresh seafood as a concession. There were steaming shish kebab carts on the corner and the old man who refused to take money from us. There was the Italian baker who let me choose the biggest, cheesiest Sicilian slices from the local pizzeria. My eyes would rest on old posters of a woman choking and a man helping her, both faceless and yellow, primitive precursors of CPR. I remember window-shopping for Barbie dolls at Century 21 Department stores. I remember opening a single gift on Christmas morning (Santa was all we needed) and never realizing we were poor.
I went to P.S. 314, while my friend Tony across the street went to Catholic school. I used to go there too, until I was harassed by a racist nun. Tony's older brother went to Harvard, and his mother, Cookie or Candy was her name, scolded him for acting "rich." She never forgave the girlfriend in the gleaming convertible and fought hard to prevent him from getting his own phone. Tony never understood it. We watched Michael Jackson videos and Thriller and tried our hand brake-dancing in the streets.
When I was in Brooklyn, my Latina friend AriSally had a house draped in burgundy velvet and all things red. I fought imaginary kungfu with a Chinese boy named Kenny and hung out with a black girl Monique, whose hair were wondrous spirals that just stuck out, no matter what she did. And I had a crush on a Taiwanese boy named, get this, Chiang Kai.
Then we moved to New Jersey. It was the first time I experienced culture shock. Everyone around me was white and Italian, with flowery surnames that ended in vowels. Suddenly, it mattered that I wore boy's socks and I did not have a playroom brimming with recent Cabbage Patch kids. I did not play softball and I was ridiculed because my sentences ended with "thank you" or "please." They smirked when I told them my family only had one car. And I became painfully aware of what I did not have.
Worst of all, I was Asian. Globalization had not hit suburban New Jersey in the late 1980s. There was no Chinese food or appreciation of anything Asian. We were still considered "Orientals" at the time, and anything remotely Pacific in orgin was relegated to the Karate Kid. My nickname at school was Miyogi. They laughed that I knew more about Shaolin and Wudang than I did about "Roseanne."
I learned that kids are cruel, how words and stares can penetrate the bone and make you bleed deeper than any flesh wound. In New York, danger lurked in the streets. Sometimes, I would hear shouting and fighting from my bedside window. In the good neighborhoods of New Jersey, it is a more insidious danger, the kind of bullying that drives students to suicide these days. What's more, I am not sure that inveterate meanness goes away when people grow up.