My Korean mom and Korean-American me stayed up late one Sunday night baking soft oatmeal raisin cookies for my Monday night Girl Scouts meeting.
“No Twinkies and Ding Dongs for your friends, Eraine. Many mommies want easy so they buy junk. But your mommy make time so I make something yum and health! More time and money. But is ok.”
Every Monday night at 6:00pm, 10 girls outfitted in green uniforms and multi patched sashes sat around the living room of my classmate Nicole’s suburban Encino home. Nicole’s black hair was so shiny and beautiful, it looked shellacked. She was one of my best friends – and the reason I decided to join Troop 475.
Our troop leader Janine sat in a chair in front of the fire place – always in jeans and a plaid flannel. A few girls sat on the upholstered couch across from her – and all the other girls were peppered around her on the beige carpeted floor.
At 7:30, Janine finished passing out the list of items we needed for our upcoming camping trip. She glanced up at me and nodded, signifying that I could go into the kitchen to set up snacks. I bounced to my feet and galloped to the kitchen with my pig tails swaying back and forth. (I hated how my mom pulled my pig tails so neat and tight, as it tugged at the corner of my eyes making them appear even smaller and more slanted than they already were.)
I ran back toward the living room, leaned up against the entry way and craned my neck, signaling to Janine that I had completed set up. Janine raised her right hand for silence; then all the Girl Scouts followed her lead and raised their right arms. The conversations stopped until everyone had their hand up.
“Snack time!” Janine announced.
The sea of green clad girls rushed into the kitchen — and everyone found a place around the large kitchen island where we ate our weekly Monday night snacks. Lucy – a mousy brown-haired Caucasian girl was the first to take a bite out of a cookie. I always envied her because she was Caucasian and “vanilla” and “normal” and always easily blended in. Then my envy turned to hate as she stuck her index finger down her throat and pretended to gag.
“Gross!” Lucy shouted. “Is this what stupid Chinese people eat?”
All the other girls outfitted in their green uniforms and good citizenship patches followed her lead. They reached in with their tiny hands and grabbed an oatmeal cookie off the red plastic plate.
“GROSS! This IS Chinese food,” they squealed. They giggled with delight as they threw down their cookies and shot them in the trash.
A hot wave of embarrassment and shame washed over my face. My eyelids lowered — and my face ached as I tried to stop the buckling of my lower lip. I wanted so much to just bring Twinkies and Ding Dongs for my friends so they would like me; but the food I brought made me stick out even more as someone different.
I rushed out of the kitchen and plunged into Nicole’s bedroom, praying my mom would hurry up and come pick me up. Nicole’s room was perfect. Exactly what a pretty white girl’s room would look like. She had a princess canopy bed, white furniture, virginal white carpet. She had a dollhouse in the corner of her room, a walk in closet and a large bay window. This looked nothing like my room, I thought. I had brown carpet and a hand me down bedspread shipped from Korea that smelled like fish. I glanced around and saw ceramic dogs and big-eyed stuffed cats glitter her room. It just made me feel especially lonely, especially different.
I took my pig tails down and waited for my mom to come pick me up.
The doorbell rang.
“Eraine – mommy’s here!” my mom gleefully voiced to me by the door entrance.
I ran out of Nicole’s room and back into the living room where my mom stood.
“Did they like the cookies? Mommy thinks they like cookies,” she smiled.
“I hate you. It’s your fault they made fun of me!”
I rushed out of the house and pulled my mom behind me. I wanted nothing but to hide her so the girls wouldn’t see what she looked like. I was ashamed that I looked just like her.
I had such a blessed childhood – but this period for so many years made my heart wrench every time I thought about it. I had my share of racism: my house being egged, my face being spat at, being told to go back to our country — and being called “flat face” from my classmates since my nose was…well, flat. This memory was an especially unbearable dagger since the reactions came from my ‘friends” and my fellow Girl Scout troop members with whom I learned about sharing and caring and friendships.
But you know what? I wouldn’t trade it for the world. This has become a magical moment of childhood for me – and probably a contributing moment of why today I stand so confidently and proud.
Today’s day is one where diversity is celebrated, bullying is out and Koreans are “in.” From Gangnam Style and K-pop to Korean dramas and BBQs, we are no longer strangers in this land.
Now I reflect on this night and I see a different story. I see a loving mother who went out of her way to spend extra hours and extra money to nourish my friends and me with something nutritious. I see the mean teasing as a tremendous visual lesson where I learned it’s not cool to be sheep and follow the leader. I see this night as one of many which have contributed to my thick skin, resilience and self pride.
I no longer want to be like anyone. I just want to be like me.
Oh, and where is that mean ringleader girl today?