It’s so hard to be American right now. It’s impossible.
My very first Barbie was a hand-me-down. She looked like the poorer cousin of the well-groomed Barbies that came fresh in a box, her hair having been raked through a few too many times with tiny pink combs and hairbrushes that were just for show. She needed a place to live, but her slightly trashy appearance brought the whole neighborhood down, so she was packed into a used pink Barbie briefcase, which opened up to contain pink walls, with compartments for shoes and accessories I did not own, and hang-space for the two extra dresses that my second-grader friend generously passed on to me. One was a light blue mini dress, and the other was an orangy-red skirt with an attached white top. They hung on proper Barbie hangers, also pink – the starter set for what my friend surely thought would become my own Barbie wardrobe collection.
My Chinese family did not have money for toys and gifts, and if we did, my family would have gotten me a jigsaw puzzle, not a blonde girl with a perfect skinny waist, long tanned legs. She was designed to sip cold drinks in the sun. Versus my family of five – 17, 16, 14, 12, and me the youngest at 7 – parented by a non-English-speaking mother, who demanded that we spend weekends digging up rocks from our unseeded dirt backyard, and placing them into our wheelbarrow to line my mother’s flower beds. That wheelbarrow and those flower beds made us look more American, cuz who in Taiwan ever showed their neighbors they knew their way around a wheelbarrow? Our job was to move rocks from the wrong place they had landed, to a useful place where they could justify their existence. An immigrant truth so deep that I excavated it only as I wrote this sentence.
With her painted blue eyes that never closed, Barbie was the epitome of Surfing USA, some fictitious place in California I had never seen except in pink. She was a misfit in New Jersey where it sometimes snowed, especially when she was always half naked rather than swathed in fur coats. New Jersey was where we had moved to in 1971, from Taipei where I was born. As far as I knew, we did not have Barbies in Taiwan. Why would we? We spoke Mandarin, and Barbie, well, my Barbie did not speak. I did not have the words to make her speak, because I was still trying on English words myself. “I’m sorry, I don’t know” were my Barbie’s first words.
Barbie belonged with girls who had more than two hangers and two changes of clothes, but I had no other dolls for her to be with. I felt lonely for her, guilty that I was the reason she was no longer part of the popular crowd, driving pink convertibles and partying with other blonde, blue-eyed Malibu Barbies, and going on dates with Ken, whom I swooned over. Really. As excited as I was to have my very first Barbie and case, I knew that I could not give her the life she wanted, with shoes and matching purses, swimsuits and surfboards, and oh, that pink Malibu house. I could never afford a pink convertible, the kind that my friend down the street stuffed her Barbie and friends into, each clones of each other except for hair color, the way I-Dream-of-Jeannie had an evil brunette sister. I realize now that Jeannie was a lifesize Barbie, and I loved her and wanted to be her, to live in her genie bottle, and turn myself into smoke, and most of all, to have her gorgeous non-Asian eyes with thick eyelashes and double eyelids, and to be able to cross my arms and blink anything into reality.
Pretending to be Jeannie let me bypass all those shortcomings that only my Barbie had, being the only White girl living in a Chinese family. I had a pair of pink PJs that looked kind of filmy like Barbara Eden’s. I used to tuck them until they looked like the pink genie outfit with the close-fitting crop top and ballooning bottoms. I was careful never to let my bellybutton show – like both my blonde superpowers – a bit of modesty I carried to adulthood. Maybe I was saved by those long afternoons of transforming myself into Barbara Eden – a more powerful, more magical Barbie than the plastic one I soon abandoned. It was fun for a short while to turn spools of thread into cafe tables, and use the rubber bands for my braces as hair ties for Barbie. I liked saving the plastic hangers from my socks from Kmart, which stood in as clothing hangers in my Barbie closet, black not pink, larger than they should have been, but they held a hope that Barbie might get a more complete wardrobe someday. I remember once begging for a collection of Barbie shoes, those tiny colorful silicone high heels formed just right to fit Barbie’s arched feet. For once, my wish came true. My older sister bought me some with the money she earned cleaning people’s homes. I lucked out when my six-shoe pack included a pair of white plastic go-go boots. Even so, everything remained mismatched. My Barbie never had the chic couture, nor the bikinis and the Jackie-O suits bespoke for her.
The family my Barbie came from had Christmas gifts piled to the ceiling. I had never seen so many presents before, or ever since. My friend M had a canopy over her four-poster bed, and Madame Alexander dolls lined on a shelf just for dolls. She had a dog, and her mom served us Welch’s grape juice in thick gobblers that looked to me like wine glasses. So fancy! At my house, I was learning how to have Christmas, and I would instruct my parents that we needed to get a tree. Eventually they got an artificial tree with color-coded stems that were supposed to be stuffed into corresponding holes on a metal trunk. As the only one in the family with any Christmas spirit, year after year, I dragged that box from our dark, musty basement, scared that some homeless ghost had set up camp down there, and I would sit alone in the family room assembling this tree, worried about the day after Christmas when all my friends would call asking, “What did you get for Christmas?” Their Santas got them everything on their list. My Santa was missing in action.
My friend M’s family treated me like an adopted daughter. I spent more time in their home than anyone else’s, and from them I learned what it was like inside a White Anglo family. M’s parents and siblings greeted each other with joy! Exuberantly they swept each other into their arms and kissed each other on the lips. On the lips! I had to look away because it did not seem like my place to watch. My family did not hug. We barely touched. We maintained a bubble of personal space at all times. I swear that was normal for a Chinese family in the seventies. We did not ask each other “How are you?” or “How was your day?” We did not call each other honey, or darling, or sweetheart – all these syrupy names that my friends’ moms would call me by, only it would take a minute for me to process whether they really meant to call me that, and what they meant by calling me that.
As I squeeze my eyes shut and shrink myself into that little girl again – imitating my friend M doing cartwheels and backbends – I feel the words that had been bottled inside me ever since. Inspired by America Ferrara after watching the Barbie movie, these words are finally being uncorked.
It is literally impossible to be American. You speak perfect English, and you are so smart, and it kills me that you don’t think you’re good enough. Like, we have to do backflips and jump off the high dive board, just to fit in even though it terrifies us. Because somebody out there has defined what it means to be American, and somehow we’re always doing it wrong.
You have to dress right, wear the right kind of jeans, not the Kmart jeans or the shoes your mom bought you. Yet you can never say you want to be cool. That is way out of reach. You want to be like your friends, but also you have to be like your family. You have to have money, but you can’t ask for money because you know your ma didn’t have enough. You tell your ma you wish for a swimming pool, and your ma tells you that’s for White people, not us. So you stop telling your ma what you wish for, cuz by saying it out loud, it only seals that it can never belong to you. You stay quiet, like your Chinese culture tells you to, but inside, you have become American, and the dreams for more cannot stay down.
Maybe that’s why you get fat. Your dreams sit around your middle. You carry them like dead weight. And you stop looking like the other wispy Asian girls who never started drinking cow’s milk. Your ma says you look strong like a heifer, but you can’t do even one chin-up. You barely pass the “presidential fitness test,” and you panic as you tread water to stay afloat for two minutes.
You’re supposed to love being American, but you cover your ears when your older brother wails to go back to Taiwan. You have to be the strong one, the one who fits in for your ma. You have to talk for her, translate for her, and help her buy groceries, make doctor’s appointments, and talk to customer service. You have to be the adaptable American looking out for the others in your family. You have to teach them not to speak Chinglish, but you have to forgive them because they arrived much older than seven. You urge them to be patient as you wait in line. No complaining, which is insane, because they always look past you even though you are next in line, They don’t even see you. You’re that invisible. And it’s not because you’re tiny and petite. It’s because of your race, and because you stay quiet.
You’re supposed to get the best grades and go to the best university, and then your life will be set. So you work part-time to save up money for college. You skip meals to make sure you have enough for rent and books. You work five summer jobs. You get scholarships. And finally you get a real job with a real paycheck and health benefits and a 401k. You’ve made it now.
But the world, they hate people who wave around their elitist degrees and they want to see really what you’re made of. You’re made of years of studying hard, and trying to fit in. You’re supposed to be a leader now, but only to find out, people want to be led by people like them. They don’t see themselves in you, because you’re still too different. To lead, you have to become even more like them.
So you buy a house that looks like their houses. You go out to brunch, cuz that’s what these people do. You hire nannies, and throw yourself at work. You move to California, where you throw your kids birthday parties at Sea World and Legoland. You buy your kids surfboards and rollerblades, and your husband a BMW convertible. Unconsciously, you’ve arrived in Surfing USA! Even your house is pink – a salmon pink – and you love it especially because it has closet space! Your daughter becomes the fashionista all her friends look up to. How many bikinis does one person need, you ask. How many closets can one girl fill? Oh, somehow, as if it were karma, your little girl grew up to be your new Barbie!
Had I dreamed this into being?
In a blink, your kids are grown. You raised them to be American, cuz you finally figured how to be one yourself… or so you thought. But they are woke, and they see America. They know they are more than their American veneers, their shiny degrees, the big dream houses. They want so much more than Surfing USA. Deep inside, they still are Other. Deep inside, they belong more in Taipei, or Berlin, or Bali, or the artist enclaves of Brooklyn than they do in Greater America. Your son gives up the cute house he rents in Menlo Park, and turns his back on the security of Silicon Valley. Solopreneurs, both of them. They don’t have the steady paycheck, the stock options or the 401k. Deep inside, they are at their core searching for something far more than what Barbie stood for. They’re trying to notice whose dream they’re living, and fighting to make sure it’s their own, and not Mattel’s. And thank goodness, you could not take that away from them.
It’s so hard to be American. It’s impossible right now.
Wendy Wong: As a first-generation immigrant from Taiwan, Wendy Wong writes about identity, family, memory, ancestry, and the Chinese-American diaspora. She lives in La Jolla, CA and she is finishing her first book-length work of fiction. You can find her newsletter Everything, Everywhere – The Best Version Yet where she writes as the archetype of Evelyn Wang at WendyWong.Substack.com