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The Oak Tree
Here in San Francisco, my dad works for a pipe company. When I was younger, I believed he was some superhero who brings water to people’s houses. It became harder to believe starting in middle school, when he came home every day smelling like dead rats. My mom would immediately yell at him to go to the bathroom to clean up, but he would linger, and playfully try to rub dirt on mom’s apron.
I have mom’s eyes—brown and narrow. I have dad’s eyebrows—thick and wild. I also inherited their intelligence—Bs, and Cs on my report card, always. My teacher often love me at first sight, thinking I must be smart and might help boost the class GPA, because I’m asian. This mostly happens with math classes. But their favoritisms fade with a snap when they realize I can’t even do simple algebra. Self-proclaimed friends will also come up to me, expecting me to do their calculus homework, but move away just as fast when I say I didn’t know calculus.
We live in Korea town, in a surprisingly big house, considering how much my parents make. We live here because my parents can’t speak English for their lives. I spend most of my time hanging out with my neighborhood kids because they look like me. My best friend is Jack. Jack isn’t his real name, but that’s what he prefers.
My other friend is the oak tree at my front door. I call her Soo. Soo has green hair and thin branches. I remember learning in biology that oak trees are usually giant, but Soo is small. This is also why I love Soo so much. Her size makes it easy for me to hug her. Her wooden texture comes with a mysterious smell, which I love. There’s a hole in the trunk, but I rarely see squirrels in there. Soo doesn’t have acorns, so squirrels don’t particularly love her. My mom always says that there’s something wrong with this house and this piece of land, considering how tiny Soo is. But I don’t mind, I’m happy when I hang out with Jack and Soo. I haven’t properly introduced them to each other yet, but I think they’ll get along well.
Soo is my secret. I don’t talk about it with anyone, especially with the kids at my school. My mom injects me with the vaccine called “if they say mean things it’s because they don’t know many Asians” every day before I go to school, so I’m immune to their words most of the time. When they ask me where I live, I always say I live with Soo. And they would ask me who’s Soo. I would shrug my shoulders and walk away, leaving them whispering how weird I am.
My mom always says that we’re going to move away from here as soon as she learns how to say ten vegetables in English. She is the nicest woman I know. She is always afraid that we might starve to death if she doesn’t have those vocabs in stock once we move to a whiter community.
I guess I’ll have to say goodbye to Jack and Soo when that day comes. Jack won’t move with me, and Soo certainly wouldn’t dig her roots out for me.
“Bao, come here.” My dad screamed at me.
I went out to the yard, and I saw my parents decorating the oak tree. It’s the time of the year, it’s Christmas!
“Do you want to help us decorate for Chinese New Year? Here, put this lantern on that branch over there…” My mom said as she passed me this shiny, red lantern. My dad was wiping the acorns, which I thought was unnecessary. I didn’t like the acorns, they attracted squirrels to our front yard.
I hated it. I didn’t like to celebrate Chinese New year, or anything Chinese. I wanted to put ornaments and lights on the oak tree like a typical teenager in America. I wanted to put the golden star at the top of the tree-like my friends, not a lame lantern.
“No, I don’t want to.” I said as I turned back and walked up to my room.
I said it with such a peaceful voice that my parents didn’t even say anything to me nor to each other. They weren’t divorced, but they stopped loving each other when I was five years old. They thought I wasn’t a fan of Chinese culture because I considered myself an American. And they were right. I thought Chinese culture was lame in the first place, but in a Korean town, where we lived— it was even worse. I simply felt more foreign every time we put up Chinese ornaments. Even the Korean kids looked at me weird.
We didn’t live in China town because my parents loved this house. They found this house from a realtor, and he told us that this house has been empty for 30 years. Despite its creepy history—at least I thought it was creepy— my parents loved the arrangement. Rumors has it that the last family who lived here were rat holders. They would fill this house with cages of rats and feed them bugs every day, which explains why our house smelled like rats all the time. I think they were Koreans. I knew because I found doodles of Korean on my walls. It was an ugly drawing of a tree, probably the oak tree in our front yard. There’s also a line of writing that says “Soo” on the side. I don’t know what it means but I couldn’t care less.
I didn’t really hang out with the Korean Americans that much, but I talked to Jack. Jack was friendly to us when we moved here. He was about the same age as my dad, just about forty years old. He never told me his Korean name, he said that he prefers people calling him Jack. Despite the age gap, we talk about school and life, just like every other white and black kids in my school did. I enjoyed talking with Jack, because he pulled me away from my identity, even just a little bit.
I’ve always wanted to move away. I wanted to move to somewhere normal in San Francisco. You know, somewhere where I can invite my friends over and not be embarrassed. I had a lot of friends back then. They were nice to me except for a few. They would wanna talk about kung fu, Jackie Chen, and Asian food at our lunch table, but I refused to. I remembered how one of my friends told me that he doesn’t think I’m Chinese enough because I never talk about kung fu or ate Chinese dumplings with them. But I didn’t mind, I took it as a compliment.
We soon moved into a fancier house in a prosperous, mainly white region. My mom was pregnant, so we needed a bigger place, and also, my parents could afford it. I was happy because now I can invite my friends over, when my parents aren’t home. I always have thought we needed a bigger house without a weird, tiny oak tree in the front yard.
Now that I live apart with my parents, I get to enjoy true freedom—being able to decorate Christmas trees and not celebrate all the Chinese festivals. I view my current life as something precious, so I use it to its full potential. I’m now THAT Christmas guy, who starts playing Christmas music in October in the office. My colleagues sometimes look at me weird, and I would explain to them—without them asking the question in the first place—how my family used to spend Christmas every year because we are christians and how I can’t even speak Chinese so I don’t celebrate any Chinese stuff. They would always be a little shocked at my speedy response, but then put on a smile and walk away.
Looking out at the window, I see my Christmas tree with the golden star, quietly sitting on the balcony. I kinda wish that I still have that ugly oak tree, which I could decorate and prove it to my parents that I’m finally, in the end, an American.
I swear I’m never going on the internet again, I thought to myself as I walk down the stairs.
I just spent an hour scrolling through a racist Instagram account made by one of my classmates at school. This account went viral in my grade as soon as it was discovered. People were commenting weird emojis in the comments; some asking who made this; some saying “i agree with you”; some school leaders were bashing the account for its bad influence; but mostly there are just emojis. I couldn’t help but scroll through every single post. I wished I could talk to someone, but there was no one home. So I went to Emily’s house.
“Hey Jack, is Emily here?” I asked politely.
“Yes, come in here.” Jack patted me on my shoulder and welcomed me in.
Emily is my best friend, she’s Vietnamese like her dad, and I’m Korean.
“Did you see the Instagram post?”
“Yes, I did. I mean…there’s nothing we can do about it, right?” Emily is the typical shy, foreign girl at school. But I love hanging out with her because I know she’s a genuine person.
“Actually, I was thinking that we could d-”
“Want some fruits, girls?” Jack walked in with a bowl of cut-up apples.
“Dad! Leave us alone. Sarang is trying to talk right now!” Emily shouted. She isn’t a shy girl to Jack.
“Okay, okay…” He walked away.
“Anyways, as I was saying, I think we should send an email to the principle and report the account,” I suggested.
“I don’t know…”
“Well, I’m doing it anyway. I’m tired with this bullsh*t.” I tried to suppress my anger, but it was hard. It was also hard to imagine that anyone in my class would do such a thing.
I brought out my computer and Emily came to my house with me. I like to sit under the oak tree in my front yard when I write. It is dying. I can feel it. Mom said oak trees usually live up to 300 years, but our oak tree is so tiny that it’s dying early. Emily is walking around the oak tree as I write.
“It’s such a tiny tree.”
“I know, I wish I knew how long it has been here.”
“My dad told me that this tree has been here since he was little, like 12-years-old little. And now he’s approaching his sixty, wow, that’s crazy.” Emily says as her fingers run down each branch of the oak.
“Your dad has been here for his entire life?” I was surprised about something else. I can’t imagine living in the same house for one’s entire life.
“Yeah, that’s what I plan on doing to. I love living here!” Emily says while around the neighborhood, as if she really is appreciating the beauty of this place.
“This Korea town? Not for me. I want to move to somewhere else.” I said.
“I don’t know. Somewhere I can do something big. Maybe I’ll write a book!”
“Then you better stay here.” Emily laughs as she said. “I thought you only get inspirations when you’re under this oak tree.”
“I’ll find another oak tree then! This one is dying anyways.”