As I wrap up writing Book 3, the prequel to VTZH, which focuses exclusively on Cokie, I’m doing a series of blog posts that give my fans close insight into the story. I hope these blog posts intrigue you and get you curious to read the book when it’s ready. The first draft is about ⅔ done…YAY!
Much of Cokie’s story is informed by my own personal experience of life growing up. Such as, being bullied, what it’s like to be the daughter of an immigrant in America, and what it’s like to carry around with you a general feeling of “otherness”.
Today’s post is about my experience as the daughter of immigrants, and how that informed my book. If you remember from my first book, Cokie’s mom is an immigrant from Japan, but her dad is American-born, of Japanese parents.
So, within her family, there are three levels of American, if you will, and it sometimes creates tension between Cokie and her family. Cokie’s mom wishes Cokie would be more like a traditional Japanese girl, by wearing more feminine clothes (Cokie prefers dressing like a skater boi) and being more studious and less into video games, which her mom assumes are for boys.
Cokie’s dad doesn’t care so much about that stuff, but he does care that Cokie obeys her mom, so he enforces (in a really good-natured way) some of Mom’s wishes, but casts a blind eye toward a few things, allowing Cokie to keep secrets from Mom as a means of establishing her own identity. But Cokie does fear her mom and there’s an uncomfortable tension between them at times. And there are even secrets that Cokie doesn’t tell her Dad, causing her to feel more alone in the world.
My own parents were both from Italy, and I was born on American soil. My parents clung heavily to their culture, and I don’t blame them. It was what they knew, and it only made sense that they clung, their culture has so many amazing things to offer, something I didn’t fully recognize as a kid. Though my mom and dad spoke primarily Italian to me until I was five, they started speaking more English as my younger brother developed speech difficulties. But were we an Italian family, through and through. All the clichés, and then some. When I was really young, I took it for granted, because our family lived in a more inner-city environment surrounding Boston where there were tons of immigrant folks just like us.
A few years later, after drugs had shown up in our old inner-city neighborhood, my parents moved us to a suburb, thinking it would be safer. In a lot of ways, it was. We had big backyards with tall pine trees, and wide, tree-lined streets, and it was so different from the vibe of our old urban neighborhood. In our new town, my brother and I walked or rode our bikes very far, even after dark, and didn’t experience any bodily harm. No one collapsed from a cocaine overdose in front of our house.
The violence we experienced in the suburbs came to us in other ways—the xenophobia that gets thrown at you like darts when people realize you have a very unusual foreign name, and your family speaks another language.
Even though our new neighborhood was populated by third-generation Italian-Americans or Irish-Americans, we got a pretty cold reception at times. They had been assimilated into the overarching white Anglo-American culture, and were pretty protective of it. I remember how, not long after we moved into our new neighborhood, I was bullied by new “playmates,” girls on my street who incidentally were only two generations removed from being exactly like me. They had Italian last names, but that was where our similarities ended. They pushed me into the center of a circle, and one of them, the mean ringleader, said, practically spitting, “My mom says you’re an illegal alien.”
I was stunned. I was only nine years old and I had no idea what they meant. Did they mean alien, as in, little green men? Flying saucers? Did I come from outer space? WHAT?
I extricated myself from the circle of bullies that day, ran home, and threw myself face down on my bed, crying until I’d bled my nine-year-old heart out. My mom asked me what was wrong. I told her I hated living there. I told her what the other kids had said, that we were aliens.
She sighed. I could tell from her pained expression that her heart was breaking, and that she was now in the awkward place of having to explain xenophobic slurs to me.
She told me we came to the U.S perfectly legally, we followed the rules; my folks just wanted to give us a better life than they had back in Italy—theirs had been one of grinding poverty.
I heard what she was saying, and I understood it. But it didn’t stop the bullying, the constantly being singled-out for being different.
The bullying often happened in the in-between spaces that weren’t policed by parents or teachers—on the way to or home from school. I became ferocious in my own defense; if some kid pushed me around, or tried to hurt my little brother, I stood my ground. (Most of) the physical bullying eventually stopped.
There were other things that wore me down, the verbal slurs, being called a “guinea” and constantly being asked culturally insensitive questions, like if I had an “American version” of my name.
Over time, the only way to really survive was to be as American as possible. Dress like the other kids. Speak like the other kids. Act like the other kids (but don’t be a wise-ass American brat at home in front of the parents). But it still brought tension at home.
Imagine this: it’s the 80s, and fast, disposable fashion is becoming a thing (and it’s been greatly influenced by none other than Madonna, who—gasp!—wore her lingerie on the outside, among other things). Imagine, also, that all the kids around you have the latest “toys” their yuppie parents can buy, and they hang at the mall after school, and all that other stuff American kids do that was so far removed from anything my poor country-Italian tiger-mother ever imagined. In contrast, I lived like a cloistered nun.
Did we clash over it? Yes. I hated wearing the weird unfashionable clothes my mother bought me, and my one and only job, according to my her, was to come home from school and study like my life depended on it, and do chores. I almost never saw friends after school. I obeyed my mom, but it was hard.
As an adult, I’m crazy glad for the amazing work ethic my mom instilled in me, and for having a beautiful heritage of language and culture, but as a teen, all of this only added to my mystique of being a strange-looking, brown-nosed, social outcast weirdo. I don’t know if my mom ever understood the social pressure put on me at school to look and act a certain way, and the punishment I received from my peers every day for being different. But it doesn’t matter—because it wasn’t her fault. She only did what she thought was best for me. And I gained some valuable lessons from it.
In my book, Cokie’s challenges are very different from mine, but they come from a similar place and they lead to a similar feeling: that you’re so different that you’ll always carry around a sense of Otherness, for better or worse. I blogged about Otherness recently, and you can check that out here, but today I’m going to leave you with this:
If there’s someone you meet who obviously comes from a different place than you do, be nice to them. Be their friend and ally. Celebrate your differences. Your friendship would mean the world to them.
To all the fellow freaks and weirdos who took me under their wing: I will always love you.