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By Angelica Oung

My mother used to stand me against the door jamb and trace my height on the white paint with a pencil, like any mother might. The marks were far apart at first, but then started bunching together, until each new pencil stroke almost blended into the one before. Had I stopped growing? Or was she calling me to the door more often?

One day, after another pencil mark failed to land appreciably above its predecessor, my mother looked at me with anguish. Her eyeballs were vacillating slightly right to left and left to right. She grasped my shoulders and, in a voice deep with recrimination, demanded, “Why won’t you grow taller? Look how tall your Cousin Janet has gotten!”

Janet was six months older than I and was undergoing a growth spurt. Ironically, I’m actually taller than Janet now. But I didn’t have any answer for my mother then. I was only seven.

“Why won’t you grow taller?” She was angry at my willful insistence on staying short.

“Why won’t you grow taller?” Her tone softened. She was almost pleading with me to just be tall. Pleaaase…

“Why won’t you grow taller?” She had turned fearful now…maybe this really was as tall as I was going to get. She got the broken midget child, forever destined to be shorter than Aunt Lilian’s Janet.

Over the years, my mother continued to push and implore, cajole and bargain, hoping against hope that I could be the daughter she wanted. The overwhelming ball of feelings inside me hardened over time into anger.  People keep trying to  remind me that my mother loves me more than anybody else in the world ever will. As if I don’t know.

But it’s a tainted love because her selflessness is so fundamentally selfish. She would sacrifice everything…everything… to live through me. I could be everything she never was.

Over time, I developed a conditioned response. Even as an adult, even after so much growth and healing, when I get a hug from my mother I get the creeps. Every time I visit Taiwan I dutifully call her and we meet for lunch. “When, when?” she asks, “when can I see you again?” I see her hungry eyes eating me up, and I want to run. I see her judge me with those eyes…have I gotten fatter or thinner? Are there dark circles under my eyes?  Have my fingernails turned bluish, and if so, is it because I have accidentally given myself cyanide poisoning by eating the wrong foods? She has the obsessive attention to detail of an infatuated lover combined with the demanding entitlement of a slave owner.

We have very little to talk about. How are her dogs? How is my dog? The conversation flags, dies. Then, irresistibly, her favorite topics come up. Self improvement…for me. Diet potions she wants me to take, grad school programs she wants me to apply for. She asks me if I’ve been to church even though she herself does not go to church, and even though I’ve told her repeatedly that I’m an atheist.

I sit there counting the seconds. I pity her.

She did this to all her kids, but I bore the brunt of her love because I was the precocious one. In Taiwan there were two dialects spoken and all television programs were therefore close-captioned. From those subtitles, I learned how to read while I was still in kindergarten. I fell in love with books because they gave me feelings I enjoyed.  But all my mother could see was a wunderkind, reading well beyond her grade level. It gave her big hopes. Big heavy hopes.

She was the daughter of two teachers, but she was bad at school. I don’t know what that did to her. She doesn’t go into it. The most she’ll say is that she got measles in her early teens, which wrecked her grades, which wrecked her life. Is that the whole story? I doubt it. Nothing in her subsequent development suggests any thirst for knowledge. Yet she fetishized education and achievement to a point of mania. No matter how exceptionally pretty, charming, and rich she was, she always felt shorter than everybody else.  There was a hole in her heart because she wasn’t an academic star. She tried to fill that hole by making her kids fulfill her dreams. Now there is a hole in my heart that I try to fill with sex, drugs and American music.

My mother gave up a whole list of things for us. She gave up her real-estate career. She gave up her country, uprooting our family to Australia, and then to England, in order to improve our education prospects. Not that she ever told us why she was moving us. Chess pieces are not told why they’re being moved. I landed in England at a private Catholic girl’s school called More House on Sloane street.

The girls there were privileged, but also diverse. I wasn’t popular.  Somewhere along the way, the smiley, happy, dreamy child disappeared. I felt like I was wearing inhibitions and protective mechanisms like heavy winter coats. A muffler of awkwardness wound around my face. I was so weighed down by these psychic garments, I walked with a shuffle.  Still, I could relate to those girls, somewhat. They resembled the classmates I had in Australia but without the hideous uniforms.

Then, my mother achieved a triumph. She managed to place me in the highly prestigious and selective Westminster School. I spent the last two years of high school there, studying physics, chemistry, maths…and art. I insisted on the last and didn’t argue over the rest. Every day a chauffeur-driven Jaguar deposited me outside of Little Dean’s Yard and I walked into this strange world, a Hogwarts without magic, where the students (who were overwhelmingly male) talked in English accents so posh I couldn’t understand them. The number of my heavy psychic winter coats quadrupled. I found it hard to talk. Here the future leaders of England were educated. In their midst I felt acutely inadequate. My mother, however, was ecstatic: I was now rubbing shoulders with the real elite. Perhaps I would go on to Cambridge and marry an Earl.

The reality was, I sat in the corner of the homeroom of Ashburton House, pretending to do crossword puzzles, which I hated, just so I would be left alone. No, correction: so it would not be so painfully obvious that I was being left alone.

One day, I was alone in the deserted home room when a boy named Piers walked in. He had graduated the previous year. He looked like he was carrying the weight of the world on his weary shoulders. He sank into a chair with a sigh and looked right through me with his best thousand-yard stare. Then suddenly he fixed his eyes upon me and spoke with great urgency.

“Look…I don’t know you, and you don’t know me. But I’m going to need you to listen to me. This is very important. Don’t…do…drugs.”

“Um…Piers…it’s Angelica. You do know me. I was here all last year…”

“Oh.” Piers was a little flustered. His cynical, world-weary exterior vanished. “You’ve changed corners.”

It wasn’t me he recognized. It was the corner.

In those years, my perception was that everybody ostracized me, everybody was unkind. There were incidents. A classmate pulling me over in lab to scribble “prude girl” on my lab coat. On the whole, however, it’s not fair to say people were unkind…I was impervious to kindness. No one needed to ostracize me; I ostracized myself. I was not bullied but ignored. Kids are kids everywhere. and Westminster school might have been a more civilized place than most high schools. My cousin Janet was there at the same time as me, and she loved it and made many lifelong friends. Yes, the same Janet…taller Janet…better-at-school Janet; Janet who did get into Cambridge but chose McGill instead, to study mechanical engineering.

In truth, I was easy to ignore. Weighed down by self consciousness, I was a lumbering animal who became prickly when poked. Like a drowning person, I lost the ability to cry for help, Starved though I was for friendship, I did my best to erase any trace that I existed.

Westminster School was for me, a special flavor of hell. To this day, poncy English accents trigger in me a panic response.  Once I asked my mother if there was anything about our childhood and upbringing that she regretted. “I regret not boarding you at Westminster full time,” she said. “It would have been better for you. I was too soft.”

The teenage mind is not sensible. I thought back to the only time I felt accepted and it was a brief period in Singapore, when I was nine and went to a school for expats. There, my best friends were freckled, long haired Americans. Which made sense.  My mother’s ambitions for me had begun before I was born. She had taken pains to give birth to me in California, so I could be a citizen of the United States by birth. Growing up, she told me periodically, “You’re American, you know.” I took her words to mean more than a legal loophole.  American was my identity inside and out, an intrinsic quality people could recognize just by looking at me.  But even though it was intrinsic, it had to be developed too, like perfect pitch.  Whenever I met a fellow American, I came out of my shell a bit. “American” came to feel like destiny. Yes!  I was meant to return to my homeland. To live among cornfed boys and girls with shiny teeth riding convertibles in the sunshine…

To prepare myself for my triumphant return to the USA, I started listening to the music of my people.  Rock and Roll was too international to qualify, jazz was too esoteric. Country music—that was real American music. It must be because people who aren’t Americans tend not to like it. What started as an affectation soon became an obsession…Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Patsy Cline, Hank Williams…I all but threw out my Jazz CDs. Sorry Cole Porter, sorry Duke Ellington…I had new heroes now.

My favorite was always Gram Parsons. Unique among country singers, he had a hint of pretty boy androgyny and a slight ironic detachment from his gaudy trappings of nudie suits and big hats. Somehow, his emotional commitment to the sweet pain in his songs felt all the more affecting. And his  angelic harmonies with Emmylou Harris? Those made my bones ache. All the other male country singers were essentially avuncular and sexless. Gram was my boyfriend.

It probably should have worried me that I wasn’t listening to much country made in the last decade. It cast a shadow over my master plan to be popular among country-music-loving Americans.  I really should have paid more attention to American geography, too. I didn’t realize how divided it was, between North and South. And how culturally different those regions were. One of the ironies of my upbringing was that, insistent  though she was on achievement, my mother was a deeply erratic woman, and we children often went whole months, even a year at a time, without attending school.  Even for someone who grew up outside of the US, I had serious gaps in my knowledge. For instance, until I started college, I assumed that California and Florida were contiguous states because they both produced citrus fruits.

I decided to go to Amherst, a small, academically rarified liberal arts college in western Massachusetts. There, it turned out, country music was about as popular as syphilis. It was all indie rock or top 40 pop — ironic music enjoyed unironically or unironic music enjoyed ironically. I found it hard to warm up to the distance of the former and the vacuousness of the latter. When I went to the college radio station, it was to apply for a country music show.

Humiliatingly, the only other person who had asked to DJ a country-music show was another Asian girl. I assumed she too was looking to country as a route to cultural acceptance. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe she came by her interest in country music more honestly. She lived in Illinois. I was slightly contemptuous of her, however, because she so obviously lacked savoir faire. My original plan might have been flawed, but I was smart enough to read the air quotes…the people deciding the fate of my show were frosty proto-hipsters, not friends of the Grand Ole Opry.

When they asked this other girl what she was going to play, she cheerfully volunteered “Tim McGraw!” followed by a gushing expounding of how much she dug Tim McGraw. It was the wrong answer. When they asked me, I said, “Well, it’s really more of an Alt-Country/Bluegrass/Americana kind of deal. Bela Fleck. My Morning Jacket.” I got a slot, she didn’t.

And thus it came to be that every Sunday morning at 6 a.m., Amherst College radio WAMH took a break from college radio staples to blast vintage country music…Patsy, Dolly, Waylon, Hank, Johnny, Willie, Merle…all present and correct. You see, I learned that just because you fall in love for the wrong reasons doesn’t mean the love isn’t real. And just because we inch and stumble and fall doesn’t mean we’re not getting closer to where we’re going. America wasn’t what I thought it was, but I was right…I was an American, a real American all along.

Angelica Oung

Angelica Oung never lost her love of country music. In fact, she finally took the plunge and went to Nashville in 2015 and it was everything she hoped for and more. She ate hot chicken, saw Gram Parsons’s Nudie suit at the Country Music Hall of Fame and recorded a country song that she wrote herself with veteran Nashville session musicians. And it goes like this… https://soundcloud.com/jellykka/playing-around-rough-mix

 

Copyright 2015, Angelica Oung. All Rights Reserved.

 

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