The Amnesia Academy (fiction)
I wait for the bus at the outfield fringe of my two man baseball field, also known as the corner in front of my house. On weekends, I play here until sundown with my best friend Jeff from my day school, a private school on the other side of Sacramento. The neighbor kids come up and ask, “Lucky, where are you going? Why do you get on a Greyhound bus every evening we see you here? What’s inside that box? “
I have a cigar box pressed between my arm and my side. "Nothing I tell them, nothing's inside. I'm not going anywhere." Am I talking about the box or something else?
After kindergarten I started going to the private school twelve miles on the other side of town, so each year the neighbors know less and less about me.
"Where are you going?” they ask their question again.
"School" I whisper.
I imply that it's the same school that I go to during the day, the one with all the doctors' children who belong to the golf club with the guard at the front gate. They hang out there on Wednesday afternoons as their fathers make deals to re-develop Sacramento while choosing between the three wood and the two iron and their mothers plan charity events between hands of bridge. The truth is that no one at my daytime school, even Jeff Feinstein, knows that I go to this second school.
"Boy, I'd never go to school at night,” says Gary Allen, the last neighbor who still plays with me.
“It’s a really hard school, like three years ahead. We do algebra in fifth grade and learn Latin.”
“Just show them what’s in the box and they’ll leave you alone,” Gary whispers.
I figure this is about as good a deal as I’m going to get.
“Cigars,” I tell them, “What else would anyone keep in a cigar box?”
My box is covered in shiny paper with gold edging. My dad kept these cigars for four years. The right top has a picture of Trujillo, the president of the Dominican, the country that makes the best cigars still available in the United States now that Cuba has fallen off the map. My father explained the difference to me once: Castro is a dictator and Trujillo was a president for life. The middle is a picture of a woman who is alleged to be the mother of all Dominicans. I heard my father once explain to someone at the restaurant that she’s one of Trujillo’s mistresses. “Her father was foolish enough to let his daughter represent the Dominican Republic in the Miss Universe pageant.”
I find this very exciting so I remember it.
“They let us have them since we have to go to school at night.”
"Can I have one?"
"Not this time."
"You don't really have cigars in there."
The neighbor kids get on their bikes to play some sort of racing game. They have baseball cards pressed against the spokes with clothespins. If you listen a certain way, it makes your bike sound like a motorcycle.
I reach inside without completely opening the cigar box and pull out an empty tube, “See.”
"Let’s see you smoke it?"
"Well I don't really smoke myself. I just bring them to trade for stuff."
I close up my box, clutch it even tighter to my side. These are the items in my cigar box they must not see- comic-book style primers from the Chinese Nationalist press with their Koumintang party seal, the Chinese calligraphy books, the party youth membership card they gave us, the jar of black ink, and the bamboo brushes. Any one of these items will give away the fact that my night school isn’t just some regular private school. We are expected to bring each of these items every night we go to school or we get in trouble.
Dad gets me the cigar boxes from Grandfather's last liquor store. He gives me the boxes and tubes after he finishes smoking the cigars. The best ones are glass and look like test tubes, but I don’t take those to Chinese School. I keep my brushes in a cedar-lined aluminum tube that I’ve painted to look like a fifty caliber machine gun bullet.
“Stuff". The air pushes through my teeth as I say it.
I welcome the rumble of the bus. I won't have to tell any more about my night school at least not for another week when if I am lucky I will find a way to get out of having to do this. Even if I hadn't had to give up two months of little league to do so, I would do absolutely anything to get out of going to Chinese school in Paperson. As the folding door at the front of the bus whooshes open, I know that the neighbor kids will see nothing through its dark-glazed windows. The Chinese school bus isn’t yellow. Actually, they don't use school busses at all. The school hires moonlighting Greyhound drivers and mechanics. They have a deal where the drivers sneak the landcruisers out of the yard and say they were just testing the vehicles for mechanical problems. The money they get paid for these excursions comes right back to my grandfather anyway. My grandfather’s gambling house is the only business open in Paperson on weeknights. There’s a diner out front where the bus driver first gets a free meal then notices that customers keep going to the bathroom without ever coming back into the dining room.
Once inside the Greyhound landcruiser, I leave the neighbor kids behind to further wonder about the mystery of my destination. It's like getting into a spaceship. I look for an empty row near the middle. If someone sits next to me I do my best not to talk to him. Girls never sit with boys unless the driver makes them. My stop's one of the first, because we live the furthest from Paperson. There are only three or four other kids, dressed like me, jeans, sneakers, colored t-shirts, the girls wear pants or short dresses. By the middle of the ride the clothes change, there are more kids in the public apartments at the edge of what’s left of Sacramento Chinatown. Near the end, the kids who get on the bus have noticeable Chinese accents. I’m not sure why they have to go to Chinese school, shouldn’t they be learning English instead? Apparently, they go there to work on something called “Citizenship” instead of language, though most of them don’t know any more written Chinese than we do.
The Fresh off the Boats are the toughest. These boys crowd together in the back and sneak cigarettes and talk about fast cars in Chinese interspersed with English words like hemi, four-barrel, and “gottamatch” (which they say as if were a single word). They comb their hair straight back, wear cotton pants, and rolled up t-shirts. I only went back there a couple times.
Once, I was reading the latest car magazine, all color photographs and graphs of road tests. One of the FOB boys, one I hadn't seen before, sat down next to me. I had watched them pass old dated copies of the same magazines, though these looked like they'd come from barber shops or the offices of gas stations. He pulled out his own copy, thumb prints all over the front page, pages ripped out, mustaches drawn on the models in the advertisements. After a few minutes, I noticed that he kept eyeing my magazine.
"You want to take a look?"
He grabbed it from me then pointed to a dragster engine, all chrome, and huge manifolds and pipes.
"Wow" he kept saying “That’s cool.” For some reason he could say that one phrase just like Ed Kookie Burns from 77 Sunset Strip.
I preferred the fancy sports cars, the ones with Italian names and impossibly high price list prices.
"Pretty fast” he whispered while I wondered if he was reading the numbers printed in the road tests or the swirling dust airbrushed into the photo.
Moments later, he offered me a copy of one of his magazines. I flipped through it as quickly as possible while through the corner of my eye I saw the lazy pleasure he took from the glossiness of the pages of mine and I felt jealous and disdainful all at once. A few minutes from Paperson he started to return my copy of Car and Driver.
"Keep it" I whispered.
He shook his head.
"No really," I said, "I've already read it."
He smiled, nodded his head.
"Here, you take mine..." he offered "trade."
I looked at the dog eared faded magazine rolled in his hands.
"We trade," he repeated.
"No, no, you can have it."
Something in our brief exchange had turned the wrong way. He made a spitting sound through his teeth, stuck his own magazine in his back pocket, and pushed my own back at me. When the bus stopped, he got out without looking at me. I left my issue of Car and Driver with the Maserati Ghibli cover on the seat next to me. I found his on top of a garbage can just in front of the steps to the school.
After that, I read other sorts of things on the bus, sports biographies, stories about hard work and determination as told to the same three men. All had names that sounded nothing like sports hero names, Shapiro, Hano, Stambler. Sometimes, the other American-born kids would bring comic books, and we'd trade. That's what ruined it. One of the Chinese School teachers declared that the Chinese school was the place to learn and speak Chinese- no American reading allowed, even on the school bus. I even tried to bring my homework from regular school. I actually liked doing homework on the bus and at recess, it made me feel safe. If I kept repeating algebra problems to myself, I wouldn't grow a Chinese accent. I wouldn't start rolling up my t-shirts, slicking back my hair, and I wouldn’t start trying to say “Cool” just like some guy on a TV show that no one else watched anymore.
My parents want me to make friends at school. "Don't worry about learning Chinese there. Do your schoolwork, what they tell you, but the important thing is for you to make some Chinese friends, be with your own people."
I get home and they ask me if I played with anyone. I shake my head. How do I explain that the older kids hog all the good walls to throw balls against and jam the basketball courts? Most of the time, I stand in the schoolyard and watch, keeping score of the other kids’ games in my head, wondering how Arnold Hano would describe it, "He started pitching at the Chinese school in the evenings, striking out fifteen hitters in six innings. Even there they could see that he was destined for bigger things."
Once in a while someone comes up to me and asks, "Where you go to school?"
I tell them the name of my private school and they scrunch up their faces and walk away. They've never heard of it. They tell me where they go. All the public schools in Sacramento are named for people like Sam Brannan and John Fremont, white people who claim to have discovered the state or the “Americans” who profiteered during the gold rush.
They say the names quickly. I know the next step. You are supposed to ask who they know that you know, only I don't know anybody they know. I say the names of the kids I play little league with. But the Chinese school kids only seem to know other Chinese kids. “ Where is this school you go?”
“ It's a private school.”
"You must be rich."
"No, we're not, really."
"Then where do you get the money to go private school."
"Well they have scholarships sometimes." I suggest that I have one.
"Then, you must be smart."
Somehow, I never think to lie about private school. I want them to know that I'm different and that I don't belong inside the cinderblock walls of the Chinese School.
When I first found out that I had to go to the Chinese School, I insisted that my parents give me one good reason why.
"Because..." they told me.
"Because of what?"
"Because it's part of who you are."
Every evening that I am here, I look around and ask myself the question, "How is this me?"
In class we recite from textbooks printed on paper that looks like comic books. Memory is everything here, understanding nothing. The seal of the Chinese Nationalist press is stamped on the back. On the front, pictures of modern office buildings and automobiles compete with smile faced children. Underneath the picture, the Chinese characters say “nation of the future”, at least that's what they tell us. Inside, the children in the pictures wear suspenders, shorts, and white pressed shirts with buttons and collars. The girls wear plaid skirts and sweaters. Fathers and older brothers carry briefcases to match their blue business suits and mothers always seem to wear aprons. There are no pictures of peasants in coolie hats or scholars wearing black cloth derbies. Instead, farmers drive shiny tractors and scientists wear lab smocks. China, this China, is or at least it will be a modern country, every bit as rich as America, though they never make that comparison directly.
We also spend part of each day reading from a book about Sun Yat Sen, how the Chinese revolution of 1911 was like the American revolution, and about how the Chinese communists are vicious bandits. If you say Mao’s name, you get in trouble immediately.
The rest of the school time we recite words from the text. We learn the different words for members of the family, the words for study, brushing teeth, washing your face. There are two different words for grandfather, one for your father’s father and one for your mother’s mother. There are separate words for older and younger brother. It was confusing that for two weeks I thought chat-chat (brushing teeth) and sai-sai (washing face) were yet more members of the family who only live in the bathroom.
There is no word for play at least no single word. They had to come up with an ideogram which meant something like "not-studying". We are supposed to recite the words in unison, as we recite the teacher walks around the room, making sure that we are saying them and not just moving our lips along with everyone else.
The first few weeks, my mother tried to help with my recitation as I struggled with the tones. I had no ear for my own language. One day she got frustrated and asked, "Your memory in your other school is so good. Why do you have so much trouble with this?"
“I don’t want you to help me anymore, “ I told her.
In my regular school, the parents sometimes whisper about the kids with the learning disabilities who clog up the public schools and keep the smart ones from making the kind of progress they should. In American school, I’m clearly not one of those kids. In Chinese school, I’m not so sure. Everyone else seems to recite much better than I do. Everyone else keeps their brush marks inside the lines when they write their names or the characters for Dr. Sun’s three people’s principles.
“Lucky, it’s okay. We just want you to try. It might not come easily for you at first.”
Now, sometimes I know the words, other times I mumble them. You don't want to be caught by the teacher, he pulls you aside and makes you say the phrase three times perfectly in front of everyone else. If you start giggling from nervousness, he hits the tips of your fingers with a ruler. I know that it is just a matter of time before I get caught forgetting. If it doesn't happen when my turn comes in recital, I know it is unavoidable in calligraphy. Even when we just trace, the lines of the Chinese characters tumble around for me. Once caught, everyone is treated exactly the same. "You are an embarrassment," he announces to the class then he makes you face your desk backwards. For some odd reason, this hasn’t happened to me. My turn somehow never comes.
A few months into Chinese School, I asked my parents for a better reason why I had to go.
"Your Grandfather built the school. He raised the funds," they told me.
"So, how would it look if his own grandson didn't go there? You can't look at everything just your own way. You have to think about others sometimes. Think about your grandparents."
"But Yeh-Yeh never went to school, he says so himself."
"You get to go to two schools. Isn’t that great? Your grandfather wanted to make sure you and all the other Chinese children here not only get the chance he didn’t get, but twice what American kids get."
"But it's so boring. Sometimes it’s scary," I felt the tips of my fingers burn as I said it.
"Some things..." my father said, "You just have to do."
I wonder what my Grandfather will think when he finds out that his grandson is retarded in Chinese.
Then one day it all changes when a blue chalk drawing of the Chinese Communist flag, a star flanked by a sickle of four smaller stars, appears on the blackboard after a rainy day recess. Some of the class giggles. Others click their tongues.
When the teacher comes in, we turn silent as we wait for him to notice. It’s clear that no one’s going to tell him. For a few moments Sin San teaches the class the words for brushing teeth, washing your face, then on to the different members of the family. We’ve reviewed this same lesson for four weeks now.
He stops. He wants us to be louder, less tentative. He turns away from us and towards the board to show his disappointment. Sin San take the big eraser and takes a violent swipe at the flag drawing. Someone giggles nervously. Then just as suddenly he turns, What's wrong with you children?"
Only he says it in Chinese and it just happens to be one of the few phrases I do know. He reverts to his thickly-accented English, "This very bad…I want who did this come forward. The rest of you I want to put their heads on the desk."
No one confesses. He begins to walk down the aisle stopping at each desk "Did you do this?"
Each time he asks the question, he watches everyone else’s reactions. He comes to my desk, "Did you do it?"
I don’t dare look at him out of fear that he’ll see the wrong thing in my face. I rub my fingertips with my thumbs. Before I get a chance to answer, he sends me outside.
“But!” I mutter. I am trembling as I fight to hold back tears.
"Go in hallway now."
His hands crack together as he moves to the next row. I first make sure that I grab my cigar box before I go to slump against the cold blue cinderblocks of the hallway. What has Sin San figured out already? I would normally never touch the linoleum floors with my hands- the FOBS spit in the hallways sometimes. I slip my fingers beneath my thighs to keep them still. Will the principal come for me? Will they send the police?
But just before I break down, a girl joins me in the hall, second later it’s another girl whose clothes come from Macy’s, a boy smaller even more timid than I follows, until at least a third of the class lines up in the hallway. If Sin San is sorting suspects from non-suspects, I’m with the safe group.
We don’t speak to one other at first, until the boy turns to me, "What's going on?"
"I don't think we're in trouble,” someone whispers back.
We can already hear Sin San yelling at the FOB kids.
"Why's he so upset?"
"It's the Communist flag. Don’t you know anything?"
“But it’s just a flag.”
The boy next to me, Jerry Jang, continues, "So it's a Communist flag. You think they’re really any worse?”
No one answers. Uncle Nelson, my mother’s beatnik brother who makes me call him by his first name, says that sort of thing from time to time, but never in front of people he doesn’t know. Over the summer, there was a Taiwanese student who worked as a bus boy at my Dad’s restaurant, he said things like that every now and then. He disappeared one Friday and never picked up his paycheck. They sent it to his mother’s address in Taipei and it came back. The kids in the hallway stare at Jerry.
Eventually one of the Chinese born boys comes out into the hallway and motions us back in. Sin San stands next to his desk. Two of the FOBs rub the board with a felt eraser that’s longer than their forearms. An old woman who apparently entered through the room’s other door (it’s next to the blackboard and Sin San has the only key though once I saw him hit the door latch a certain way one time when he locked himself out at recess) lectures the class about her life, "Mao killed my family, slit their throats, then hung their headless bodies from a tree. The heads they fed to the pigs. Until I escaped three years later they made me feed and clean after those same pigs."
Another man comes in minutes laters, "The communists they keep everything for themselves, they say it's all going to be equal, but you see they get rich. There's no such thing as everything shared."
Where did these people come from on such short notice? Is there some sort of anti-communist SWAT team in Paperson?
We listen in silence. When the two finish, it’s not clear to us if we’re supposed to applaud or just sit there. When the next recess bell rings, no one dares to rush the door the way we normally do. Behind the speakers, the Communist flag, erased thirty times over, refuses to fade off the board. First, the teacher tries paper towels, a wet sponge, heavier erasers. All night they scrub, cover it over with chalk, scrub again. Still
the outline of the communist flag defies the resources of Paperson’s Chinese School. During the day, weeks later, the school even hires a chemist to analyze the offending chalk marks. After the first week, a Nationalist flag hangs over that section of the chalkboard, but somehow, we can still see the communist stars. When the light is just right, it penetrates the single white star of the Nationalist flag. At the end of the next month, they replace the entire chalk board and fix the lock to the second door.
At recess one day, I see one of the girls head up to the third floor towards the principal’s office. I see the principal walking into the gym with the girl, she points at Jerry Jang. After recess Jerry disappears. He must have left in a hurry. His textbooks stay stacked in a neat pile on top of his cigar box. Sin San says nothing about why Jerry’s desk sits empty.
The next week I overhear a group of girls whisper, "His family supports the Communists. They even get the People’s Daily, a big picture of Mao every week right in the mail."
The others know this is something bad, but it’s not completely clear why. "They might even be arrested…..or deported.”
The second word is far scarier.
For some odd reason I interrupt, "You can't get arrested for that here. We have free speech."
"How do you know?"
“They tell us so in American school, at least at my American school.”
"You can be deported for being a communist. My ma told me so. It’s not just just the Americans, it’s the law in Taiwan too."
I lean against the rough cinderblock wall. Boys don't normally talk to girls at the Chinese school just like the American school. I don’t really want to talk to them about the Bill of Rights, I want to tell them that Jerry Jang is innocent whether or not his parents are communist sympathizers. I want to tell someone that I know who drew the flag.
After Jerry’s expulsion from the Chinese school, a strange thing happens. Parents who know the Jangs start telling one another that the Paperson Chinese school is too political. “Learning Chinese is good, but all this indoctrination is too much for young kids. American kids say things sometimes, they just don’t know better.”
Fewer American-born kids get on the bus each week. One day at the zoo, I see Jerry Jang with a cub scout pack. He has lots of friends. He never talked much at Chinese school, here he’s one of the loudest. He looks right at me at one point, but we don’t acknowledge one another.
Weeks later, I tell my parents I’m worried about my classes in regular school. I don’t have time for both. How can I go to Princeton if I can’t concentrate more on my grades at the school they’ll care about there?
My parents look at one another. “Lucky, you tried to make friends at the Chinese school?”
I lie and say “Of course.”
Two weeks in a row, I pretend to have a fever or insist that I have a term paper for regular school.
"What are we going to tell your yeah-yeah?" My mother asks.
"Tell him that I'm afraid that I can't devote the time to do well enough there to make him proud. I don't want to embarrass him further," I reply.
“Can you tell him that yourself.” I shake my head and begin crying.
My parents are touched because I’m so afraid to hurt my grandfather’s feelings.
"Say it again," Dad says. "So I can tell him. We can think about it over the summer.”
By the next school year, before my parents could talk me into going back, the Chinese School in Paperson closed for a lack of students. I remember none of the words I recited all those nights at the amnesia academy, the place that tried to make me remember all the time. I lost the brush and ink, the comic book paper texts from the Nationalist Children’s Press. For years, I couldn't even remember the face, the voice, of the boy next to me, just the empty desk, the sound of screaming at recess, Sin San’s blue suit with its Koumintang party pin, and the blackboard drawing of the communist flag. I have no idea why, but I still had the chalk inside one of my aluminum cigar tubes. I still felt the blackboard rub against my knuckles as the chalk pressed like a nail into the flesh of my palm.