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Saturday, January 11, 2014

Backwards and Forwards

Chinatown, 1958. I don’t know if Ruby hates me but she doesn’t like me very much. I know that because she doesn’t talk to me, and Ruby talks to everybody. Butcher, baker, candlestick maker. I tried a few times and gave up, but Ray says give it time. I look at him and when he says that and I say, “Sure.” But I don’t think his sister’s going to change.

I’m kind of being grandfathered into this blogpost, if you know what I mean. Ray was supposed to write today but he thought I should write instead. Ruby doesn’t know and I bet if she did, she’d be mad at both of us. But once it’s done, it’s done—and Ruby doesn’t believe in censorship. Good for her.

I met Ray at the Nom Wah Tea Parlor on Doyer Street in Chinatown. My mother’s a hostess there and on busy nights, she got them to let me wait on people so I could make a little change. My mother is very beautiful, so beautiful that people say the owner is, you know, doing things I’m not supposed to say.  

At the tea parlor, Mother wears a cheongsam and all I want is to have one like hers. I’m only 14 so she says I can’t and all I am wearing is a skirt and blouse when I meet Ray and his dad. They came into the restaurant after a rehearsal and brought their friends Les and Bo with them. They don't look like other people and soon I did some learning about it.

I learned that Ray and his people were Beats, which isn’t a tribe, but sort of like a tribe, only you are not born into it, you have to join. You give up your loyalty to money and instead you are loyal to art.

Ray and his daddy-o don’t have a lot of money so the night they came in here, the other guys paid. Ray was looking at me all through the meal while I waited on them. His daddy-o was looking at my mother, but I don’t say nothing because Ray’s daddy-o is marry-o. And a lot of guys look. You know.

After that night, Ray came back the next day to say hi to me. The owners threw him out but he waited outside and when I left, he was standing there waiting. I felt a little sorry for him so we had a conversation. He asked my name and I say he may call me Jo-Jo.

My real name is Qiao, which means “pretty,” but I didn’t tell him that. I told him I have two younger sisters and one older brother and my father does a lot of odd jobs, like working as a janitor and in summer, driving an ice-cream truck. 

I didn’t tell Ray about how we mostly stay in Chinatown because most Americans don’t like us unless they can make fun of us. When I am on the street sometimes and I go up a few blocks north the boys whistle and call me “China doll.” They talk about what they want to do if they get me alone and I am scared of them.  

Sometimes I want to scream at them but I don’t.

At school, the teacher makes us say Pledge of Allegiance every morning and she always walks by me to be sure I am saying it correctly. It feels like she doesn’t trust that I am an American, even though I am.

One day the teacher walked by and stared at me so hard I got nervous and stopped reciting. As punishment, she made me learn how to say it backwards, so I could prove I know it backwards and forwards. Ray thinks this is really amusing and made me do it for Ruby’s whole family, who loves it. Except Ruby, I guess.

My friend Wally at Nom Wah says his uncle would like to buy the place one day and then I can have a cheongsam and be a hostess too. I said I will consider it, but I am thinking when I’m 16 I might want to become a member of the Beats instead. I would like the tight black pants and leotards their women wear. I would recite things backwards, and Ray would play the saxophone behind me.

Or maybe I would just dance, because Ray says I am a very good dancer. I would like to join his tribe but I am afraid I won’t be allowed if his sister doesn’t like me. What can I do to make her smile, do you have any ideas? If so, can you send them to me? I’ll wait here for you. I promise.

Qaio (aka Jo-Jo) Lin