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Warm, Fuzzy Mushrooms This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This work has won the Teen Ink contest in its category.

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     My name is Dingyun. Very Chinese, right? It labels me unmistakably as an Asian and singles me out wherever I go. It’s also very versatile - it can be pronounced absolutely any way you please. That’s why, in sixth grade, my name alone created a world of stuttering substitutes. They murdered my name and chopped it up into mixed-and-matched pieces of syllables. Ding-dong. Dig-a-noo. Ding-yay. Sometimes, they’d just start with “Din - ” and I soon realized that I might as well raise my hand immediately just to save them - and myself - the humiliation.

Well, the humiliation didn’t stop there. About the middle of that year, my mom went on a do-it-yourself craze. Gardening. Painting. Knitting. Even birdhouse making. Managing Your Life for Dummies became her bible. I didn’t mind too much since this let me watch more “Sailor Moon” every afternoon, but then my mom borrowed a book from the library titled Absolutely Cute Haircuts for Kids. Fueled by an inner desire to make me look just as Caucasian and mei (pretty) as the rosy Shirley Temple girl on the front cover, and obstinately positive of her ability to execute the task, she sat me in the bathtub and went to work.

As I sat there, feet trembling with impatience and my back flopping like Jell-O from remaining stiff, my mom worked with a crazed diligence, lost in a world where no strand of hair was left untouched. When she finished, she stood, haughtily, as if assured of her success and of the fact that I would be pleased. “Mei! Tai mei luh!” she cooed, hand on chin, expressing something akin to “Magnifico!” when viewing the Mona Lisa. She handed me the mirror.

I shrieked.

I saw a pudgy boy staring back at me. My mom had made me look like a boy. Teary-eyed, I looked at the Shirley Temple girl on the cover and then back at myself. What happened? My mom might as well have taken a bowl, popped it over my head, and cut around it. My head was a mushroom. A black mushroom. My fat face didn’t help either, and, at that point, I was red and crying, so I looked more like a chocolate-dipped strawberry.

The worst part, however, was that I had not yet hit puberty. I was short and round, and with the haircut, I was mistaken for a boy wherever I went. I lacked any sort of fashion sense since my mother (a typical cheap Asian) bought clothes from Name Brand Clothing, which was something between the Salvation Army and a department store.

If you ask me, there wasn’t so much name-brand clothing there as fake brands from China. It was a refurbished warehouse complete with fluorescent lights, far from any posh store in the mall. Clothes were flung into cardboard boxes, hung on racks, and spewed on the floor. My sister and I would play hide-and-seek among the racks, surrounded by a curtain of shirts until one found the other or a customer shrieked to see one of us behind the shirt of her choice. We never seemed to mind the musty, nose-tickling odor that pervaded everything and sometimes stayed with the clothes for a dozen washes.

Everything was separated into two categories, men’s and women’s. Size, color and style was pretty much a result of a game of Darwin’s survival of the fittest - the best bargains went to the ones with the sharpest eyes and a knack for penny-pinching. Despite the vast collection, I often wore large items because I was growing so fast and could wear them the following year. As my mom used to say, “Shing lah” - whatever works.

However doomed I was with my bad haircut and horrible fashion sense, those years hold the best memories of my life. In those simpler days, my family and I would drive to Chinatown, not to buy anything or run an errand, but to alleviate boredom. Every time, we would go to this nameless shopping center. Its facade, though gleaming white in the sun, was peeling, revealing the brown stucco beneath; it was decorated with faded advertisements for karaoke bars. The windows were tinted green with grime. It was always busy, if the customers could get what they wanted, they came, clean or not.

Inside, the floors were cracked reddish tile, and my footsteps echoed against the walls whenever I ran. Exotic, musty smells wafted in from the adjoining supermarket. The oily smell of Beijing duck attracted customers. The pungent, spoiled-egg odor of durians was barely masked by the tart fragrance of mangos. An occasional fly would buzz by. Faded neon posters announced “sales” and “specials” that seemed to have passed but remained since they still sold things at that price.

In the produce section, old Chinese women, hunchbacked with lips puckered with age, rubbed, smelled and pinched vegetables and fruits with expert skill, while playful children zipped in and out between carts and legs. On the days when we were lucky, ladies with aprons and hairnets would stand next to the frozen foods section, yelling, “Lai sang ah!” prodding customers to try today’s new flavor by offering little soy-sauce containers filled with steaming dumplings skewered by a toothpick.

After the supermarket, we would go to the bakery. Each of us would get what we always got. For me, it was lao po bing, still warm, three for a dollar. Sitting in the courtyard on red chairs with peeling paint and metal tables that tilted on crooked legs, we would eat in silence. I would bite into the soft, flaky crust until it melted in my mouth and give way to the sugary, glutinous center. Chewing quietly but happily. One. Two. Three. When we were done, we would sit for a while, making jokes, enjoying our moment among the fake plastic plants next to the broken elevator. We were happy.

Although we always went to the same dirty places every weekend, I never saw any flaws in this routine. These small trips were times of simple bliss. I didn’t need to waste money or go somewhere extravagant to enjoy life and have that content, fuzzy feeling fill my heart.

As it turns out, my culture has shaped me more than anything else. With my difficult name and moments of quirky Asian-ness, I have learned enough humility - and humiliation - for a thousand mushroom-haired, baggy-shirted, pastry-eating souls. The trademark Asian cheapness has given me a sense of contentment that truly shines on the fact that money is not everything.

Just sit me down in an old, squeaky red chair, let me prop my feet on the wobbly, rusted table, give me some hot, gooey lao po bing, and I’m happy as can be.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.

This work has won the Teen Ink contest in its category. This piece won the February 2006 Teen Ink Travel Contest.






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RubyRose said...
Feb. 6, 2012 at 4:58 pm
This is MAGNIFICENT.
 
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