Read an excerpt from “Why Didn’t You Tell Me?” by Carmen Rita Wong.

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For the first year when we moved to Hudson, my mother carried on the Latin family tradition of Catholic school for all. My brother went to school for boys in a further town, Mgr Guertin, and I went to the Presentation of Mary Academy for girls. I don’t remember much other than being completely submerged and unmoored. No one was brown like me, or black, or Asian, or had an “ethnic” name. I had trouble distinguishing the girls (all white). The uniforms were rough and ugly, a brown, gray, yellow and white plaid that would haunt me for decades. It was the first time that I came into direct contact with nuns in habit, like all our teachers at the time. The castle-like brick building was filled with them, navy blue or black skirts with veils showing only a poof of hair or bangs. I had to spend the whole year just processing. To process and understand all of this, to deal with all that is happening to me, all the change. I remember being fiery, though. My mother had teachers’ ears from the start. And then, when we moved again, it was time for a public school that felt a little more like home in only two ways: no uniforms and boys.

Why didn’t you tell me? : Memoirs

“No, my name is Morning Dove,” I insisted. “My mom made me change it when we got here!” I was seven years old and had just entered second grade at the local public school. This ridiculous lie was my way of answering the new question “What are you?” Something difficult for me to answer, because in New Hampshire I had already received the message that being anything other than a white American was no good – no good – in those parts, a place where I was a blob of brown sap in a mountain of snow, or something brown and not so sweet.

So when my class had a Thanksgiving project to draw and color a mural depicting the first Thanksgiving dinner, whites and browns sitting together at the same table, I assumed there wasn’t just an equality in representation, but a kind of elevation of these brown people who looked like me and my family. I jumped on it. If these white kids were drawing and coloring Native Americans and the teacher told us about it in an honorable tone, well, I was going to have to reinvent myself, right?

“Your name is not that,” a boy shouted at me.

“Yes it is! You don’t know, I cut it off.

I even devised a hieroglyphic name for myself, mixing the influence of the Egyptian wing of the Met Museum with this new Thanksgiving myth. It was my first holiday exposure as far back as I can remember. We certainly didn’t celebrate it in New York – mass marketing and party consumerism hadn’t yet influenced our uptown immigrant bubble. The name I came up with was the outline of a bird with a half sun above it. (I have to give myself props for the mash-up.) I surely came up with this tale as a way to insert myself into the Thanksgiving story that was obviously so important to these white Americans. I only saw myself as “the Indian,” the brunette, whom we drew and colored with crayons in our five-foot-long classroom mural. It was obvious that I was not a white pilgrim, characters in which all the rest of the class could see themselves.

This identity I created was an illusion that I talked about so much that my teacher had to tell my mother at the parent-teacher conference. I don’t remember what my mother said to me afterwards, but I never mentioned Morning Dove or drew my glyph name again. But I also didn’t get any answers on how to deal with this feeling of being seen as an oddity, an inferior human being, that this new place was pushing me. And it pushed and it pushed.

carmen rita wong

Between my offensive appropriation and my embarrassing habit of tackling the boys during recess to kiss them—and I mean tackle, on the floor—Lupe had had enough of my shenanigans. It was back to Catholic girls school for me in third grade. And it’s time to see racism seeping into adults. Back to the nuns and their habits, the rough uniforms and the scoldings for doing so much as looking out the window (which I often did). Let’s go back to the students mostly nominated by French Canadians and the military queues where we walk down the halls, in forced silence, even to the bathroom. At Catholic masses in the all-white and gold marble chapel one Friday a month and all religious holidays. To the nuns who never let uneaten food from the house be thrown away at lunch. (I eventually found a secluded trash can outside the building where I tossed my mother’s sometimes revolting sandwiches like sardines on white bread. The horror.)

“Yes, she is doing very well in all her subjects.” Sister Rachel smiled. I beamed at my mother. The year before, in third grade, a parent-teacher conference meant a teardown. My grades were excellent, but I constantly had problems talking too much and not concentrating. Attention deficit was to blame, and I was bored. Mom understood and instead of punishing me, she stood up for me. She told the teacher that I needed to be challenged, so I was dropped into books and workbooks from the next year, as advanced as I could be. It helped me calm down a bit.

“That’s so good to hear,” my mom said, putting her hand on my shoulder after being told I was a straight student again.

“She has to get it from her Chinese side,” Sister Rachel said.

My ears perked up.

Mom just smiled and said, “Of course.”

I stood in shocked silence.

Yes, I was a Wong, but Grandpa wasn’t there to make sure my homework was done. He didn’t go to parent-teacher meetings. I don’t even know if he knew where I went to school. But Lupe was there. Always pushing, always waiting. The traditional tiger mother but born in the Caribbean, not the Asian parent. And Sister Rachel thought it was okay to give credit to Chinese genetics instead of the mother standing in front of her? Thus, the Chinese were “intelligent”. But brown and black people were not, and in the eyes of my teacher, they might never be.

On the car ride home, I was nervous about asking, but I had to, “Mami. Sister Rachel said I’m smart because I’m Chinese.

“Mm-hmm.” Mami looked straight ahead at the road. She said nothing, but her face communicated a script that I couldn’t fully decipher. What I could understand from his expression and his absence of words was that my mother was not saying anything in particular to me. She alluded to it with a smirk. But it wasn’t the Mona Lisa I was looking at. She looked more like a Cheshire cat. In her mouth she held something secret. Her face amused by something she was holding back. It was a rare face for her. As rare as the truth of what she was hiding.

Excerpt from the book WHY DID YOU NOT TELL ME? by Carmen Rita Wong. Copyright © 2022 by Carmen Rita Wong. Published by Crown, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

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