The tension was undeniable. Each tick of the minute hand, each tock of the hour hand, seemed to ring off the plain white walls around me. I wet my lips, wringed my hands together once again, and unbuttoned the top button of my blouse, already succumbing to the humidity trapped inside the office. Other than the occasional clear of throat, adjust of chair, and the flitting glances from the secretary, the room was absolutely still. And yet, the stillness seemed to roar and rumble in my ears, creaking the wooden floorboards open, flickering the dim lights above. While the atmosphere was completely strange, unknown, I felt a sense of familiarity, as sense of know.
It was the new school year of 92′, the year I moved from then secluded island of Taiwan to the country where hopes and dreams were said to be made concrete. I was sixteen at the time, and couldn’t speak a word of English. Of course, back home, “English” was a mandatory subject, but not knowing it would soon become a necessity, I’d been too busy daydreaming to absorb any information being taught. Throughout my high school years, I would experience the loneliness of having so much to say, but not having the words to say them. In Taiwan, talking was basic and came without thinking, but here, it was a trek everytime I opened my mouth, struggling to form the right words to express myself. Everyday after school, I would practice talking to a mirror, trying to acquaint with those foreign letters, but it seemed, no matter how hard I worked, I was always a step behind.
Not coming from a rich family, my aunt’s apartment in the alleyways, deep in the Bronx, soon became my new home, though it hardly felt that way. Back in Taiwan, though my apartment was cramped and broken, much like my new home, it gave me security, even when the windows were wide open and the door unlocked at night. But, the Bronx was different. Not only did I make sure the windows and doors were locked, I kept a baseball bat near my bed and sleep for me was often restless. Walking down the streets, both day and night, frightened me, so I barely set foot into the outside world, and when I was forced to, I shielded my eyes away and focused on the light patter of my feet touching the littered concrete. Any noise scared me and every faint movement made me jump, gasping for breath, more alert than ever.
School, for me, was even worse than the streets of Bronx. I was titled “The New Asian Girl Who Didn’t Speak” and no one even tried being welcoming, let alone wanting me to be their friend. I remember one girl coming up to me and saying, “Amy, I don’t know if you can understand me, but I do want to be your friend. You seem so nice, but I just can’t. My other friends don’t approve and I can’t risk being pushed to the bottom of the social class. I’m so sorry. Really.” She hurried away after that, and though I couldn’t understand each word, like she predicted, deep inside I knew what she meant, and I couldn’t blame her for acting cautious. During class, I usually sat in the back of the classroom, adverting my eyes from the teacher, praying that I wouldn’t be chosen to answer a question. I was put into ESL, or “English Second Language”, but still wasn’t given an exception to Shakespeare. The only classes I excelled in were Math and Science, but the teachers never noticed me, for I was just proving a stereotype to be fact. Lunch was chaos and I was merely an onlooker, never involved. I sat in the corner, swallowing my lunch without bothering to taste, while the whole rest of the cafeteria laughed and chatted.
But, what I hated most, were the stares. Wherever I went, no matter how hard I tried to melt into the shadows, people stared. Not with wonder or curiosity, but with judgement and barriers, as if I were a creature unworthy of their acceptance. Following the stares were the whispers and scoffs that, no matter how quiet, hurtled towards me at full force. I didn’t want to stay in the country where aspirations were supposed to become reality and gold was supposed to rain from the sky; I was too tired being rejected by everyone and everything. Wherever I went, I was reminded that I was only an outsider, that I would never belong, and that I should just stop trying and go home, back to the island where it would be impossible for me to stand out.
That most horrible memory I could recall took place in the grimy bathroom upstairs, also known as the Senior Hall, in my high school. It was midday and I purposely used the bathroom then, knowing that it was the period seniors had lunch, which allowed me to steer away from them effortlessly. That particular day, though, I heard the bathroom door pound open and giggles following; it was five senior girls. I stopped moving and sat completely still, sweat starting to form along my hairline. The stall walls seemed to close in, suffocating me, crushing me beneath its weight. Please leave, please leave, please leave, I begged internally. Just then, the stall next to me banged wide and one of the upperclassmen, standing on the toilet, peered over. At the sight of me, eyes wide open, tears on the verge of trickling, mouth slightly parted in a silent scream, the girl shrieked and yelled something to her friends, causing them to snicker even more blatantly. And just as quickly as they came, they left, leaving behind only the echo of their joke and the humiliation from it to stricken me. I never went to the bathroom again during my last two years and as of now, I could still feel the burning in my cheeks, my ears, my stomach, everywhere felt as though I’ve taken a heated iron poker and pressed it against my bare skin, leaving behind not only an open wound, but also a future scar.
Enough was enough; I couldn’t take it anymore. Everyone has a breaking point and that prank, that act of cruelty, was mine. I rushed to the principal’s office and reported the incident in fury and shame. Speaking of how I felt, how others have made me felt, gave me a rush of adrenaline, and for the first time in the U.S., I clenched courage in my fist and waved it around in the air, like a flag right before war. The emptiness after, was what twisted my arm to surrender. My principal simply stood there, no expression of guilt, anger, pity, nothing. Finally, he let a sigh escape and sat me down, smiling in a tired way, as he leaned back in his chair.
“Oh—before I’m mistaken, you’re name is Amy, right?” I nod. “Oh, Amy, how little you’ve learned in America. This presumed “bulling” I’m hearing about now, it’s impossible! We are a free country, an equal one too may I stress, and just years ago, bills that outlaw discrimination were passed.” His fingers tapped impatiently. “I’ll word this in the easiest way possible for you, it’s all in your head. You’re just not used to it here. None of our students would deliberately do such a thing, it’s all just a big misunderstanding, okay? Now, run along to your next class, which must be, look at the time(!), English, which you most definitely can’t afford to skip. My office is welcome to you anytime, of course, but you must be getting back.” He gestured to the exit. “Have a nice day.”
I left in disappointment, but the more I tried to grasp his so-called resolution, the more outraged I became. I couldn’t believe he dismissed me in such a way that not only didn’t fix the existing problem, but ended it in such a way that made me feel wrongfully ignorant. I couldn’t believe that I was getting blamed for the segregated manner other strangers, classmates, even teachers, were treating me. I couldn’t believe how rapidly he stole away my bravery, and with my fist clenched, I promised myself that I would never let myself step down again, bow my head to the unjustified, the—
“Mrs. Wu? Mrs. Wu.”
“Yes, sorry. I’m here.”
My eyes focused on the secretary, who motioned her head at the principal’s office.
“Mr. Welsh is ready to meet you. Excuse us for the wait.”
“Thanks and it was only a minute.”
I walked into the office, taking in the sight of the bald, top heavy man, titled “The Principal.” The room was more spacious than the one I once stood in, but the presence of authority was recognizable.
“How are you, Mrs. Wu?” We shook hands. “Pleasure to meet you.”
“I’m doing fine, thank you. And you?”
“Fine as well, busy. It’s the beginning of a new school years, many papers to file, many emails to reply to. Sorry, but how can I help you today?”
“I know you’re quite busy, but I would just like to inform you that my daughter’s been coming home upset this past week. She’s been throwing out her lunch at school, saying that her friends make fun of her food. She’s been teased and the boys in her class pull her hair, calling her names. She’s being bullied and I can’t stand by and watch, as a mother.”
“That’s impossible! Our school has a no bullying policy and all our students are up-to-date about the rules of our elementary. I’m sure the kids were just messing around, you know how first graders get.”
“I understand that, Mr. Welsh, but please, just listen.”