Spotlight Excerpt from ‘Notes on America’
This memoir excerpt was written by Nancy Wu in Megan Stielstra’s 12-Month Memoir Generator
Nancy Wu grew up in China, Belgium, and Southern California, and has spent her adult life in New Hampshire, New York, and England. The only child of busy parents, Nancy spent her early years in a continuous battle against loneliness, and with an unstable sense of home.
As an adult, Nancy would make her parents’ move to America worth the sacrifice: she has lived a life of prestige and accomplishments, from her brand name degrees to her dream job that funds her expensive lifestyle. But under the surface was an insatiable desire for validation, control, and adrenaline.
With an unfiltered honesty, Notes on America is a story about finding home while constantly moving, translating love across cultures, learning to be kind to oneself, and finding what makes life worth living.
In my earliest memory of America, my parents drove a rented white Toyota Camry to the McDonald’s at the intersection of Archibald Avenue and Foothill Boulevard in Rancho Cucamonga, a city filled with intentions of bigger houses, higher paychecks, and new opportunities.
“A boulevard is a wide street and an avenue is a normal street,” my mom explained to me in Mandarin.
We brought our McDonald’s dinner of hamburgers with no cheese or mustard and fries with no ketchup to the Best Western suite where we stayed temporarily for relocation housing. My parents wanted our meal to be something quintessentially American—large, cheap, and efficient. We had not yet developed a palette for condiments and I thought the burger was unpalatable. The fries were bland and lukewarm compared to the ones in Belgium, where we lived for the past eighteen months after emigrating from China.
I ditched my meal to sit on the floor and played with the toy dog in my Happy Meal. I talked out loud to myself in a mix of Mandarin, Dutch, and gibberish, while drawing scenes for episodes in my imagined TV Series, Fangxi’s World . In those early episodes, Fangxi’s World was planet with no countries, and a universal language that combined all known languages on earth.
“Fangxi, what are you saying?” my mom asked.
“I’m speaking in the native language of Fangxi’s World,” I said. “Only its inhabitants and I know it.”
“I know it’s hard to keep moving, but you’ll learn English as quickly as you learned Dutch.”
I had just become conversant in Dutch in the first half of first grade in Leuven, Belgium, after moving there from Shenyang, China, when I was five. My family received job offers and visa sponsorships from a non-profit in Rancho Cucamonga, California, that did cryogenic research, in the hopes of preserving human bodies in the future. Rancho Cucamonga, forty miles east of Los Angeles, was supposed to be our last stop. It is a city filled with intentions of bigger houses, higher paychecks, and new opportunities.
“Just remember one word when you go to school tomorrow: toilet. Say that if you need to use the restroom,” my mom said.
“ Toilet ,” I repeated.
“America is a very diverse place compared to Belgium. I made sure to ask your school to place you in a class with a Chinese girl so you’ll have a friend tomorrow.”
But Jane Wang did not speak Chinese and did not want to be my friend. She was just the only other girl who looked remotely Asian in my grade in the entire school, and she was not pleased when our teacher, Mrs. Kissinger, sat me at her table and told her to translate the class to me in Chinese.
And on the second day of school, as Mrs. Kissinger pointed at my jacket and shook her head until I took it off, I understood that I wasn’t allowed to ever wear that jacket again. The jacket was from China, neon yellow, and had a huge white rabbit embroidered on the back, above the text, “PLAYBOY.” I told my parents that the teacher said I needed a new jacket because Americans didn’t wear yellow.
After school, most other kids went home with an older sibling or a parent who stayed at home, but I went to the YMCA where I waited until my parents got off work to pick me up. The YMCA closed at 5 p.m., but I would often be the last one there. Mr. Garcia, the supervisor, had to stay late to wait until my parents came to get me, so he didn’t like me very much.
One time I really needed to pee, but I was so shy I was afraid to talk to everyone, let alone Mr. Garcia. I finally approached him and mumbled, “Toilet.”
“What’s that?” he asked.
“Can you speak louder?”
“Toilet,” I said, a little louder but looked away, feeling my shyness overcome me.
“You have to say it properly,” he instructed. “Say, may I please use the restroom .”
It took all of my six-year-old guts to even say the word toilet. I was not going to repeat an entire sentence of syllables I could not understand. I teared up, and, as the tears leaked out, so did my urine. That was how I peed my pants in public for the first time. It was far from the last time, because I did not dare ask to “please use the restroom” until the third grade.
One day my parents got out of work early. We drove twenty minutes west to Rowland Heights, one of the predominantly Chinese enclaves in Los Angeles County. I had never seen so many Chinese people outside of China before, or been surrounded by so much Chinese food and Chinese words on building signs. We shopped for groceries at 99 Ranch Market, where we filled a cart with familiar foods—pickled mustard greens, taro root, braised pig’s feet, tofu noodles—all the things we couldn’t find in Ralph’s or Albertson’s in Rancho Cucamonga. We went to the $7.99 all-you-can-eat hot pot place and piled plates with lamb slices, fish balls, beef tripe, napa cabbage, tong ho, and dipped everything in a sauce of two parts sesame paste, one part fermented bean curd, topped with cilantro, green onions, and minced garlic.
We returned home, stomachs full of cheap, unlimited food, comforted by the thought that so much of what we left behind in China was only a twenty-minute drive away. In America, someone would sell anything we wanted to purchase.
That night, my parents adjusted the TV antenna to watch the evening news on the only local Chinese channel, while I sprawled out on the floor, drawing entire scenes of the moments throughout the day when I talked to myself in the language of Fangxi’s World. I turned those conversations into the written and illustrated scripts for my TV series. In Season 1, I am the main character in the eponymous TV show. I live in a world where all the inhabitants are animals from different species. I am a baby chick and my best friend is a bunny, and we try to get along with all the other animals who are more intimidating, like tigers, snakes, and giraffes.
I’m not sure when or how I became fluent in English, but at one point in my first year I became comfortable speaking to people at school and could say and write anything I wanted. I stopped talking to myself in Dutch and Mandarin, and as a result, forgot all Dutch words except oranje (orange) and leraar (teacher). I wrote scripts for new TV shows in English, replacing Fangxi’s World, influenced by the shows I watched rather than my inner life. One TV show, Animalmons, is a spinoff of Pokemon and Digimon but with monsters named after animals, such as the brilliantly innovative Birdmon and Catmon. I named the Animalmons trainers after the hotels in Las Vegas: Harrah’s is Catmon’s trainer and Ballys is Birdmon’s trainer, and I made them the main characters because they are three star hotels at which my parents and I could afford to stay. Bellagio and Venetian, named after the five star hotels, are the rich antagonists, who collect legendary Animalmons, such as Dragonmon and Phoenixmon.
Las Vegas became a frequent destination for all vacations with my parents, because the Chinese news channel advertised it as a place of unlimited consumption, where we could experience a three-star hotel for the price of a one-star, where we could have unlimited king crab legs and prime rib at buffets that put the ones in Rowland Heights to shame, and where we would be surrounded by opportunities to hit a jackpot.
Around this time, I also began to journal. The loss of my ability to speak Dutch along with most of my memories in Belgium instilled in me a fear of forgetting that has stayed with me my entire life. I titled my first few journals Notes on America .
Things also got a lot better at school once I could speak English. I became friends with a boy at the YMCA, Jose Rodriguez, and he was the first person I journaled about. I pronounced Jose’s name as in “Joes” as in “Joe’s Crab Shack,” soon to become an aspirational restaurant. I thought Jose was messing with me when he said his name was, “Ho-say.” I had finally mastered English and no one could try to trick me into believing that J’s were actually pronounced like H’s. Jose was the first person who introduced me to Hot Cheetos. Growing up eating spicy cumin lamb skewers in Northeastern China, I had always loved spicy food and had never tasted anything better than Hot Cheetos in my entire life. One day, Jose told me that black ants basically tasted the same as Hot Cheetos and dared me to eat one. I used to eat fried silkworms at my grandparents’ house in Shenyang, so I didn’t think that eating insects was a big deal. I found some black ants on the linoleum floor of the YMCA and killed a few with my fingers and licked them. Indeed, I tasted a pinch of spice when the dead ant met my tongue, and proceeded to eat ants every time Jose ate Hot Cheetos.
When I told my parents about Jose, they complained to the YMCA and he got in trouble and never wanted to talk to me again. “You’re a tattletale. I’m gonna tell everyone that Chinese people eat bugs,” he said.
I noted that I had to be less Chinese if I wanted to make friends.