Teach Me About the Nickel

Tomorrow, I write about the road trip of a lifetime but tonight I feel like reviving a small part of the past so here’s an essay I first wrote a few years ago and have since edited countless times. Enjoy!

It starts in a sparse bedroom starving for sunlight. A few rays squeeze in through the sole window above the bed and waste their lovely sparks on a dusty dresser that does not belong to me. I suppose I’ve never personally owned a dresser but this one in particular feels so not mine to me. No rustling Legos to nourish its purpose. No glittery purple cloth to clothe its form. The shelves directly above the dresser are free of my misshapen stuffed animals and battered paperback books because I can’t in good conscience subject their mollycoddled bottoms to such a harsh and splintered surface. I suppose I find comfort in mollycoddling and wallowing in the not-mineness of my not-mine room, hoping that the clutter of cardboard boxes spilling into the hallway will notify the new-beginning enthusiasts of my passive, not-mine-conscious rebellion.

The new-beginning enthusiasts, also known as my parents, try their best to convince me that this room and all the other rooms in the house that seep hollow and flat, are absolutely, undoubtedly me and mine and us and ours. But we are missing some key elements in the pursuit of me-ness, mine-ness, us-ness. This house lacks thumb-sized geckos who nestle inside the air conditioning and oriental rugs that smell like caraway seeds and incense. There is no mention of kaleidoscope-shaded plants in the alpine soil. There is no patio or collective fear of cobras. Chewing gum and spitting on the street are merely impolite habits rather than finable offenses here. Surely my family of new-beginning enthusiasts understand that the only place we can be absolutely, undoubtedly us is Singapore and this place is about 9,335 miles away from Singapore.

Despite the non-usness of this place, I get ready for my first day at an American school uncharacteristically fast. My stomach is holding beginner dance lessons, one-two step shake. I think they call that the butterflies but every part of me is still hiding in a cocoon of me-ness as my dad drives me to school. We arrive forty minutes early at my request right to the curb of my new elementary school in a blue Kia we bought last week. They bounce in like meerkats on a prairie as soon as we arrive, trying their best to peer through my carefully constructed shell. I’m a crustacean but they are a patriotic and investigative tide, determined to pull me out to sea. Their fascination is contagious; they gasp excitedly when I tell them about Singapore. I shiver a little when they tell me about the New Hampshire winters, the overly alpine atmosphere, the indispensable snow. I feel welcome but I also feel absolutely, undoubtedly foreign. I’m missing my tropical playground, and Deepavali celebrations, and the forty-two different nationalities that made up our student body.

I become the ultimate foreigner at the school-wide morning assembly when I unknowingly march against the tide and recite the pledge of allegiance, which I do not know, with my left hand across my chest. The salt of their stares hits my eyes as my fourth-grade teacher Ms. Frick swoops on me like a brazen eagle, whispering in a panicked tone, “Wrong hand, wrong had. It’s your right, your right!” I switch my hands and try my best to retreat back into my cocoon. But the deed is done, I’m the mumbling bumbling non-American American who tried to spar with the flag. I stare helplessly at the flaccid flag, the pinnacle post of everything that feels especially not-me.

Post-flag mishap, Ms. Frick is a tide of all-eagle, all-American, and all in favor of converting me into someone other than me. Snack time is American coin time which consists of my endless questioning of why the nickel is bigger than the dime if it’s worth less money. Ms. Frick doesn’t have an answer to that one. During geography, Ms. Frick tries desperately to teach me where all the states are on the oversized American map that hangs from the head of the classroom. I can’t for the life of me find Idaho, even when Ms. Frick advises that attaching potato to the end will help me remember it. I’m quick to point out that potatoes come in many different shapes and sizes and that several states on the map can easily pass for a potato. She doesn’t really have an answer to that one either.

Throughout the year, I slowly learn how to stay afloat in the tide of not-me-ness, memorizing the Pledge of Allegiance and the basic gist of the national anthem. But I’m taught a lot more than just the anthem, the pledge, the ever-confusing system of American coins. I’m taught how to be the best, most distinct version of not-me. I’m taught how to create and occupy a world that is not-mine, not ours. My class collectively corrects me every time I speak my language and pronounce words slightly off-kilter. They tell me I talk too me, wear clothes that are too me, know the wrong, overwhelmingly me things. No one can understand why the half-English, half-American girl from Singapore, the crustacean dead set on living in a shell of me-ness, can’t just swim with the tide and act American but my family and I did not come here to swim with the tide and learn how to be American. We came here to learn how to be us-wonderful, off-kilter us in a new kind of us world.

I remember when I first learned the story behind the national anthem, I found the idea that the flag was ‘still there’ admidst the destructive rubble of the ‘perilous fight’ beautiful and profound. But what has that miracle-of-a-flag come to represent in modern America? In my experience, it represents a bewildered girl with her left hand on her chest, eyes salted by the pinpoint stares of sixty brazen eagles. It represents foreigners who can’t assimilate into American society, their individuality suffocated by the ‘land of the free’. It represents the idea that the best, most me version of me will never quite make the cut.

I follow the indigo trail of me that I have left behind, that I yearn to follow. This indigo trail, this ravishing, consuming path is custom to dancing dragons during Chinese New Year and flowing saris during Deepavali and rustic New England houses with black shutters, encircled by towering pines and mud-painted roads. Me, the very essence of me, is stuck in the ever-perplexing nickel that rustles in the pocket of my Singaporean-brand shorts. I am nourished with purpose by the beautifully-painted Tibetan chest placed next to a brick fire-place that illuminates the cold, New-England winters. I am the best version of me in a home that is a wonderful and strange and undefined place like the nickel and that idaho, potato mnemonic (still don’t get it!).

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