Im not sure why Mother drove that day, but Im sure it was Fathers idea. You can do it, I hear him saying to her, coaxing her. Honey, you can do it. Its the beginning of our new life here. Her hand squeezing the car key until it left an indentation in her palm, thinking Yes, yes, I can do this.
Mother twice swerved into the curb with her extreme right turns, twice almost hit the same car on Route 35 (the driver of the other car, a tiny Spanish woman, screamed with buggy eyes, twice), and ran over an already flattened squirrel. She cried after she did that, waiting at the traffic light, just hid her face in her hands and wept.
But when the light turned green, Mother stepped on the gas. And when the next light turned red, Mother stepped on the brake. After all, she was driving. She had a job to do.
At our store, we sold everything Asian. That should have been our name, Everything Asian, but instead we were called East Meets West. Our store was one of One-Hundred and Eighteen Fine Stores of Peddlers Town, a depressed, second-class strip mall in Mannersville, NJ. A quick sampling of our shop: from Japan, we featured flowing kimonos, cloisonné bonzai trees, cone-shaped patchouli incense in tiny red sacks with gold drawstrings. From China, ceramic figurines of happy bald monks, shrieking dragons carved out of soapstone, silk pajamas with tiny Chinese eyehook buttons. And from Korea, a round black plaque accented with mother-of-pearl flowers, a guitar-like instrument that intoned sad and lonely vibes, a tall, regal vase with glassy cracked skin.
Despite all these beautiful things, Father was ashamed, maybe because there were no real doors to this store. Instead, he had to pull down on a loop of cable to roll up thick canvas curtains. It was like drawing up a gigantic window shade.
Can I help? I asked.
Its heavy, he said, out of breath.
I grabbed onto a cable, lifted up my feet, and let my weight bring me down. It was fun.
Is this okay? Father asked.
Working here. You dont have to do anything you dont want to.
What am I supposed to do?
Father took off his eyeglasses, wiped the lens on his shirt, and put them back on. He surveyed the store. It was pretty large, much bigger than our apartment. Compared to the surrounding neighbors, we occupied the largest space. Father should be proud, I thought. Its a fine store.
There, he pointed, referring to some customers struggling with an item. That music box - nobody can figure it out. You know how it works; its the one that Noona has.
I felt nervous. So I show them how?
Yes. But do it nicely.
I didnt know how to do it nicely, but I got up my courage and walked up to the two women, probably mother and daughter.
Hello, I said.
Hi! the mother said. Can you help us with this contraption?
I had no idea what she said after Hi, but I didnt let it frighten me. I reached over and pushed in the little silver button on the base of the pagoda-shaped music box. Tinny-tiny music, uncoiled at last, came to life.
Its Moon River, Mom, the girl said. Her eyes were very green and a little scary. Her skin was white to the point of translucence, and there were brown freckles everywhere. She smiled and I quickly looked away.
Thank you! Whats your name? the mother asked.
Name - I knew that.
Excerpted from Everything Asian by Sung J. Woo. Copyright © 2006 by Sung J. Woo. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Dunne Books, a division of Macmillan. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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