I see my forebears, warriors in retirement, laboring in endless fields, bustling markets, and desolate seas. One by one they all stop, turn to me, and say: “If you have good hands, anything can happen.”
Boston, Boxing, Childhood, Fiction Friday, Vietnamese American
“Who’s ever seen a fat Chinese kid?”
Laughter erupts and Sister O’Reilly hushes the class. She explains in a calm voice that, in fact, I’m Vietnamese, but it’s already too late—Kevin Connor’s words are out, and they’ll remain there for infinity, like dinosaur particles in deep space. Everyone turns to see the fat Chinese kid’s reaction: me.
According to my library book SCIENCE ANSWERS: How Will I Die?, the chances of a sinkhole opening up under my desk are infinitesimal but I bury my head into the desk and push my sneakers against the floor anyway, hoping it’s enough to loosen up the earth. As punishment for speaking out, Sister O’Reilly smacks Kevin Connor on the back of the head with a Bible—a softcover, not a hardcover, even though there’s a stack of them right there on her bookshelf. When she turns her back to the class, his friends give him high-fives and some of the girls look at him with concern because maybe he got hurt.
There is another not-white student in the sixth grade at St. Margaret’s, a Black girl named Elise, who reads during lunch and recess by herself under the single oak tree on the playground. Following her example, I bring a book to lunch on the second day but before I can follow her, Kevin steps in between us and says, “You don’t want to be seen with her.”
I hear my father’s warnings and settle for admiring Elise from a distance. She’s the smartest student at St. Margaret’s, successfully defending her spelling bee championship title year after year. She’s also the best-dressed: her black Mary Janes are always polished, her uniform freshly pressed, and her braided hair swirls into a bun that rests on the crown of her head like a laurel wreath. We glance at each other during my week-long visit but don’t share any laughter or conversation, because our classmates will tease us or accuse us of plotting against them. When the other kids point and laugh at her, she ignores them, but if they interrupt her reading, she shoots them a look—an optic blast—and it’s enough to shut them up. I tell my father about Elise, how she likes reading and has good hands (I saw her drawings in art class), but he says I’m mistaken, it doesn’t count. I mean, does he know any other sixth graders who can shade and crosshatch?
In front of Elise’s oak tree is where Kevin Connor and his friends surround me on the last day of school. A scene from a Channel 2 wildlife documentary flashes in front of my eyes: a dopey, big-eyed antelope finally realizes the danger of the situation just as the lion drags it into the tall grass by its neck. Frantic, I scan the playground for help, but everyone’s down by the swings and the adjacent baseball field is deserted. I want to scream for help but my throat’s dry. I hear my father’s voice again but his wisdom is anything but heroic: “Keep quiet and you’ll avoid trouble.” The only chance I have to survive, I realize, is by playing dead. They’ll circle my carcass, sniff at it, lose interest, and move on. So I go limp and crumble to the ground. There’s a brief moment of confusion but Kevin’s friends get me back on my feet to face him. He’s a freaking giant.
“Your dad works for my dad so that makes me your boss. If you don’t do what I tell you, he’ll get fired. Got it?”
The situation is delicate; I have to consider my response carefully: YES out of fear, NO for what remains of my dignity. But I say nothing. I could fight back, but what would my father say? Even if I wanted to fight, I can’t, because I don’t know how. The countless hours I spent poring over my beloved comic books hadn’t prepared me for this. The X-Men made confrontations look so fast, so easy; it’s devastating to think I’ve been misled by them. I tell myself their betrayal must have been unintentional; how could they have known I would be ambushed by Galactus and his heralds?
“Don’t you understand English?” Kevin takes a step toward me and time stops.
I imagine his friends pinning me down as he jumps on me like a trampoline. I imagine him picking me up and launching me across the sky like a catapult. I have to diffuse the situation: I hold out my hands and plead for nonviolence, channeling the Asian shopkeepers I’ve seen on television.
“Please—I don’t want any trouble!”
“What did you just say to me?”
Kevin cracks his knuckles and I imagine my bones breaking. He crouches so our eyes meet but I turn away and look at his friends; they’re all smirking. I take a step back and try to slip away, but it’s no use—they’ve walled me in from behind. I raise my hands again—this time in surrender—high above my head, like I’ve been cornered by the police.
There’s a hard shove from behind.
My legs have been replaced by Jell-O and I fall forward with all the gracefulness of a belly-flop. Kevin cocks back his arm and swings his fist in a wide loop. It hurdles toward me like a meteor in slow motion and I stare at it like a defenseless, plant-eating dinosaur. A sharp, stabbing pain breaks my momentum and I flop to the ground like a gutted fish. Contrary to what I’d seen the Blob do against the X-Men, the fat I’d cultivated to insulate my stomach did exactly nothing to absorb the punch. I clutch at my stomach to stop my insides from spilling out. I take deep breaths but my lungs refuse to expand. My vision dims, and I all I can think about is how I’ll never see my mother and baby sister again.
My view from the ground when I open my eyes: two polished patent leather shoes. I look up and there’s Elise, battering Kevin and his goons with a book. As they run off, Kevin shouts over his shoulder, “See you after summer vacation!”
Elise stands over me, her book nestled safely back under her arm. She doesn’t know it, but she’s shielding me from the crowd that’s gathered, and I’m thankful she’s spared me from the humiliation of crying in front of my new classmates. No matter how much I beg my father, I know he won’t let me stay in public school; I wonder what it would be like to live out the rest of my life underground, Morlock-style.
Elise extends her hand.
“I didn’t do anything,” I say, more a regret than an explanation.
“Listen, new kid,” Elise says. “If you want to make it here, do what I do.”
She sets her feet shoulder-width apart, lengthens her spine, lifts her chin defiantly, and says:
“I remind myself: I am the greatest.”
“Listen,” my father says. “If you have good hands, anything can happen. All you have to do is put them to work.”
He’s had a bad day at his job so, as usual, he’s telling me I need to work harder if we’re going to make anything of ourselves in the United States. If we’d been at Hi-Fi Pizza in Fields Corner or even Eldo Cake House in Chinatown, I could deal with it, but we’re not; we’re at the most sacred place in all of Boston—the Burger King on Dorchester Avenue—and he’s going to ruin it with another speech.
“You are having problems at school,” he says in Vietnamese. “What is hard about going to school?” I hesitate and he glares.
“Ba,” I say, finally. “The kids are making fun of me.”
“Be more friendly and play an American sport—like baseball. Your classmates will like you, maybe even respect you. Remember: if you have good hands, anything can happen; you might become the best player from Boston.” I stop listening because whenever he brings up exercise or sports, I know what he’s really trying to get at.
In my extensive research of Uncanny X-Men back issues at the public library, I read about Magneto, leader of the Brotherhood of Mutants, and the special helmet he wears to prevent his archenemy Professor X from entering his mind telepathically. Inspired, I devise a mental defense system of my own—the willful and temporary loss of my ability to understand Vietnamese. To protect myself against any more lecture-induced concussions, I don my Helmet of Language Loss inside the Burger King. My father continues talking but I don’t hear him. I finish my Whopper with cheese. I count leftover sesame seeds on my tray. I watch little kids wearing paper crowns run past our table. I tear open the salt and pepper packets to season the floor. I—
“Listen,” he says.
My father never shouts, not even when he’s angry, but from his tone I know to be careful. I remove the Helmet and take a long sip of my strawberry shake because when he gets like this, he doesn’t like any distractions. I never look directly at my father, so instead, I tilt my chin down and peer up at him from beneath my eyebrows. He’s sitting across from me in the booth, shaking his head left-right-left-right. So what if he disapproves of how much I eat? I’m the one who orders in English for both of us.
My father looks down at his hands and inspects them. He mumbles to himself in preparation, and I recall themes of previous lectures: sacrifice strengthens will, survival requires adjustments. I’m not the kind of kid who lets hot food get cold—it should be a cardinal sin—so with one quick snatch, I stuff a handful into my mouth. I think I understand now—sacrifices and adjustments—because I had to eat those fries without ketchup.
He clears his throat. Here we go.
“The hands we have are not our own; they are inherited,” he says. “Thanks to them, generations of our family survived famine, occupation, and war. Throughout history, enemies across different empires tried to destroy us, but it was our skilled hands that saved us from annihilation.”
I lean forward; this part is new.
I imagine hordes of armed foot soldiers crashing against our old village like a wave and swarms of ninja assassins rolling down the hills like storm clouds, arrows like heavy rain across the valley, while my ancestors hold their positions on the battlefield with the steadfastness of a fig tree.
My father props his elbows on the white acrylic table, opens his palms, and fans out his fingers. His hands are dry and calloused and the veins between his mountainous knuckles look like split rivers on a map. He studies them closely, as though they contain our family’s entire history.
“Back home you could be starving, rolling around in dirt—like your cousins.” His eyes widen and his voice trembles. “In this country, we’ve been given a chance to succeed and it’s guaranteed so long as we keep quiet and put our hands to work.”
He searches me for some sign of agreement. I look down at my hands; they’re covered in a film of grease.
“Hurry up and finish this, too,” he says. He slides his tray over to me, turns away, and sighs as he looks out the big window that opens up to the asphalt parking lot. Cars are pulled up to the drive-thru window and the line stretches down Dorchester Avenue to the traffic lights at the intersection. I tear the wax paper off my second Whopper with cheese. As I devour it, I see my forebears, warriors in retirement, laboring in endless fields, bustling markets, and desolate seas. One by one they all stop, turn to me, and say:
“If you have good hands, anything can happen.”
In the land of opportunity, my father has two options for work: he can install flooring in big houses outside of Boston or stand on a production line at a seafood factory in Southie.
He was a student at boarding school in Viet Nam and never worked a day in his life, not because his family was wealthy (he was on scholarship), but because his parents wouldn’t allow it. Seriously. My grandparents thought his mind was too precious to be wasted on farm work, which makes me feel like, What am I doing here? While his parents toiled away in the rice paddies, he was expected to stayed indoors to keep his skin fair and his brain rested. Still, when he wasn’t studying for exams in the library under a portrait of the school’s Italian founder, he found ways to put his hands to work: he was first trumpet in the school jazz band and a point guard on the basketball team. (Mental note, for later: he disobeyed his parents.)
He explains his jobs to me in detail, so I can “understand the value of hard work and good hands.” A passenger van picks him up at five in the morning and gets him back at different times late at night, depending on: the availability of jobs, how pissed off the manager is, the traffic on 93, the number of workers on shift. At first, he’s assigned the straightforward task of ripping up old floorboards and sanding surfaces for prep, but by the end of the first week, he’s handling the jigsaw and cutting final pieces to fit finishing edges. He measures complicated angles and navigates curved staircases and tight corners with ease. When there’s no room for error, no moulding to hide shoddy work, my father gets called in to ensure everything fits perfectly and things go where they should. When they ask him how he does it, he says, “I let my hands do the work.” Wow.
Anyway he quits, not because of his hands, but his stomach; he develops carsickness and can’t make it through the commute without telling the driver to pull over. He has me stay home from school to help him search for employment, and asks me to translate a sentence into English and commits it to memory. Throughout the day, he says to any interviewers who will listen: “This is my son, we are alone together.”
The foreman at the seafood factory asks to see his hands before hiring him and my father knows the job is as good as his. When he’s not at work, he stands in our kitchen, training his hands. He sharpens his knife on a stone and rehearses each movement on an imaginary fish over a cutting board: scrape off the scales, grip the gill, plunge the knife into the belly, drag the blade up toward the fins, rip out the entrails, drain the blood. Finish with a quick and blunt chop to the head. He gets so proficient at breaking down fish that he’s able to keep up with veteran fishmongers. At the start of the week, he brings home a bag of fish heads to grill and fish bones to make soup, and on those days I make sure to eat at least double the servings at school both during breakfast and lunch.
My father is disappointed to learn his co-workers speak Spanish and Cantonese because, according to him, English is the only way to get ahead. A Boston city councilor gets on the news for saying it makes him sick to see Dorchester turning into a Little Saigon on welfare checks. My father hears about it and stops eating lunch with his co-workers and when our neighbors in the housing projects wave to us, he ignores them.
Every night, he replaces the can of Cafe Du Monde from underneath the kitchen sink and counts the bills and coins in it. He makes calculations at the end of each month, tucks the money inside his socks, and walks to the cash checking place down the street to wire it to my mother, sister, and grandparents back home.
My father leaves the seafood factory after almost a year, doesn’t tell me why, and starts at Connor’s Convenience, where he stocks shelves and makes deliveries to Neponset—the Irish part of Dorchester with the nice playgrounds. When I go with him on these trips, the old people who are stuck inside their homes offer me candy from dusty glass bowls. Mr. Connor, the owner of Connor’s Convenience, is shocked to learn I attend public school and makes it his mission to get me enrolled in his son’s Catholic school. “Our schools were ruined when the state forced busing on us,” he says. There were anti-busing protests and rocks and molotov cocktails thrown at school buses. People were attacked in the streets and schools had to be shut down. The mayor declared a curfew, the governor put the National Guard on alert, and the State Police were called in to patrol the streets.
My father is horrified. On the way back from the subway station, he forbids me from hanging out with the kids in our building. “Mr. Connor is right. These people are good for nothing,” he says. He stops in the middle of the crosswalk and turns around to face me.
“Let me see your hands.”
I’m carrying library books but he grabs my wrists anyway and the paperbacks tumble onto the street.
He sucks his teeth and says: “Too soft.”
“All American boys love baseball. If they don’t, they’re not American,” Mr. Connor says. He convinces my father to send me to Little League baseball the summer before I start seventh grade.
The first morning, I walk with my father until we reach Connor’s Convenience and then continue on my own to the field at Garvey Park. I don’t tell him I attend practice only once. Through a chain-link fence I watch boys my age run, jump, and stretch in unison. They wear bright, white button-down jerseys with green shamrock patches emblazoned on their chests and backs, tucked ceremoniously inside their pants. When they stand in formation, their baseball caps obscuring their faces, they become indistinguishable from one another, like soldiers in an army. Each player carries a duffel bag containing various equipment: bats, gloves, mitts, helmets, cleats, baseballs, and sports bottles. I adjust the sagging gym shorts I’m wearing and try to smooth out the wrinkles on this T-shirt I wore to bed last night. I marvel at baseball being a team sport where members train together and cultivate individual strengths to achieve a collective goal, sort of like a team of mutants trying to save the world, but as I stand on the outside of the fence, I suspect they have no such mission.
And then I see Kevin Connor, his teammates huddled around him, their arms clasped on each other’s shoulders—all the boys who prevented me from leaving our encounter at school last week. For my father’s sake, I pretend I’m going to baseball practice every day in the summer, but as soon as I’m out of his view, I turn the corner and run in the opposite direction.
I need to learn how to fight; what better place to do it than at the library?
I’ve got two months until school and my inevitable confrontation with Kevin Connor and his Hydra legion; every second bangs out in my head like two slabs of solid hardwood clapped together.
I explain to Ms. Clark, who runs the public library branch in the neighborhood, the very serious research project I’m embarking on, and she compiles her recommended books on the subject for me and sets them aside on a table in the children’s section.
“This is very different from your usual reading list of comic books,” she says.
“Should I be worried?”
I shake my head, No.
There is a serious-looking book in the pile that details the exploits of Alexander the Great, the routes he marched with his troops, the lands he conquered, the expanses of his empire. There’s another hardcover filled with illustrations of Hercules’ adventures, including his battle with a lion. I read about these heroic figures and see their likenesses immortalized in white marble and bronze statues, guarded inside sealed museums. But as much as I try to model myself after them, I know I’m not a member of a royal house, that neither of my parents are gods.
“Let’s try something else,” Ms. Clark says, and she screens Blade Runner for me in the media room. I follow Special Agent Deckard as he hunts and terminates refugee replicants in the inner-city. Not cool. Then, there’s STAR WARS. Before I even finish the trilogy, I’m making plans to join the Rebel Alliance to resist the onslaught of evil throughout the galaxy by becoming a hotshot X-Wing pilot or a sage Jedi. Then, the sobering realization: without a time machine or spaceship, I can’t access sci-fi technology from the future (or past) to stop Kevin Connor today.
At night, when our neighbors watch kung-fu movies, I throw kicks and punches to match the crashing sound effects of fight scenes passing through our wall. It’s awesome, but my father dismisses it as useless play and condemns violence as un-Christian, so I stop shuffling my feet like Bruce Lee around the apartment.
After my first week of library research, I’m ready to give up. There are no fat fighters so I swear off all fast food. The snacks my father brings home from Connor’s Convenience? I hide them from myself and when my father finds them in the trash, unopened, he says: “Wasteful! Think of your cousins, all starving!”
No matter what I do, I can’t resist my love for the salty and the sweet: I dream about my patented Triple-Orange Combo—a can of Sunkist, a bag of Cheetos, and a Creamsicle—and wake up from hunger pains in the middle of the night. I’m comforted—only slightly—by the possibility that Kevin Connor won’t get a second chance at pummeling me because I’ll have died of starvation.
Ms. Clark is reading behind the front desk when I arrive one fateful morning. She’s sipping coffee from a styrofoam Dunkin Donuts cup. I wave to her but I’m so hungry I can barely lift my arm. I avoid looking at the rest of her breakfast because I’m not sure what I would do if I saw a sugar-dusted jelly donut—her favorite, and mine.
“Maybe you can browse the periodicals today,” she says. “I’ve just reorganized it.” I nod and kick at nothing on the carpet and make my way over to the section, eyes downcast.
When I get to the racks, a magazine called Sports Illustrated catches my attention with the bright red words KID DYNAMITE across it, which I assume must be the codename of a comic book hero—except there’s a photo of a teenager on the cover. He’s leaning slightly to one side as if to avoid a punch, and both of his hands are gloved—one lowered protectively across his stomach, the other raised under his chin in anticipation. He has stretch marks lining the creases around his chest—the same as me—and he’s got the golden smile of a champion. A proclamation on the lower corner: Mike Tyson—The Next Great Heavyweight. I pick up the magazine and thumb through the pages. Suddenly, my father’s words ring out in my head like the opening bell of a match: “If you have good hands—.” Everything begins falling into place. For the first time, I feel the density of my knuckles, gravity pulling them toward the earth, and when I tighten my fingers into a fist they feel unbreakable, like adamantium. I see my ancestors in a galaxy far, far away, crowded around each other, nodding with approval, and giving me a big thumbs up. I now understand exactly what I need to do: learn to box, beat the hell out of Kevin Connor, and become a champion of Fields Corner—the Vietnamese Mike Tyson.
My father’s right: Put them to work, and anything can happen.