Life was different in sunny Southern California (So Cal). Back in Massachusetts my brother and I would climb trees, explore the open woods in our backyard, and watch the bug-eyed raccoons dig through our trash from the kitchen window. So Cal Los Angeles area was an urban jungle with city as far as the eye can see and the only animals you’d find are the dead cats flat and baking on the city streets. The sun rained down without mercy on the hot pavement and if you were lucky enough you could find relief under the shade of a skinny palm tree for a few minutes.
We lived with my Aunt, Uncle and cousins Asian-style with 2.5 families under one roof…about 12 people altogether in a 2 bedroom house. Oh and let’s not forget the dogs, chickens, rooster and some other Asian lady who was a friend of the family. The promised work that my parents came out to do turned out to be random sweat-shop stuff. Seriously my Aunt had a little sweat shop operation set-up in the garage with several sewing machines. All the women would be in there whirring away on their machines for 9 to 10 cents a piece of clothing. The men would peel onions…I’m not kidding. Every few days a van would come by, drop off huge bags of onions than take off with the finished bags. Once I tried to help and peel onions but quit after I started crying.
Though life was difficult it was actually quite simple. We survived in community, looked out for one another and waited for the first of the month. Bone Thugs-N-Harmony once had a popular rap song called “1st of Tha Month” where they rap about waking up to cash their welfare checks and food stamps. They go on to rap about spending their money on drugs and alcohol. I could relate to their enthusiasm but not spending Supplemental Security Income (SSI) Money on weed. We were just happy to see Mom and Aunt come home with some groceries and a big box of ramen noodles. For six growing teenagers that box lasted less than a week – but man it was good.
School was conveniently located right across the street. As you could imagine there weren’t too many white people in neighborhoods or schools where I grew up. In fact I hardly have any recollection of white friends growing up – except for Glen and Cory in Massachusetts, two white kids who I stole toy guns from. Mexicans, blacks and Asians comprise my adolescent memory as far as I can remember. And it was with Southeast Asians only that I hung out with; strictly Lao, Hmong, Cambodian, Vietnamese and Filipinos.
It was hard to relate to any other group, especially when the first thing a Mexican kid says to you is, “Wassup Chino, you know Kung-Fu?” All you had to do was say yes and strike a Bruce Lee pose than the kids would run away. That stopped working after a while because they would eventually come back with their home-boys to put your Kung-Fu skills to the test. That’s when things got rough and you had to Bruce Lee your way out or just accept an ass beating. We South-east Asians had to stick together to survive, at least that was the unspoken rule.
For the next few years my parents would move from city to city and state to state trying to find work – most importantly they wanted to find the right school and neighborhood to raise two growing knucklehead teenagers. I can tell you now that it didn’t work. There’s only so much good changing your environment can do because true transformation begins inwardly – but how were we supposed to know that?