My mother believed you could be anything you wanted to be in America. You could open a restaurant. You
could work for the government and get good retirement. You could buy a house with almost no money
down. You could become rich. You could become instantly famous.
"Of course, you can be a prodigy, too," my mother told me when I was nine. "You can be best anything.
What does Auntie Lindo know? Her daughter, she is only best tricky."
America was where all my mother's hopes lay. She had come to San Francisco in 1949 after losing
everything in China: her mother and father, her home, her first husband, and two daughters, twin baby girls.
But she never looked back with regret. Things could get better in so many ways.
We didn't immediately pick the right kind of prodigy. At first my mother thought I could be a Chinese
Shirley Temple. We'd watch Shirley's old movies on TV as though they were training films. My mother
would poke my arm and say, "Ni kan.You watch." And I would see Shirley tapping her feet, or singing a
sailor song, or pursing her lips into a very round O while saying "Oh, my goodness."
Ni kan," my mother said, as Shirley's eyes flooded with tears. "You already know how. Don't need talent
Soon after my mother got this idea about Shirley Temple, she took me to the beauty training school in the
Mission District and put me in the hands of a student who could barely hold the scissors without shaking.
Instead of getting big fat curls, I emerged with an uneven mass of crinkly black fuzz. My mother dragged
me off to the bathroom and tried to wet down my hair.
"You look like a Negro Chinese," she lamented, as if I had done this on purpose.
The instructor of the beauty training school had to lop off these soggy clumps to make my hair even again.
"Peter Pan is very popular these days" the instructor assured my mother. I now had bad hair the length of a
boy’s; with curly bangs that hung at a...