I was trapped in the living room, virtually chained to the coffee table, a jumbo pencil in a death grip, and I didn’t know how to spell my last name.
It was an ugly thing, my family’s last name. I didn’t know how to speak Vietnamese. Being from a first generation family of immigrants, my parents considered English first priority and quit teaching me my mother language. Its foreign diction slipped unattractively off my tongue, and the way its letters were ordered was almost repulsive. It stared at me mockingly from its many positions on the once pure white printer paper, now smudged and dirtied to match the rest of its filthy siblings that lay scattered across the paper. It jumped out at me, snickering in my face at how close, yet ignorant I was at the same time.
I didn’t want to know how to spell my stupid last name. No one in my school had the same last name, no one could pronounce it, and no one could spell it either. So why should I? Everyone had easier names like Smith, or Johnson, or Turner. Even Hernandez was easier to spell and pronounce than mine.
“I don’t know,” my six-year-old self spat out. “I don’t care.”
My father slammed something down—the knife on a cutting board—and stomped into the living room where I sat unapologetically and without shame, my back forming a solid wall in stubborn indifference. I refused to turn my head, but I could hear him take a deep breath, his chest heaving up and down exactly once, until he pointed a stern finger at me.
Your last name need to be learned, he would say. Other kids know. How you feel if they make fun because you do not know?
Susan and Margaret could play tag outside and swing on the swing sets for all I cared. But my mouth remained closed, my eyes blurrily focused on the paper’s grotesque pencil markings. I heard my father sigh, but I didn’t move a muscle until I heard the repetitive, abrupt sound of meat being sliced on the cutting board.
Why should I begin learning how to write my last name just so other people wouldn’t make fun of me? If anything, it would only encourage them. There was nothing good about my family’s last name. The letters were ugly, the pronunciation was repulsive, and when everyone at my school said it wrong, I never bothered to correct them. Why should I, if they were just going to pronounce wrong again?
My father would come back soon. Maybe he would slam his fist on the table this time, or smack my hands with his belt. Maybe he would even go back to the kitchen to get the paddle.
I remained rooted to the ground, huffing at the farfetched possibility. I grabbed my pencil and clawed harsh, merciless lines down the paper, and as I saw the flints of the graphite sprinkle around the pencil tip and the dull shine of the gray trail, I belted out a laugh of mocker inside my mind. I was almost tempted to stab the pointed tip of the pencil into my arm—
I gasped, but quickly covered my mouth with my hands.
My back straightened out and I waited to hear the familiar sound of knife knocking against wood before cautiously reaching over the coffee table to inch at a blue marker. I grasped it tightly in my hand. My fingernails dug into my palm and my knuckles turned white and sweat formed on my forehead and my whole body was on fire. I was never worried about openly showing my frustrations, but now the sudden fear of being caught wrenched itself into my stomach.
Carefully, I wrote the first letter of my last name on my arm.
My fingers twitched and my skin tingled as I drew the blue lines down my arm. My ribcage heaved. The sensation in my chest was almost that of satisfaction, proud that I could best my father, show him that I could spell my own last name, and giggle when I saw his affronted expression.
The knock of the knife halted. I froze.
I hastily threw the marker away and scrambled to the dining room when I heard him calling my name. I stood still, my back straight, my fists clenched, and my arms behind my back. I could feel the blazing stare of my father’s eyes on the top of my head.
“How do you spell your last name?” he asked, astute diction accompanied by a calm expression.
My heartbeat throbbed inside my brain, the blood rushed to my face. I didn’t know what kind of expression I was showing to him at that moment.
I twisted my arm and subtly tilted my head. My heart dropped when I saw that the ink had smudged and ran down to my wrists. I could see it, and I knew my father could too. But he was quiet, and I hung my head in shame.
He’s going to get the paddle, I thought. He’s going to take off his belt and smack the back of my knees. I’m going to get punished.
He called my name. I didn’t answer. He called it again and I shook my head, biting my lip and eyeing the family of ants poking at a bread crumbs in the corner.
He knelt down, and I had nowhere to look besides the disappointment in his eyes. He silently motioned for me to show my arm, and I complied without complaining. I watched him stare at the pathetic blue blemish as he took my small wrist into his much larger hands. He tapped it twice.
“This is what stupid people do,” he said to me. “You are not stupid. You do not cheat in life. Why you ashamed of last name? Ashamed of us? Ashamed of me?”
I furiously shook my head again. My throat constricted and eyes started to tear up. I hiccupped.
“You do not be ashamed. This is who we are. You must embrace it.”
I nodded my head—whether it was from obedience or because I understood, I never knew—and he led me back to the coffee table in the living room. I should have felt like a prisoner returning back to her cell, but my chest was significantly lighter and my heart beat more stable.
I sat back down on the itchy carpet, watching blankly as my father set up before me a new, pure white piece of computer paper. He sat beside me, waiting for me to move, pick up the pencil, yell at him, do something. But instead I pouted with downcast eyes, my bottom lip jutting out. Taking in another deep breath, his knees cracked as he stood up. Then, in silence, he rustled my hair and left.
I sniffled, wiped my face, and picked up the pencil as the first sound of knife knocking against cutting board echoed through the room...
Edited By: Bernadette Becker