Words by Hoang Samuelson
Mixed Love: A JoySauce column about interracial/intercultural relationships within the Asian diaspora experience, and how these unique love stories make our lives fuller, funnier, and more interesting.
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As a nervous, immigrant kid guarded by both outside rules and my own internal hesitation, roller skating sounded like the craziest thing in the world.
But the summer before seventh grade shifted everything: how I viewed my parents, how I viewed myself, and how I “fit in,” and I’m using that term lightly, in America. And it was all thanks to Sarah.
Sarah, whose real name I’ve long forgotten, was the first friend I’d made outside of school. Almost two years prior, when I was 10 years old, my family arrived in Portland, Oregon, from Tra Co, a small village in southern Vietnam, sponsored by my uncle.
Right away, there were expectations, and of course I tried to meet them. I was expected to assimilate quickly into the American way of life. From the beginning, when my uncle’s family picked us up at the airport and my cousin Mai marveled at how seamlessly I stepped onto an escalator (even though I’d never seen one before) to the moment I started the remainder of fifth grade—in a regular, not ESL classroom—I was ready to be whatever people wanted me to be. I was ready to be an American.
When people look at you and know you’re an immigrant, and your family assumes that you already picked up English, it becomes difficult to challenge either narrative.
But when people look at you and know you’re an immigrant, and your family assumes that you already picked up English, it becomes difficult to challenge either narrative. So I tried to be both. I tried to make friends in school, even though I didn’t understand anything beyond, “Hi, what’s your name? My name is Hoang.” When it comes to communicating, I found it easier to point to certain items, such as the foods in the school cafeteria during lunch period.
Unsurprisingly, the only “friends” I made that year were my teachers and a reading specialist who was brought in to help me learn to read English. When summer rolled around, I retreated to my room, while my parents went to work at a local warehouse, packing frozen vegetables from early morning until late afternoon.
I spent sixth grade wrapped in the newness of everything around me—the sounds, smells, and behaviors of my classmates.
The following summer, when I was 11, my parents decided to move to a bigger apartment complex that shared a fence with my new middle school. And that’s where I met Sarah.
Sarah was a tall, lanky kid with bright blonde hair—the brightest I’d ever seen. She had kind brown eyes and a smile that always looked like a smirk. Like me, she was a curious little girl who craved independence. We both came from low-income families—hers was a single-parent household, while mine was an immigrant one.
Unlike me, Sarah was exuberant and outgoing, with unending energy and fearlessness. She was almost two years older than me—“Going on ninth,” she’d said when I asked her what grade she was in.
Both our parents worked a lot, so we played in the parking lot of our apartment complex, a concrete wasteland littered with potholes.
Even though I was about a year into my journey to learning English, I had no idea what roller skating was, and I told Sarah as such. She told me not to worry; she would teach me.
“Do you wanna roller skate?” she asked one day, seemingly out of the blue, as I returned from a grocery store run with my parents. Even though I was about a year into my journey to learning English, I had no idea what roller skating was, and I told Sarah as such. She told me not to worry; she would teach me. So I went inside my apartment, where I found my mother putting away groceries. Immediately, I asked her if I could roller skate with a new friend.
Like me, my mom couldn’t imagine the idea of putting wheels on shoes and gliding along. It sounded dangerous to her. But I was desperate to make a friend, so I was willing to try whatever new activity to make that happen. My mom’s confused and placid expression told me that it was a resounding no.
That is, until my dad came trotting into the kitchen.
Popping a cigarette into his mouth, he asked me what was up. I told him that I’d made a new friend who wanted to teach me how to roller skate.
“Sure, why not?” my dad replied. He was always the easygoing parent. Mom shot him a dirty look. I left before they changed their minds.
When I came back, Sarah was still there, though she’d put on a pair of Barbie pink roller skates emblazoned with stickers. Hands outstretched, she offered me her older set, a boyish pair of black and purple skates I’d be wearing all summer.
Though we’d just met, she felt like the big sister I never had. Her willingness to teach me a new skill, to look beyond our differences meant the world to me.
It took me several minutes to put the roller skates on, and once I did, I felt incredibly nervous. For the next several days, as we skated around the small perimeter of the parking lot, that feeling never left—though I suppressed it for the chance to hold Sarah’s hand, so confident I could do this, and bond with this new friend. Though we’d just met, she felt like the big sister I never had. Her willingness to teach me a new skill, to look beyond our differences meant the world to me. Through our conversations, she taught me about idioms and idiosyncrasies of the English language, things that I didn’t learn in school. She lifted me out of my boredom and taught me something new. She was gentle and patient, even when I flummoxed and pulled her down on the ground with me.
To make sure that I wouldn’t get lost or kidnapped, I promised my parents I’d stay within the apartment complex grounds. I was not to venture beyond the fence, they’d said. But Sarah’s mom did not have the same rules. She often allowed her daughter to go to the school’s playground next door, so long as Sarah came home by a certain time. I was jealous of that independence.
Several weeks after we met in the parking lot, she suggested that we head beyond the fence toward a patch of solid cement near the school grounds. While initially terrified, I let her convince me. I begged Sarah not to go too far.
“My parents will know!” I said. My English was getting better just by hanging out with Sarah. “Please stop.”
But she didn’t stop. Sarah kept going…until we reached a street toward the back of the school, where cars occasionally zoomed by without looking.
As a nervous kid guarded by both parental rules and my own internal hesitation, I was worried about Sarah becoming a victim of a hit-and-run, but also of disobeying my parents. I grew up as the only daughter and the youngest child, born 10 years after my brothers. My parents thought they would never have another child, so when I came along, I was considered the answer to their prayers.
In America, they didn’t trust that their neighbors would watch out for me. So it became their responsibility to make sure I followed their rules exactly as prescribed.
My parents spoiled me, but they also tried to protect me. I had freedom to play in Vietnam because we lived in a very small village—no more than a few thousand people, even to this day—and everyone knew one another. In America, they didn’t trust that their neighbors would watch out for me. So it became their responsibility to make sure I followed their rules exactly as prescribed.
When I began to spend time with Sarah, I learned about the differences in other families, but I also learned how to balance my “new immigrant” mindset with that of the American ones. I learned that in America, one has religious freedom and the freedom of speech and the right to a fair trial should there be a crime. I learned about independence, and not just on the Fourth of July. I learned to dream big, to expect more of myself, and to be open-minded to the diversity of this country. I learned to trust others the way I trusted Sarah to teach me one of the most fun American pastimes—roller skating.
I heard Sarah’s voice saying, “You’re doing great!” I remember how proud I felt, for I was actually roller skating on my own...I was still scared, but I was also so happy that I’d made a friend.
That moment, as we ventured away from the apartment’s parking lot, I heard Sarah’s voice saying, “You’re doing great!” I remember how proud I felt, for I was actually roller skating on my own. A swell of confidence almost gave me the courage to attempt a spin, though I could still hear my parents’ (and my own) voice in my ear reminding me of all the ways that could go wrong. I was still scared, but I was also so happy that I’d made a friend. I felt confident in my abilities, both speaking and physical. At that moment, nothing mattered more than just enjoying the summer breeze as I rolled along toward my friend, and toward a better future.
Published on March 21, 2023