Dad drove me across the Lachapelle Bridge in his red ’85 Pontiac and I could see the sun rising above the river. I wasn’t old enough to sit in front yet. I only turned five last winter. Geese overhead in a V-shape formation speared through the sky, chanting honks on the way. The orange rays from the orb hanging above the water filtered through the spaces and cracks between the vertical beams of the steel bridge, and into Dad’s car. As he drove, staccatos of warm light flashed across the headrest in front of me. The same happened on the pleated plaid skirt of the black and forest-green overalls I wore to school.
The bridge connected two islands: my new suburban home in the city of Laval, where my parents and I moved last summer, and my private preschool in Montreal.
It was spring. I couldn’t recite the months in English by heart yet, but I knew it was March, as in, I knew it in Vietnamese. The leaves on the resilient trees on each side of the river were sprouting. It was the landscape of an incongruent haircut with a shimmery bald spot where the river flowed, parts of it still frozen, separating the two masses of trees. Dad didn’t have a bald spot though. He had a full head of black hair, and Mom plucked away his white hairs now and then because he didn’t like them. Mom could find anywhere between ten to forty of them each time. I sat in the backseat to the right of my dad. Not a single white hair in sight.
Once we were off the bridge, Dad turned right at the second set of lights, passed the ice-cream shop that was now closed. It had a dingy sign of a soft ice-cream cone hanging above the window. Next to it was a karate school.
“Before I woke you up this morning,” Dad said, “I saw you waving your arms and punching the air.”
“… No I wasn’t.”
“Sure you were. Who were you punching? Ghosts?”
“I don’t remember.”
“I want you to start karate lessons. Good for health and for self-defence.”
“But what if I don’t like it?”
“I’ll start karate too.”
“Okay,” I said, persuaded by the mere idea that Dad would be there with me, doing karate, but he didn’t tell me that children and adults didn’t train together.
“If anyone bullies you at school, you’ll be able to defend yourself,” he said. “No one is allowed to hurt my daughter.”
“Like this?” I threw punches in the air, but my arms were too short to even graze the seat in front of me. Dad smiled. He stopped at a red light.
“You’ll have a full schedule along with your swimming lessons, Vietnamese lessons, and your new piano lessons. It’s good. You’ll be prepared for anything.”
“Okay,” I said. I didn’t want to disappoint him.
The light turned green. He drove up and parked his car behind a small yellow bus and walked me across the school lawn towards the entrance reserved for preschool children. He never wanted me to hop out of the car and run in like all the other kids. Dad wanted to make sure I made it in safely and in a dignified manner. My French teacher, the tall and slender Mme Claire, held the door open with her foot. I had never seen her copper-brown hair in anything but a ponytail.
“Bonjour Amy,” she said. “Good morning Mr. Tran.”
“Good morning.” Dad nodded. When he smiled, his temples puffed up above and under the metal arms of his wire framed glasses, creasing his temples.
He crouched down to meet me at eye level, turned his clean-shaven face to the side and said “Give me a kiss,” in our language. Once I did, he kissed me back on the forehead on my hairline, the kind of Vietnamese kiss where he’d suck in air through his nose while holding my head in his firm, protective hands.
I said “bye-bye” to him and I grinned with my tongue pressed through the hole of my first missing front tooth, the one I lost from biting into a cookie during Snack Time the other day, but Mme Claire put my tooth in a Ziploc bag and said it was okay. I sauntered through the doors of École Bellechasse, down the hall, and into my bilingual class, but the least bilingual child was me. My English was passable, but the French language was still foreign and alien to me. My brain had to work harder. Sometimes, it was like learning to tie my shoelaces, but the French words kept getting tangled around my fingers. I knew a handful of words; I just couldn’t tie them together into coherent sentences.
In the classroom, no one was playing with the Tangram, my new favourite puzzle, a set of blocks with different colours and shapes, and it came with a set of cards, each with a silhouette of an animal or thing. Yesterday, I made a cat. The day before that, a swan. I needed to hurry in order to get to it before anyone else. I skedaddled over to my coat hook, the one with my laminated name sign in pink construction paper taped over it. My spring coat slid off my shoulders, and I shoved my red Rubbermaid lunch box under the bench. Off I went.
“Don’t run, Amy!” my English teacher Ms. Sara said. Her gaze followed me, but not a single blond spike from her short pixie haircut moved. Once I got to the Tangram, it was too late. A boy named Lucas got there first.
“After, it’s my turn,” I declared, but he paid no attention. He was too absorbed in building his sailboat. He didn’t finish building the hull yet when he destroyed the mainsail to build something else, disregarding the cards with the silhouettes on them. My turn wasn’t going to come unless I tattle-taled, a word often thrown around in the classroom.
The rest of the class had already stormed in. Ms. Sara took attendance, her blue earring clusters swishing back and forth as she wrote a checkmark beside a name.
“Erika Tomlin? She’s here… Amy Tran?” She said over a rambunctious sea of forest-green polo sweaters and dark slacks, white blouses and dress overalls.
“Present,” I said. I was only a round table away. All the tables were set up around the classroom with four or five chairs at each one. At the center was cleared floor space the size of two living rooms, maybe three, delineated by red tape to form a rectangle.
I gave up the Tangram and played a half-hearted game of stacking wooden cubes in order of size on a square carpet under the classroom windows. All the cubes were of a faded thulian pink, chipped at the corners.
On my first day of school, this was the first toy I encountered. When Mme Claire showed it to me, I often pointed to other toys that kept the other thirty-some children delighted and busy, but I couldn’t speak a word of English or French to tell her I wanted to try those other games. Her constant refusal and my inability to argue constrained me to this single set of blocks. I was taller than half my classmates, the top of my head reaching Mme Claire’s waist, but I felt little and silenced. Not only that, but I had to stack them by size. It was the only correct way to play. I couldn’t tell her I already understood the concept of big and small. I also couldn’t tell her I knew I was the only kid who wasn’t allowed to play with the other toys, as if being unable to speak English or French made me too stupid to play with them.
My intelligence was judged proportionate to how many western words I knew, and that was a repertoire of zero. I kept talking in Vietnamese, expecting Mme Claire to understand, but she hadn’t a clue. I could only speak to her with my hands. Two classmates walked by. They said something to each other and then laughed. Mme Claire frowned at them and they left.
A few days later, I learned how to say “It’s not fair.”
I went home and repeated those words whenever rules applied to me and no one else.
I had to be in bed by what my parents called “9 pm” while they were still awake to watch a movie. “It’s not fair.”
I had to have my ears pierced at the mall when I didn’t want to. It hurt too much. Dad didn’t have his ears pierced. “It’s not fair.”
I had to eat everything on my plate every dinner or I couldn’t leave the table, whereas the food that my mom or dad couldn’t finish, Mom stored them in containers and placed them in the fridge, calling them “leftovers.” “It’s not fair.”
I kept saying those words, often with my arms crossed and sometimes while in tears, until Mom’s capacity to endure me was breached. She raised her palm.
“Con không được nói ‘not fair’ nữa. Nói nữa là mẹ đánh đòn.” You’re not allowed to say “not fair” anymore, she said. Any more and I’ll spank you.
So I stopped.
I had been at École Bellechasse for seven months. It’s now March. I could speak to both my teachers, but not as well as the other children. I was allowed to play with half the toys in the classroom, including the Tangram, but not the other half. I mixed up June and July when I recited the months, but I could count to ten in three languages. I learned from English and French that blue and green were separate colours, while in Vietnamese, they were one and the same. Màu xanh meant both, unless I specified it as the green of the leaves on trees, or the blue of the sky.
I abandoned my pink wooden cubes and looked out the window. More geese flew through the blue, and disappeared in the distance behind buildings and trees. I didn’t know they were geese yet. I just called them the birds who were coming back from their vacation.
The end of the school day came and all the kids were ushered to the hanging coats lining the wall next to the classroom entrance. Once we were all dressed to go outdoors and armed with our backpacks and lunchboxes, we hurried to the center of the class, forming two lines in order to exit the classroom in a disciplined fashion. There were an odd number of us kids, so whoever wasn’t fast enough had to stand alone at the back. I didn’t want that.
Ms. Sara stood at the front. She raised an index finger to her lips.
“Okay, no more talking.” Her earring clusters froze in place, but we were still discharging energy with our yapping mouths and our restless arms and legs. “I’m going to count to three,” and that scared us each time. “One, two… two and a half–” but some of us still dared to whisper “–and three.”
Dead silence. And then a whimper.
“On ne parle plus,” Mme Claire said from the back of the line.
“No more talking,” Ms. Sara repeated.
I started to hum. I had a song in my head. It wasn’t talking. I knew the difference.
“Whoever talks will be the little monkey at the back,” she said.
No fear. I wouldn’t be the little monkey because I wasn’t talking. I believed no one could hear me. Only I could hear myself hum. No one had to listen.
“Who’s talking?” Ms. Sara said. She walked up the two lines and lingered midway through, sticking her ear out, the blue cluster hanging from her earlobe swaying back and forth. “I said no talking.” She leaned in towards me. “Amy, you’re talking.”
“No, I’m not.”
“To the end of the line.”
She looked angry and she made me walk to the back where Mme Claire stood. My classmates started their chatter.
“Didn’t I say no talking?” Ms. Sara said, but no one listened because she wasn’t counting down to three.
I wondered why I had to be standing alone when there could be a line of three at the back. I could merge with the two girls in front of me. I tried to wiggle my way in between them, but Mme Claire held my shoulders, keeping my feet planted in front of hers. My English teacher stood at the front again.
“Amy was talking. Now, she’s the little monkey,” she said.
Thirty-some heads turned to look at me and laughed. I started to cry.
“Let’s try again. No more talking,” Ms. Sara said. She started the countdown, but I couldn’t stop the tears from streaming, nor the strange sounds in my mouth from surfacing.
“Ne pleure pas Amy,” Mme Claire said.
“No crying,” said Ms. Sara, but I couldn’t stop.
Why didn’t she specify that humming wasn’t allowed? Why were my teachers specific about not crying when I couldn’t stop?
In front of me, one girl whispered into the ear of the other girl. The latter giggled.
So I punched her.
“Amy! Non!” Mme Claire said.
“That’s it,” said Ms. Sara, “you’re sitting on the red line. Amy will be the last to leave.”
No! Not the red line! It was worse than being the little monkey. It meant sitting to the side and being looked down upon as they left.
The others chuckled among themselves. The two rows before me left through the doors at the sound of the school bell. I sat crossed-legged on the red tape that made a rectangle around the classroom, the windows and the pink wooden cubes at my back. I had my face in my hands. I didn’t move from my spot for what felt like a long time, my bottom glued to the red line. Mme Claire made me blow my nose in a tissue. When I looked up, Dad was at the door with his usual work cap on his head and his employee badge around his neck. It dangled in front of his white dress shirt that was striped in thin lines of grey. He was talking to Ms. Sara. I got up and ran to him. He picked me up and I wound my arms around his neck.
“Don’t forget your lunchbox,” Ms. Sara said. She handed it to my dad, but I couldn’t care about it. I hated her.
Dad pushed out the school doors and stepped outside, onto the lawn. All the other kids were gone.
“Ah, my little monkey,” he said. He kissed my damp cheek, sucking air in through his nose the way he did this morning.
“I’m not a monkey!”
“Okay, okay. You’re not a monkey.” He kissed me again. “Giỏi, ba thương.” Be good and I’ll love you, I heard him say, but I didn’t know how to be good.
We got to my dad’s red car and I climbed into the backseat. I wiped my eyes and he gave me my lunchbox. He drove across the bridge. We were heading home.
The bridge didn’t just connect two islands; it connected two distinct but similar worlds: one governed by parents, the other run by teachers.
“It’s not fair,” I said.
“What’s not fair?”
Linda Nguyen earned her M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Wilkes University and her B.A. in Psychology from McGill University. She now works in the video game industry on AAA titles. Born in Winnipeg, she lives in Montréal where her mind wanders and her fingers type.
Illustration by Sylvia Chan