September 2, 2008

Elizabeth Huynh Has A Secret

If things had gone differently, Elizabeth’s story would be really boring, all about how she has to struggle to reconcile the freedom of American teenage life with the conventional role expected of her by the older generation and this book would probably end with her and her beloved grandmother making a traditional Vietnamese meal or writing a family history or sewing some quilt and then everyone involved would learn a valuable lesson and begin to respect each other and I'd win the Newberry.

But, luckily for you, that’s not what Elizabeth is about. Here’s the short version:

After the war, many Vietnamese refugees were moved to the outskirts of New Orleans, because its geography and climate most resembled their homeland. As they settled into a fragile but close-knit community, their families began joining them, and the Vietnamese slowly became a fixture in New Orleans. None of these immigrants had much money at first, but it was probably inevitable that at least one of them—through willpower and business savvy—would rise up to take full advantage of their new situation.

This was Elizabeth’s mother, Nhung Huynh, who put together a partnership and bought her first convenience store only three years after arriving from Vietnam. A year later, using her profits from the store and a couple real estate holdings, she bought out her partners and invested in a Vietnamese restaurant, a video store, and a few other local businesses.

When baby Elizabeth was born, her mother forbade any of her visitors to speak anything but English in front of her, and in fact this was all she spoke to the baby despite her difficulty with the language. Often, a business meeting at the house would struggle along for an hour, as everyone fought to express their thoughts in English. Finally, the baby would be put down for a nap, and Elizabeth’s mother would take everyone out on the patio, where the meeting could be wrapped up in Vietnamese in about three minutes.

By the time Elizabeth was in grade school, her mother either owned, had a stake in, or controlled most of the businesses in the area of New Orleans where the Vietnamese lived. Elizabeth’s classmates were dropped off in cars bought from her mother’s used car lot, wearing school uniforms from one of her mother’s stores, and carrying lunches that were leftovers from one of her take-out restaurants.

It was also in grade school that Elizabeth realized it was kinda weird that her and her little brother Jason didn’t seem to have a father like the other kids in the neighborhood. After about two weeks of thinking about this, Elizabeth realized that the man she had always called just Uncle—a former business partner of her mother’s—probably wasn’t her uncle after all. None of her friend’s uncles spent the night in their mom’s bedrooms a few nights a week.

At the beginning of junior high, Elizabeth discovered that the most popular girls in her almost-all-Vietnamese school had a certain style about them. As far as Elizabeth could tell, the secret to being popular at her school was to dress like a slutty five-year-old and act adorable, self-absorbed, and totally air-headed. Like Hello Kitty if she were a stripper from the future.

Her mother’s daughter in many ways, one of Elizabeth’s outstanding traits is a stunning capacity for adaptability. Once Elizabeth discovered what kind of girl became popular at her school, she recreated herself as the most perfect example of the species.

Soon enough, she was the alpha-female of the seventh grade, but she found herself growing lonely. It turned out that most of the girls Elizabeth had assumed were just pretending to be superficial and frivilous weren’t pretending so much after all.

After a while, she realized that their parents, after working so hard to establish themselves in the new country, considered it a luxury to let their kids relax a little and be normal teenagers. Elizabeth thought this was the new American Dream, something that should be inscribed on the Statue Of Liberty: “Give us one generation, and your kids will be just as shallow and vapid as ours.”

But Elizabeth wished she could meet someone who was like her, really like her, who understood what it took to rise to the top and stay there. And, then, over Christmas break of seventh grade, she got her wish.

Nhung Huynh’s business interests had grown to the point where they were no longer exclusive to the Vietnamese community, and she began getting acquainted with curious members of the New Orleans elite. At her Christmas party, Elizabeth was introduced two people who were just what she’d been hoping to meet: a sorta cute and really interesting boy named Alexander and his tall, quiet sister Lillian. When she met them she could hear her future shifting and groaning as it rearranged itself, like the sound of stagehands changing a set in the dark just before the curtain rises.

Later that night, after she was caught making out with Alexander in a guest bedroom, Elizabeth was grounded indefinitely. But it was only a few days later that her mother let her ride along in her Honda as she collected her rents for the month. Nhung Huynh got some food from one of her restaurants and took her to a small park near an apartment complex she owned.

While they ate, Elizabeth’s mother told her haltingly that for the first time in a long while, she felt like she was in over her head. The Americans she was dealing with now—white people who had been rich for hundreds of years—had their own way of doing things that confused and frustrated her.

At the Christmas party, everyone was nice to her, but she could tell they were appalled and (even worse) amused by their smallish house and tacky furnishings. Her turquoise dress, covered in rhinestones, was perfect for parties in their neighborhood, but when compared to the simple dresses of the American women she stood out. Even their cars in the driveway made her aging hatchback look like a jalopy.

She explained that, up until recently, she had kept a low profile to keep her community’s trust. It was hard enough being a successful single businesswoman; she couldn’t be perceived as throwing her money in other people’s faces. So she had a medium-sized house not far from everyone else’s, and she drove a beat-up car, and she sent her kids to the local public school.

But the time for that was over: everyone knew who she was and they knew that she owned a piece of almost everything. And now that she was starting to get involved with New Orleans politicians and businessmen, she needed help fitting in with them. What she needed was someone who was completely American to tutor her in the country’s ways. “And who better for the job than my favorite American?”

“Me? I’m your favorite American?”

“No, the man in the moon. Of course you!”

Elizabeth thought about this. “What about Jason?”

“Him too.”

Later that day, they bought a used Jaguar with cash and a new wardrobe from JC Penney’s. Elizabeth tried to get them to go to Macy’s or Sak’s Fifth Avenue, but her mother told her that there was no way she would set foot in a store full of “highway robbers.” Baby steps, Elizabeth told herself.

They ended the day with a manicure, pedicure, and haircut at a salon that was technically closed for the evening but stayed open for the owner and her daughter. Elizabeth’s mother said that they had to look their best for the weekend, when they would go to a New Year’s Eve party at City Councilman Johnson’s house.

“He’s a very important man...a good friend for me to have.”

“I’ve never heard of him.”

“You’ve never heard of anything, with your face stuck on a cell phone and typing on the computer all day long!”

“I was just saying I hadn’t heard of him.”

“Well, someone you have heard of will be there: Mr. Alexander Budd. So look extra-pretty...that’s an order, mister!” She winked at her daughter.

“Really? I thought you hated him.”

“Hate him? He gave me a wonderful Christmas gift. By corrupting my innocent daughter—Ha ha! That’s a good one!—he put his father in the position of asking me for forgiveness.”

“Oh.” Elizabeth thought about this for a few seconds. “Wait, you’re saying the whole thing gave you a kind of...political advantage?”

“Exactly! Okay, now you’re catching on!”

“Then why was I grounded?”

“Because you almost ruined my Christmas party!” Elizabeth’s mother said, but she was smiling when she said it. “You weren’t grounded for kissing that boy.”

“But I thought-”

“No daughter of mine will ever get in trouble for kissing boys. Especially a boy with a rich and powerful daddy!”

“Mom...” Elizabeth said, embarrassed.

“Hey, look where it got me!”

And so, by the second half of seventh grade, Elizabeth was a frequent visitor to the Budd household. City Councilman Budd had entered into a political alliance with Nhung Huynh—who held sway over an unexploited resource of Vietnamese voters—and he was happy to have her daughter over whenever she liked.

It was Alexander who gave Elizabeth her nickname. He pointed out that when her mother—who spoke perfect English by now, but with a heavy accent—called her by her name it sounded more like “Litta’Bit” than “Elizabeth.”

The nickname stuck because Litta’Bit was quite petite...she was, indeed, a litta’ bit of a girl. (Her mother pointed out, though, that she wasn’t that small by Vietnamese standards, only when placed next to “American monsters.”)

In eighth grade, Litta’Bit transferred to St. Odo's, the private junior high the Budds went to, and she became part of the group, along with Andre and Robert, who would were the founding members of The Gang. Quickly, with the twins’ help, her previous mallrat style was replaced with one more fitting a whites-mostly private school.

She was around the twins all the time, but she never quite became Alexander’s girlfriend. He made out with her from time to time, but he made out with other girls, too. Mostly, he seemed more interested in her being the perfect accessory for his outfits. He would call her every night and help coordinate their looks.

At the beginning of their freshman year at Beaumonde Acadamy, Alexander spent a lot of time with Litta’Bit, and she thought that things were finally getting serious with the two of them. Then, during Fall Break, he didn’t call her and was never around when she called him.

On their first day back to school, Litta’Bit met the newest member of The Gang: Emily Hammarskjöld, who had just moved back to New Orleans after spending most of her life at a boarding school in Manhattan. Alexander, without a trace of guilt or apology, introduced Emily as his girlfriend.

Litta’Bit was crushed. That afternoon, when she finally got Alexander alone, he told her that things hadn’t changed between them at all. He had never meant to lead her on, and if she had misconstrued the nature of their relationship, he was sorry but it wasn’t his fault she’d gotten the wrong idea. It was just kissing, after all.

A few weeks later, a still-miserable Litta’Bit was visiting the Budds when Alexander proposed that she start dating Robert Johnson. She was told that Alexander had already approached Robert with the idea and he had agreed to it, so all Litta’Bit had to do was give her consent.

Litta’Bit thought about the offer for a few seconds. And then she thought about slapping Alexander’s face and walking out. But in the end, she told him that if he was going to be dating Emily, then it didn’t matter to her if she dated Robert or Andre or David or even Lillian.

This was close enough to a ‘yes’ for Alexander, and he told her that he would work out all the details. Then they spent the rest of the evening making out in Alexander’s room. After all, Litta’Bit told herself, it’s just kissing.

Everyone, it seemed, wanted Litta’Bit and Robert to be together. The Gang was happy for them, and told her it was a perfect match. Nhung Huynh was overjoyed to learn that Litta’Bit was dating the son of City Councilman Johnson. Even Jason, her younger brother, was excited that Robert would be coming over more often. (Jason knew his crew would be so jealous to find out that he was hanging out with an actual black guy. He soon discovered, though, that he knew way more about hip-hop than Robert.)

Everyone was happy, that is, except Litta’Bit. Robert was handsome and gracious and attentive and just about everything she could want from a boyfriend, with one exception: he wasn’t Alexander.

Bored and heartbroken, Litta’Bit began flirting with other boys. She flirted with Andre, she flirted with Michael when he joined The Gang, she flirted with David constantly just for the practice. She would even flirt with Josephine when they were alone together, but mostly because it made Josephine sweaty and awkward and this cracked Litta’Bit up.

Her flirting came easy to her after years of practice in junior high, and she was always amused by the effect it had on guys. Puberty had been very good to Litta’Bit, and by junior year what she lacked in height she made up for with...other attributes it would be unseemly for me to describe. Suffice to say that she made her male teachers uncomfortable.

By the end of junior year, Robert was talking about how their three-year-anniversary was just a few months away, and Litta’Bit realized that she had never intended on being with him for three months, much less three years. She knew she wanted something different, wanted it desperately, but she just didn't know what exactly it was.

The ghost of her better life circled constantly behind her back, but it always fled when she turned back to catch a glimpse, and she never saw its face.

Litta’Bit knew that she hadn't ever really fit in with the rest of The Gang. Sure, she was really close to David, and Emily and Michael and Josephine were always nice to her. And she had a special secret bond with Andre. Oh, and she had a healthy regard for Robert.

But mostly, Litta’Bit felt that she always stood apart from the rest of her friends. She had a role to play—everyone’s Asian best friend, the black guy’s girlfriend—and she gave it her all. But deep in her heart, Litta’Bit knew she was different from everyone else.