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  • Samantha Der

Fourth Generation

It was an empty, rainy morning. The late summer weather had produced a thin, bland sky that spread above the flat, Midwestern suburb. The dial on the television set was hard to turn, but Kimberly managed to flip it, haltingly, round and round.

Suburban Aerial View, late summer, two weeks before school starts; Photo: Alena Mozhjer

“Kimberly!” her mother yelled from the kitchen.

“What? There’s nothing good on, Mom,” replied the young girl.

“You’re going to break it! Turn it off then.”

Kimberly shoved the skinny, silver knob back into its socket. A flash of an image from I Dream of Jeannie dissolved with a click. Kimberly watched the little, white dot in the middle of the gray screen fade to nothing. She plopped herself onto the tight backed, bare legged sofa. Her feet dangled above the stone patterned floor. She began to tap the tops of her Mary Janes against each other. Click, click, click, click.

Kimberly’s mother walked by with big rollers in her hair. “You’re scuffing your shoes. Now stop it!”

Kimberly stopped and slumped back into the stiff, olive couch. “I’m bored,” she sighed to herself as she lay alone in the recess of the room. Her eyes drifted to the dark brown paneling that surrounded her. She hated the den, because of that dark wood paneling. It felt like a dungeon.

As the scattered showers outside subsided, a subtle sun beam made its way through the netted, burnt-orange curtains. Patterned shadows fell upon Kimberly’s face and moved across her large, almond-shaped eyes. She brushed her shaggy, black bangs away from her forehead and stared at the bookshelf lined with a set of encyclopedias, her favorite Laura Ingalls Wilder books and a number of unopened Barbie coloring books.

Kimberly reached over and pulled a leather album out from the shelf. She opened the heavy cover page and stared at the familiar, glossy photographs that captured moments of her parents during their courtship days. Everything looked marvelous in this story book to Kimberly. The album pages were filled with perfect poses at Hearst Castle and sunset shots near the Golden Gate Bridge. There were also plenty of crystal clear pictures of banquet dinner and dance events, dated from back in the '60s, back on the West Coast where her parents met, back in the shining, city by the bay.

Young Kimberly was captivated by the aura of these astute young adults pictured in their American born prime. Friends laughed at the camera wearing skinny ties, fashionable suit dresses and bouffant hairstyles. The photos came alive through the warm monochrome tones. Handsome couples danced, laughed, smiled, and sang. Her parents and their friends, with their dark hair and flair for style, reminded her of Rob and Laura on the Dick Van Dyke Show. Kimberly thought her parents looked especially like movie stars. Her mother was prom queen at Bay Area High School after all.

“Kimberly! Kimberly!” her mother was yelling. “You need a haircut. Come on. Let’s go.” Kimberly closed the book and got up to go. “And don’t forget your new glasses!” added Kimberly’s mother.

The cold, open room was buzzing with dozens of trainees cutting hair. Her mother walked swiftly. Her neatly tailored, bold patterned jumpsuit with wide, flared pant legs swooshed back and forth with her tall, long strides. Kimberly rushed to keep up but was distracted by a woman hovering over an electric green chair, sharpening her scissors with a certain fierceness on her face.

“Go on!” directed her mother. Kimberly was startled but took a step forward. A black cape suddenly swirled around her and was fastened firmly around her neck.

“Off with the full head of hair we go!” exclaimed the lady with almost taunting delight. “I hear you want the Dorothy Hamill bob,” she quickly added with a wide, wry smile.

Kimberly looked up at the woman with big, feathered hair and scissors in her hands. She noticed a stain of red lipstick on the trainee’s front teeth.

“I guess so,” stammered Kimberly. She looked around for reassurance, but her mother had already left.

The lady introduced herself as one of the student trainees. Her name was Sheila. Sheila wrapped two hands around Kimberly’s head. Her cold acrylic nails tapped on Kimberly’s forehead. “Oriental hair is supposed to be coarser,” she said, staring at Kimberly in the mirror.

Sheila reached for a swath of Kimberly’s long, black hair and rolled it between her thumb and index finger. The hairdresser’s brow furrowed and Kimberly felt a sting of embarrassment. Sheila began snipping as severed, silken locks fell to the floor.

“Do you like ice skating like Dorothy Hamill?” asked Sheila.

“I take skating lessons at the Shorefield Sports Complex,” mumbled Kimberly.

“Oh uoh, fancy!” Sheila pursed her lips and continued trimming all around.

She eyed Kimberly’s reflection in the mirror. She pulled Kimberly’s hair up and snipped some more.

“Did you know that Dorothy Hamill’s famous hairstyle was created by a Japanese? His name is somethin’ like Yuke-Yusookie?”

Kimberly picked at a bit of clipped hair that had fallen near her eye. Sheila took a towel and brushed away the stray pieces.

“So is your family Japanese?” continued Sheila.

Kimberly didn’t know what that meant, so she stayed quiet.

“Are ya Chinese?” asked Sheila studying Kimberly’s face.

Kimberly looked down and focused on the loose hair that lay on the lap of her smock. Sheila continued clipping.

“Okay, so what kind of Oriental are yous?” pressed Sheila with impatience in her voice.

Kimberly looked up and felt Sheila’s glare. Kimberly could feel her face turning warm and quickly looked away, trying to escape. She wanted to say, “I don’t know what that is,” but she said nothing.

“Okay, we’re done!” quipped Sheila as she removed the bib. She handed Kimberly a mirror. “What do ya think?”

Kimberly angled her head from side to side to check out the new haircut. Her hair had grown long and she had sometimes worn a barrette that swept her overgrown bangs off to the side. Now she had shockingly short hair and very short bangs. Her new hairdo looked like the shape of a little round bowl. It even appeared a little lopsided.

“Well…” said Sheila, waiting for an answer.

Kimberly opened her mouth to say something, but nothing came out for the moment.

“C’mon, nothin’?”

“It’s good,” Kimberly finally mustered, her voice faint and dry.

“Now you have a proper hairstyle! It perfectly suits you, you know,” announced Sheila.

“It’s adorable!” added Kimberly’s mother who had suddenly reappeared. “Don’t forget your glasses, Kimberly!” she scolded.

Kimberly got up, took her glasses from the counter and slid them on. She was still getting used to them. The rims were 24-carat gold-plated and rectangular-shaped. Her mother had said she looked smart with them on, like Benjamin Franklin. Kimberly thought she looked like Jan Brady with her glasses, when she used to have long hair that is.

Kimberly’s mother tipped Sheila a dollar and thanked her for her work. Kimberly and her mother began to make their way towards the door.

“Sayonora!” yelled Sheila after them.

Suddenly, Kimberly’s mother turned around and unexpectedly screamed with a sarcastic sneer, “We’re not Burmese!”

Kimberly immediately noticed the startled and confused expression on Sheila’s face. She turned away quickly and scurried after her mother, her new, little wedge cut flying with the movement. A smug, little smile formed on Kimberly’s face.

The radio was already blaring Manfred Mann’s Earth Band when Kimberly opened the car door of their classic 1968 Mercedes. The sweet energy of music was already pulsing, drawing her in as she climbed into the back seat. She shut the door and her mother took off. The car was full with song.

Mercedes – Red Interior; Photo: Michael Kauer

Kimberly breathed in the lush smell of the red, leather seats. She cranked the handle to unroll the window and the late summer’s wind whipped up her hair as the fast rolling words engulfed her. The words were often puzzling but her thoughts felt loose like liquid.

The song was rising to a crescendo as the car was ascending her favorite big hill, up and up towards the billowing clouds and gold setting sun. Kimberly stood up and a gush of excitement moved through her body. She imagined their car flying off into the sky, just like Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang.

Just as they reached the top, a propeller plane zoomed close overhead.

“Whoa, that was close!” shouted Kimberly over the chorus roar.

When they eventually settled at the bottom of the hill at a stoplight, Kimberly exclaimed, “This car is like magic!”

“This car,” explained her mother, “was a wedding gift from your great-grandfather in Arizona.”

“You mean Great-Grandpa Tang? The one that has Angus steak cook-outs at the ranch?”

“Yes, that’s your father’s grandfather.”

“I remember he always eats Wheaties for breakfast and calls me 'baby,’” laughed Kimberly.

Kimberly’s mother changed the station and another song began to play. It was Terry Jacks singing “Seasons in the Sun.”

“Mom—” Kimberly stepped up onto the hump in the middle of the car’s floor so she could see better. “Mom…what does ‘Oriental’ mean?” she asked.

The light turned green and Kimberly’s mother stepped on the accelerator. Kimberly fell back onto the seat as the music grew louder and drowned out her thoughts. Kimberly sat up and perched herself on the edge of her seat. Her small face appeared low in the backseat window. She pressed her face against the glass and peered out at the passing green trees, the A&P grocery store and the Protestant church they attended. When Meadowbrook Elementary came into view, Kimberly suddenly felt a knot form in the pit of her stomach. She recalled her mother saying school would be starting again in two weeks.

Then Kimberly saw their white, colonial, two-story home. The lawn and hedges were freshly cut and perfectly manicured. They slowed down as if they were going to enter the driveway. But then they whizzed right by it.

“Let’s go for a ride,” said her mother.

Kimberly leaned back, low in her seat and gazed out through the front windshield. She was savoring the drive and song, not wanting to let go of it all. Her father’s college fraternity charm, dangling on a chain that hung on the rear view mirror, caught her eye. It swung back and forth and to and fro to the musical voices that cried out from inside the car.

Kimberly had wanted to tell her mother about what happened that day. But it was already washing away, and they were all untethered shadows anyway. Instead her head was filled with the wistful melody that echoed through the empty miles of bedroom suburbia that flashed outside her car window.

Like the rhythm of her breath, Kimberly could feel the melodic sweet notes echo inside of her. The addictive, broken music played on. She wished they could keep driving on forever. But the chorus kept returning as their car had been curving into a huge, wide circle. And the powers around her felt heavy and beyond her control.

Her mother pulled the car up the driveway and into the garage. Their joy ride had ended. Kimberly pushed the heavy door of the Mercedes open. Her stomach felt strangely hollow and queasy.

Frozen meatloaf TV dinners sat defrosting on the countertop in their avocado colored kitchen. Kimberly’s dolls, with curled hair and vapid eyes and frozen smiles, sat on the shag carpet waiting to engage in Kimberly’s make believe world.

Kimberly knew she was lucky to have beautiful things. Like real gold glasses and a new haircut. Her mother would often remind Kimberly how lucky she was. Kimberly went up the stairs to her bedroom and sat on her bed. Her pale pink bedspread was laced with pretty, white, popcorn ball patterns. The quiet purr of central air cooled her white, lacquered furniture. Kimberly sat still and listened. But she was an empty face. She was unmoved. Somewhere. And there in her Dreamhouse.


Samantha Der is an interethnic #hyphenatedAsian. She is a fourth-generation Chinese American and third-generation Filipina American. She graduated from the University of Southern California’s School of Cinema Arts; she wrote for Yolk magazine and later for a number of blogs she created. She has covered topics in banking and senior care. She also writes about identity, family and the dynamics of American microcultures.

Samantha Der is now a regular contributor for The Universal Asian. To learn more about her, check out her Contributor’s Page here.


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