The Bad Project

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Chapter 6 Back to Silicon Valley/Marianne

Marianne unlocked her front door and went inside the house. A faint smell of shoyu and garlic hung in the air, along with cleaning solvents. Her dad must have picked up the cleaning on the way home. He wore starched shirts and neatly pressed suits to work, marking him as a part of management, a Vice President of Chang-Wang Software, rather than one of the casual-dressing young geeks who wrote the software code. He had started out in the geek squad in the 1970s and moved steadily upwards.

“Hi, anyone here?” she called softly. Mom had always made a point of not yelling in the house, and if anyone broke that rule, it was only Mom herself. Now she hoped to hear Mom’s voice rather than Dad’s; she felt a faint sensitivity atop her tattoo. They shouldn’t be able to find out about it. But her Dad had seemed in the past to have x-ray vision, so she worried about meeting him.

“Marianne, you here already!” her mom said, rushing in from the laundry room at the back of the house, dressed in a dove-gray stylish suit, looking tired, but as neat and slim as always. Marianne liked the idea that her mother worked as an information technologies manager for Kaiser Permanente, one of the few non-profit health maintenance organizations. But the fact that her mom was a math genius didn’t make her want to go into medicine or science herself. Her sister Susie and her brother Robert were enough Wu doctors.

“Yes here, mom, how you doing?” Marianne said, hugging her gently.

“Good, very good, you too?”

“Yes. Flight not bad.” Marianne hated the San Jose airport, but for once there were no flight delays or long walks around construction that perpetually seemed to disrupt the airport.

“Good grades in classes?” her mom asked, eyebrows raised over sparkling eyes.

Mom hadn’t ever had to worry about Marianne’s grades, so she expected to hear good news.

Marianne twisted her stylish scarf throw between her fingers. “Maybe a bit hard at Carson. We’ll see,” she said. Mom had better be prepared in case she couldn’t pull up her grade in biology. She found it hard to work in a class as boring as that, and she needed the time to work on her writing and the Bad Project. Don’t even think about that. She might read my mind.

“Where you get this scarf?” her mom asked, fingering the leopard-spotted scarf draped over her shoulder.

“Got at Nordstrom’s, new style.”

“Good you still keep appearance up!” Her mom had always encouraged that during high school.

Marianne asked, “You been shopping?”

Her mom said, “Last weekend. Bought new purse and shoes.” There it was again. Not yes or no, but the Chinese verb/object type of answer. It was a sort of verbal shorthand.

Marianne picked up her suitcase and her backpack and took them down the long hallway to the room she had shared with Susie. As she walked, Marianne had a prickly feeling in her palms because of the way she and her mom talked. At Carson, she had read an essay by Amy Tan about the kinds of English her family spoke, especially her mother, including Chinese sentence structure translated directly into English.

Marianne’s mother and father had come to Berkeley for graduate school from Shanghai area back in the late 1970’s. They had been in the Bay Area for 30 years and spoke excellent English at work, but at home, they all used a kind of shorthand speech with some elements of Chinese sentence structure. Would this Chinglish creep into her writing and inhibit her career? Or could she keep it boxed up in her relationship with her family and write in another, more acceptable language?

She smiled, arriving at her room, to see the coast of Italy was still on the wall across from the twin beds. Marianne had put it up sophomore year in high school. She stared at it dreamily, remembering the argument with her mom when she brought it home and wanted to apply it to the wall. If it weren’t the kind of wall appliqué that could be removed whenever you wanted, she was pretty sure it wouldn’t be up there. Her mom had been scathing about scenery and outdoor stuff, said it would distract them from studying, but finally agreed Marianne could put it on the wall.

Her sister Susie, sharing the room, had told her it helped her relax when she was studying for tests. But for Marianne, it was exciting rather than relaxing. It was the whole wide world, the non-Chinese world, where she wanted to go to escape her family’s pressures to study hard, to prepare to be a doctor, to like Chinese boys.

Marianne settled into the family routine. It felt strange to be the only kid at home. But she felt more comfortable than she had right before college began, when her mother had wanted to work through endless lists about what she needed and what she should always remember.

Her mom and dad both brought work home from their offices and read whenever they had a chance between chores. Marianne had brought home Reading Lolita in Tehran to read when she was not busy. When she started to read it at Carson, she identified with Azar Nafisi’s feeling of being disconnected from her culture. She identified less with the pervasive fear in the Iranian society, but enjoyed examining how Nafisi conveyed that atmosphere.

It was strange to Marianne that here at home, she didn’t feel overwhelmed with the Chinese aspects of her family life. The house was decorated in casual American style, and only a red lucky knot hanging from the light fixture in her room reminded her of how she had felt imprisoned by Chinese culture that last summer. It’s more the rules and expectations than the objects, how they expect me to act, who I can be.

The next morning, Marianne sorted the dirty laundry from her suitcase and stuffed it into the laundry bag in her closet, still stenciled with “WU M. M.” from her trip to camp in eighth grade. As she carried it through the dining room towards the laundry, her mom said, “Good, you start up laundry. I bring up to you later.”

Marianne laughed and said, “Okay, you bring up.” As the last of five children, she couldn’t surprise her mom with her suitcase of dirty clothes; that had been up to the first kid to leave home, Joseph. Every one of them had come home loaded down with dirty laundry except for Susie, who had lived at home through college at Berkeley and most of UCSF Medical School.

Back in her room, she read her book for three quarters of an hour. She still had one clean outfit to wear, so she laid it out on the bed to put on after her shower. Then she started to do a few stretches. Up, across with both arms, down to the floor…

“AIEEE, what that?” her mom screeched. Marianne’s nightgown had ridden up to show her tattoo just as her mom arrived with the basket of laundry. She felt her mom pinch the skin where the tattoo was and run her fingers over it, none too gently. Then her mom said, “How that fancy WASP school take care you, you get tattoo? Huh?”

Marianne felt the bottom fall out of her stomach, but she told herself to stay calm. She said “I needed to grow up and make my own decisions.” At least she was not as shaky as she had expected. Crystal had warned her to practice what she’d say if they discovered the tattoo and she had done it.

“Terrible mess. No good. Can’t marry good boy now. Ruined.” Her mom put her hands on her hips and glared at Marianne.

Marianne felt anger rising in her throat. Again, she told herself to stay calm. “No one can see it usually, Mom. Don’t over react.”

“Hope you get good grade. Not marry, have to make own money.” Her mom’s hands were shaking. “This not happen if you live here. Better come home now. Keep safe.”

“Mom, it’s not time to worry about getting married or not. I can’t come home and go to a good college; at junior college I won’t learn as much. They have lower academic standards, you know that.”

“Come down. Dad still home, tell bad news.”

They walked down stairs silently, her mom looking determined and Marianne feeling shaky. Sometimes, her dad argued for leniency, but usually he was even stricter than her mom.

When they got to the living room, her mom took Marianne by the shoulders, turned her around, and pulled up the gown so her dad could see the tattoo. “Look!”

Marianne was embarrassed to be partly undressed in front of her dad and pulled the nightgown right back down, turning to face him.

Her dad frowned at her. “Who tell you to do this, your roommate?” he growled.

“No, not Crystal. No one told me. I decided. I have to grow up some time.” Marianne felt angry again, suspecting that racism was behind that question.

“Show bad judgment. Immature, silly.” Her dad shook his head slowly.

Her mom jumped back in, “Come home, study at Evergreen Valley or San Jose City College. We take better care.” Her mouth was set in a straight line.

“Don’t know.” Her dad scratched his head. “Lot of money for Carson. No refund now.” He raised his eyebrows at her mom, who twisted her mouth to the side but didn’t say anything.

“Butterfly,” her dad said. “Funny choice.”

“Not even red—not dragon, not our culture.” Her mom still sounded angry. “Want try? Use paste-on. Not permanent like this.”

“Tattoo bad already. Chinese—not Chinese, not important.” Her dad looked grim.

He thought for another minute, then said, “This first thing. Be careful—no more. Have to prove self now. No more silly things. Settle down and learn.”

Her mom made another grimace, then her features smoothed out.

“Just give me a chance,” Marianne said. “I won’t get any more tattoos.”

“Not just that,” her mom said. “Don’t act bad. What next? Catch laowai disease? Pregnant? Suspended from school? Not good.” She paced around the room, then continued, looking Marianne in the eye, “Make us proud, not embarrassed for you. Can’t trust. Easier if here.”

They both knew her dad had spoken; she could go back. But there would be no second chance. She had better be good or she would have to come back and go to city college for two years under the thumb of the Wu family. They must never find out about the Bad Project.

When Marianne came back, Crystal asked her what had happened. Marianne said her mother had seen the tattoo and her parents had said they’d take her out of Carson College, which she had called “that fancy WASP factory down South” and send her to junior college in San Jose if she did anything else wrong.

“How’d they find out?”

“I was putting on my clothes and my Mama came right in to give me new towels. Shit, she didn’t knock, and I was bent over so tattoo was right there under her nose. She screamed at me for hours. You know, some of the time she was upset that I chose butterfly, maybe more than about the tattoo itself. Maybe I should have got dragon.” Marianne got up and walked over to the desk to pick up her water bottle. She looked at Crystal to see how she was taking the news. Crystal just looked interested, not upset.

“Then she took me downstairs,” Marianne said, “to get Dad’s reaction. It wasn’t any better. They felt I betray Chinese culture. It’s not up to me, maintain Chinese culture. My brothers and sisters take care of that for our family. I’m American, we’re American, not Chinese. But they didn’t see it that way.” She snapped down the bottle with a thump.

Crystal said, “I think it’s interesting that you claim being American by not being Chinese.”

“What you mean?” Marianne said.

“I went through denying being black during high school, but now it feels okay, I accepted it. You still have to wrestle with those issues. Do you think they’re mixed up with rebellion against your parents for you?”

“Maybe so. I learned some things about where they draw the lines between cultures that I hadn’t noticed before. Our whole house is plain vanilla American, can you believe it? But they give me grief about butterfly, not dragon.”

Crystal asked, “Did you tell them about the whole Bad Project?”

“No, think I’m crazy? I’m not sure I can go on. I want to be here, not under their noses, not at home at junior college. If I’m Bad and they catch me again, maybe it all ends.”

“Well, you only promised the Bad Project to yourself, so if you want to stop, you can.”

Marianne sat down on her bed and opened up her biology text. She found it hard to settle down and study.

Marianne looked up from the book she was studying about five minutes later, realized Crystal was looking at her, and smiled. “I’m going on with the Bad Project. It’s my whole future that hinges on that, I can’t stop.”

Crystal said, “Okay, I guess I’m glad since it means so much to you. I’m in it with you, as a planner. Just remember I can’t do the Bad.”

“I decided it’s lucky for me,” Marianne said, “that they didn’t make me come home right away. So you are wrong about the bad consequences so far. No real pain. I have to do things that have more risk, so I can experience the feelings I need to understand. But I can write about shock and terror now! You should have heard my mom. We need to up the risk, though. I need to experience the tension beforehand more and some of the painful aftereffects.”

“Uh oh,” Crystal said, “does that mean you don’t want to plan how to avoid the problems? Just dive right in and take the consequences?”

“No. I suspect you’re right, even if we plan the best we can, I’ll get to the pain threshold at some point.” She went back to studying, and Crystal returned to working Biology problems. She rubbed her eyes frequently, making Marianne think she couldn’t concentrate. But Marianne thought Crystal had taken the news that her parents found out pretty well. She didn’t seem too worried about losing ground in her quest for that big premed scholarship from the Forscher Foundation. So far, so good.

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