Let’s go to a Vietnam to Pennsylvania in 1975, and by “moved” I mean escaped an imploding country.
This story, however, is small. It’s not about a civil war or a fight against imperial powers. It’s about a girl (but when is it not?).
In 1979 I was six and in first grade at Mooreland Elementary School in Carlisle, PA. For a boy in elementary school, it’s weird when a girl asks you over to her house, but it’s even weirder when the girl’s mother asks you. (This was long before the age of highly scheduled playdates.)
We were lingering on the Mooreland playground, on a fall afternoon after the dismissal bell. “Hi, Phuc. I’m Karen’s mum. Would you like to come over to play with Karen this weekend?”
Mrs. Larkin leaned down so that she could look me directly in the eyes. I squinted at her radiant smile which beamed from an otherwise plain and plump countenance. Karen, who was in my class, stood behind her mum awkwardly. Maybe Karen was shy or maybe she was mortified that her mother had asked the new kid in her school to come over to play, but Karen didn’t say a word. I didn’t know Karen all that well. She was one of the pretty girls at school (we all know what that means), and she and I didn’t play with each other at recess. I hung out with my best friend Craig as we pretended to be Luke Skywalker and Han Solo at every recess, every day, reenacting scenes on the playground apparatus.
The idea of a prearranged time to go to someone’s house (barring a birthday or sleepover) was peculiar, and this was Karen, a pretty girl, asking Phuc, the new kid who played Star Wars on the playground, over to her house. And it wasn’t even Karen”it was Karen’s mother. And my newness, my novelty to the school, loomed as a much longer and darker shadow than I could comprehend, a shadow cast by events that hovered over me from the other side of the world and from two decades of jungle warfare and its nightly coverage on the TV news.
We were the only Vietnamese family in our small town, resettled there in Pennsylvania the summer of 1975 from a relocation camp at Fort Indiantown Gap. I was the only Asian kid in my entire elementary school, and all I wanted was to luxuriate in a normal childhood, to just be one of the kids. I suspect that Karen’s mother was well-meaning and thought it would be the kind thing to do”to invite me over to play”a genteel gesture of American benevolence. I immediately said yes when Mrs. Larkin said the words grilled cheese for lunch. (That phrase still clinches most propositions for me.)
That evening in our apartment, I told my parents that I had been invited to Karen’s house to play. They had no idea what “to play” meant, and I couldn’t explain it to them because I didn’t know what the invitation actually entailed. Was I supposed to bring a gift? Get dressed up? Bring my own toys or play with hers? The Trans had no idea.
“What do you mean her mum asked you to come over to play?” my father Vietnamesed to me. “I don’t know. She asked me to come over to play. That’s what her mum said.” I shrugged because I had already said yes. I was game for whatever and surmised that even in the worst-case scenario, I could enjoy an all-American lunch of grilled cheese and potato chips (which my parents never made). “Can’t I go?”
My mother frowned. “No, you can’t. We don’t want to bother them. I’m sure she didn’t mean it anyway.”
“What do you mean bother them? She asked me to come over,” I protested.
My father concurred. “I’m sure she didn’t mean it.”
But Karen’s mother did mean it, and she cornered my parents two days later at school during pick-up, explaining to them in simplest terms that she (and Karen) really wanted me to come over. Mrs. Larkin didn’t know that appearing gracious”avoiding rudeness”was a fundamental value for my parents. This decorum was their small thermal exhaust port, the weakest point in their Death Star of NO. Mrs. Larkin asked the Trans, face-to-face, in public. Refusing her invitation, after she had insisted, would have been rude, and my parents relented. Kaboom. I was going.
My parents dropped me off that Saturday at Karen’s house, a modest home that seemed grand in comparison to our 660 square foot apartment, and in the car, they nervously bickered about whether I really wasn’t supposed to come with a gift or food. As soon as we arrived, I bounded into the house. What did I have to lose? A grilled cheese awaited me. The situation was already a win for six-year-old Phuc.
Karen and I stood awkwardly in the playroom, having never played together before.
“What do you want to play?” she asked.
“Well…” I hesitated. My parents had coached me to defer to Karen as her guest. I looked around and lied as well as I could. “We could play with”¦dolls. Yeah, dolls I guess.” I had no idea what she liked or if she even had dolls, but based on my ill-informed assumptions, I girded myself for a long morning of dress-up and shopping and school and house and whatever the hell you did with dolls.
What I would do for a grilled cheese.
Karen reached under her bed and pulled out a toy bin. She placed a metal toy into my hands. It was the Kenner diecast Millennium Falcon. I had never seen it in person, my eyes saucering wide to admire in the piece of junk’s metallic glory as I cradled it. “WHOOOOOAAAAA”¦wait, you like Star Wars?!”
“Of course,” she shrugged. If she had been one of the pretty girls before, she was now the only pretty girl because she also owned the diecast Millennium Falcon.
I winced. “Why don’t you ever play Star Wars with me and Craig at recess?”
We played with her Star Wars figures all morning (their vinyl capes still intact, blasters and gaffi sticks all accounted for), the grilled cheese not even being the highlight of the day; and on Monday, I had a new friend. I asked Karen to join me and Craig at recess, and off we soared with a Leia by our side.
A decade later in high school, when my classmates were all reshuffled into different social cliques, I always said hi to Karen and she to me, warmed by an old friendship that sparked from a common love as kids. She was my first crush, but I don’t know if I liked her toys or her or if I just liked her because she liked what I liked. That’s hard to tell even now, but Star Wars was our unshakeable tractor beam.
And where is that tractor beam for all of us now? That galaxy that once connected us now, more often than not, divides us. Love the prequels. Hate the prequels. Love the sequels. Hate the sequels. I wonder what Karen thinks of Star Wars. Does she love Baby Yoda (insert high-pitched cooing here)?
I don’t need to tell you about the vast and immeasurable effect of Star Wars on popular culture. Some pundits have pointed to its success as the death of real cinema, the birth of the blockbuster, and countless other cultural milestones. I can only write about it from the perspective of a kid from another part of the world, the new kid with a weird name who was just looking to connect and find a common love, and Star Wars was that first love for me”a first love in many ways. Against the incongruous edges of dueling languages and customs, Star Wars was the first puzzle piece that allowed a Vietnamese kid to fit in with his American classmates.
And how do we go back to that time long ago? When our commonalities were the mortar of the playground and not the wedges of subreddits? What if we turned off our targeting computers? Wouldn’t we be better off if we could feel that connection again, reaffirm the love that surrounds us, penetrates us, binds the galaxy together? A wise man once said that.
May the Force be with you”always.
Phuc Tran’s memoir, Sigh, Gone: A Misfit’s Memoir About Great Books, Punk Rock, and the Fight to Fit In, is on sale now; learn more about the author at his website, which is indeed www.phucskywalker.com.