My six-year old son Alex has his heart set on winning a tiny goldfish in one of the games at the Chinese Community Fair. We are standing in line for more tickets so that he can have yet another try at getting a little plastic ping-pong ball into one of the small, round miniature fish bowls lined up a few feet away. Right in front of us, we see two girls with their mother: they did win a fish, but now they want to exchange it. I steal a brief look at it, and I can see their point. The poor creature is twice smaller then all the others, plus it has the most unflattering coloration—pale, translucent white, with non-descript color spots closer to his puny tail. After a brief hassle, one young woman at the counter gives in, takes the decrepit fish away, and gives them a healthier, brighter, prettier one.
It is a beautiful sunny day in San Francisco, and the Chinese New Year celebration is at its height. I look at all the red lanterns and breathe in delicious smell of food and heavenly incense. We get our tickets and spend the next ten minutes in futile efforts to get the ball in one of the bowls. I try to help Alex, but I actually make things worse—my ball doesn’t even make it to the line of bowls, instead it starts bouncing off the floor with a frustrating plastic hitting concrete sound.
As we waste our last ball, Alex looks so downcast that I have to do my best to hide my own tears. The lady who sold the tickets takes one long look at him and quickly reaches under the counter. She pulls out the unwanted little guy swimming frantically in his plastic bag and hands it to Alex. She says: “Here. You worked so hard, you totally deserve it!”
I hold my breath, not sure how Alex will react. Is it fair? Does it count? Is the fish too ugly? A moment later, I realize that all my fears are unfounded. My son has a big smile on his face, and his eyes are bright with delight and excitement. He shows me his newly acquired treasure: “Mom, look how cute he is! He’s swimming so fast, he must be really scared of all this noise! Let’s take him home right now and make him comfy! His name is Quickie, because he is such a fast swimmer!” I talk Alex into staying at the fair longer, and assure him that his little friend will be safe in mommy’s big purse. All the rest of the afternoon Alex keeps opening my bag to check on Quickie every five minutes.
On the way home, we decide to go to a pet store to get some fish supplies, and I offer to get a friend for Quickie, “so that he won’t be lonely,” I tell Alex. In reality, if I’m going to put myself through the trouble of setting up our fish tank again, I just want to see something prettier, brighter, and bigger in it. I am a single mom on a tight budget, and spending money on pet supplies sounds pretty unreasonable at first. I spend the next few minutes mentally convincing myself that a beautiful fish tank is worth the trouble and the expense.
We stand by the huge tank filled with hundreds of feeder fish—for this is what Quickie’s kind is called. Alex is taking a long time before he makes his decision.
“This one,”—he finally says, pointing at a yet another scrawny fish, pathetically colorless, dangerously malnourished, and only a tad bit bigger then Quickie. I can barely hide my disappointment, “This one? Are you sure? Um, why do you want this one?”
Alex looks at me, surprised that I do not get it, and then he explains, “Because it looks a lot like Quickie, and both of them are going to be comfortable making friends. If I pick a different looking one, what if our Quickie gets shy and a little too scared?” My heart melts as I think that my six-year old has more compassion and empathy than his practical, esthetically demanding mother. Soon, we are driving off with a little plastic bag containing Quirky, our new little friend.
On the way home, Alex talks to Quickie and Quirky, and I think about compassion and children’s ability to empathize. I also think about the notion of not being comfortable around those who are different. Alex knows a lot about this. His father was born and raised in Korea, and Alex is often the only Asian-looking child among most of his playmates in predominately white Marin County, one of the Bay Area’s wealthiest areas. His mom, yours truly, is also foreign-born and raised and she does not know how to make proper peanut butter sandwiches, or to sing American nursery rhymes. I am familiar with feeling different, being a single working mother, a financially challenged school teacher with my distinct Russian accent—trying to fit in among affluent Marin moms and dads on the playgrounds, in the parks and at multiple birthday parties.
Should I defy our reality and proclaim that “we can all be friends” despite our different looks, backgrounds, and—can I say it out loud—bank accounts? I suppose we can do that, but it will take a lot of work and intentional effort on everyone’s part. Surely, it would be too much work for little Quickie. Like Alex said, “He might get too shy and a little scared.”
The real question is—will it be too much for Alex and me? Can we find our place among people who are different from us in looks, opinions, and culture? Are we brave enough?
There is only one way to find out—and that is to give it my best and most honest try. As a mother, I must. I take a brief look at my rear view mirror and give Alex the bravest smile I can muster. He smiles back, still clutching his water-filled bags.