I was in the sixth grade when my family moved to Virginia. A boy in the class befriended me for no reason that I could figure out. But I was glad. In those days during the McCarthy era, lots of people looked at anyone from China as a “communist.” The Red Scare was rampant and I felt lucky when I was the butt of racial slurs only once in awhile. For some reason, this boy named J. thought I was smart, even though he was obviously the brightest in the class before I came on the scene. He nicknamed me “braintube,” a salutation that he uses to this day when we write to each other by email, even though we are both grandparents by now. J. is one of the few people that I kept up with from that far back. He worked as a diplomat for the State Department and was posted in various countries, always coming back home with his wife Anne who accompanied him abroad.
In 2008, J. came to a luncheon at a Chinese dim sum restaurant which turned out to be my mother’s last supper with her friends. It occurred in September a few weeks after she had received a diagnosis of cancer in August. All of her friends came to gather one more time. The charm with which he greeted my mother, told us stories and put everyone at ease reminded me once again how much I enjoyed and valued J.’s friendship. My mother died shortly thereafter without pain in early November.
As I thought about that reunion, it occurred to me for the first time that his nicknaming me “braintube” in the sixth grade was akin to parting the Red Sea for me (no pun intended). He was very popular and well-liked when we were twelve years old. And his taking a shine to the new kid–a stranger who was a Chinese girl, no less–made it okay for the others to accept me as one of them. My social assimilation could not have been made easier by Moses! Sometimes it’s hard to tell what strife we might have endured when someone rescues us from potential doom. The thing is, he did it all on his own, maybe not even as consciously aware as I have given him credit for. Maybe it emanated from his southern manners or from his innate diplomatic nature. In any case, it made a big difference in my life! Thanks, J.!