DEAR CLAUDIA

In a pile of pastel paperbacks, I stumbled upon Claudia Lynn Kishi. She was Japanese-American with dark hair and eyes and a colorful, haphazard sense of style. She hated math, owned a phone, and fell in love with boys. Her sister Janine was the ideal older child, determined and book smart, the kind of girl who would accuse others of being too loud. After reading a lot of Beverly Cleary, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Eleanor Estes— whose books featured wholesome families in simpler times– Claudia seemed real. She was so real that I once poured over a map of Connecticut, carefully looking for Stoneybrook.

I read The Baby-Sitters Club series in earnest, devouring the books in the car, in the peacefulness of my room, and at the dinner table. My parents never questioned why I desperately needed to go to the library or thumbed through a book while eating a warm bowl of ramen. School holidays usually meant road trips to visit our family in Philadelphia and The BSC came with me, read by flashlight on I-95. On one excursion to Christiana Mall in Delaware, everyone patiently waited as I browsed a bookstore— what a wonder, a store full of magazines, books, bookmarks, and little gifts– and discovered Super Specials, editions I couldn’t find at the library. In Claudia I found bits of myself: a girl who liked art and fashion, a girl who looked different from the other kids at school, a girl with a cool exterior and mixed butterflies in her stomach.

Though Claudia ran with the cool kids, I related to her anxieties of being constantly compared to her sister. Claudia lived in a multi-generational home with her grandmother Mimi and her parents. Their experiences or cultural traditions are not prominently featured in the stories beyond Mimi’s “special tea”. Mimi spoke a little English but understood everything; second-generation kids like myself recognized Mimi’s intuition in our parents, grandparents, or extended family. While Mr. and Mrs. Kishi celebrated Janine’s academics, Mimi encouraged Claudia’s creativity. While Claudia’s talent for hiding candy and junk food in her room was legendary, savory dinners like rice with tonkatsu or udon with vegetable tempura weren’t mentioned. Maybe if The BSC was written today, we’d learn more intimate details about the Kishi household in the way Jenny Han places Korean food and traditions in To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.

Eventually I grew out of The Baby-Sitters Club and began reading young adult novels like Summer Sisters by Judy Blume and fantasy series like The Lord of the Rings. In high school I discovered Toni Morrison, Amy Tan, Sylvia Plath, and Zora Neale Hurston through wonderful English teachers. But I kept The BSC on the shelf at home. I couldn’t bear donating them, in a sense, getting rid of Claudia– she meant too much to me. I didn’t understand the depth of her importance until my twenties when I met other women who read and idolized The Baby-Sitters Club. Some of these friends were made at college but most of them came from the #OOTD (Outfit of the Day) community when personal style blogs took off in 2010. We all had our favorites. Nicole, a classmate at VCU Brandcenter, now a copywriter in San Diego, shared, “I thought Claudia was so cool, confident, and fun. She was her own person. She wasn’t afraid to be different or try new things.” Kelsey, creator of Snappy Casual, was keen on Mary Anne. “She’s the most like me in looks and personality,” Kelsey said. “Brown eyes, no pierced ears. She is calm and organized, and she has nice handwriting. Her style is neat, preppy, casual.”

Asian-American women seemed to especially adore Claudia because she was an Asian girl in a wildly successful series. NBC examined Claudia’s character in the 2016 article, Looking Back on Claudia Kishi. In 2019 Bustle shared, How Claudia Kishi Inspired a Generation of Asian-American Writers. JoAnn, a former #OOTD blogger, now a research analytics manager in New York City, spent most of her childhood in a small town in Georgia. JoAnn met other Asian kids in school but few who were Filipino like herself. “It was hard for me to totally grasp a sense of shared identity like my mom has with her close friends. Now that I am older, it is important to me to connect to other Asian women. It took me awhile (and moving to a bigger city) to find my own friends who are definitely important to have.” Finding Claudia in The Baby-Sitters Club was joyful. JoAnn said, “I really liked Claudia for her art. She was bad at math, defied her parents, repeated a grade, but was extremely popular. We need more nuance like this in stories about Asian girls!” Her sphere of influence endures over thirty years later. Sue Ding, a documentary filmmaker, explores Claudia’s magnetism in The Claudia Kishi Club and interviews Asian women about their affection for a Twizzler-smuggling eighth grade girl. In July 2020, Netflix is set to debut The Baby-Sitters Club.

Back in 1990, our sweet librarian celebrated National Book Week by asking all students to dress up as their favorite fictional characters. After school, I raced to my room to examine the closet and dresser drawers, pulling them halfway to fully open, scanning everything at once. I would wear a colorful Cosby Show-worthy sweater, some leggings, mismatched socks and sneakers, and dangly clip-on earrings; my friend Courtney promised to pilfer a bunch from her mom’s collection. She would be Stacey and I would be the best dressed Claudia Kishi lookalike that the school would ever see.

On Book Character Day, I began my morning routine by casually brushing my teeth, being extra-polite to my mother, and pretending that I always dressed like one of those hip kids pushing a new book on Reading Rainbow. Mom took one look at me and told me to change my clothes. “It’s for Book Week,” I explained. “No, no,” she chided. “You cannot wear that to school.”

Fuming, I changed into a “normal” shirt and jeans and sulked all the way to the familiar red brick building. In the classroom, everyone asked me why I wasn’t dressed like Claudia, and I sunk down low in my seat, wishing I was small enough to hide in the nook of the desk with its brown-bag-bound textbooks. It would be a terribly long day.

As the bell rang, Court, outfitted in an oversized tee, tied in a jaunty knot below the waist, and plain black leggings, approached. She smiled kindly and brought me several pairs of earrings to choose from, which I gratefully accepted. She said, “You’re still Claudia to me.”

NOTE // While looking up sources and talking to friends, I recalled the book Keep Out Claudia. Claudia encounters racism for the first time and Jessi Ramsey, the lone Black member of The BSC, helps her navigate forward. I am planning to write another post about Claudia and Jessi because conversations about race in America are still necessary. In the book, Claudia is thirteen and Jessi is eleven. Today they would be forty-seven and forty-five.

THE GIRL I USED TO BE

One spring day in 2017, I shuffled through our mail pile to find an issue of Teen Vogue, wrapped neatly in plastic and addressed to me. Yes, Teen Vogue, and I was already in my thirties and a mother to a toddler at the time. I had subscribed to Teen Vogue in college, declaring to friends that it was better than real Vogue (although I’d occasionally buy the original, too, for the perfume samples and glossy, ready-to-decorate-the-wall Chloé ads). The fashion was attainable, the layouts were fun, the models were diverse, and the articles were interesting, unstuffy. But I hadn’t renewed a subscription in at least five years. Its journey back to me felt like a mystery, a good mystery, in the veins of Nancy Drew or The Boxcar Children.

I don’t know why I received that particular issue. Michael guessed maybe I’d bought something online and a free subscription got tacked onto it. Maybe I purposely signed up for the subscription and forgot I did (like the one time I ordered, received, returned, and then ordered the exact same jeans again that didn’t fit). Maybe Teen Vogue dug deep into the old mailing lists to increase readership. Maybe it was just the feeling-all-the-feelings phase of motherhood (medically known as postpartum anxiety) that lingered longer than it should. I was always at the end of the tunnel, waiting for signs of light.

Solange Knowles appeared on the cover in pleated white with her serene face. According to the table of contents, she contributed an article, and I quickly flipped through the slim magazine to find it. It was titled, “A Letter to My Teenage Self.” I scanned the first eight or ten lines with their mix of lowercase and uppercase letters. It flowed and transformed into a ballad of youth, an unapologetic look into its awkward phases, the little and life-changing moments that occur, and the people that you treasure, that you may or may not realize as a teenager. When I reached the end, I read it again. And again. And again. It wasn’t a perfectly composed poem or exciting profile or typical celebrity spread, like Solange’s favorite places to shop in LA. There were too many words that one could relate to and take to heart. Later I would recycle the magazine, saving only those two pages, slightly wrinkled, torn edges and all, in a drawer with my prized half-finished notebooks.

There will be pain, there will be doubt, there will be beauty, there will be the unknown. There will be so many moments of joy and delight that the whole universe will feel painted in hues of amber and wonder. There will be times you are so sad you can’t lift your head and there will be times you are so happy that the sensation of life knocks you down. But most importantly, there will be you.

Solange Knowles, “A Letter to My Teenage Self”

My teenage years were pleasant and unlike stereotypical movies, secret crushes stayed secret, I was an average athlete, and I never fell in love. I excelled in English and bombed Chemistry. Driving a car terrified me and to this day, entering the interstate from the on ramp gives me the same uneasy feeling. My mom gave me more freedom over fashion and bought me a few things from dELiA*s and J.Crew. My style was a mismatch of things: floral dresses and mens button downs pilfered from my parents’ closet, thrifted tops and skirts, denim overalls, and Vans Old School shoes. Junior year I owned a cool brown and purple plaid puffer coat, bought at Burlington Coat Factory, almost exactly like this one, and I thought it was the greatest jacket ever. I loved to write and disguised it; writing wasn’t as cool as playing tennis or taking Art III. I never sat alone at lunch; I had soccer friends, friends in band, AP track friends, and for the first time, older friends. Amelia* introduced me to vintage stores and we saw Weezer together. In four years, I smiled as much as I cried, and the tears often came suddenly, in fits, usually while I was alone.

I was an introvert earnestly trying to be an extrovert. I hid the tears from my family, and if I cried when other people were around at a party or in a restroom, I attributed it to a stomachache, a migraine, an oncoming cold, anything that sounded reasonable. Well into my twenties I found out from a counselor what they really were: panic attacks. Dr. Craig Sawchuk of the Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minnesota explains, “In addition to a sometimes-overwhelming feeling of anxiety or fear, a panic attack may also cause physical signs and symptoms, such as a pounding or racing heart; sweating or chills; trembling or shaking; and breathing problems… Signs and symptoms of a panic attack often come on suddenly and peak within minutes. A panic attack may occur as a result of a frightening or stressful situation, or may even occur out of the blue.” Once identified, they didn’t seem as scary or weird or shameful, primarily because adulthood slowly allows you to make peace with yourself.

All of us, at a single time or another, long to be Marty McFly and return to our adolescence and repair the future. It’s the epitome of wishful thinking. What if I had been completely honest with my family and friends back then? Would I have seen a doctor or counselor? Would I have taken medication? Would I have enjoyed social events more? Would I have driven Jenna* to Saturday soccer games instead of her picking me up each weekend? Would I have been brave enough to say “I like you” to my brother’s tennis teammate? Would I have told kids to cut it out when I saw them teasing Brian* who went to writing camp with me? Would I have worn a 1960s robin’s egg blue dress to the dance with swagger? I could fill an entire sheet of paper with these hypothetical check [] yes [] no [] maybe questions. Of course life would have been better, completely different even. But through the gift of time, we receive something Marty couldn’t bring to the present– the experience of living through it and the grace that accompanies it.

Fate delivered Solange’s letter to me (and the girl I used to be). I yearned for a message that things would be okay. Not perfect, okay was enough. And if you need a reminder– no matter if you’re sixteen or twenty-six or thirty-six– you will be okay, too.

THE GOLDEN LADY

If you translate my mother’s name– and it’s more than ten letters long– into English, you end up with something like “pure gold”. In encounters with strangers or occasional acquaintances, she presented herself as “Kim.” Coworkers called her a different moniker, more similar to but not quite her real one. We didn’t blink an eye when Asian adults or kids had a faux American “work” or “school” name. Loved ones knew who you really were, and that was the only thing that mattered.

Mom avoided buying jewelry at department stores because they never had enough karats. Fourteen, eighteen, twenty karats: none of those would do. Once we visited a large Chinese store somewhere in Northern Virginia, decorated with gilded evergreen damask wallpaper. I have no idea what she bought but my brother and I traipsed next door and got a bag of white rabbit candy which we ate on the ride home. There was another little store that opened beside her favorite Vietnamese grocer and then closed a short time later, transforming into a hair salon. She spent the most time in a local store with purple velvet stools for leisurely shoppers. This particular jeweler also sold embroidered robes and pajamas, displayed artfully against the wall. I enjoyed sitting on a stool and pretending the shop belonged to me, convincing imaginary ladies to buy turquoise and pink slippers. After peering into all the cases, pieces of cool, green jade intrigued me, but Mom said matter-of-factly, “No, no jade.” Twenty-four karats, she declared again and again, was the best.

She didn’t make a purchase every time we visited the jeweler; she mostly perused and saved her money for special items. Twenty-four karat gold is most often seen in necklaces, bracelets, and anklets. A must-have item amongst Mom and her friends was a linked gold belt, worn with traditional clothing on holidays to Buddhist temple. An important gift for a baby was a tiny gold bangle accented with a bell, worn on the ankle to gently tinkle. I was reminded that we buy gold just in case. You could sell it if you ever fell upon hard times. My mom talked a lot about hard times, but she never sold anything. She bought gold for my grandmother; later I learned gold provided monetary stability in a communist country.

In my awkward tweens, Mom began presenting me with jewelry– pieces from her own collection, things that weren’t too precious to give a girl. I wore a gold pendant necklace, set with a pretty amethyst in one of my school pictures. I inherited several pairs of earrings and more necklaces. After carefully telling her I had enough gold, I received a silver Swiss Army watch for one of my birthdays, followed by aquamarine tennis bracelets another year. I slowly began returning the presents to her jewelry box under the guise that she would keep everything safe for me. She wasn’t easily fooled. “Linda doesn’t like to wear jewelry,” she compellingly announced if I got a compliment for my fingernails or slender, unadorned hands (a gift from my dad which I have passed along to my son).

I grew older and started spending more and more time away from home before finally leaving home, as a lot of children do. During that time, I think my mother and I pondered each other. I loved my mother but I wasn’t exactly like my mother. She loved me and realized I wasn’t exactly like her. Our styles differed and our lives no longer meandered on the same road. But our hearts were the same.

Before college graduation, she surprised me with two tiny gold charm bracelets. The charms included a heart, a giraffe, a butterfly, a bird, a whale, and a rose. The bracelets were lightweight and delicate. When I put them on, I felt like I wasn’t wearing anything, yet they felt like everything from my childhood at the same time. Right away I knew I loved them.

Now I live a plane ride and a layover away from my parents. I talk to my mom twice a month, once a week when I long for cold weather, sliced green mangoes, and perfectly fried rice. I don’t wear much jewelry daily– one ring (my engagement ring doubles as a wedding band) and petite earrings no one notices. I wear my bracelets for good luck, and I wear them sometimes just because I miss her.