Writing Prompt: Write about a 13-year-old boy whose parents immigrated to the US when he was a child. He loves his family, but feels deep shame about his culture and his mother’s inability to assimilate.
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“Ma, come on,” Diyaan hissed under his breath. Unperturbed, his mother stood in the middle of the vegetable aisle, frowning down at the bitter gourd she held in her hands.
He glanced about him. It was nearly 4 o’clock PM on a Wednesday.
The final bell had rung just forty minutes before. Diyaan was aghast when he strolled out of the school’s front doors that afternoon to find his mother waiting expectantly outside the gates.
“We go to supermarket right away,” she informed him as he approached. “Razia Aunty come over tonight and I don’t have the corolla.”
Of course, she spoke in loud, broken English that carried over to Steven and his crew, the ringleader of the group whose apparent mission it was to torment Diyaan, the only brown-skinned student in school. They smirked at the stout woman dressed in a bright green salwar kameez, looking quite out of place among the hordes of students wearing backpacks like shields and chattering away with friends. Diyaan was the only person in school who lived further than walking distance away; therefore, he was also the only person in school whose parent still picked up them up after classes ended.
It was his fault that his mother was attempting to speak a language she did not fully grasp. Three days ago, he had said in no uncertain terms that he would only speak English with her from then on.
“I want to help you get better,” he had firmly, but gently, told her. At home, Diyaan was a well-mannered son,n the youngest of three. A mama’s boy in every sense of the word, if you didn’t count the 180-degree shift in behavior the moment he left home for school.
Eight years had passed since he bade goodbye to his friends after his family finally made the move to the United States. Eight years had passed, and he could no longer remember faces, names, or streets. His native tongue was slowly escaping him. He no longer desired a plateful of basmati rice with curried chicken and a side of mixed vegetables after school; it was pizza bagels or bust.
His father had learned English as a university student, and therefore could carry on a conversation as well as anyone. His mother could not, and Papa made sure she knew it too, snickering whenever Ma would pick up the phone and struggle through making doctor’s appointments or fielding calls from telemarketers.
Three days ago, their home telephone trilled to life. Ma happened to be sitting beside it, and she lifted it out of the receiver and held it to her ear. Diyaan watched the orange digits glow against her face in the dimly lit living room.
“Hello?” she asked timidly. Across from her, Papa sat in the blue, velvet armchair that they had inherited from the home’s previous owner, staring intently at the television broadcast.
“Yes? Who is you?”
Papa’s head snapped around, and he glared at her. Ma looked terrified, and dropped the phone a moment later, muttering about a wrong number.
“Who is you? Who is you?” he mocked. “Eight years you have been here, and still can’t speak proper English? What an idiot.”
Ma was silent, and Diyaan was fuming.
“Shut up!” he shouted. “She’s not going to learn if you’re mean to her!”
That was the first time he had experienced the sting of his father’s palm smacking across his face. Later that night, he asked his mother to speak only in English with him.
“It will help you get better,” he said earnestly. He meant it; he wanted her to improve her language skills, not just to get his father off her back, but for her own sake.
Secretly, though he would never admit it, he longed to carry a conversation with her in English, to ease the burden of alienation that he felt in school.
He turned to look behind him, having already strode down to the end of the aisle, away from his mother.
She held out the oblong green vegetable to him. “Why I should pay so much for this? I grow it better myself.”
“You don’t have time to grow one in three hours,” he replied quietly. He wanted to go home, to grab his controller and lounge in front of the TV playing Mario Kart, not help his mother prepare an impromptu dinner for an aunt who was not even her own kin, but his father’s sister. Papa wouldn’t arrive home from work till late evening, but he had called his wife to inform her which meal his sister wanted to gorge on. Demanded was a more apt term, as Papa had never so much as uttered the words “please” or “thank you.”
She studied the plant for a few more seconds, then tossed it into the shopping cart. “Bah! Let us go.”
He felt relieved. As they turned into the 15-or-fewer items lane, Ma moved too quickly, accidentally rear-ending the cart ahead of them and forcing its owner to stumble.
Two people turned, and Diyaan felt his blood turn to ice. A tall, thin woman with close-cropped dark hair streaked with blonde highlights looked into the contents of their cart and grimaced, then lifted her gaze to stare disdainfully into Ma’s eyes. Next to the woman, a lanky young teen stood carrying a skateboard and looking coolly at the pair: Steven.
“Sorry!” Ma said cheerfully. “I don’t see you there!
Diyaan cringed inwardly at the heavily accented words, and wanted to curl into a ball as he heard the next sentence escape the ruby-red lips of who could only be Steven’s mother.
“Oh, you’re completely fine, sweetheart. It’s just, around here, we watch where we’re going and don’t hurt people with heavy shopping carts, you know?”
She spoke slow and exaggerated, and Steven laughed. Ma looked confused.
Steven’s mother bent down to rub at the cuff mark that appeared on the heel of her bright white tennis shoes, then straightened up and turned her back on the two of them. Diyaan felt his ears burning in humiliation, and for the next few minutes, said nothing as he and his mother checked out their cart.
Since they only lived four blocks away from the supermarket, Diyaan’s mother had driven home long enough to drop off her son’s backpack and the car, insisting on walking to the store so she could hear about his day. As they walked home, Diyaan hurried ahead, putting a few yards in between himself and his mother. He felt ashamed, and angry at himself for feeling ashamed; the combination of emotions that was building up inside his chest was beyond his comprehension.
Ma was confused, and even more-so when Diyaan did not offer to carry a single one of the three grocery bags that weighed her down.
“Diyaan,” she called. He walked ahead. “Diyaan.”
He ignored her.
She grew more agitated. “Di–”
Diyaan turned to see his mother, sprawled on the sidewalk, having tripped over a crack in the street. The contents of the grocery bags were strewn about her.
Diyaan ran back. He was almost at her side when the silver SUV appeared behind him, and honked. He turned to see Steven’s mother in the driver’s seat, shaking her head as her brightly painted lips curving into a derisive smile before speeding up to disappear up the road.
He slowed his walk. As he approached Ma, he bent down and silently picked the fallen veggies and boxes of seasoning off the ground and into the plastic bags. She watched him.
“Why you take so long?” she asked quietly. Her cotton kameez had torn during her tumble and became stained with blood from her scraped knees.
He didn’t answer, and only held his hand to help her up when all the items had been replaced. She looked at his outstretched palm for a moment, then slowly grasped it, lifting herself up.
He carried the bags the rest of the way home. They did not finish the conversation about his day.