For Ying’s fifth birthday, our parents bought her a Power Wheels Barbie Beach Patrol. It was a white jeep with bright pink wheels, a pink steering wheel, and a phone where you could press a button and talk to (and hear responses from) Barbie. It could seat two, if you were both five years old. It cost $250, so it was the only present she got that year. It was also the most money our parents had ever spent on a toy.
Ying couldn’t wait to take it home, drive it around the neighborhood, make a splash with the other little girls in her social set. The only problem was, the giant honking battery under the hood had to charge for 24 hours. So when we finally take it out of the garage for the first drive, anticipation is high. We drag it out to the street, Ying gets in, she’s playing around with the steering wheel, and then she puts her foot down on the pedal and with a jerky, high-pitched whine of the battery, she just takes off.
So we live on a cul-de-sac and mom and I are following Ying as she’s tooling down the street, taking a few tries to make the turn at the end, and coming back up. And she is having the time of her life, as only five-year-olds can. She’s posing for pictures, talking on the phone—I can see her smile from all the way down the street. And then mom turns to me and goes, “You should take it for a drive.” I look at her. I am 12 years old. I may still play Barbies with my sister, but I am not interested in driving a Barbie Power Wheels jeep down the street. In public.
“No,” I say. “That’s okay.” I am thinking, please don’t make me drive that down the street.
“Are you sure?” she asks.
“I’m a little too old for that.”
Mom looks at me, her eyes just a bit too shiny. “I couldn’t buy you one of these when you were little,” she says.
And I look at her, and I know why she wants me to drive that Barbie jeep. She’s looking at 12-year-old me, but she’s seeing five-year-old me. Five-year-old me who rode around the neighborhood on a second-hand black Knight Rider bike while wearing yard sale clothes, who slept on a fold-out sofa bed with a metal frame that cut and bruised her legs, who played by herself in the physics lab while her parents studied, who desperately wanted toys for Christmas instead of clothes, and a Christmas tree.
To our mother, that Barbie jeep is everything she can give to my sister that she couldn’t give to me. Everything we were too poor for when we first came to America, even though she waitressed and babysat and delivered pizzas on top of getting her Master’s degree.
Ying drives the jeep back up to the house. “Just once,” mom says.
I get in the jeep. The weight limit, prominently printed inside, says 90 lbs. I’m probably right around that, but I’m afraid I’m going to break it. I hunch over the pink steering wheel, taking up about one-and-a-half seats, and start driving down the deserted street. We live in a very blue-collar Pittsburgh neighborhood, and I’ve never felt like we belonged. I’m still somewhat traumatized by the racist confrontations between the neighborhood boys and my grandparents, who didn’t speak English, when we first moved in. My grandparents are back in China, and the racial tensions have subsided, but I still feel very foreign here. I drive down to the dead end and make the loop back up, praying the whole time that no one comes out to witness my humiliation.
I’m lucky. I make it back without being spotted. I get out of the jeep and try to smile for our mom. Ying gets back in and drives off again. I feel terrible and awkward, and I wish I had the self-confidence to carry it off like I really enjoyed it, but I’m 12 years old and I don’t have it in me.
Our mom died last year. Now I wish that 12-year-old me had taken another loop around the street. I wish she had driven fast, and yelled and laughed, and showed her mom that she didn’t mind all of the sacrifice, that she was proud and grateful for what her mom and dad had done to get them there. I can’t go back and take another loop around the street in that pink and white Barbie jeep. But I’m glad I did it just once, for her.