Almost Paradise: My “Perfect” Small Town Wasn’t So Perfect

The author (second from the left, waving to the camera) and her Girl Scout troop. (Photo courtesy of Susan Ito)

When I was growing up in the 70s, the kids in my New Jersey suburb ran unfettered through interconnected yards and played until the fireflies came out. At dinnertime, some were called home by cowbell or whistle; my mother stood on our back porch and walloped an iron Japanese gong that reverberated through the neighborhood. I rode my bike with the gold-speckled banana seat and high handlebars to the town pool; we’d go there of our own volition, without parents to drive or supervise us. This was freedom: to take our dollar to the snack bar and sit on plastic chairs, dripping pool water, eating baskets full of French fries spattered in ketchup. To jump in the deep end and play Marco Polo until our fingers wrinkled.

Our neighborhood was, in so many ways, idyllic. My one-block long street was unpaved until I was 10, and I remember the gooey, sharp tang of fresh asphalt when it was first laid down. We knew the neighbors that surrounded us on all sides, who settled in for decades and generations. Across the street were the Kellers, who hired me for my first babysitting job. To our left were the Kiesselbachs, an elderly couple who brought a plate of buttery tree-shaped cookies to every house on Christmas Eve. Next to their house were the Wubbes, a second grade schoolteacher with a prize-winning rose garden. Behind us, the Williamsons (I sat at her dining room table, with its bouquet of sharpened pencils, for math tutoring) and the Westerdales. This family had a girl my age, and we slipped through the fences between our yards to play. When my grandfather died, my mother brought me in my pajamas to their house in the middle of the night. They cared for me during his final weekend in the hospital, and I had my first salted, addictive Ritz cracker.

[pullquote]I remember the blood on her forehead and how it stained her white gloves. She hurried me inside so that we could say the pledge of Allegiance, our hands over our hearts.[/pullquote]

It’s easy to grow nostalgic about that free-range childhood with caring neighbors. But there was a shadow side to that life, too. My parents and I were the only Asian-Americans in town for most of my youth. There were no black people or Latinos. One afternoon when we were leaving a Girl Scout meeting, my mother, smartly decked out in her leader uniform, and I were pelted with icy snowballs by boys who hid behind the cannon monument at the Foreign Legion hall. “Japs! Japs!” they yelled. I remember the blood on her forehead and how it stained her white gloves. She hurried me inside so that we could say the pledge of Allegiance, our hands over our hearts.

We were some of the small handful of Others in town. We had no Asian community, except when we commuted an hour into Manhattan for Japanese-American church, or when we visited extended relatives. These were weekly all-day affairs, including elaborate lunches and afternoon meetings. I whined to my parents, “Why do we have to go so FAR for church? There are plenty of churches we could walk to in 10 minutes!” Their reply, which I didn’t understand then, was, “That’s OUR church. Those are our people.”

Our town with its population of eight thousand, had one single main street, home of the pizza place, the train depot and the fire station, the high school, the library, the diner and the soda fountain. It has a murder rate of zero and is rated as safer than 91% of other towns in the country. It felt simultaneously safe and stifling, and a place where we learned to assimilate. It’s almost an Asian-American cliché to be ridiculed for having a weird lunch, but I figured out that cream cheese sandwiches on white bread went over a lot better in the cafeteria than my favorite rice balls stuffed with wrinkly sour plums.

My horizons stretched for the first time when I went to college in upstate New York. I met a few people of color. I took sociology electives about race and class and gender, and began to look back on my little town through a different lens. After graduation, I packed my Toyota hatchback and drove a zigzaggy route cross-country with my best friend, looking for a place to start my life.

The first day I arrived in San Francisco, the radical San Francisco Mime Troupe was performing for free in Dolores Park. Their musical satire was a blistering, sharply humorous look at homelessness and nuclear power gone amok. I couldn’t imagine anything like this ever being performed in the town park where I’d grown up. I looked around at the multiracial, passionate crowd, and declared myself home.

They take multiracial communities for granted, and they believe in social justice. These weren’t things I didn’t realize even existed until I moved away from my little town.

My first home as an independent adult, which I rented for $375/month was in an apartment building that consisted of a dozen studio apartments. I lived in one room with a Murphy bed that pulled down from the wall. I was a little bewildered, arriving the week of my 22nd birthday and having no idea how to approach these neighbors, how to be a neighbor in a place like this. At the grocery store, I bought a watermelon before realizing it was way too big for my solitary appetite. So I started at the bottom floor and worked my way up, knocking on every door, offering to share.

I must have looked dangerous, sporting a large melon and a knife. Most people hurriedly shut their doors in my face. But two responded with enthusiasm, let me in, and I cut slices of melon and dripped sticky juice in their kitchens. They became friends, true neighbors. Valerie had an ironing board (built into her wall), and I had an iron. We chatted in our bathrobes over morning coffee, ironing our work outfits. Dan introduced us to skiing in the Sierras, and we cobbled together a random Thanksgiving dinner that fall. These neighbors weren’t like the ones I’d known growing up. They measured time by 12-month leases, not by generations or grandchildren.

I moved from that studio apartment to shared arrangements in the Sunset, the Mission and the Upper Haight neighborhoods of San Francisco before ultimately moving across the bay to Oakland when I met the man I would marry. We raised two daughters whose childhoods couldn’t be more different than my own. They never had a backyard; just wooden decks that teetered over steep hillsides. They didn’t learn to ride bicycles for transportation, only for recreation; and the only time they were able to walk to a friend’s house was when they had same-age friends directly across the street.

But one of their earliest outings was a demonstration for single-payer health care, when I pushed their bannered stroller across the Golden Gate Bridge. One studied taiko drumming lessons, and they both spent summers at a circus camp with budding clowns from every corner of society. They take multiracial communities for granted, and they believe in social justice. These were things I didn’t realize even existed until I moved away from my little town.

Sometimes I miss that place. I miss the idea of safety, and of children who can bike freely from one end of town to another. But I remember that it also let them feel free to shout racial slurs and pelt an Asian woman with ice. I hope that it’s different now. I hope that the children can still roam through each other’s yards and bike to the town pool without their mothers. But I hope that their skin glistens in shades beyond white and pink and that the town embraces them. I heard that the family who last moved into our old house is Latino, with young children. I hope that the neighbors bring them plates of cookies.

Tell Us in the Comments

What do you think?

9 Responses

  1. Pauline Adamek

    Lovely essay! So beautifully written.

  2. Tom

    I remember that town!

  3. Juana

    Wow. This was a beautifully written read. Thank you for sharing it.

    I grew up in a similar small town, a first-generation Mexican immigrant.


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  7. Elena

    Believe it or not, the town where I live has so much of that free childhood you write about — with the respect for diversity we should all now require. We have a town park and pool where kids hang out, they range the neighborhood (but get called home on cell phones), we have a main street, a Halloween Parade and more. The residents may not be as diverse as your neighborhood, but they are aware and accepting. Lawns are dotted with “Hate Has No Home Here” signs. I pinch myself often that a place like this still exists. I think it happened because everybody moves here for the top-notch schools, which drove up property prices. With so many family-oriented people, that’s the community they created. New families arrive when seniors give up their high tax bills, but many families have been here for generations. I wish it wasn’t so expensive and exclusive — more diversity would be a benefit in so many ways. But I can’t complain about the free range childhood along with progressive perspectives. It may not be common, but it can happen!

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