One of my favorite books is the The Secret Life of Bees (2002) by Sue Monk Kidd. I read it years ago, but it’s one of those books that I go back to. When the movie came out in 2008, I refused to see it. I didn’t want to see Hollywood mess up a perfectly awesome book for the sake of “drama.” The other night, though, the movie, starring Queen Latifah, Dakota Fanning, Alicia Keys, Jennifer Hudson, and Sophie Okonedo was on BET, and, having nothing better to do, I watched it. I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed the movie. What surprised me even more was how deeply I connected to the story, the setting, and the characters who came to life on my TV screen. Watching the movie was like taking a journey through my childhood, back to the South where I grew up.
If you haven’t read the book, here’s a brief synopsis. The story takes place in South Carolina in August 1964- the summer that President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibiting discrimination based on race, color, religion, or national origin. Of course, this law didn’t change things overnight, and racism and violence continued rampantly, as depicted in the story. Fourteen year old Lily, the protagonist, is haunted by the death of her mother who died in a terrible accident. She is left to live with her abusive and neglectful father. After Rosaleen, her black “stand-in mother,” insults some of the town’s most vicious racists and is imprisoned, Lily decides they both must escape to Tiburon, South Carolina, a town she believes holds the secret to her mother’s past. There they are taken in by an eccentric trio of black beekeeping sisters, the Boatwrights, and Lily comes to find solace in their mesmerizing world of beekeeping.
The Boatwright sisters live in an old southern style home painted a lovely shade of Pepto Bismol. It sits on a beautiful plot of land in the country. Louisiana has many places of beauty much like the setting of the Boatwrights’ home. The rocking chair on the front porch, the creak of the old wooden floor planks, the way that food comforted and brought people together in the movie reminded me so much of the South, especially those sweet potato biscuits. All of my senses were on southern culture overload. I thought of Meme’s “farm.” Meme was the grandmother of one of my childhood friend’s. One weekend, I went with my friend and her family to visit Meme, who lived in an old wooden framed Southern home in Haynesville, Louisiana in the middle of the country. I remember the musty smell of her living room, the soft clap of our footsteps as we trailed across the wooden floorboards, and the old dirt roads that swirled up dust and left grit on my hair and skin. Later in the movie, Rosaleen serves a plate of cornbread piled high and drizzled with honey, and I thought of The Hushpuppy on Jimmy Davis Highway. They serve the best cornbread and hushpuppies I’ve ever tasted. My family and I went there often. Then my mind travelled to Humphrey Yogurt on Barksdale Boulevard where you can get the best frozen yogurt topped with fruit, granola, and lots of honey. My classmates and I visited Humphrey Yogurt many a time. I thought about Strawn’s, one of the oldest restaurants in Shreveport. Their strawberry pie oozes with a special strawberry glaze that can’t be made anywhere else. What’s so ironic is that growing up in Louisiana was such a painful period of my life, and yet now I find that the memories of being there are a source of comfort. I realize that as hard as I’ve tried to leave that part of my life behind me, I can’t. It’s ingrained in me, a part of my fabric.
Last week after class, I went to Mekong Plaza, one of the local Asian marketplaces. I was craving a Taiwanese spring onion pancake. I stepped up to the counter of a tiny restaurant and looked at the menu board. A woman greeted me and began speaking in rapid Mandarin. I let her continue to talk, nodding my head as though I understood every word she was saying. Finally I told her that I didn’t speak Mandarin. “Oh, oh, oh,” she said and then continued to go through the menu items in very broken English. I was struck by the fact that though her English wasn’t very good, it was so much better than my Mandarin. I went to sit at a table to wait for my food. I looked around me and noticed many other Asians eating and talking in languages I didn’t understand. I felt like such a foreigner as I sat alone at my table. I tried to imagine what it would be like if I could communicate fluently in Mandarin. Would I feel like I’d fit in better? Would it eliminate some of the funny looks I get when I say I don’t speak Mandarin? I was actually happy that the woman behind the counter began a conversation with me in Mandarin. In a weird kind of way, it made me proud that she thought I could speak it.
In all of this, there’s no mistaking that I have mixed roots, as do many others. Ethnically speaking, I identify most with being a girl from the South. I even had a southern accent at one time that I purposely hid through acting classes. I know this because a co-worker once told me how funny he thought it was to hear an Asian woman speak with a southern accent. I wonder if I would feel differently had my adoptive parents kept me connected to my birth culture? Our roots go deep wherever we’re planted. It is a loss to have been cut off from my cultural roots, and now that I’m trying to re-connect, it’s much harder. Reuniting with my birthfamily in Taiwan was the best possible way to reconnect, but now that I’m back in Arizona, I’m left with just being me, the girl from Louisiana with the mixed up roots. Funny, but I’m Ok with that. And now, I think I’ll go and have that biscuit with strawberry jam that I’ve been craving…