Friday, May 18, 2007

Letting go with KoiKoi

Washington, D.C. – Since I was a kid, I’ve had an awful habit – it’s a mix of being a tedious prankster and being afflicted with what my dear mother calls a propensity for Never Letting Go, i.e. driving a gag into the ground. It’s harmless enough; it doesn’t rise to a personality disorder, or I don’t think it does, so get off my back. One manifestation of this is that for years, I’ve been bugging my youngest son, Darby, about his origins. But the other day, a dramatic incidents changed everything and big man that I am, I’m ready to stop my antics and will allow him to forgive me..
It all began when Darby was about a year old. I was walking him around the neighborhood in his baby stroller. At that age, he had coal black hair, an olive tinge to his skin, and a fat round face – I attribute this to the fact that I’m part Maori, the native tribe of New Zealand. Indeed, Darby’s middle name is KoiKoi, a family name dating back to the 1860s and my great great-great-great-grandfather, Parone KoiKoi, the last Maori chief to fight in combat the “pakeha” (translation: spindly little white man).
So we’re on our daily stroll and we pass a smiling, elderly German émigré several blocks from our house who looks into the stroller. Suddenly, her face hardens and she scowls and says, “You sin!” I’m taken aback and the old Frau notes my confusion. She points at gurgling Darby and practically shrieks, “Ein Chineek. Chineek!” I scuttle away from Brunhilda and piecing it together, decide that she saw Darby’s vaguely oriental looks, his resemblance to me, and assumed he was my illegitimate Chinese kid.
Well well well. You want to talk about Not Letting Go. We all know what this goofy man was going to do with this diamond of an encounter handed to him: I was going to spend it every dang time I got the chance.
First off, I told all my family and friends the story; it was so rich that it needed none of the famous Nellie embellishment. Step 2 was to lay the groundwork for subtly trying to convince folks that indeed, he was Chinese. At the playground, at games, at kid events, I’d gaze quizzically at Darby, as he sat in a stroller and lolled around on the floor and say to no one in particular, “Well, no question this kid has a definite Oriental streak in him – my goodness, look at his eyes and that pudgy face. Loves that rice, man. Whew.”
Because Darby was unable to speak and thus unable to understand anything, I’d tell perfect strangers about our “little Beijing bundle” and my “Gang of One.” People were too polite to question me and only a few looked at me narrowly, like I was trying to pull their leg. Which I was.
When he got to be three, I’d casually call him Ming Lee now and then. He would grit his baby teeth, his lower lip would come out, and he’d stammer out, “Me not Ming Wee!” This name-calling would persist for the next four years.
Of course, brother Devlin and Braden loved it when I chided Darby about his origins. They even for a short time called him “Wang Pao” after they heard me mention that at a museum exhibit we visited downtown. But I reined them in, gently admonishing them that, “Only adults can act like immature kids when tormenting family members.”
Darby, to his credit – call it steely Oriental resolve or inscrutableness – took much of this pretty well. But I knew the day of reckoning was coming – a time when I would need to let go.
That day came last week, when we went to, yes, a Chinese restaurant. It was packed and there was a line to get a table. Braden wailed, “This will take an hour.” “Watch this,” I replied smugly and turned to my youngest son while winking at his older brothers. “Hey Ming Lee, know any waiters here who can get us through this crowd of people here?” Darby looked up at me and with a straight face, no kidding, and said “Ming Lee doesn’t take cuts in line.”
And there you have it – battered for years by a goofy family over a heritage he never had and never asked for, the kid had speared me mortally with my own gag. The Chinese gag for KoiKoi was over. The time had come, yes, for letting go.

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