I wrote this 4 years ago, and I’m considering writing a few stories with the same characters. I intended it to be loosely based on my sister and myself, although a few friends have commented that it is pretty much autobiography with the names changed. This isn’t a comment on religion, but just a story about kids being confused about the particulars of their religions and (a little bit) race.
Sarrah ran her hand over her head. She played her fingers over snarls and stubborn curls that stood up even though she had tried her best to make a good ponytail. She absentmindedly smoothed them down, which caused the shorter hairs that grew all over her head to stand up in a vague red halo.
“Which religion are you?” she asked her friend Elizabeth. They were sitting on one of the low blue benches outside of the cafeteria. Only the fifth and sixth graders were allowed to use the cafeteria because it was so small. Being able to eat inside the room with fans and gleaming linoleum instead of outside on benches and gravel felt like a badge of honor to most of the older students, and if the deigned to talk to younger students they mentioned the cafeteria as much as they could. Sarrah, who was in 3rd grade, wasn’t jealous. She liked the benches, liked being out in the sunlight and liked eating in the classroom when it rained. After eating, she took advantage on the benches by sprawling across them most of the time, taking up the space of three 3rd graders, laying stomach down with her knees bent and her feet lazily kicking in the air. Elizabeth wouldn’t sit with her when she did that, though, so this time Sarrah sat on the corner of the bench and wondered how little of the seat she could take up. A foot? How long was a foot? Six inches?
Sarrah twisted her head around to see if she could see her sister J’naea past the line of people that always ran across the inside of the doors. J’naea was tall and had skin the color of grocery store caramels and wild dense curly hair that was a mixture of brown and blond and red. She wore blue Chucks mostly every day. Sarrah didn’t see her.
“Religion?” Elizabeth was Chinese, from China but not, as she anxiously explained to Sarrah often, “Fresh off the Boat.” FOBs were backward, talked funny, said mean things in Chinese and made fun of you when you asked them to talk slower. “I speak Mandarin and my language and English,” Elizabeth had told Sarrah. “They say I don’t speak Chinese, but I do. They’re mean. Don’t talk to them.”
So Sarrah had planned to ask every Chinese person she met if they had come into America on a boat. Most students in her school were Asian, but most of them had been in her school for years. They weren’t fresh off a boat or a plane or however people got into different countries. Sarrah had no real opportunity to judge whether people were FOBs or not.
“I guess I follow the Buddha?” Elizabeth said, her voice, as always, scratchy and deep for a little girl. She fixed her light brown eyes on Sarrah. Sitting down they were the same height, even though for some strange reason Elizabeth was taller when they stood up. Elizabeth shrugged. Sarrah watched with envy as Elizabeth’s shiny black, stick straight hair moved prettily around her shoulders. Elizabeth’s hair went to her butt. Sarrah’s hair always grew to her shoulders and then stopped.
“Buddha?” Sarrah frowned in confusion. She was used to people saying “Catholic” or “Baptist” or “Presbyterian” While she didn’t really know what any of those things meant, she knew even less what it meant to be Buddhist. Was the Buddha the people the crazy Hari Krishnas worshipped? No, that was Krishna. Duh. And Krishna was…the God of Indian people as well as the crazy bald people in orange robes that walked around Berkeley? “Is Buddha the fat girl statue in the Chinese food restaurants?”
“Buddha is not a girl!” Elizabeth’s eyes were big and flat. Her nose, thin but round, flared. “Is your God a girl?”
“Probably not,” Sarrah admitted agreeably, used to Elizabeth’s easily dismissed anger. “He was a man once. But I don’t think he was ever a girl.”
“What are you? Baptist?” Elizabeth grabbed her foot and pulled it to her forehead. Elizabeth wanted to be a ballet dance and someone had told her ballet dancers needed to be able to touch their feet to their forehead. Elizabeth did this all the time, sometimes during class. Somehow she still had lots of friends, unlike Sarrah, who only had two or three at school besides Elizabeth. Some kids thought Sarrah was nice, but too weird. They smiled at her uncomfortably and talked to her sometimes, but not too many people wanted to be her friend.
“I don’t think so,” Sarrah answered.
“I think black people are Baptist.”
“My dad’s not anything,” Elizabeth said uncomfortably. She wasn’t sure if not having a religion was bad. But her dad didn’t go anywhere on Sunday, or any other day, except to work at the gas station. “And my mom is white.”
“I know you’re mom is white, stupid, I see her before, all the time.” This time Elizabeth didn’t seem even temporarily angry, just amused. “What is she then? You go to church with her?”
“We go to the Salvation Army.”
“Then you’re a Salvation Army…” Elizabeth paused, her small, chubby mouth distorted in a grimace. “…person?”
“But mom says that’s not our religion, that’s why I can’t be a junior soldier,” Sarrah cut in. “She says that there’s no church for us that’s close enough to get to on the bus, in the morning. Especially since J’naea gets all angry in the morning and whines all the time and has to spend 50 thousand minutes doing her hair.”
“What does she do to it? It looks like a red bush.” Elizabeth and Sarrah spent a moment contemplating J’naea. What did she do for half an hour to get her hair big and curly and her lips red? Why did it take her another hour to pick out clothes that were just, when you got past the designs (like plaid or neon or sparkly) jeans, T-shirts, sweatshirts, and Chuck Taylors? Elizabeth’s older sister Sue braided her hair in two pigtails every morning and sometimes used colored hair ties at the ends, taking her all of 3 minutes. She wore school t-shirts to school everyday. Her pants were all dark denim and varied in nothing but length. But Sue was a 4th grader. Maybe something happened in 5th grade?
“It looks better than my hair,” Sarrah sighed, again trying to smooth down her frizzy pony tail.
“Yeah,” Elizabeth agreed. “You should put it straight.”
“I don’t know how. And Dad says my hair is beautiful and I shouldn’t want to harm it just to look like everyone else.” Sarrah could repeat her father’s speech about pride in black hair word for word, but since it was long and had no pauses she decided not to. He talked a lot about her being both races, and not struggling to be one or the other. “You don’t have to struggle to be black or white,” he’d say. He didn’t say anything about struggling to be Asian.
“Just brush it more,” Elizabeth advised. “My hair gets tangled and I brush it. Just brush it.”
“Hmm.” Sarrah was about to try to change the subject when J’naea walked by and said hello by grabbing Sarrah’s head with one hand and shaking it back and forth. Sarrah saw she was wearing the hoops the principal had told her were too large to wear at school. They were 14 carrot gold and went down to J’naea’s shoulder. Sarrah wanted them but knew she probably would be too self concious to ever wear them.
“J’naea,” Sarrah asked, letting her head be shaken, “What religion are we?”
“Episcopalian,” J’naea said, scrunching her face. It was her ‘What wrong with you Sarrah?’ face. Sometimes ‘What’s wrong with you’ meant ‘Are you okay.’ Sometimes it meant ‘Are you stupid?’ And sometimes it meant, “Are you crazy?” Sarrah judged that this time it was ‘Are you stupid?’
“What’s that?” Elizabeth asked before Sarrah could.
“It’s like Catholic, with priests with white collars,” J’naea explained loftily, “Except they can be women too. And there’s drinking wine and eating cookies in the middle. The wine is blood and the cookies are God’s body. And you have to say ‘Peace be with you’ in the middle of church. Don’t you remember?”
“You eat your god’s body?” Elizabeth let her mouth drop open, showing braces over bright white teeth. “You eat it? You drink blood?”
“It’s cookies and wine, it’s just also God’s blood and body.” J’naea said with a sigh that was meant to express how dumb Elizabeth was. “We show we care about him being killed with a cross so its okay to ask him for things.”
“We give Buddha oranges and burn good smelling incense and stuff like that,” Elizabeth said, again scrunching up her face and wrinkling her nose. She didn’t know much about her religion, because her parents didn’t make do anything towards it, but she doubted it was as strange as Sarrah’s.
“I don’t eat God’s blood, I mean drink God’s blood, or eat his body,” Sarrah was quick to say. “Never.”
“You have. You were baptized and you did,” J’naea said. “And if you say you haven’t, I’ll tell mom you don’t like God ’cause you think his blood and body are gross.”
Elizabeth and J’naea looked at Sarrah curiously, wondering which option she’d take. Recess was almost over. Some kids were drifted into clumps, mostly divided by sex, gossiping or playing trading card games. Some were getting in their last fix of kick ball or four square. The tether-ball pole was empty since a month ago, when someone had hit themselves in the face with the ball when they served.
“Fine,” Sarrah said, unsure of what she meant. Episcopalian was an important sounding religion. It was a long word and hard to say. It was almost as exotic as the Buddha-religion. “Fine, I’m a– what’s the word? How do you say it, I mean?”
“Episcopalian,” J’naea said. She lost interest in the conversation, her eyes going to a group of sixth grade girls pretending to ignore sixth grade boys. “There’s Sophie. Bye, babies!”
Elizabeth’s nose stayed wrinkled. “Episcopalian?”
“Yeah, that,” Sarrah shrugged and looked at Elizabeth as J’naea wandered away.
The bell rang a few minutes later and Sarrah and Elizabeth walked into class, careful not to be the first or last ones in the door.