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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
My Wonder Years
In 1989, my family moved from Saigon to Quincy, Massachusetts, where I immediately began to learn essential lessons about being an American kid (hunks of stringy, dried squid were not the most appealing thing to trade during snack time at school). As I grew older, I began to foster an unconscious inclination toward narratives that made my new country more legible to me, whether told in earnest or through parody. Eddie Murphy’s Coming to America was wildly popular with my family. No doubt our beginner’s English failed to catch all the good stuff, but we found Arsenio Hall’s disdain for grimy New York City life and Eddie Murphy’s enthusiastic dignity in his job at a knockoff fast-food restaurant hilarious, ooh-ed and aah-ed at the rose petal trails the royal family from Zamunda left around Queens. And while I still have a deep fondness for Spielberg’s extraterrestrial, my fellow immigrant from afar, The Wonder Years—though not an obvious outsider story—felt more relevant to me.
I found the show when I was eleven, a couple of years after the series had collected its Emmy and Peabody Awards and ended in 1993. From our living room I followed Kevin Arnold’s formative years from 1968 to 1973 together with the era’s societal and political upheavals, woven into the Arnolds’ version of Americana. A typical scene in the Arnold household sounds like this: Kevin reluctantly tells his family during dinner he’s participating in a school play “about the civil rights movement and stuff like that.” His taciturn father Jack looks up from the small yellow television set nestled near the kitchen table and grumbles, “What the hell ever happened to My Fair Lady?” setting Kevin’s hippie older sister Karen off on one of her radical tirades about how theater is supposed to be a form of political expression. Their brother Wayne, as ever absorbed in his own needs, swipes the baked potato off of Karen’s plate. The children’s bright-eyed mother Norma, oblivious to the family’s general disinterest in Kevin’s news, suggests he get them all tickets to opening night. Jack glares at his youngest son while Kevin’s older siblings slump in their chairs and moan. Here Wayne utters his most frequent line: “Buttface!” End scene.
The show drew upon the childhood experiences of its creators, Neal Marlens and Carol Black, a husband and wife baby-boomer team who grew up in the suburbs. Over each episode an adult Kevin, voiced by actor Daniel Stern, retrospectively narrates his coming-of-age days, framing the show as a composition of memories. Through him, I had access to young Kevin’s private motivations, to his vulnerability and the foolish rationale that periodically flooded him—thoughts other characters couldn’t hear. The surprises and traumas are amplified or cushioned for us through narrator-Kevin’s well-placed crack or revelation: we cringe at Kevin’s stream of insensitive thoughts about the eccentric three-braided, ‘four-eyed’ Margaret Farquhar with whom he’s paired to square dance in Phys-Ed class, and we feel disappointed satisfaction when he realizes his own limitations, that he cannot rise above the conformist world of junior high.
In some ways I didn’t have much in common with Kevin, an ‘all-American’ boy growing up in a suburb in 1968, but Kevin’s vulnerability and imperfections were crucial to his success as a character. The method of storytelling put viewers in both Kevin’s body and mind. I wasn’t simply identifying with Kevin; I was placed inside his experience. Here was a boy who was adorable but not hunky or particularly athletic or popular, who struggled in math class and screwed up his piano recital. He fell hard for the girl next door (Winnie Cooper, one of the most beautiful but infuriatingly enigmatic girls in American television history), fought with his noogie-giving brother, and loathed the sight of assistant principal Mr. Diperna who was always ready to suspend Kevin at the slightest sign of mischief.
If Marlens had his way, the Arnolds would’ve resided in Long Island, New York where he grew up, but ABC insisted that the location remain nonspecific. While aerial shots of the Arnolds’ neighborhood look like the L.A. hills, I recall Winnie’s cold breath rising like lace in the autumnal air as she bounded across the lacrosse field and holiday episodes with snow on trees. I was convinced that the changing seasons meant Kevin and his crew lived in some New England hamlet close by. Why else would Kevin and Paul fight over a coveted Ted Williams baseball card? What could Jack’s accent be but that of Boston’s North End, less than fifteen miles from my own neighborhood?
Even if Kevin and I shared a few similar traits, I understood our worlds were separate. The families in Kevin’s pleasant, indistinct neighborhood owned homes with modest but well-kept lawns; my neighborhood was comprised of a square mile of identical government-subsidized housing, four families to a unit with a shared concrete yard and clotheslines. Our neighbors—Irish, Italian, black, Latino, Asian—were preoccupied with keeping track of whatever quirks and ‘inequities’ made us all different from one another. Besides good grades, hassle-free workdays, and fitting in, the characters on the show, without having the added pressures of being too different, were free to contemplate more casually humanistic aspirations like being truthful to each other and themselves.
Though there was some vague representation of diversity on The Wonder Years, those characters—the nameless Filipino boy in Kevin’s P.E. class, the black boy who plays Martin Luther King, Jr. in the school play—had few or no lines, perpetuating the fantasy that everyone fit in comfortably, or that if there were problems, they didn’t affect Kevin’s reality. He seemed to mostly see himself in his friends, schoolmates, and neighbors.
Like Kevin, I did a lot of my thinking lying in bed in the room I shared, not with Wayne thankfully, but with my sister, trying to sleep while she whispered into the phone. In the safety of my bed, I might replay the day’s humiliations—others’ along with my own. I would stir up the memory of the hole in the crotch of Seth McGrath’s sweatpants, how he’d stalked off the baseball field, his crimson ears sailing past me after I pointed it out to the other kids. The next minute it was my horror at walking in on my older brother blow-drying his pubes in the bathroom, or the moronic “Me Chinese, Me no dumb” chant a boy had taunted me with on the way to school. Then my mind would turn to the apologetic message a boy had passed on to my friend: he wouldn’t go to the dance with me. Though they never said why, I always knew.
Kevin’s world onscreen helped me to deal with the actualities in mine. When I watched the show I wasn’t caught up with the racial or socio-economic differences between the characters and myself in the same way I was confronted with those differences in my life. I wanted those around me to think and act like the characters I saw onscreen.
The Wonder Years was my first meaningful exposure to the Civil Rights movement, Woodstock, the triumphs of the space program, the national lingering sorrow over the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and John F. Kennedy, and, poignantly for me in hindsight, the Vietnam War. Episodes showed actual footage of anti-war protests across college campuses, a nude John Lennon curled up on Yoko, the first shot of planet Earth from space as Kevin tries to summon his courage to call a cute girl. Marlens once said in an interview, “If you don’t have any real feeling for the suburban middle-class life, and if you didn’t have any sense of that time, [The Wonder Years] wouldn’t make sense.” But I did not live a suburban middle-class life, and often when watching the show I forgot that the story took place more than a decade before I was born. I might not have understood from the beginning everything Marlens and Black wanted to explore, like a whole generation’s sense of loss over the fading social norms of the 50s and the idealism of a new and vocal youth, but I felt I was in some ways an ideal viewer, although Marlens and Black might not have intended or even imagined someone like me watching.
I knew that if I visited the Arnolds’ home I wouldn’t smell catfish caramelizing in clay pots or anise soups with beef bones simmering on the stove, wouldn’t hear at their dinner table the swelling tones of Vietnamese, often mistaken by non-speakers for arguments when in fact we were only discussing the difficulties of re-grouting the bathroom tiles or where the freshest shrimp could be bought.
Instead, my recognition of Kevin’s struggles cemented my kinship with him: the swell of our first zits, fights with best friends that lasted an eternity of two days, the social jungle of cafeterias, sorrowful first heartbreak, the awkwardness of letting an admirer down gently. They were the turmoils of any kid growing up anywhere, even in Saigon. But I was enduring these childhood rites of passage in America now, with my pink plastic Medicare eyeglasses and penchant for frozen microwave dinners and The Little House on the Prairie books.
I was struck at that age by the ways the Arnolds’ life mirrored mine. In the episode, “My Father’s Office,” Kevin witnesses his father’s boss yelling at him and senses a small but significant shift between himself and his father. At some point I grew old enough to understand that my parents were not just cheerfully working away at their housekeeping jobs. I would watch them clean, and like Kevin, I knew they were too good for their job. I felt like we’d all lost something. Eventually I came to know that with our immigration my parents had in fact abandoned plans of practicing law and teaching in Vietnam. When Jack and Norma Arnold took to the streets in their pajamas in search of a ‘runaway’ Karen, I cried just as I did when my own parents waited up all night and pleaded with my sister to come home after her long disappearances.
The Wonder Years rooted me into my new country’s emotional and ancestral landscape. For better or worse, the show’s historical depictions added to my fuzzy understanding of my own family’s story. Beginning with the pilot, the show became an immediate necessity for me. In the end of that first episode, the Arnolds learn that the Coopers’ nineteen-year-old son, Brian, has died in Vietnam, and Kevin finds a grieving Winnie in Harper’s Woods. There and then they share their first kiss. That the Coopers’ tragedy occurred in my home country at the hands of the Vietnamese surprised me. How, after only thirty minutes on screen, could I possibly feel more empathy for these made-up characters than I had for the real lives of the people of my home country?
My parents rarely discussed the war with us kids. They didn’t tell me about Agent Orange or the My Lai massacre or American soldiers using the elderly and children for target practice. I was a college freshman when I borrowed Hearts and Minds from the library and wept alone in my dorm room at world-famous images of Phan Thi Kim Phuc running naked through the streets after being severely burned from a napalm attack, of a suspected Viet Cong officer in a plaid button-down shirt and linen shorts wincing at the pistol pointed at his head by a South Vietnamese officer moments before his death.
Before that, Vietnam was a hazy, nebulous land where relatives whose faces I couldn’t remember lived, a place and people destroyed during the era in which The Wonder Years took place. Although I’d grown up listening to my mother’s stories about her childhood in Nha Trang, they began to feel like relics of a lost time. However frightening or significant her tales—even the one of her hiding under her bed from the bombs dropping around her while in the kitchen her siblings helped their mother prepare what they believed to be their last meal together—became more difficult to imagine in the relatively safe country to which we’d come.
By the time I got to know Kevin Arnold, I’d lived more than half my life in the U.S. Against my mother’s wishes, when I became naturalized as a U.S. citizen, I changed my name to Laura to salute the settler I admired above all, Laura Ingalls Wilder. With regret months later, I legally changed it back. So to say that The Wonder Years taught me the steps in adapting the American lifestyle wouldn’t necessarily be true. Certainly it was a palimpsest of insights on the era’s class divisions, gender politics and inequalities, consumerism, and the changes within the American nuclear family, but it wasn’t a manual on how to fit in, be American.
What the show really offered me were clear, poignant stories with enough complexity and allusion. It was the best kind of storytelling I’d come across. Accompanying the characters as they struggled to find their footing in a changing world and learning their flaws and sensitivities nurtured and expanded me.
Most of the thoughts that ran through my head before bed were normal child broodings. I questioned whether the obedient sister I had shared baths with not long ago was really the sullen stranger who seemed to come to life only around her friends. I’d try to grasp what it felt like to be dead, how the universe would keep swirling on without me. I thought of my parents, how their bodies drooped with fatigue when they returned home each day, how once I grew older and could do something about it, they wouldn’t need to clean other people’s houses.
I always tried to imagine when my mother told her story the thoughts that raced through her mind many years ago under her own bed in Nha Trang. I wonder if she thought of her friends, some whom she’d never walk to school with again, their silk school áo dai blowing in the morning wind, or of the green bean ice cream she blew her money on at the corner store. While her family washed rice and steamed bitter melon to prepare themselves for death, could she have imagined that she would survive that bomb-blasted night and the next? That her survival would one day lead her to raising her children in the country from which the yellow-haired soldiers had come? Or that her youngest daughter would learn about the ‘American’ war from a fictional boy named Kevin Arnold, whose name, if she had somehow heard it among the explosions in Saigon, would be nothing more to her than an impossible jumble of strange syllables and foreign arrangement.
I haven’t stopped watching The Wonder Years. The pirated DVD set I won on eBay years ago (the legality of music royalties has prevented the show from being officially released) has traveled with me to college, cities overseas, and to the various apartments I’ve lived in since. Some things haven’t changed: Winnie is still mysterious, Wayne just as boorish. But Jack doesn’t scare me anymore—my heart aches over his thankless days at work, and I understand better his gruff love and miserly ways. Norma isn’t the dull homemaker I remembered; her hunger for independence leads her to break free from her house duties and she finds a job that satisfies her. Kevin remains the seemingly clueless chipmunk-faced boy who is enlightened by each episode’s end, saved by his generosity and willingness to examine his faults. I can’t finish one show without tearing up a little. Maybe it’s a testament to the targeted universality of the stories, maybe it’s because I remember my younger self watching these episodes—girlish, confused, hurt, full of hope—and wish I could let Kevin and his family know, somehow, that I’m alright.
Titi Nguyen is a writer living in New York City. Her essays have appeared in The Threepenny Review, The New York Times, Ninth Letter, and Witness. She holds degrees from Sarah Lawrence College and Bennington College. Her website can be found at www.titinguyen.net