Standing in the middle of the airport, I couldn’t understand why my cousins were sobbing uncontrollably. They didn’t do this when I visited Tokyo a few months earlier, or Hong Kong the year before. What was so terrifying about me taking a trip to America?
It was a month into my “visit to New York City” when my mother enrolled me in a local public school and I realized I wasn’t going home any time soon.
I moved to America from Bangkok in 1999; I was nine years old and it was two and a half years since my father had passed away from lung and liver cancer. We came here because my dad always dreamed my older brother and I would get an American education and become more than retailers in a Thai mall like he and my mom were. At the time, my English skills didn’t go beyond “Hello, my name is,” so when it came to finding friends, it was a matter of whoever liked playing cards the most (spoiler alert: fourth graders were too cool for cards – and foreign languages).
After my first five months in public school, my brother and I were placed in private school in order to extend our student visas. I began seeing much less of my mom, who had to work 19 hours a day to pay tuition and provide for us. The only time I saw her was between 6 and 7 in the evening, when she came home from her day job at a Fifth Avenue jeweler and made us dinner before heading to her night job as a waitress at a Thai restaurant. Because I was young and didn’t understand the sacrifice she was making, and because she never had time to explain anything to us, I began to resent her for the little moments. When she wouldn’t walk me to school or take me to the mall on the weekend, I was confused by what could be more important to her than spending time with me.
I vented in my journal how much I hated her for the sudden “abandonment.” Hate. It’s such a strong, malicious word. When my brother found said journal hidden under my pillow, he made me burn the page so our mom would never see it.
By Christmas, I was assimilated enough to know that I had to have a Nintendo 64. Everyone in school talked about how awesome GoldenEye was, and how Super Mario was the shit. I might not have been able to gossip about our math teacher, but I was desperate for something – anything – to have in common with my classmates. I remember the look in my mother’s eyes when she told us she couldn’t afford a Nintendo, as if she’d let us down yet again.
Two months later, she managed to find us hand-me-down system from one of her coworkers, whose kid had already moved on from the 64 to the Sega Dreamcast. My mom got the kid a new game, and she got a hand-me-down Nintendo in return. Dear Dreamcast kid, I hope you’re still playing Seaman because your dad made the worst mistake of his life. My mom did the opposite.
The Nintendo 64 provided a sort of solace I never knew I wanted. When I was stupidly hating my mom for denying time with me, I sought comfort in a round of Super Smash Bros. I practiced my English on Hey You, Pikachu! and considered it successful when that little yellow rat picked up the objects I told it to, or moved left and right as I directed. Paper Mario was the main reason I rushed to do all my homework – so I had time to finish the newest level before bed. When I got to school, I had something to chat about with my newfound American friends. I no longer felt like an outsider; they no longer looked at me as the alien.
The last game I bought for my Nintendo 64 was Pokemon Puzzle League. My mom is a huge puzzle gamer (to this day, she’ll still kick anyone’s butt at Tetris), so I thought we might spend time playing it together. Still, her job schedule didn’t allow it. I was used to her rejections at this point and learned to be content with entertaining myself.
Things seemed to be normal as new normal can be until the summer of 2003. I went into Elmhurst Hospital for a yearly checkup, and by then I knew how it went: The doctor places a funny circle with ear pieces attached to it on your chest and asks you to take a deep breath; you tell him you have no food allergies, he sticks some weird lights in your ears, and you leave with a lollipop. Instead, the doctor pressed his hands against the left side of my stomach and scrunched his eyebrows, asking if my diet changed recently. Then he referred me to the ultrasound department.
Three hours, one ultrasound, and one CAT scan later, I was strapped to a bed and rolled into an ambulance. The blaring van took off as my mom and brother watched and I was whisked away to the pediatric oncology department at Mount Sinai Hospital. I soon learned I had stage 2B pancreatic cancer, and that I would need surgery to remove the five-pound tumor that had engulfed my pancreas and other lymph nodes.
Heartbroken and in fear of losing another family member to cancer, my mom quit her job to be by my bedside for the two-week recovery period. Every time she felt like crying, she walked out of the room to make phone calls to my aunts and uncles. She couldn’t stand to cry in front of me, her 13-year-old daughter, because she thought I would be scared. I wasn’t. When you’re a kid and don’t know the value of life and all that’s ahead, you’re fearless.
When I woke from surgery, to my surprise, a Nintendo 64 system had been wheeled into my room. I was the oldest kid in that department, and Mount Sinai let me keep the system until I was ready to go home. Naturally, my brother brought in all my favorite games from home, including Pokemon Puzzle League.
In the early days following surgery, I drifted in and out of a painkiller-induced haze. But I remember seeing my mom punching buttons, trying figure out the Nintendo controller so she could complete the Hard level of Pokemon Puzzle. When a nurse came in and laughed at a grown woman working so diligently on a Nintendo game, she responded that she needed to learn the game so she could play it with me during my recovery.
And we did. For two hours straight, we’d watch those little colorful gems twitch, turn, and disappear, and challenge each other to get better scores than the last game. When it came time for me to go home, my mom apologized for not being there as much as she’d like and promised to find time when things got better financially.
In 2005, I sold my Nintendo 64. By then, it had done nothing but collect dust because I was always at my friend’s house playing her brand new Playstation 2. I still regret the moment I packed the set and sold it at my local GameStop, walking away with a mere $100 dollars in credit. I remember returning to that GameStop to find my exact cartridge of Pokemon Puzzle League on display in the window, and I knew it was mine because the high score was always “NattG” or “Mom.”
Although the system and those games are no longer available for visitation, the fond memories will always remind me that gadgets can sometimes bring people together. In New York these days, it seems like we’re increasingly plugged in and removed from the world around us, but that Nintendo 64 connected me to a whole new country. More importantly, it connected my mother to me.