Pre-teening with The Fugees
In 1996, I was twelve years old. Pokemon the cartoon debuted, before smartphones, before Pokemon Go, before you could catch ’em virtually. It was also the same year that my little brother and I were obsessed with the anime series, Gundam Wing. My parents bought and ran a restaurant at the Hillsboro Airport named after the World War I fighter ace Eddie Rickenbacker. My family made good money for the first time in our whole lives – serving white people juicy cuts of prime rib – but we still didn’t have health insurance. It was also the year that we moved out of the small-farm town vibes of Hillsboro and into put-on-airs of a upper-middle class suburb of Portland. At some point, The Fugees released their hip hop album, The Score, and it was one small start of my growing up. I brooded. When my parents weren’t looking, I started sneaking cigarettes. I rimmed my eyes with black liner, and snuck lipstick and smacked my lips in the mirror. It was the start of all the hormones.
The only dudes in my life, other than the ones that ignored me or made fun of me at school, were my brother, my cousins, and the teen-dream dishwasher boy, Taylor/Tyler/Zach, with Kurt Cobain-style hair and (obviously) some generic 90s white boy name that is so ubiquitous I can’t quite remember. He worked for my parents. I.was.so.in.love.with.him – brimming with pre-teen lust.
When my brother and I weren’t at school, we were either home alone or with my parents at the restaurant, located on the second floor of the Hillsboro Airport. Sometimes, I worked the cash register, or I’d help bus tables until about 8 pm or so. Then my mom would rush me to the office because it’s weird to see a 12-year-old Chinese girl work a dinner shift. Then at close, I’d fill ketchup jars, refill salt and pepper shakers, or wipe down and reset the tables. Occasionally, I’d vacuum. But mostly my brother and I were relegated to the office, which shared a door to the utility/supply closet and the employee break area.
We did homework there. We napped on the futon. We watched movies and hella TV. There wasn’t much we could do to hurt ourselves there or to warrant an uninsured medical emergency, which is why my mom liked having us around. As an immigrant family, unplanned medical expenses could shatter our fragile upward mobility in the world. My mom worked the bar and front of house while my dad cooked. When we were hungry, she would fake an order ticket for us to avoid my dad’s temper. We ate teriyaki burgers, chicken fingers, tons of fries, or if there was prime rib left over we’d get that. I’d find any excuse to sneak through the kitchen – maybe to grab us cream of mushroom soup or beef barley – and sneak glances at Taylor working the hose at the sink, tucking his greasy shoulder length hair behind his ears.
I imagined holding hands with him, kissing him, even though I didn’t know what that meant or looked like, since my parents never let us watch PG-13 movies, let alone R-rated movies because I wasn’t old enough. But what I knew more than anything in the world (other than being obsessed with Gundam Wing) was that I wanted Tyler to think I was cool.
In 1996, other than coming of age through cartoons, sneaking cigarettes, working illegally at my parents’ restaurant, the album The Score by The Fugees (named after Haitian-American refugees) became one of the biggest hits that year, and one of the best-selling hip hop albums of all time. My mom loved their cover of “Killing Me Softly,” not only because Lauryn Hill’s voice is what it is, but I suspect because it was a song that she knew before finally fleeing communist Saigon in the late 70s. It was something to latch onto. The song was first recorded by Lori Lieberman in 1971, remade by Roberta Flack in 1973, and then again by The Fugees in 1996. I think it was because of this song, that my mom ignored the “explicit lyrics” sticker on the CD and let me listen to it – like it was mine.
It was the first time I felt like I was older. Maybe, like I was kinda down, that I could be kinda cool. I knew when Zach was using the break room, because I could hear the squeak of the chair across the floor through the door we shared. Against my brother’s protests, I would turn off whatever station or movie we were watching and I’d put The Score CD into the DVD player, blasting the song “Ready or Not” through the TV. I’d sing along, belting the chorus:
Ready Or Not, Here I Come, You Can't Hide
Gonna Find You and Take it Slowly
Ready Or Not, Here I Come, You Can't Hide
Gonna Find You and Make You Want Me.
The rest of the song, is not romantic. Frankly, the chorus is a bit cavalier and sort of creepy, “...you can’t hide/gonna find you and make you want me.” But who cares. It had an amazing beat, and rhymes like: “I’ll be Nina Simone/and defecating on your microphone” – I wanted Taylor to fall in love with me so badly! I wished for some kind of movie magic: where those calculated lyrics and my singing through the door, would woo him, and the door between us would swing open automatically and animated squiggly lures of pastel smoke would gently bring him hither. But, he was 16, and he ignored me as much as the boys did at school. Then one day, he wasn’t in the kitchen anymore. Suddenly, it someone else at the sink, an older man with a beer belly, grungy, and not in the hot Kurt Cobain-way. I’m sure I was sad, but I don’t remember it lasting long. I continued to listen to the album. Blasting and singing/rapping along quickly became more for me, and then, only for me.
After 1996, there wasn’t anything new from The Fugees. The group only released two albums, Blunted on Reality (1994) and The Score (1996), and disbanded shortly after. Wyclef Jean and Lauryn Hill also went on to have successful solo-careers, and Pras Michel went on to act and produce with other major recording artists. The profits from The Score, allowed each of the members, Jean, Michel, and Hill to pursue their activism work more directly. Jean co-founded the Yele Haiti Foundation in 2001 a nonprofit that focused on emergency relief, employment, youth development and education, and tree planting and agriculture in Haiti. Unfortunately, the nonprofit is now defunct and in debt after negligent handling of funds and a lawsuit in 2012. In 2007, Michel starred in a documentary titled Skid Row about homelessness in LA, and Hill has stood for female empowerment amidst her rise and fall, including a three month jail sentence in 2013 for tax evasion.
Life peaks and dips. It goes the fuck on. The one thing that stays true, is that things will always change. My parents sold the restaurant. My parents divorced. I stopped watching Pokemon and the Gundam Wing series ended. I smoked for another 15 years. I figured out a classier way to line my makeup. I got older. I quit cigarettes. I don’t actually listen to music as much as I’d like, because I work a lot, and it’s hard for me to concentrate when I want to sing-along or dance.
But recently, I listened to The Score while doing the dishes – the entire album – singing and jamming along.
Jenny M. Chu