The beautiful little girl up there, whose Easter hat touches me in some deep way, grew up to be my amazing wife, Munyin. At the time this picture was taken, she and her brother, whose left ear you can just see, were living behind their parents' store in Harlem, several years after their arrival from Hong Kong. Munyin, who was learning English on the fly, was an object of a certain amount of unwelcome interest from the African-American kids in the neighborhood, where her most frequent nickname was "Ching-Chong."
But she could still summon up this smile. It was expected of her, and she did it, no matter how bewildered she may have been by the world she found herself in. Her brother's expression is much more equivocal; he's not sure he likes any of it, and it shows.
Here you have my brothers and me with our mother, whose expression suggests that she's been sitting there about as long as she's willing to. I'm on the right, delighted to see a camera. For many, many years, I could have sensed a camera in pitch darkness, a mile and a half underground. My brothers are less enthralled than I was.
As I grow older, I find myself in the interesting position of knowing adults whom I first met as children. It brings home the same point these pictures make (to me, anyway), which is that we are, at the age of four or five, pretty much who we're always going to be.
In the past few years I've been writing about children quite a bit -- in fact, they seem to pop up in every book I write. The fictional child about whom I've written most is Miaow, the onetime street urchin whom Poke and Rose adopt in my Bangkok books. I started writing her when she was eight or nine (no one knew for sure) and now she's twelve or thirteen, and her life has changed radically, but as she grows up she seems to remain much the same person she was when I first met her: strong-willed, cautious, brave, and vulnerable at the same time.
And lately, as I think more and more about children -- the children Munyin and I once were, the children my brothers once were, the children some of my adult friends were -- it seems to me that the process of growing up isn't quite as profound a transformation as I once thought it was. I'm beginning to think that our core remains pretty much unchanged. What changes are the things we wrap around it, the ways we present it.
If this is true, the challenge I face in writing Miaow or any of my "kids" at fifteen, eighteen, twenty, whatever, will be different from the one I originally envisioned. In retrospect, it seems so obvious that it's hard for me to believe that I've only recently realized it: we are who we are, all our lives through. We have our gifts and our weaknesses, our pluses and our minuses, pretty much from the beginning. The chord, whether it's major or minor, that sounds in our personalities remains the same.
I know there's an ongoing argument over nature vs. nurture, but my point is that these factors have expressed themselves--in whatever balance has been established for that particular person--pretty early in life. The person I was at, say, six is who I am now. The person my adult friends were at six are the people they are now. My wife, God bless her, is still that little girl who put on that hat and smiled for the camera because it would make her mother happy, and her mother's mother in Hong Kong, for whom the photo was intended.
It may even be possible that tragedy and/or great good fortune don't change who we actually are as as much as they change how we express who we are. Maybe that's going to be the challenge in writing these children as they grow: understanding their lives well enough to determine how what happens to them will change the way they express who they are at their core.