I was eight years old and running for my life. I sped into the men’s bathroom, opened a stall door, and hid. “She isn’t allowed in here,” I thought to myself, “She can’t get me in here.”
Four years earlier, my mother first had her way with me. It was a children’s fashion show at our Thai temple. She dressed me up as a young girl from the hill tribes of Northern Thailand. She attacked my four-year-old boy cheeks with blush, applied blue eye shadow, and slathered on a glowing red lipstick, turning me into the cover model for some underground Asian transvestite child-bride magazine. When asked why she did this, she simply stated, “Because I know how to win.” And she was right; I took home first place that day.
Now, she intended to impale my reputation at our temple’s misspelled children’s talent show, Tinkle, Tinkle Little Star. I was going to sing a Thai song that roughly translated to, “In the water, there are fish.” It was a song every Thai kid learns: a song that cheers the strength of Thailand because it has fish. I liked this song. There was even a little dance that accompanied it that involved pretending your hands were fish.
However, I was secretly carrying on a love affair with another song. Whenever the video played on MTV, I’d run to sit directly in front of the set. In the first half of the video, a woman walks around backstage, reminiscing about a time her mother encouraged her to perform in a talent show. For the second half, she emerges in a dazzling white, sequined gown that sparkles as she moves across the stage. Her hair is swept up, her makeup is perfect. As she glides around the stage, like an angel on a cloud, she glances over at her mother, who is watching from the wings and, during the final grand note, runs to embrace her. This video was “The Greatest Love of All” and this woman, my Goddess, was Whitney Houston
Like any young boy growing up in the 80s, I sang “The Greatest Love of All” around the house constantly. I thought no one was listening. But one day my mother took notice.
“You like that song a lot, don’t you? What song is that?” she asked.
“It’s called ‘The Greatest Love of All’.”
“And who sings it?”
As a second-generation child, I was used to explaining tenets of American culture to my family. “Whitney Houston,” I answered.
Later that day, I practiced the fish in the water song for mom. My voice carried a patriotic innocence, my hands were like koi swimming through an imperial pond – but when I finished, my mom crossed her arms and scowled. “You don’t really understand this song,” she said.
“Uh-huh,” I insisted, “It’s about how great Thailand is because it has fish.”
“That only what the song say, but you don’t feel it in your heart. It’s better maybe you sing a different song.”
“What song should I sing?”
“Sing the song for me. The Whitney song, you know, ‘The Best Love in the World’.”
“‘The Best Love in the World’.”
“The Greatest Love of All?”
We were in the living room. My mother sat perfectly upright on our floral print couch. I dug my toes into the shag green carpeting and took a deep breath: “I believe the children are our future…”
Maybe, just maybe, the verses sounded fine. Perhaps the first chorus went well. But then I got to the part where Whitney begins her vocal gymnastics. It was not good. Our dog started growling and barking; the cat hissed and ran out of the room. My usually stoic father put his newspaper down and looked at me with fear.
“What is he doing?” he asked.
“Just practicing Daddy, don’t worry,” my mom replied, smiling.
My sister, who was 13 at the time, scrambled into the room, “Oh my God! Why is Archy screaming?”
I spoke up: “I don’t think I should sing this song.”
“Mom,” my sister began, “you cannot have Archy sing Whitney Houston. Little boys do not sing Whitney Houston – especially little boys who can’t sing.” She cocked her head towards me. “Oh my God, Mom, you are going to embarrass the entire family. You’re going to scar him for life. This is worse than dressing him up as a girl.”
“Mommy,” my dad added, “Just let him sing the Thai song. It’s easy for him.”
Somehow my mother managed to look all three of us in the eyes at the same time. “Archy gonna sing ‘The Best Love in the World’. ‘The Best Love in the World’ is the best song in the world, and Archy is going to be the best singer in the world!”
My fate was sealed.
I practiced “The Greatest Love of All” for the next two weeks. The dog’s bark turned into a howl, my father read his newspaper in bed, and my sister started calling me “Chinky Houston”. Meanwhile, my mother became the Helen Keller of stage moms. Blind and deaf with love for me, she praised my singing voice: “You sound like an angel falling from the sky.”
In a state of panic, I opened the liner notes of my Whitney cassette. I found the address of her fan club and wrote Whitney a desperate letter, begging her for advice. I stole a stamp from my mom’s purse and dropped in the mailbox near school. Whitney had a whole five days to respond.
The day of the talent show arrived and I hadn’t heard from Whitney. I sat nervously in the audience, waiting my turn. Kids played piano, said the Pledge of Allegiance. Someone sang “Mary had a Little Lamb”. Watching these performances, it occurred to me that no one else had the humungous task of covering Whitney Houston. Suddenly, fear and reality struck. Was I good enough to sing “The Greatest Love of All”? Could I even really sing? Wouldn’t everyone make fun of me for singing a girl’s song? The room went from warm to hot, and my eyes instinctively searched for an escape. I bolted, but she caught up to me and grabbed my arm.
“Where are you going?” she whispered angrily. I squirmed, dropped to the floor, and twisted my arm back and forth until I was free from her grip. I ran to the only safety zone I knew.Her heels click-clacked across the bathroom floor. How silly of me to think she wouldn’t enter the men’s bathroom.
“Archy? Archy?” she yelled. I raised my feet off the floor and tried to stay silent. I heard her opening each stall door. Finally, she opened my door and found me with my knees to my chest on the toilet seat. She grabbed me, but I resisted and clung to the toilet paper dispenser. However, in those days she was so much stronger. She dragged me kicking and screaming back towards the stage as a roll of toilet paper unraveled behind us. Backstage, she held me in place like a prison guard.
The emcee called my name, “And now Archy Jamjun will sing ‘The Best Love in the World’ by Whitney Houston.” I refused to move. She pushed me, and I fell face-first onto the stage. She picked me up, carried me sideways, and placed me right in front of the microphone. The audience, most of who had witnessed my trans-toddler episode four years ago, shifted uncomfortably in their seats.
I waited for the music to begin. Then I waited some more. Then I realized that for the grand occasion this was supposed to be, my mom forgot one small detail. We had no music. I was going to sing “The Greatest Love of All” a cappella.
In the audience, my sister covered her face with the program. My father looked at the ground. When I turned to look at my mother, she was smiling so hard her lower jaw vibrated. “Just sing!” she grunted.
That’s when Miss Houston saved me. Whitney came through a side door and slowly glided down the aisle. She was shimmering in that same sparkling gown from the video. She stepped onto the stage and took my hand into hers. She smelled like springtime and fresh laundry. She leaned down to whisper in my ear, “Let’s do this together.” And we did! Whitney started, of course, but I joined in. Soon, I was matching her note-for-note and gesture-for-gesture. When we were done, the audience erupted into cheers and gave us a standing ovation. My dad threw his arms up into the air, and my sister was shocked and horribly jealous. Finally, I looked to the side of the stage. I could see my mother in the corner applauding furiously, while tears welled up in her eyes. I ran to embrace her, just like Whitney did with her mom.
Maybe I never even opened my mouth. Maybe instead of singing, I ran back towards my mother and burst into tears, embracing her not with the triumph of becoming the next Whitney Houston but with the humiliation of failure. My mother carried me offstage, wiped my tears, and told me everything would be OK. “Mommy always love you,” she said.
Decades later, my mom and I still don’t see eye to eye about my life. She wishes I was a doctor/engineer/lawyer, married to a Thai woman, the father of two kids, and owner of a house in Northbrook. Instead, I’m a gay waiter with a cat named Ladyboy. I’d be naïve to think my life is what my mother envisioned for me – that as my life has unfolded, most of her dreams for me didn’t die along the way. But as she’s let go of her expectations, she’s still pushing me to do my best. “You’re working too much,” she tells me over the phone, as if bills are optional, “Make sure you take the day off when you’re doing a reading.”
“What are you writing about now?” she asks, “another story about me?”
“Of course,” I reply, “You’re everyone’s favorite character.”
“I don’t like it when you dress up as a woman,” she states with a change in tone, referring to the three times I’ve told a story in drag, “Why do you have to do that?”
“Why did you dress me up as a girl when I was four?”
“I thought it’d be funny and I knew you would win.”
“That’s the same reason I do it.”
“Well, I’m just checking. I thought maybe, inside, you want to become a woman.”
I laughed as I ended the call because while doing drag is fun, I’m quite happy with my body. However, she’s more often right than she is wrong. She was right when it mattered. Without her, I would have sung “The Fish in the Water”. The audience would have politely applauded, and I would have no memory of it. There’d be no drama, tension, or humor. My struggles would have no voice. I would not have the best love in the world.
Archy Jamjun is a storyteller and writer from Chicago where he has performed at shows such as The Stoop, This Much is True, OUTspoken!, and of course Story Club. In 2014 he won The 25th Annual Chicago’s Biggest Liar Contest and in 2015 he won The Moth Grandslam. When not writing, storytelling, or working Archy likes to eat dessert, fawn over drag queens, or just be lazy. He is currently an MFA student at Roosevelt University which published his non-fiction story “JJ” in its literary magazineOyez in the spring of 2015.