Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Count: 15,816

Perhaps he paid the price by comparison when the time came, but would involve not just himself but the entire Asian-American community on campus. Gunter was the most famous Asian American growing up, though he didn’t know it. At university, he was the famous Asian American on campus, and everyone knew.

But as troubling as elementary school was for me in my isolation, at the very least we were self-contained in classrooms under the eyes of watchful teachers, who out of their own guilt at their inability to deal with me, much less provide me with the adequate English-as-a-Second-Language on a school level which I so clearly need, do their best to shield me from any other students, and to cater to my needs. My classmates get to know me well enough to know that I am harmless, a little unfriendly at times, but mostly meek and content to furrow my brow and work on the math that I am given. As little kids, we are comfortable with the idea that others are better than us, if only in some limited ways, as we ourselves have compensatory advantages, however minor.
Middle school, however, was chaos, chaos which erased any of the gains I might have built upon after my four years in this country. Moving around in groups with individual schedules, with class periods of only forty-five minutes, with freshly pubescent classmates, except for those who were already developmentally delayed in one way or another, with teachers who were more than a little exhausted at the end of a day, having seen 150 other little children, lugging about textbooks in various subject areas from class to class, and always wondering if there was time to make it to one’s locker, or whether it would just be easier to carry everything at once. These tiny calculations were the calculations of survival, and what little one could do. There were whole other worlds outside of our reach and our control—the creeping onward of development and anatomy, and of the courtships which had to navigate the then-prudishness of middle school girls. But all this anxiety and doubt would have been all right were it not for two things: passing periods and recess after lunch.
These two were marked by the same lack of adult supervision, with the key differences of objectives and setting. Our school was overcrowded, and so many of the tensions of hyperauthoritative classroom management spilled out into the narrow hallways, where without any accepted norms for traffic, it was usually a bodily pushing melee just to get to class. In this journey one’s bookbag would often be rifled through, and so back pockets of backpacks were always being carefully watched by someone or another. Nor did the bells quite allow enough time to get from one classroom to another, and so the more diligent kids lived in constant anxiety of tardiness, tardiness which never quite materialized for the truly concerned. But so there were collisions, around corners, within hallways, outside classrooms, and also the random ones which followed me with regularity. I would rarely ever reach my next class without being bumped or thrown off balance at least once by some stranger, and it began to wear upon me, I began to expect it, though I was unsure if it was my own clumsiness, my own bad luck, or something rather more sinister.
Two other incidents stand out of the broad backdrop of humiliation my middle school years brought, leading me to believe that my uneven passages through those hallways were not merely a product of bad luck—recess, first of all, was over a large former parking lot of asphalt, with a few trees surrounded by walls of a sitable height, though usually providing minimal shade. It was to this area that we would pour out and mill about after we had eaten lunch but before the entire period had expired. It was here that I would usually sit quietly in the corner, even as the other students walked about, chatting easily with their friends, or engaging the security personnel or each other in games of “slaps.” It was a generally untended place, where we were mostly too relieved with momentary freedom to worry about anything else, even uncompleted homework for the later periods: the afternoon periods would usually breeze by by comparison. It was here that one day I was walking to a wall and tree, when suddenly, without warning, I was knocked down by someone that no one was able to see. Knocked over on my back, my head has hit the asphalt, and there is no bleeding, but it hurts, there is a bump that is rapidly swelling on the back of my head, and I try dizzily to stand up, but the wind has been knocked out of me as well, looking up I do not see black or spots or spinning or anything but the clear crisp fall sky and the barren branches of the trees, not even swaying in the wind. Lying there for a few minutes, I am prone, and the first reaction of the gathered crowd is of course to laugh, to laugh at this poor unfortunate, to release their relief that it is not themselves who is lying there, holding head in hands, and still twitching a little involuntarily. The security guards manage to disengage themselves from the students whose hands they are trying to slap before those hands can be pulled away or vice versa, and they rush over. I am whisked away unsteadily to the nurse’s office, where I am given a large packet of ice in a cloth bag, and they immediately call my mother at home. I feel just fine, except for the throbbing and insistent pain in the back of my head, which feels like something has rubbed it raw with gravel.
But the minute I figure out who the nurse is calling, my heart sinks. Now my mother will ask into what is going on at school, and I do not know how to tell her. Was this an accident? Am I once again just in the wrong place at the wrong time? Or is there something more malicious at work, now beyond mischief? My mother rushes out of the house, jumps on a city bus, and makes it to school just in time to see the school bus I am on pull away. I see her frantically chasing the bus, before finally giving up and riding another bus home. I am waiting on the doorstep for her, my head now bandaged, a rapidly more drippy bag of ice in my hands, my eyes nearly closed in concentration against the pain. My father arrives home early too, and I do not know how he has been contacted, how he has managed to leave work so early, and I am more worried about that for the moment than my own injury.
My mother makes all my favorite Asian dishes that night, and my father wipes at my head with a cold towel he replaces at every opportunity, even though I do not have a fever. Even my brother, normally so covertly hostile toward me at this point in our relationship, makes himself scarce. I find this attention somewhat comforting, but also troublesome. My parents are whispering in the kitchen, and I can barely make out what they are saying to one another, but my brother reports to me cheerily, “They think that someone hates you! Is that true?” I honestly cannot think of anyone who actually resents me, or would even form any particular opinion of me—certainly beyond a few wrecked curves on various math tests, I have done nothing that another student would notice. I express this skepticism to my brother, and he just shrugs. There is indeed no cause, and though my parents ask me in all sorts of ways, both oblique and direct in the next few weeks about how I am perceived at school, if I have different sorts of friends, whether any one hates me, if I feel comfortable, are the teachers sensitive. They ask me because they do not ask the school, as there is no proof of any intent and they too do not know how to navigate the insides of the school’s formal and informal channels.
It would be flattering to think that someone has a secret vendetta against me, that they have made an attempt on my life or my intellect, and I have managed to not only survive the attempt, but shakily return to school the next still, still master of all my faculties, still th e best little Asian boy in the school. No one actually notices, though, when I return, except some whisper and make fun of bandaged head, which they call a turban. Dallas is wearing a turban.
The only other incident that stands out particularly was the mock trial. In our civics class, we took a textbook case and were assigned various roles by our teacher. The case was something involving either aggravated assault or voluntary manslaughter or murder in the first. The teacher, deciding that I would be a sympathetic as well as innocent-looking, and capable of only playing the simplest role most clearly defined by the text scenario, assigns to me the role of the defendant. I do my best to throw myself into the role, as I know that I will actually have the time to prepare, and will not be caught off guard in the middle of the class. I do my best to try and ham it up, to try and summon tears during my final testimony, but there is nothing that I can call up that can bring those tears in public. But my testimony is just a minor part of the show that day, as there are bailiffs and objections and stenographers, and all sorts of other minor scripted theater. The jury, though, while on the way out, is heard to remark, You’re going to burn.
It does not take them long to come back from their hallway deliberations to deliver a guilty verdict. The teacher takes me aside later, apologizing to me for this breach, assuring me that American jurisprudence really does not work that way.

But these humiliations are the non-routine, the highlights of a relentless march. It always starts out small, the sort of thing you can will yourself not to notice, the snickers after you read aloud for a class, the repetition of what you’ve just said in a more singsong key, the sports teams that do not choose you, not even when you’re close to the last left, the jokes, the endless jokes which are told to you with the expectation that you will find them funny and laugh at them, the sorts of jokes which even teachers decide to tell you as early as elementary school, that Asians have such slanty eyes because every night, they pull their temples back in frustration, exclaiming, “Oh, no! Not rice again!” And those are just the preformed opinions, for I am not universally ignored. I am a walking Asian dictionary and encyclopedia, but only for the curse words which I do not know, having never heard them from my parents, much less my brother—it seems as if everyone wants to know how to secretly curse out others in a language that only I would understand. There are other functional requests as well, but no real deep curiosity into morphology. In short, the curiosity is far from benign, as there is an expectation that I perform for their entertainment, though thankfully there is so little that they know and so little that they would bother to find out and learn that I am more isolated than abused. Nor is there anything in the curriculum—American history and civics only mention the coolies, and internment, and migrant workers, and other such plagues.
But then again, there was the last year of middle school, for which I returned to Asia. This move was not, ultimately, much of an improvement.

My friend Sinclair also went to high school in Asia, if only for one year, on an exchange program. Sinclair must be the horniest Asian in the Western world. In part this is because he has the misfortune of being the most horribly ugly Asian imaginable—his skin pale enough to almost pass for white, but for his eyes which look not like slits, but as if they too are frowning, like his mouth which frowns over upper teeth which jut out at odd angles, and his small flat bridgeless upturned nose. And yet he tries, he tries with the full force of his parents’ fortune, though they have always been in Asia, and Sinclair has grown up with various aunts and relatives and in elite boarding schools. But he fails, tragically, and it is difficult to explain exactly why, though it doesn’t help that he has internalized a lasting lust for tall leggy blondes. I meet Sinclair, like I do so many of my other cronies for my university years, freshman year in my dorm. He is living in the floor above, and he is already in need of toilet paper, as the stall has run out. He comes down to our floor to borrow some, and is glad to see me. He remarks to me that it is a shame there are no hot girls in the dorm, and I remark, I’m sure there will be some in class. We introduce ourselves, and end up going to many things together with Geoffrey at first, even though Sinclair’s major is more on the biology and medicine side of things.
As we walk around those early weeks, Sinclair pours many things out, though not very quickly, and through a thin and nasal accent, mostly his opinions on the girls we walk by on a sliding scale of what he would like to do with them, though of course this scale is set rather high as a benchmark, and Sinclair has a vivid imagination all throughout, but he also catalogues for me his failures which would require a vivid imagination to even think up. I do not believe him at first, that girls can be so openly contemptuous, so mean, for even I have never quite experienced that sort of treatment—I am more likely to be ignored, though I find now at university that some girls are drawn to the nodding understanding I provide them, and the sensible advice, the more sensible, probably, given my inexperience and therefore my objectivity at the time. There is nonetheless a creeping sense that in receiving all of these grievances I am viewed as somehow rather less than fully eligible. But then again, I am not trying to objectify these women, or at least not to their faces in any disrespectful way. Sinclair’s philosophy is that one’s batting average is never that high anyway, and that any option available should be tried. Still, I am usually at a loss whenever he relates his latest failure, as there is little I can offer him in the way of comfort.
It’s odd, though, to think on my friends and to realize how many of them have ended up being Asian males. This trend is hard to explain fully, though I think that it has something to do with overcompensation my freshman year, the unconscious draw I felt toward other Asians, and their alien familiarity, and their own tendency to take me on as just another comrade. I have not really expanded far beyond my freshman circle, and so the Asian Americans tend to be rather overrepresented, from Geoffrey to Sinclair to Robyn. I also do know why these others seem to be so drawn to me, to seem to think that they can deposit their confidences with me, because while I am indeed discreet enough with their foibles, I am not the most sympathetic of listeners, though I suppose I have never turned them away completely coldly, without at least one cynical remark to bear away. And yet they confide in me, they tell me of all the little things that go wrong, and they complain—I am too considerate to be too openly rude, but I am just no help. And it is not as if these confidences are part of a symbiotic relationship, for I rarely open up to them, impose upon them my own inadequacies, confess my own minor sins and more major omissions. I act, it often seems like, just as a rock, from which they expect little but sitting and listening, and that is fine by me—it is all that I can do, and there is something of the instinctive trust that goes beyond mere brotherhood, but is something more deeply buried in the blood of it all.
It is sad, though, because my friendship with these Asianmen has led me to think that we are doomed to extinction, that we are boxed out of reproduction and that we will within just years be absorbed, or completely overwhelmed by American blood. So I am left then with few role models. I have discussed this problem many times with my friends, and they are all in denial. They do not think that they are all that badly off, they do not see the tightening noose, the options that are already closed off. Granted, the friends in my set are not the sort to try to change themselves fundamentally—they still believe that life or fate will bring them the girls they want, that or the right pick-up line, not the right physique, resume or apartment. And so Robyn has often said to me, “Is there anything more pathetic than a worked-out, butched-up Asian guy?” I dunno, what about you?
But maybe this is just bitterness, an easy blaming of others for a different situation to pin down, a certain meekness often mistaken for a lack of masculinity, but of course our ideals are different. We Asian men were the original metrosexuals, the long fingernails of the well-read literati, the wardrobe carefully dictated by tradition and layers of signification (though I suppose the pleated pants are an exception), extreme attention to hygiene certainly outclassing the European analogue for centuries at least, and emphasis on the pleasures and treasures of the studio rather than the musty odors of recreational contact sport. For centuries, the model Asian man was the scholar, the melancholy wine-drinker who gazes too much at the moon, but is philosophically tranquil in his ability to kill upon demand, fearing not death and not succumbing to the many-fold denials of butching up, for that is the work of the farmers, the peasants who eat their tea leaves after drinking their tea. The odd thing is that these values are largely missing in most American-born Asians I know—they do not strive for a life more meditative or contemplative or even more useful—they seek a more mercenary aim, seeing patronage not as a means for support for one’s art and self, as the point, but rather patronage as the point, the end itself. The great Asian poets needed no degrees and attended no schools—study was enough, but this apprentice model has since been lost, and we seek not masters nor then disciples, and there is a vast impatience—public life once began at 40, and now we rush our sons and daughters so that they are expected to be ready to serve, to decide, to manage by their mid-twenties, and all the while we live longer.
But I am also not crediting the jumble that the jungle of university brings. My parents, for instance, still act as if they are growing up in the same hermetic communities as when they were young, where every move is telegraphed to an attentive audience of relatives, half-relatives, allies, and rivals, where the history of any person or family has a real weight and extension into the past. It was in that context that such fundamental concepts as shame fully captured a normative, inescapable feature of everyday life. And these are the impulses which even make sense for my friends as they were growing up, under the scrutiny of the other Asian parents, with numerous other meter sticks against which they can be compared, are much more difficult to justify in a community of thousands from across the country, from divergent strands of Asianness, many of them no doubt heterodox, like mine. What happens when no one is watching? When your grades are just your business, and your disgraces are unheeded, just the expected minor burps on the way to growing up? And then of course I can only further pity my parents, for they had barely any friends in the neighborhoods where we lived, as we were growing up, and so they had two sons they poured all their surplus energy into making braggable, but had no one to brag to, no one to actually compare. And when our shame became unmoored from our communities, when our shame became not a correction by the community to ensure a smooth functioning, we ran directly into the corresponding Occidental notion—guilt. Our faces never burned in public, we rarely felt like we had let anyone else down, we focused just on ourselves, taking each failure, self-contained though it may be, as a fatal flaw in ourselves, some inability to be successful without an asterisk, to merely achieve something without acquiring the epithet, “the first Asian American to…” We could not be ourselves, for we were always representing some one else, and yet we blamed ourselves for not doing this well enough, for not catching up with the carrot dangling in front our noses, for still leaping at every tiny jerk of the string.
But I have tried too much to articulate what cannot be related, what cannot be pinned down in any sensible way—often the uneasiness a young Asian feels is not even identifiable as guilt. It is an anxiety which I can read on the faces of my friends, which is sometimes too deep to be identified as even anxiety, it is a hesitation when the reaction should be immediate, the habitual pause, a looking about at others’ plates when one’s is already far too full. This is an itchiness, an eczema of the self, which never goes away, and gets the worse for scratching. It is the only response left when even Orwell says that Eastasia lives under the spell of “Death-Worship” the obliteration of the self, and the merging with the dictates of society at large. It is this formlessness which one must learn to cultivate, a filtration of oneself past any particular quirks, leaving only achievements, though also at the same time one’s special talents, one’s artistic pursuits, if applicable, toward abstract painting, activism, and other such liberal pastimes. Self-reflection is for mirrors, and yet self-criticism is free, so long as it is not heeded. One is turned inside out by the pressures, as we too easily forget that an atm is quite a lot of pressure, enough to crush a metal gasoline can if one’s insides are just a vacuum. Equilibrium, then, is the best that can manage from day to day, and yet the perturbation come in a ceaseless march—we are thin-skinned enough to be dinted constantly, to take any affront personally, to seek out causes to which to adhere, for there to solidarity, somehow, in the face of these peltings. And yet we do not learn to give, to sway and to keep our center pointing down, rooted despite where we are blown in extremity. We live as guerillas against ourselves, the uncaught saboteurs, tapping our own noses but not seeing the signal, nor getting the hint. We lie. We lie mostly to ourselves, in making compromises, saying that we do not truly believe in that which we are doing—it is a means to an end, it is something which will take just a few years, and then—then my rich life, rich in the inner ways of course having the fulfillments that we would truly want, will truly begin.
No, we lie. We lie because we think it will help us get laid, but of course it does not. We are skeptical of our butched-up cousins, who lifted themselves out of 98-pound weaklingness into the buff, because we are jealous of them, even while we know that it will do them no good, and we resent them for failing, for they can still go places where we cannot, they still have more of a plan and determination than we can commit themselves to, so scared we are of falling behind from where we already are. We dread the notion of losing any ground, and yet we take for granted the suffering that led us here—we lack a sense of history, we are unmoored from starting out, as we live in the trappings of upper-class privilege, but with none of the invisible perks. We are junior partners from the Asia office, we do not yet have our own office, and that is the only goal that we can see. We plan for families because we instinctively know that our only hope is the long-run, our only hope is to land the family builders, the chunky girls who need to feel safe.
But I have overstepped—I have overspoken, for it is hard enough to speak for oneself, and here I claim to speak for others, united though we may be in outward aspect and inward bents, when I have no real insight into the heads of my Asian brothers born here, or raised, here or otherwise confused about how others view them. Ultimately what we share is not any particular set of beliefs, practices, views, but rather just the same perceptive footprints, the same residue if at all in the eyes of others—the only thing we share is the role that we play, or the roles, and that’s all that they are, and still I feel that that is all that some of us have. And yet this is enough to extrapolate, for I can see, I can see this new malaise that threatens to grip me as well, and in which my friends are already in the deepest throes.
And I am bitter. This bias I should admit right away, though it is hardly anything I could have done. I am bitter at the role assigned to me, the corner into which I have been painted. And it was not always thus—even freshman year I was skeptical at arm’s length, a bit suspicious, a little withdrawn, somewhat anxious, and so on. I was off-balance, wobbly, but had not yet tipped.
No, there was still hope for me yet then, and even the disappointment of losing Geoffrey to the onward march of the larger Asian student community was not what fazed me. I saw this move to university as another fresh chance, the fourth or fifth chance I could start anew with no history, and let only myself shine through. And I was almost right.

Cyrena I met in one of my non-major classes, a generalist’s class in Asian history from the prehistoric era to the Middle Ages. We did not sit next to each other at first, in that lecture hall of hundreds, crowded deep, shiny faces both Asian and white, and at first we even spilled out of the doors, all gathered round to hear the professor give his broad overview of two thousand years and billions of person-years of Asian history, both the grand stories of rulers and poets and the more prosaic lives of the ordinary citizens who have comprised nearly 40% of the totality of human experience. I take it my freshman year in part because I flatter myself, I flatter myself that I can live in the role of a debunker, an resident expert and arbiter of disputes. But of course I am off—I realize quickly that either the professor is making everything up, or I have not learned a thing through all my youth about the history of Asia that amounts to anything. And so I had to learn such things as how a white horse is not a horse, how one must preserve one’s precious male essence in that spot equidistant between navel and one’s manly way, how emptiness was the point of form, how the filial son shrinks not at tasting his father’s fecal output, and that sex hormones come from (human) urine. In frantically taking these notes, though, it was difficult to stay focused, with all the temptations all around, for without putting too fine a point on it, this time was the first time I was surrounded, not since Cindy all those years ago in grade school, the first time I was surrounded by non-maternal Asian females, and it would somehow drive me crazy.
But when the time came for recitation section, in which some abstract-flying Orientalist or some mumbling native Asian, confuses and demands arbitrary performances from a small, more concentrated group of students at each time. I had the fortune to be in the same recitation as Cyrena, as well as Geoffrey, as well as Sinclair, and Robyn. It was a small but fluctuating group of around twelve, all told, many of them fading into memory, as the only expectation was that they pipe up at some point, whether with a set speech or some other contribution, which would be duly not noted in the section leader’s notebook. Our classes here were rehashes of the main themes, and “close-readings” of texts translated decades ago into English from the original Asian by the anonymous graduate student ghost-translators at the Open Door Institutes with direct pipelines into the since-fallen dynasties which had then ruled over Asia. My preparation was minimal for these sessions, but of course attendance was at least sporadically noticed, especially around paper time. It was for the second paper, which was on the modern interpretations and Western visions of some great Asian hero, that I was paired up with Cyrena in a peer-edit team.
Cyrena was never any great beauty, and she had about her not the brassy larger-than-lifeness which some of her sisters possess, of a bit too much enthusiasm, but rather was somewhat more withdrawn, and a little shy. She had a bookish look about her, and managed to do well in most of her classes mostly through diligence and an unflagging love of the abstract heights and simultaneous depths which philosophy and the great theoretical authors provided her. She managed the most detailed exegesis imaginable without an ounce of poetry or actual insight. She did what was on the strength of sheer will and determination alone. I doubt that we would have ever exchanged two words outside of the stilted scriptedness “Well, Dallas, what do you think about what Cyrena has just said?” of recitation, were it not for our arranged partnership on our second papers, which we had chosen to write on two different heroes for Asian history. I chose the great legendary emperor who in his quest to stem the floods that had plagued his country without end worked ceaselessly for his entire reign, not even stopping by to visit his parents and family in his childhood home when his public works led him past that way. Cyrena chose the famous poet-recluse from a lateral dynasty, who left the world of officialdom to live a life among the geese and goats in the wilderness between two famous mountains, writing poems in the sand on the lakeshore with a willow twig, and then wiping away his words with his silken sleeve or allowing the wind to carry his words across many leagues, like the feather of an exiled swan.
We meet the first time in the student commons, and I do not feel nervous, even though I am rather unaccustomed to being around Asian girls my own age. I get there first, of course, and am flipping through my first draft, checking the citation format when she comes, and sits down next to me, “Hi, Dallas! How is your paper?” Okay, I guess. What about you? “Oh, just fine. I guess maybe we should talk about any concerns we have and then maybe read each other’s work?” Sure, I shrug, that sounds pretty good. “Well, in thinking about the poet, I want to really examine the bucolic pull in his work, the tension that he feels at having been forced out of his commission by the political winds of the day as counterbalanced by the tranquility and purpose he nonetheless is immersed in when he lives in his humble hut, calligraphing by day, drinking and looking at the moon in sadness and loneliness at night, which is still somehow a purposeful loneliness, predicated on a Derridean notion of absence, which while masturbatory in its power and force, is still miraculously generative. Somehow then I want to envision his corpus as a sort of bank of seeds of ideas, germs for future growth, a return to bountifulness in spite of the barrenness of the personal and political landscapes.”
I see. Have you ever been on a farm? “No.” What about the forest? “Not really, no, but when my poet describes it the way that he does, it comes alive with a vividness which surpasses mere lived experience, and in that textuality there is a texture which makes it its own constructed hermetic object, or rather solar system of objects, its own sign in its own semiotic system, born of nothing, which is after all how an outsider might actually think of the wilderness, upon first encountering it.” What about when he gets drunk? “Well, then he is just channeling the Dionysiac spirits which allow him to see the inter-significations of his signifiers, and I am thinking of one poem in particular when he always touches the signified itself.” Isn’t Dionysius Greek? “Well, the idea is the same—the sages all were drunk on wine or quicksilver or their various other elixirs.” Oh. Have you ever been drunk? “No, but the way that my poet writes when he writes while drunk, and I mean also the calligraphic texts lets the light shine through more than enough.” Hrm. So what’s your question? “Well, right now I’m more concerned with the intertextual possibilities his corpus opens up, the cross-fertilization possible, both backwards and forwards in time. What about you?”
Well, with my emperor, it’s the notion of duty over power. As emperor, he does not need to directly do anything, with his own hands—all Asia and all Asians serve him, and so he would need only to turn his hand and the dam would be made. Yet he is there every day for decades, not just supervising every step of the way, constantly innovating, and encouraging, but putting himself on the line with all the workers, heaving the great clumps of earth in defiance of the raging will of rivers themselves. This duty is even one which outweighs family, another tension which I think torments the Asian to this day. “So what’s your question?” It’s just an observation, it’s a matter too of looking at whether this stereotype of the career-man who neglects family carries through the present day.
She nods, and tries to inject some semiotics into what I am saying, but I resist her efforts. We read each other’s papers in silence, and offer minimal advice. I leave the commons and go back to my room to tap away at the paper some more. Cyrena has impressed me, not because she seems like she really knows what she is talking about, but because she does not. She seems somehow helpless and naïve, untrained in the intricacies of the Asian domestic arts, which even I have managed to pick up from my mother, at least in part, and just by watching. Part of me wants to shield her, and though we are quite unsuccessful when she tries to communicate her big blobular ideas to me, we get along just fine in more casual pursuits. Around her I am disarming in my listening ways, and I absorb her many-fold anxieties, which she pours out hesitantly at first, but with gathering speed as I show my willingness to at least nod. We begin to save seats for each other in the lecture hall, depending on who arrives first, almost always I am there, waiting, fending off others eyeing the prime seat I have staked out, ready to write notes on her notes, or to nudge her slightly when there is some obvious goof-up or faux pas the professor has made, even as he barrels onward, oblivious to the giggles and derision of those who know just a little better. Our papers pass muster, though hers is graded higher mostly out of the intimidation factor of the range of her vocabularies, and her analytical techniques, so advanced for a mere freshman. We fall into the habit of studying together, as she has a tendency for grant overarching theories and structures in which to place everything, and I tend to be good with facts and relations between specifics. This combinations works out well for us, and we continue to work in this way, together. It is not very grueling work, as it is just hardly even a departmental course, and so there is plenty of time for soda, and joking, and other forms of organized idleness. She enjoys the attention, I think, and our sessions sometimes go longer than they need to, as we obsessively pretend to feverishly look up facts we already half-know.
As freshman year turned from fall to spring, we have fallen into a very casual and friendly pattern, and we are comfortable with each other, and she does not feel alien, it feels like she and I are reading from the same book, and indeed we often do, and it seems like despite the veneer of continental philosophy she has slathered on top of herself, that she can actually understand what it is to be Asian, Asian in America, that she has kept some part of herself, while needing also the approval, the romantic approval she has never quite received, for though she can neither cook nor clean, the prudery has seeped through, and completely soaked her. And it is not as if I have many models to go by at this point. My secondary school years did not provide many models to which I could hope to aspire, not being athletic in a beefy way or landed generations back, in good American soil or other capital. And was I to look to my parents? Their courtship was a mystery of state, an axiom in my deductive system, and just as taken for granted. There was not much in the way of television romance, either, between my parents, their match was something that only made sense to them, and which was plucked out of the context of common history, common goals, and a common language, to say nothing of a conventionalized set of mores, and peers whom they could ask for advice in matters of the heart and genetic propagation, for surely my brother and I were premeditated, long long ago. When I was younger I took their silences to be an absence, something missing which I wondered at the few times I saw the public displays of affection my classmates received from their parents at open school nights, and the other signs other parents exchanged each other, much less the school-bound hanky-panky I could not seem to escape. But now I take it to be a fullness, expectation and small acts already fulfilled without need of redundant narration or other expository captions: the declarations were in every movement; only a Westerner would need to think of and define chivalry, the only reins that one could put on the runaway horse of bloodlusty professional warriors, and for the rest, there was always prima noctis.

Sunday, November 07, 2004

Count: 9,092

I am invited to this session for all the help I have given Cindy in the past month. They have brought their folding fans of delicate paper, their brushes of various sizes, their shiny squares of crisp paper for folding, their bright and cheerful water colors of deadly animals. All the paraphernalia of Asianness is assembled here, and they animatedly explain to the class in well-rehearsed English the main points of Asian culture and arts, the vast history that lies beyond every stroke, the themes that run through all the representational art, the care and craft and lengthy apprenticeship for every trade. The level of purpleness in their set speech is well beyond what my classmates can handle, and likely their parents too. I am somewhat unsurprised that their Asian museum and arts workshop has floundered in this community.
When they are done with their prepared presentation, they take questions. “Can you fold a cow out of that paper?” “What about a duck?” “How do you write ‘cool’?” “What does ‘ching-chong-mak-a-haya’ mean?” “How many years does it take to make Hello Kitty?” That done, they turn to me, and address me in Asian, “For thy service to our daughter, we would our humblest thanks to you give.” I do not know quite what to say, as these are two adults, Asian, a paired couple, neither disapproving nor expectant, only grateful. I nod gravely and say in my best Asian, Oh, nothing. They go on, saying what a shame it is that they will not have a chance to meet my parents and invite them over for a dinner and a night of Asian card games. I smile, but try to save my words for Cindy. Fare thee well, I say. She only smiles, but when her parents turn away to pack away their Asian crafts, she hops in and kisses me on the cheek goodbye.

My brother and I are relatively bright, though he is not as close to my parents and their expectations, either in listening or in fulfilling. I cannot pinpoint the moment exactly when I am taken to be some sort of mathematical prodigy, and it is difficult to explain why anyone would think so, but I suspect that of all the subjects accessible to us in elementary school, it is only on that math that my parents can continue their insistent pushing, with bonus lessons every weekend. So I soon become a member of the math club, which involves trips to the bank, and watching Donald Duck. Nor can I really separate this idea of mathematical ability and Asianess in my head, though my brother is of course not as skilled as I am. There is a silent expectation on me in this regard, and already my abilities are taken for granted, though surely there are plenty of other kids who watch Square One TV, and who still don’t get the Dragnet references of Mathnet. It is thus often difficult to take compliments. Like most children, I am exceedingly responsive to expectations, and so the more they think of me as interested in math, as a mathematical prodigy, the more I am quietly or publicly encouraged, the more I step into my role, even though I am indifferent and go so far as to think that a divisibility rule for three generalizes to a divisibility rule for any divisor, and my parents cannot provide any explanation beyond counterexample and example for why three is such a special number—and for that matter nine. In this way, mathematics became magic, in whose mysteries I was initiated, the same hocus pocus of incantatory power beyond comprehension or rational explanation.
And that, of course, was only from my point of view. My classmates and even other teachers, though those moments were more difficult to identify, knew nothing of the hard work and study that it took to become a miniature font of mathematical trivia and tricks. It was never clear to me how much of that reputation I held, that reputation which led a classmate to complete the proverb, “Half a loaf…” with “Half a loaf of Dallas’ brain is more than enough for me.,” I held because I deserved it, and how much I held because of the absorbed notions of Asians that community with no Asians had. It is difficult especially because I had no awareness of any mention of Asians in popular culture in those years, beyond the brief reign of All-American Girl. The only other touches I can remember were kung-fu epics shown on Samurai Sunday, and the broad ethnic and national diversity shown through Street Fighter.

University, then, was when I first met other Asians, like my roommate Geoffrey and the rest of the motley crew, a chop suey of Asian male variety. Most of them, however, had grown up with other Asians, whether in the suburbs of California, or some other such community where if there was not some Little Asia or Asia town, then there were at least other Asians around, other Asian kids for their Asian parents to compare their Asian sons and Asian daughters to in terms of various metrics, so long as there was one in which improvement could yet be made. The only notable exception among my acquaintances was Gung-De, though he always went by his American-given name of Gunter. This name was given to him by his adoptive parents, who had discovered him in one of the last untamed Asian jungles.
Gunter’s biological parents were villagers in a small hamlet in the wild Asian jungle. They and their neighbors had been relatively unaffected by the various eruptions of wars which had otherwise ravaged the countryside, the victims of machetes, defoliants, machineguns, bayonets, hand grenades, handguns, artillery shells, napalm, starvation, interrogation, torture, bamboo beatings, large rocks, seals, rocket-propelled grenades, air strikes, atom bombs, plague, disease, malaise, dysentery, cholera, malaria, jungle fever, rape, expert neck-cracking, sadism, bestialization, despair, swift boats, death marches, captivity, neglect, shrapnel, fire, helicopter rotor blades, ninja throwing stars, arbalests, turtle ships, spears, arrows, beri beri.
Gunter’s adoptive parents were wandering missionary-anthropologists going where no one had ever gone before, where they happened upon a village. They had arrived just in time, for the entire population had seemingly just died of a mysterious plague, all except for Gung-De, who was found emaciated and close to death, though still in swaddling clothes in the back corner of a small hut made of pressed earth. His parents had only recently succumbed to the disease, though he bore no signs of it. Around his neck was a note, which read, “Pray you keep our son Gung-De” scrawled barely legibly in an obscure dialect of Asian which only anthropologists and now-extinct Asians could read. The wandering anthropologists, having no son of their own, took pity on this poor lad, and so did their best to nurse him back to health. Being missionaries of a progressive bent, and not knowing the funereal practices of these poor unshriven souls of this anonymous hamlet, and not wishing them to condemn them to some Asian hell for being buried, were that not their custom, Gunter’s new parents left them in the hands of their pagan gods, and the pagan insects which would eventually pick the flesh clean. The only exception was Gunter’s parents, whom Gunter’s parents decided it would be best to boil on the spot, so as to preserve their skeletons for a museum exhibition on the lost tribes of Asia. Luckily, the village had been untouched by any of the many mishaps which would damage those skeletons.
And so Gunter made his way gurgling across the rest of uncivilized Asia on the backs of his anthropologist parents, who eventually bore him back to the United States, where he would be raised in a suburb, much like most of his contemporaries, with four white sisters, unlike most of his contemporaries. It is tempting, then, to compare his plight to mine, for we both were rather singular Asians growing up in our separate communities of ethnic diversity, if only by virtue of our very selves, though I suppose I had my brother as my shadow. But the differences really do separate us—as the oldest, I had to set and example for my brother, and defend him against the assaults of others, whereas Gunter had four sisters—two older, two younger—and so he had someone to defend him on the school-yard should someone throw taunts at him. That, however, rarely seemed to happen, if only because the whispers traveled fast around the small upstate backwater town in which Gunter grew up, and pretty soon everyone knew what Gunter’s tragic story was, and his teachers were always especially sensitive around the time of Halloween, diverting his attention from some of the more macabre symbols of that holiday. His sisters were always on the watch for something that never happened. Gunter was shielded from the usual assaults, and though sometimes a few newcomers to the school and the town would begin to make some remark, they would be stopped by a vigilant townsperson who would quickly inform the newcomer of the Asian orphan’s misfortune and luck. Too young to have remembered anything he could later express about his parents or his origins, he grew up speaking perfect English as his native tongue, with only a touch of his father’s British accent. It would not be until later on that he discovered his Asianness, but that was not until sophomore year.
For me, it was much more difficult. My parents had much to teach me—how to sit, how to stand, how to my treat elders, how to speak Asian, how to study, how to divide by two-digit numbers, how to hold eating-sticks, how to set a good example for my brother, how to read Asian, how to celebrate the new year, how to put away my toys, how to help make dinner and clean up afterwards, how to write Asian, how to save money, how to yell, how to go back on my word, how to conveniently forget, how to smile in the face of insult, how to continue, how to hold my tongue, how to wait until everyone had fallen asleep, or seemed to—but they could never teach me how to be an Asian, much less a solitary, representative Asian in America—because they themselves never knew how. Gunter’s parents might have been more qualified at that task, as they were tenured, after all, but somehow they managed to have Gunter escape that entire issue, at least while he was growing up.

Saturday, November 06, 2004

Count: 7,332

The linguistic shift is slow, but I do not lose my Asian, as my brother does. I still nod, and can respond, though we both roll our eyes into the backs of our heads when our mother brings out the writing pad and the carefully preserved Asian primers for their own childhoods, and we are drilled, bribed, cajoled, threatened, and ambushed daily with these studies which are supposed to help us maintain our Asianness in the face of all these new demands. My brother is increasingly lost, and he and I soon babble to each other in English, especially when there is some secret we want to keep from our parents. Our English is the standardized American English of television at first, and then my English of the classroom, so different from my mother’s, which is rooted in the same television as ours but through a thicker veil and an older tongue, and a different set of priorities and uses. Because my brother is still at home, she stays at home too, though as my brother goes to school more and more, she returns to her career as a schoolteacher, though she must make babysteps as she is only now mastering the language, and is still uncomfortable in her own skin.
All throughout my elementary school years, four years all told, there are no other Asians of any sort in my school, except for my brother, with the exception of the visiting Asian girl when I was in the fifth grade. I remember meeting her because I was in class on that first day, doing my best not to be noticed more than I had to while trying to size up this new teacher of mine, when the assistant principal, a sockless beloafered and mustachioed dandy of a man, walks in and says to my teacher, “Hello, do you mind if I borrow Dallas for a while?” And in the hallway he is very clear, “Hello, Dallas, how are you? I was wondering if you had a minute to come help me out a little bit. We have a student who just arrived to this country from Asia. I was hoping you could help us translate a little bit.” I nod, gravely, too young to feel anything but proud at being so helpful, useful, and unique. We walk the rest of the way in silence, as he has run out of things to say to me, and I am also too young to fully wonder how it is that they got a hold of my records, though I suppose it would not be very difficult. I have a reputation already of being very polite and very accomplished at mathematics, and it is difficult to know now looking back if that reputation is mostly because I was so relatively skilled at the time, or whether it is just because they are in awe of my Asianness. I have already become an ambassador and an interpreter all-in-one.
We enter the third grade class and the teacher is there, brightly dressed and addressing the class, which seems to my young eyes degenerate even from my time two years ago, if not picking noses then on each other. The Asian girl in question is in the corner. She is dressed, surprisingly, not in some peasant braided-knot-in-lieu-of-button garb, but rather the somewhat cheap and certainly pastely-checked ginghamy frock/smocks of Asian youth marooned in America. She is sitting in the corner with a dazed confused look, as if she wishes she could withdraw completely into herself, her lips slightly open, and her crooked teeth a little showing, eyes vacant and staring at a wall. The teacher pauses, theatrically, and gives the class some minor task to accomplish while I am led over to the corner with the assistant principal and the Asian girl. The Asian girl perks up slightly, but is still too shy to speak. The teacher begins, speaking to me slowly, “I hope that you will be able to translate for us, in both directions,” gesturing left and right with her hands. “OK, I’d like to ask you to welcome her to our class, and to let her know that she is most welcome. Can you say that?” I am somewhat offended that the teacher would not think that I could do so simple a task, and turn to the girl, who seems just the least bit curious about me. Teacher welcome you class. The girl regards me strangely, cocking her head slightly before responding, How strange it is you talk! Whence thou thy Asian learnt?
I am understandably taken aback, so much so that even the assistant principal and the teacher notice. The assistant principal concernedly asks, “Oh, does she speak a different dialect of Asian?” I am embarrassed. I mutter in English, Yes, but I think we can understand each other. I feel hamfisted, a bumpkin or buffoon next to her, but need to hide my embarrassment well enough at least to maintain face in the faces of the adults there. I realize that I still have not answered her question. I turn to her, I in this country little more three year. “Ah, but thy family from Asia stemmed? Well it be you still your Asian speak!” I pretend that this is just some pleasantry not some sideways compliment and turn to the teacher again, “Please also tell her that she is most welcome, and if she has any questions she should just ask.” She say you have question you ask. The girl smiles at me while glancing at the two adults who are so expectantly watching her: “Didst these grown-adults also for thee when thou camest this special treatment provide?” No, not many Asians here. “And doth this school to you much pleasure give?” School okay.
I look at the adults confusedly, unsure what else it is that I can accomplish here—am I to accompany her and translate all throughout? Did they have any important messages for me to convey? For if not that, it is unclear to me even then what I could accomplish beyond chit-chat. But I am patient, and so I wait for further prompts. The assistant principal: “Please tell her we understand that it must very difficult for her, having come so recently to this country with so little English, but that as long as she always tries her best and is patient and determined in learning English and her other subjects, she will do just fine.” I take a breath, he say so hard you come this nation-home, speaking so little English, but you try best and keep try and no give up then you learn English and every any thing, you so fine. “Thank you. And finally, we would like to ask you to be her special friend. We know it wasn’t easy for you to come to our school right away, but now that you have adjusted, maybe you can help her make a smoother transition into this school and this country.” He want me help you when have question, I say, though it is news to me that I have adjusted. I smile at the girl once more and the teacher says, “One last thing. How exactly am I to pronounce her name?” Before I even get to ask this question, the girl proudly proclaims, “Cindy!”
I leave the room escorted by the again-silent assistant principal, who thanks me once again as I arrive back to my classroom. It is difficult for me the rest of the day to completely follow what the teacher is saying, as she already tends to be the hysterical excitable sort, full of hand-waving energy and enthusiasm for gluing together tongue depressors. Cindy, I think to myself, that’s a nice name. And already in my preprepubescence I have developed a crush for her. It is hard to know why, as the gap between our levels of communication is indeed still vast, but looking back I think it is because I instinctively feel that I can actually protect her, shield her from the stares and daily misunderstandings of life as perpetual foreigner, staying with her manage somehow to speak and not be understood by anyone else to have my secrets in Asian for once, rather than the English confidences I share with my brother, conspiratorial in our crypto-utterances. But I think that for once I have found a friend acceptable to my parents, a girl that I could one day bring home, and I am curious about her as a result. I feel the weight of expectation—that we could and should and ought to be friends, somehow—as well, and it is not long before the others in my class, having discovered my connection with this girl, begin to chant, “Dallas likes Cindy!” “Dallas has a girlfriend!” “Dallas wants to take Cindy to the Asian opera!” Publicly, I act outraged and deny this allegation heatedly, which has the desired effect of just intensifying the speculation.
Strangely enough, I seldom see her, as we have different recesses and I tend to be walked to school by my mother still, on her way to her school. Only once in a while if I linger at the school entrance for a while do I see her when she is walking out with her class, already with some other friends who share her love of Hello Kitty and with whom she giggles a little uncomprehendingly but still out of good and genuine fun. On these occasions when I see her, I clam up again, and sometimes I even walk up to her and say hello. If she smiles or pauses to say, “Hello, Dallas,” I wait for her to walk by before running all the way home in energetic glee and anticipation. I begin to imagine whole conversations with her, in both Asian, and in the English I will teach her patiently, in the way no one has bothered to teach me.

A month later, I meet her parents. It turns out that they are visiting artists who have been on tour with an Asian arts company, but now that company is going out of business and so they will have to leave the country for Asia again, having lost their work visas. They have come to the school to take her away, but also to provide her class with a farewell lesson in the Asian arts.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Count: 5,595

This argument is not our first. Geoffrey and I have not quite seen eye to eye for some time. He started as a biochemistry major and a pre-med student when we first lived together freshman year, but after a few semesters where he was pulling B’s, he pulled out and ended up in the Social Studies concentration, to the continued lamentations of his parents but a much more respectable GPA. He has since been at the head of the movement which has been pushing for the University to start an Asian American Studies department. And so he is steeped for more than three to five minutes in the language of agitation and sensitivity and education and coalitions and action through consumption. And of course he leads the protests in general. For the past three springs, there has always been some outrage visited upon the Asian American community, some continuing racism in the media, whether John McCain wishing that he could revenge himself upon his captor Asiatics or some Asiaman row or an untoward T-shirt courting outcry or some other movie starring Tom Cruise as an Asian warrior, there is always something round which to rally the troops in one boycott or march or drive or another.
But he still hasn’t learned—he still hasn’t learned that he isn’t going to get anywhere with me. Sometimes I wonder if he oughtn’t have spent somewhat more time in his training at Asian agitation, as when it succeeds it is mostly self-inflicted.

And yet, things went well enough on move-in day. Our Asian parents delivered us and more goods than necessary to stock a small restaurant or a laundromat, chided us to stay within our bounds and our dorms, and to study hard, depositing us in the hope that our interest would compound, without any option for early withdrawal. There is still a picture of Geoffrey and me, in shorts too short and socks too hitched high, bowlcuts shiny over the tops of bebanged foreheads framed by Asian-strongman classes, smiling in hopefulness, and in anticipation for the parents to leave and the freedom to open up and to begin, for classes to be chosen, for clothes to be put away, and for friends or beds to be made. Even the room had had a sawdust freshness about it, virgin mattresses yet untouched and unsullied, and the light streaming in from the casement windows still a sheet of undappledness on the floor. There was then a ray of hope, that somehow just by leaving our houses and the watchful eyes of our parents and our home communities that somehow we would free ourselves, free ourselves of the dense expectations we bore everywhere with us. I regarded Geoffrey then as quite the odd beast, this non-brother whom others might mistake still for my brother, as some reflection of myself, and perhaps a friend who could somehow understand me, without the weight that accompanies being an older brother, with no measuring up, just side-by-side.
And we started well enough, in the customary fashion, in which Freshman week is parleyed into various forms of computer-bound idleness, and in which the meetings with advisors and with upperclassmen mentors become a blur between jaunts in the small town slowly being swallowed by an expanding and gentrifying University, an amoeba with coffeeshop pseudopods. We ate meals together in the dining hall, and we stayed late just talking and eating swirly bi-flavored soft-serve with the other subsequently misplaced freshman dormmates. We talked about science fiction and exploration and television, and the futures that only time could tell, our ambitions to make it and serve mankind along the way, to win fame and honor. We played basketball with the guys across the hall and were improving steadily despite our lack of a dunk—our shooting was enough to close the gap. There was, in those days, if not yet a sense of friendship, then at least a sense of default loyalty and ease, a faint nostalgia for the activities of idle youth now apart from the nightly home-bound lesson in reading and writing Asian and Asian wisdoms. But those were the days before the work piled on and we actually began to discuss each other more closely, in looking at how we held our Asiannesses to ourselves, in how it was always lurking but was left unaddressed, a point of assumed comfort and common ground which would not explode for months. I guess I was also blinded. I was blinded then to the possibility offered by this other friend for an untroubled friendship, unburdened by the weight of the past, unburdened by the usual lack—the lack of parallel childhoods and memories to return to, while convinced of the commensurability of strangers who have not yet fully introduced themselves. A fresh start, a fresh Asian. I do not think I thought these things in quite this form, but they do seem to fit better as I look back.
But that was of course naïve, for Geoffrey had plenty of his Asian American friends from home, and as the Asian American Association began to kick off its events for the start of the year, he began to draw away, to spend more time with his older friends, and hang about the aspects of home that must have been so comforting and so instinctively necessary when one suddenly realizes that someone will have to be in the bottom quartile, and to have a role and a fit, pre-made and ready-to-go without much further exploration are the things that seemed to matter more. Perhaps it was just an unreflective reflexive withdrawal from rejection, while having no piece of home to hang on when first moving here, and with our schedules we saw less and less, as he began to sleep more and more, and I began to sleep less and less. We grew distant, but comfortable and disjoint enough to sign up for another year of rooming, and it was not until the spring of our first year that the first Asian political eruption on campus polarized the Asian American community, of which I suppose some would class me as a member.

My earliest memory of this country are of my brother in the first apartment we lived in when we moved here, a tiny walk-up many stories up a worn-out building populated mostly by older residents who are too stubborn to move out unless it is out to shuffle the hallway clean in tattered slippers, an ark of retired immigrants from Asia Minor and other such vaguely ethnic places bearing gifts on missions of reconnaissance and furniture surveillance. They rarely make it into our living room though, as we are trained, almost as if my instinct, to pretend we are not home, or that we young boys are napping so that they ought not disturb, and so my brother and I are able to watch our educational programming in relative peace, beyond the periodic interruptions and interrogations from our mother in Asian. We have arrived in summer, and so there is no school yet, and I am relieved at the vacation, though missing my friends of whom I now remember only syllables.
“Turtle,” my brother says, and I am confused. I have never heard such a word like that in Asian, and do not know what he means. My mother tells me later that I am diligent, looking at the Asian picture books with Asian stories intently, even as the television is on, glancing up only at the loud crashes or noises before returning to my pretend studies, for at this point I doubt that I can actually read Asian as fluently as that. I turn to him, and ask, What? in Asian, What did you say? “Turtle” there, he says again, pointing at the screen at the cartoon. I am puzzled still, and my mother is at loss to explain as well. But Raphael, wielding his sai, continues wisecracking cynically, twirling them with ease and unconcern. My brother, whom I knew growing up just as little brother—only my mother or father would call him by his name, Distant River, without ever calling him by his American name Antonio, which was chosen, I think out of my father’s obsession with an Asian-subtitled version of El Mariachi he brought back from one of his trips to Little Asia in California, would continue to puzzle all of us in this way, and it was sometimes unclear where he was getting these words, though by the time he entered school a year later, his Asian was only good enough to be scolded in.

My mother stands behind me on the my first day of school, not wanting to leave me behind, even though I am already eight, bowing for want of anything substantial to say to my teacher, a tall older white woman still rather thin both at her waist and her hair. When she speaks to me, she does so very clearly, nodding slowly when she means yes, shaking her head slowly and wagging her finger slowly when she means no. She is very patient with me and shows introduces me to the rest of the class of second graders who have been together since kindergarten, and asks if they have any questions. Unfortunately, I do not understand a word, but they expect me to say something, so I say “Turtle” which apparently disgusts and amuses them. My teacher gives me some crayons to draw with and a sheet of sums to do, which I complete very quickly. The other students show some curiosity toward me, and some approach me during quiet book time, but though I accept their books, there is little that I can do with them beside continue to pretend. The first day is so novel that it is not traumatic—I will not list here the differences, but I am disoriented enough to be mostly confused but too present to be anxious. My classmates’ curiosity eventually dies down as they discover that I am not good at speaking with them, and am very little fun, having little skill at the odd games of tee-ball and kick ball that they play during recess. I am pretty much left alone, as my teacher, adopted of Asian war-orphans as she would one day become, though caring, can do little to communicate with me, and there is no one else in the school who speaks Asian.
I grow alternately more sullen and more animated at home, as my mother is waiting for me outside the school entrance well before dismissal everyday, and wants a full report everyday, from both myself and my teacher, though she usually has to settle for just my version of events. We begin watching more Sesame Street at home, over the protestations of my brother, and my mother stands behind us, making sure that we repeat every word, and interact in every possible way with the program. She joins in with us too, sometimes, and sometimes lets us go outside to play in the small communal back garden with the unrelated Slavic boys with always-dirty knees who seem never to leave that garden, as they are always there when I come home, digging or burying or chatting in their two tongues, which does very little to help me develop my English skills, though my brother learns a few words in Slavic he soon forgets, and they are always there when we are called in for dinner at the usual early Asian hour. I sometimes have a hard time figuring out if they are the same boys each time, as they seem to call each other by different names. The best times are when we have races back and forth, even though the garden is overrun with weeds and uneven clods of dirty from the most recent excavation. I learn to pant in three languages, though I am easily defeated in any sprint: my specialty is changing directions rapidly.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Count: 3,577

I made a load of revisions, which will all best posted later at the end of this week. I am a full 12% down :(

Heading for the door, I have managed to so far avoid any trauma; I just have no need for further organized blandness which no rice-vinegar-sweet dipping sauce can cover up, the strain of Americans by birth and secret wish reaching for a heritage they were born not into but next to, or even out of, another activity to fill out days and give a sense of identity without responsibility. These celebrations of cultures so proudly preserved—but are they also fermented? And would you then be proud of them still?—are too tinny to resonate with me, they cannot compare with my youth, or even my memories now faded. I see no reason to try to revive my Asian culture if it is to be only enclosed in dining halls after hours, my being Asian is not some occasion to which I invite others, and certainly not gawkers who cannot truly pay the price of admission, for which no ticket is issued and no hand is stamped with some cherry blossom.
But as I step out the double doors into the crispy air of leaves freshly fallen and crispily yet unwet by the now infrequent rains, I run into them. This encounter had perhaps been an apprehension before, but there is nothing to do now, as I cannot plausibly just turn right back into the dining hall. They stroll by hand-in-hand, unconcerned, Cyrena’s head turning just enough to plausibly not see me, Kevin stealing a glance at me over her head before reaching to open the door for her. I duck my head and walk, shakily pulling out a Lucky from my crushed pack, pausing only an instant to light it and walk on slightly more light-headed but no less heart-heavy. I can only shake my head.
The walk back to the room is lonely, punctuated by the winds which begin to pick up, picking up leaves and other fallen debris.

Geoffrey is telling a story he thinks demonstrates his Asian sensitivity. “I was in the store across the street, you know, that pharmacy and just went in for a drink, and there was this older Asian lady in front of me and she was talking to the clerks who had all emerged from their backroom to try to explain to her that there were no more metal bookshelves in the color she wanted, but that she could always paint it. She was insisting on something about her price, again and again, and they were repeating themselves too. They were just laughing at her, openly, looking at each other, shaking their heads.”
So what did you do? “Well, I felt bad but I didn’t want to interfere, I mean, so we both look Asian, and actually I guess we actually are, but why would they think that I could speak Asian or even her particular dialect.” So you just left?
“Well, I tried to just pay for my drink, but they were just getting impatient so they asked me to translate, and I tried to dodge it, because I thought she looked like was from the Northwest and I said this to her and the clerks, but no, she was from my part of Asia, and so I tried to explain to her what they were trying to say, about the repainting, but she just frantically repeated the same line again, and now in Asian too. She had the right amount of money in her hand, tax included, waving, but I didn’t know what else I could do to help so I just paid up and left.” Why didn’t you do anything else? “Nothing, I guess. It was none of my business.” So why do you feel bad? “Well, because I was put on the spot. Why did they just assume that I was her kind of Asian?”
You’re obviously not. You have no idea what it’s like. “What, you’re an old Asian woman now?” More so than you. So what if you’re put on the spot? “I just don’t get it, though, when minorities mistreat other minorities.” Oh, so it’s a minority issue, then. “Yes, they should understand that we should be working together.” Well, did you educate or correct? “It’s not my place.” Your place is just to feel bad then? “No, I’m not someone who feels sorry for himself just like that.” So you feel like these other minorities—what kind were they anyway? “Um, African-Americans and Hispanics.” Do you think that matters? “Well, they often make fun of us, you’ve heard it, you know, all that ‘ching-chong-mak-a-haya’ crap.” Do you really think that white people are any better at all? “Well, they certainly don’t say the same things.” But don’t they think them? Don’t they just box us in into different boxes? “Of course, but they’re educable.” So you say, but they think we’re educable too, but that’s not the point. I just don’t get you and your bad-feelings.
“Look, it’s just that I hate it when I’m reminded how people see us.” When you’re reminded?! You should be so lucky. How do you think that Asian woman feels? She’s probably still there. You’re reminded every once in a while of your skin your blood your tongue, but she lives in each. Do you think this is just some isolated incident for her? I mean, she’s old. What did you think she was before—she probably had an entire life longer than yours in Asia. Who do you feel bad for anyway? You’re not stuck in a foreign country every time you step foot outside your home, without either passport or extraterritoriality. You get to come home, a non-minority here on campus—how many years of buying bookshelves at pharmacies do you have left? How many years do you think she has left? Do you think she has any pride left undinted? What do you think it takes to keep walking into situations where you know that people will make fun of you in ways you might not even understand, or get, just to get through your everyday? How much stubbornness does it take? What else do you think she has left to give up? How do you prepare yourself to dive into the foreign? How deep a breath do you need to take? How long do you try and hold it? What do you think they hear when you speak? Who do you think she puts herself through? When do you take a stand? And wouldn’t you have laughed, shaken your head, rolled your eyes too if you weren’t put on the spot? How long would you cling to hope? How long could you?
Admit it. You’re just embarrassed. You’re embarrassed that for all your education, your honors, your grades, your sophisticated laboratory techniques, your gadgets and your bookshelves, when it comes to these clerks, these clerks who also lack, really, the same things as your old woman when compared to you, can lump together you with that woman at a glance, and can just embarrass you like anyone. And you’re thinking, they should know better, they are on the edge of this campus, so they should know better, but of course they don’t. Their ideas don’t come from themselves, any more than any of ours do. This is just the way things are, so you do your best. You do your best to forget, to give others other things to look at so that they can forget, but that only works for so long. Every once in a while you are forced to confront yourself, and all your attempts to control your Asianness by channeling it through your club come to nothing. As well as you have done on paper your last name is still unchangeably Asian, and so are all your friends. And I wish there were something that you could do about it.

Monday, November 01, 2004

Count: 2,195

You wouldn’t think to look at me that I have already invested such effort into figuring you out, if only in that one glance calling up more opinions about you than warranted by just that glance; I have learned not too betray too much in terms of disapproval, knowing that it little well benefits anyone, as criticism, like all things in this country, is hierarchical, and without an order for you to peck out, my opinion is little heeded, little needed: all I betray is sometimes a mutterance, lost in the hum of passing by or mistaken for some alien rumbling, white noise unsolicited, and sometimes barely intelligible to even myself, but of course it wasn’t always this way—there once were Olmecs, and they too had their day, and so too with me—somehow I am, or at least ought to be, at a turning point, a critical juncture, though it seems I have always been critical, if only of myself, but it could just be that the best I could do would be one of those silent resolutions to make a change that then creeps out over weeks until it is forgotten, a promise that buys time—time unfilled with any particular pursuit except our rationalized appetites. It would be easy for you to blame me, or me you, for either of us to say that we should just “get over it,” that our society has, after all, come a long way, and surely living in our country, suffering though she still may be from racism, sexism, capitalism, hypocrisy, oligarchy, and the like, surely is better than living under the Oriental despots, trapped forever in one class, destined to toil or to rule by mere accident of birth, but these basic facts of my life, perhaps casually escaping your notice, are inescapable, irreducible at this point, with no remedy imaginable. I am not so easily bought by your promises of acceptance, for I have seen already how shallow that acceptance is, and how cheaply you think my kind is bought. I hope, after all, to come out of all of this still a man, self-made though I have needed to be. If only I could make you understand as you pass by—how do I know if you are sympathetic to my cause—how am I to know if you have been thinking similarly, for surely there must be others such as me. You wouldn’t think to look at me that I have thought to look at—through—with—you.
But then again, you wouldn’t think to look at me.

I should begin, I suppose, before the beginning. It is too easy for me to pinpoint the beginning of this, my new doubled-over consciousness, but just to begin before that, in my home country of Asia is not going far back enough. And yet there is so much before my birth which I cannot rightly speak of, of which I know only through the pieced-together many-jointed stories untold by a family still in denial, still psychologically fleeing from the war which for America was a war against the monkeys, allied with other, slightly less monkey monkeys, but was for Asia a war between brother monkey and sister monkey, for rubber, bananas, and crude oil and ultimately an Asia that could stand up to the rapacious West, even if not all agreed and some had to be trampled or otherwise ravaged along the way. The forces which the war unleashed have since been tamed, and that generation now is fast fading, not the veterans of some foreign war to make the world safe for America, but the once-ordinary citizens who lived in war, whose fragile mobility has yet to be counterbalanced by holding tight to capital at every opening. My parents were the first generation after the war, and it is hard not to tell what residual nightmares might have tormented their conceptions, as in the Asian belief. Theirs was the generation of hope past the genocide visited upon the whole of Asia by one hand or another.
Their childhoods were catalogs of minor calamity become injunctions, of classmates careless with freshly sharpened pencil tips violently thrust through yet unblemished skin, the graphite point burrowing its way steadily through the body and poisoning the blood suddenly; of family roosters flown over the compound wall into a neighbor’s yard and pot, irreplaceable even by many cash; of much-prized pens purchased by parents on special trips made to America, much begged-for but then lost without further comment; of classmates who frolicked too much on seashore trips and plummeted to their un-doctorated deaths to the rocks below, their corpses washing up bloated days later; of fugitive pet rabbits who ran from predators into trees, knocked senseless and gobbled by passing wanderers in need of stewables. Those tokens that survived their youth would remain, each with their stories of survival and endurance, the price tags long since worn off but the appreciation still substantial nonetheless. These articles, at least, my parents never lost, and they are the only counterweight to the vast Asian phrase of regret which I cannot translate into English with full colloquial heft, but which idiomatically captures the sense of carelessness which leads to missing out and the simultaneous obligation to swallow bitter grapes at the loss. If only we had been more careful, we would have all been pureblooded unbloated pen-wielding and successful, our chickens and rabbits well-fed until eaten only by us. Blame lay not in our stars but in our selves, and our carelessness was watched and vengefully punished.
My parents must have had friends, but they surely had siblings, the better to fill the empty memories and beds left by those who left during the war, and somehow it is easier to imagine my aunts and uncles as children than to imagine my parents. In the pictures that I have been shown or stolen a look at, there is a glimmer of recognition, but even if I had access to a full album across all their years, I wonder if I could pinpoint a sepia moment when they had become themselves, become ready to be parents to myself and my brother, or when they decided to move us all to America, despite our lisping protestations in Asian, or at least the protestations we would have tried to make if given a chance again. That ship, sadly, sailed.
But this sort of archaeology little benefits me, especially when the subjects are still living though unwilling—a sharper diagnosis delivers no cure. No parent, in looking and hoping to sacrifice their own happiness, expects to end up sacrificing their children’s, but this debt is what my brother and I will pay the rest of our days, and yet our misfortune is so much subtler than our predecessors, though not our ancestors, in this country—lowered over cliffs with dynamite to clear the way for railroads, lynched and scalped, gouged and boxed out, denied citizenship and the franchise, and treated as less than human but still less well than beasts of burden. Against that standard I have no right to compare myself or my brother—our humiliations have not been physical, and we will, upon the completion of our educations, have no want of gainful employment. I stand now indeed on the brink of this gainfulness, having nearly completed my sixteen years of education, skipping back between Asia and America, just long enough each time to become again disoriented, and distrustful of myself. When on cusps one must watch one’s next steps.

My roommate is Asian too, but not a transplant like me. He was proudly born in these United States, and grew up in California, around other Asians, or at least Asian Americans, also quite unlike me. We’ve lived together for four years, which is longer than most of the friendships I have managed to eke out, but still rather short of actual friendship. It is, however, easier than having to explain yourself to someone new or dealing with new foul habits. He comes home from his Asian American Association events and always says, “Dallas, you really ought to come next time,” and then describes the cause or event of the week, some unifying event or protest with which the Asian American community is all abuzz.
But I am still skeptical. Once I tried. I was dragged to the student dining hall, all creped for Lunar New Year, Asian music played by Asian Americans trained in the dorchestras of America, Asian food catered or prepared with exacting standards and careful stoichiometry—I once was heatedly scolded for my interpretation and preparation of scallion pancakes by a young Asian American lady who had never set unbound foot in Asia and yet insisted to the point of questioning the authenticity of my undeniably Asian mother that only boiling water could be used at the crucial stage of first stirring, at the risk of heterodoxy, blasphemy, and excommunication—and a twirling Asian American Dance Troupe. Of course, their open door policy invites in all, and so the tourists, the conquistadores, the snake-oil salesmen, the troubadours, the itinerant monks, and other leftovers duly turn out for the local color. Geoffrey introduces me to his friends on the Friendship Committee, saying, “This is my roommate Dallas I’ve told you about.” “Yes, well, he does try to make it out of the room at least once a semester.” “Well, I don’t know, I didn’t get all the notes from that bio lecture, but I think Dallas here would have it.” “Well, make sure you don’t miss out on the make-your-own dumpling booth.”
I excuse myself and try to find Robyn. Robyn and I have had too many classes together, but then again we didn’t sign up for plasma physics to make choices. Robyn’s folks are from the Southeast part of Asia, so he barely even understands the local dialect I still mutter in sometimes, though sometimes a few scolds make their way through—but surely that is more then purity of my intentions than the words themselves. Rob is in the corner, sipping some green tea concoction with honey and a bit too much vodka. He is a shade flushed, as usual, and relieved to see me. Our greeting is just a nod, and I soon take up a position next to him, surveying the rapidly milling crowd of faces familiar from classes and from exams mostly—I tend to miss classes whenever I can, getting by on as little face time as possible. By now there is perhaps little we still need to say to one another, as our jokes are in some incomprehensible pidgin, gestural and not much more to outsiders, which includes most anyone else. Robyn has been talking with financial companies, as he has a particular affinity for brainteasers of the dividing-up-loot variety, and so is somehow past the first round for a number of large companies. I know very little about this profession, but I have learned to nod. Robyn has the habit of complaining about things and then doing them anyway.
He is in the wind-up of one of his tirades when he sights her. For there is always a girl, but the question is why she is there and not here. Her name, Robyn murmurs mid-sentence, is Morgan. I reply, that sort of name is something only a WASP or a black Republican would dream of for a daughter. Robyn looks miffed but is too busy muttering about her being in the same Asian conversation class, second year program, and how her Asian name means Springtime Flower, which I reply is surely better than Robyn’s Steadfast Frugality, or my own Distant Mountain. I am about to make some further stock comment about Robyn just being scared of white girls when she walks behind some tea-leaf reading booth, and out of sight, whereupon Robyn takes another sip before resuming his tirade about how much more he would prefer to not work and enjoy the suburban lifestyle his parents’ Asian science have brought him. It is only pirate booty he is missing.
I leave him to his sipping and head toward the dumpling booth, where cheerful chubby Cherry is taking orders, gracefully slapping the various spicy or shrimp-savory big-cabbage or spinach pork or beef fillings into brightly pale wrappers of various colors, before passing them on to Derek, who carefully cradles them in his right hand as he folds up the back ridge of the dumpling sealing it before passing it on to the pot of boiling water or the frying pan where the sizzle and the splatter makes the gathered round step back periodically. There is, of course a limit, of one-per at least until they queue up again, though Association officers get a sampler. I settle for a wobbly effort boiled with some of the dumpling soup, which I am in the process of slurping when the microphone comes on for the main floor show. I take this chance to leave as the dancers fetch their fans and their bamboo poles. The dumpling is adequate but hardly worth the price of admission.

Sunday, October 31, 2004

Prefatory Notes

As with all notes and editings, this post is done in bold blockquote. This blog is devoted to the novel, Jaundice I am writing for National Novel Writing Month. Each day i will post the day's work, plus any editorial notes such as these. Each week on Sunday i will try to post the cumulative novel, by chapter. There will too be word-counts included, as an impartial indicator of progress. Comments and so on will be much appreciated, and there will be some quiet attempt at interwebtivity.