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.


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