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.


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