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.

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