Names

In middle school, I went through a brief phase of having people call me Melvin. It was mostly an inside joke with a few friends, but I was its own originator. People always hesitated at and stumbled over my Chinese legal name, and my unofficial name was too bumpy with plosives. Melvin was easier, smoother, and surprisingly more comfortable.

The name conjured a mental image of an awkward, nerdy white boy, and I was definitely an awkward, nerdy tomboy. I often claimed to be “white on the inside,” too. A banana, a Twinkie, whitewashed—and proud of it. While my Asian friends were watching Meteor Garden and practicing the dance moves to K-pop songs, I was watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer and rocking out to Metallica.

My parents sent me to Chinese school for ten years, during which I learned to speak the language like a fluent eight-year-old and made half-hearted attempts at traditions like calligraphy, braiding, and dance. I hated every minute of the language classes and put as little effort into them as possible, because it seemed stupid and pointless to learn Mandarin when we were living in America. I disliked the other activities merely for interfering with my Saturday cartoon time.

Meanwhile, my mother entrenched herself in our town’s substantial Chinese community. Her English grew paradoxically worse the longer she lived here. I was embarrassed by her inability to integrate, irritated by her clinging to the culture that she had intentionally left behind, and resentful of the multiple barriers growing between us.

During my fifth-grade winter break, we took a family trip to the motherland for me to meet my extended family for the first time. I couldn’t understand most of what was written on signs and menus or what anyone was saying to me. When I made my best efforts at interpreting and answering questions from my parents’ friends, they laughed with a condescension that made me uncomfortable and annoyed. Even their younger children snickered at my clumsy phrases.

I learned that being Chinese-American meant being in limbo. If I wanted to belong somewhere, I would have to choose one culture or the other.

So I chose to be called Melvin, which meant being white, which I equated with being American. I wanted nothing to do with this crazy language that required so much repetition and memorization. I wanted nothing to do with these tedious traditions that were irrelevant to my life. And I definitely wanted nothing to do with these people with whom I had nothing in common.

It took a lot of learning after high school to undo this damaging, self-hating mentality—even just to realize that it was damaging and self-hating.

When I went off to college in a state that wasn’t New Jersey, New York, or California, I learned that the rest of America has a lot more white people, and I wasn’t really one of them after all. Pride in being “whitewashed” was in fact pride in being brainwashed. It was trying to efface a natural part of me, like cutting off an arm or a leg. And my tacit compliance paved the way for white people to efface us, too.

When my white boyfriend and I broke up, and he went on to date a series of other Asian women, I learned that even so-called open-minded progressives carried implicit biases. No matter how I thought of myself or what I considered to be my most salient qualities, certain others would always see my yellowness first and foremost.

When my classmate in a study-abroad program in Spain made a video interviewing Chinese immigrants, I learned to view my own mother’s experience in a softer, more empathetic light. The barriers between us had grown so tall that it was only through someone else’s class project that I could begin to understand her and the similar struggles of other immigrants. I began to wonder, what other stories lay quiet on the other side of the wall?

A few years ago, I had a moment of shock and panic when I couldn’t picture the characters for my Chinese name. Fortunately, my fingers still knew how to move the pen. I felt a strange combination of surprise, relief, and resignation in acknowledging the immutability of my Chinese identity.

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Snapshots

A friend asked the other day, “Remember Elaine from our high school? Did you hear she got married to an NFL player?”

Of course I remember Elaine. We were in the same fourth-grade class, with a borderline psychotic teacher who would go on epic rants and flip over students’ desks whenever they upset him. That year, the school offered free weekly music classes to those interested in learning to play an instrument. We both signed up for flute lessons, and the school ordered elementary étude books for us.

Somehow the music teacher fell under the impression that Elaine was no longer interested in the lessons. Either she missed the first class or two, or something got mixed-up with her registration. He crossed out her name on the book’s printed label, wrote in mine, and gave it to me.

The following week, the book was missing from my desk. Elaine confronted me about stealing it, and told me with a matter-of-fact smirk that she had taken back what was hers. I snatched it back a few days later while she was outside during recess. She enlisted the aid of two friends, and this little war continued for several more exchanges.

Eventually she demanded, “If this is your stupid book, why does it have my name printed on it?”

I didn’t have an answer. It never occurred to my eight-year-old self to take this to the music teacher for one.

Somehow, I know I ultimately won the war because I was able to keep up with the lessons without having to get a new book. I played in school and community ensembles, winning auditions and awards. Twenty years later, I still play gigs today.

Elaine never wound up doing anything music-related at school. She and I never spoke again after that year.

When the friend mentioned her name, I felt a jolt. The mind can be such a strange and powerful thing, with the way it discards information deemed no longer necessary for survival. The conflict with Elaine had frayed my nerves and chafed at an already anxious temperament. It had made me doubt my own sanity. Worst of all, it had marked the defining moment when I realized I was not one of the cool, confident kids like Elaine and her posse.

Yet some years later, the memory of it was buried entirely. After high school graduation, so was all memory of her existence—until it was suddenly exhumed by my friend’s question.

The mind tends to reduce events and interactions to fragments and snapshots. I remember my fourth-grade teacher shaking a classmate’s possessions out of his desk, but not a single lesson from that year. I remember Elaine only as a haughty, annoyed fourth-grader, brandishing my own book in my face. Does she remember me as a spiteful jerk who kept stealing her book for no reason? Does she blame me for singlehandedly discouraging her from studying music forever?

Most likely, she doesn’t think of me at all (especially if she is now happily married to a professional football player). We flatter ourselves with the assumption that others expend mental energy on us as we might want or expect.

After high school graduation, the school organized a party at a local college campus. Someone from my fifth-grade class approached me at the tables of catered sandwiches and asked if I had indeed climbed onto the roof of the school some weeks ago. Yes, I had—though I didn’t really know why I did it. “Power to you,” he replied, raising a fist and nodding respectfully. I didn’t really know why he respected that, either, but I was amused.

The next time I encountered this fellow again was at our ten-year high school reunion. He approached me at the bar and asked if I remembered climbing onto the roof of the high school. How did he retain this useless piece of information for ten years? We had been in the same school system since the fifth grade; why was this the only thing he seemed to know about me? What about all my musical accolades, academic achievements, and scintillating personality?

The knowledge that most people don’t think of you the way you think of you can be a double-edged sword. It can be disappointing or embarrassing to know that your interactions with others have been reduced to only the lowlights. On the flip side, most people aren’t obsessing over (or even noticing) your stumbles and trips, which can be quite liberating.

Best thing to do, as with most things in life, is try to have a good sense of humor about it.

Prophecies

There’s this pattern in my life: whatever happens on New Year’s Eve sets a precedent or theme for the overall year to come.

On December 31, 2013, I drank so much at a coworker’s house party that I puked and passed out at around eleven o’clock. Pretty much all of 2014 was then spent partying, sometimes for a week straight. This in itself was only a minor uptick from what had already become my standard behavior. What was unusual and concerning was the frequency of my getting sick from it. I must have marked my territory in vomit all over downtown New York and outside every PATH station.

The end of that year, I slipped and fell on my coccyx while playing beer pong. While the injury was not severe, the ache lasted a full month into 2015. Some time after, I tripped while jogging outdoors and fell unfavorably on my left wrist. Again, the pain lasted an unexpectedly long time for something that didn’t require any actual medical treatment. I also wounded a knee on a separate occasion. These may not sound like much, but I had been a relatively sedentary creature in years prior.

I decided to take it easy for 2016. I stayed in and hosted my own New Year’s Eve house party with fewer than a dozen close friends, an assortment of snacks, and many bottles of beer and liquor that went largely untouched. I have since reconnected with several old friends and made some wonderful new ones. Though my drinking still went dangerously unbridled at times, I didn’t puke or get hurt nearly as much. And I enjoyed a greater variety of meaningful experiences that didn’t center around alcohol, from visiting a museum a month (my New Year’s resolution) to traveling.

Last Saturday, I found a key, a sock, and a ring that had been missing for weeks to months. I am thus anticipating 2017 to be a year of rediscovery and reaffirmation. Old questions answered. Loose ties resolved. A cleaned-up act, at last. I know what you’re thinking: Grouping events by year is astrological hocus-pocus. Hindsight is 20/20. The future is filled with self-fulfilling prophecies.

In fact, this is less of a superstitious matter and more of a mechanism for calibrating perspective and setting goals. Reviewing events within the framework of a day and a year provides a straightforward way for me to extract lessons from the past, and envision a future to work toward or against. As human beings, we naturally seek meaning and symbolism in everyday settings. Personal goals are essentially positive feedback loops.

My sicknesses, injuries, and (re)kindled friendships were, in all likelihood, cases of correlation without causation. But when I view them under this sort of inside-joke-with-myself lens of New Year’s Eve omens, I can then apply this same lens to formulate a guideline for the future.

This year, I’m striving to be more receptive to new ideas to fuel my rediscovery of writing and reaffirm the kind of person I want to be. Ray Bradbury came up with the short story “Skeleton” after his doctor’s appointment. Eminem wrote the song “Stan” after hearing the beat and chorus to Dido’s “Thank You.” We can find ideas, inspiration, and guidance wherever we open ourselves up to them.

Gas Lights

One evening, my mother returned from a routine grocery shopping trip with a six-pack of “YoBaby” yogurt. My brother and I were eight and ten years old, respectively. With such large, unmissable images of laughing infants plastered all over the packaging, this seemed a hilarious lapse of judgment even for someone who didn’t really speak English.

“Did you not notice all the babies?” we asked her. “Did you forget how old we were? Is this your way of announcing that you’re having another kid?”

“It was good deal,” she said, exasperated.

A few days later, the YoBaby mysteriously disappeared from the refrigerator. Being at an age when I fretted constantly over whether my every move was cool and mature, I certainly hadn’t gone anywhere near the stuff. I forgot about it altogether until weeks later, when we were looking at Shop Rite coupons and came across one for yogurt. I burst into laughter. “Hey, remember that time when you bought us that yogurt for babies?” I asked my mother.

“No, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she answered, seeming offended at the very suggestion. I was bewildered. I thought I caught a glimmer of humor in her expression, but couldn’t be sure.

Over the years, however, there were so many more of these kinds of incidents that I stopped finding humor in them—and instead started vacillating between irritation and concern.

At dinner parties, my mother liked to tell family friends—de facto competitors in Asian-American child-rearing—how much I looked forward to being a lawyer someday. I couldn’t recall ever having expressed such career aspirations. Perhaps I had once asked her a question about the justice system. While some of my peers complained about their parents pushing them to become doctors, I was relieved yet offended that this was a dream reserved only for my brother. As the television doctor Mindy Kaling once wondered in her memoir: why not me?

Other times, my mother would combine, confuse, or confabulate aspects of my brother’s life and mine. “They are such picky eaters. Don’t like try new food,” she would tell her friends, when it was only my brother who steered clear of vegetables and unfamiliar substances. When she tidied up the house, my books, CDs, and even T-shirts would often wind up in my brother’s room. “She is shy,” she would apologize on my behalf to new acquaintances, before they had the chance to address me and hear the mouthful I had to offer on current events.

The three of us were pondering the dinner menu on a family cruise when a server passed by with a plate of beef and noodles in brown sauce. “That wouldn’t be any good,” my mother declared. She had a tendency to improvise rapid-fire judgments and believe them to be immutable truths. I sighed internally.

A few minutes later, she pointed to the menu and said, “What do you think, beef teriyaki?”

“I don’t know, but you already said you didn’t want it,” I said.

“No, I didn’t. When did I say that?”

“Just now. The server had a plate of it, and you said it wouldn’t be any good.”

“That didn’t happen.”

“Yes, it did!” My voice rose involuntarily, as if the correct decibel level might jumpstart her memory. “You always do this. You always assume things without any basis whatsoever, and then you paint the rest of us as liars!”

The years of putting up with all the reinvented narratives and adamant denials finally took their toll then. I spent the remaining two days of the cruise drifting in and out of events alone.

An explanation for my mother’s behavior, as well as a glimpse of her destiny, manifested during our family vacation to China. My parents pulled my brother and me out of school two weeks before winter break, and we divided a month between both sets of grandparents. It was my brother’s and my first time meeting them all, but for our maternal grandfather, it was already too late. One minute, he would be smiling and asking us about American schools. The next, he would be shouting, “Who are these children in my home?”, terrifying us into corners and under tables. “What are they doing here? Who the hell let them in?”

That’s what’s happening to her, I half-jokingly thought to myself one random day, years later. My mother was only forty at the time of the YoBaby purchase, but it must have already begun creeping through the recesses of her mind, subtle and insidious as the shadow of a snake. Yet the more I considered it, the more I felt obligated to be seriously concerned. How much worse would it get? What would we do about it? How much longer did I have?

My relationship with my mother has been asymptotic from the beginning, slowly approaching a limit resembling love. When I finally connected my grandfather’s savage senility with her own self-gaslighting, I felt sorry about the inevitability and sorrier that I didn’t feel something more. Here was a woman who had spent my childhood trying to suppress my individuality and conflate it with my brother’s; admonishing me whenever I fell ill because it was somehow my own fault; telling me I only needed to go to a respectable college in order to find a respectable husband; and rejecting my words and experiences in favor of her own expectations or imagination.

And yet, my mother had been passionate about endowing us with childhoods rich in activities and opportunities. She clipped coupons for hours on end and suppressed her materialistic urges for years so that we would never have to forego a school field trip, and could have even have the occasional family vacation. My brother and I were enrolled in music lessons, athletic teams, Chinese school, and summer camps. Although we didn’t necessarily enjoy all of these at the time, we grew to appreciate the experiences when we got older—just as our mother always said we would.

When I collapsed from a nervous breakdown during my first year of college, my mother drove the six hours round-trip to take me home. I had kept silent about my condition for years prior to the incident, because I so dreaded and hated her preaching. But instead of lecturing me for being sick, she tried to be supportive and find help. When you come from a culture that has only recently begun to acknowledge depression as a “real” illness, this means a tremendous deal.

Thus, here also was a woman who loved me and always tried to make me happy; who wanted to help with any task or favor, regardless of scope; who genuinely believed all this was for my benefit and wellbeing.

One night, our plans to go out for dinner in my neighborhood were foiled by a sudden, raging tempest that hit right when my mother arrived at my apartment building.

“Can we stay in and eat here? Do you have any food?” she asked.

All I had were pasta ingredients, but my mother had always found marinara sauce repulsive, calling it “that disgusting red stuff.” I had never seen her try it once.

“I do,” I said reluctantly, “but you wouldn’t like it.”

“Yes, I will! I like anything you make!”

I prepared some spaghetti with marinara sauce and served it to her. Before she even took her first bite, she declared, “It’s so good!”

I sighed internally, amused, annoyed, worried, and feeling a little something like love.