Pop. Click. Pop. Click. I opened and carefully sniffed all twenty-two of my Mr. Sketch markers, shoving caps onto untipped ends. Engaging in a ritual that preceded each and every session of my “builder’s workshop,” I faced my desk with anticipation.
Growing up, I periodically faced the most daunting task an elementary schooler could possibly imagine: finding a treasure to flaunt at show-and-tell. Perhaps, however, I was the only one intimidated by the need to present something “worthy” in front of my class– what worthy things did I own? My stuffed bears and toy trains were too mundane, and unless it was Christmas or my birthday, my parents said no when I asked for new toys.
So, I was frequently left to my own devices, pushed to be as empowered as a kindergartener could ever be. Armed with recycling bin scraps and my colorful markers, I suddenly had the entire material world at my disposal. With a determination to amuse myself, and by extension my watchful peers, I folded a cardboard pentagon, colored pink just like Barbie’s dollhouse in the Disney commercials– floppy, but fit for my princess Build-a-Bear nonetheless. To experience the fun that Mama had without me at work, I folded a sheet of paper in half, drew an apple, and created a keyboard with Hello Kitty stickers, clicking away on it before my curious class.
My teacher called it creativity. But she overlooked how my creations spawned from my constant supply of unfulfilled desires, diverse and often spontaneous, creating a void I didn’t know about yet.
“You have seaweed-smelling hair,” my friend Nicole Florez told me, pinching her nose and laughing.
Actually, I used Chinese herbal shampoo. Not a hint of ocean.
“Why do your eyes disappear when you laugh? Why does your nose stretch so flat and wide across your face? Why is your hair so puffy?”
Later, I looked in the mirror and realized what she was talking about. I pinched my nose and tried to laugh less but my hair was the easiest to change. For the rest of the school year, I applied a dab of hair gel each morning. I wore fifteen pink hair clips every day so that my hair could lie flat, not a single strand out of place.
In the classroom, Mrs. Morena taught us that there was a difference between telling and tattling. She taught us that we would receive a timeout if we wasted her time with a worthless report.
So, I stopped saying a peep about others, just in case my prattle would land me in trouble. Soon, I also found myself no longer raising my hand and telling others about myself. And my friend Nicole, her observations about my Asian face grew in persistence.
China week came later that year. Our grade went to the museum to gape at glistening gold carvings and jade dragons; our grade dressed in flowery silk and watched a musician play the zither. People asked me if I wore the red robes at home, if my desk had artifacts like those owned by Emperor Shang. But these things were foreign to me too.
Mom grinned continuously, on the other hand. For the first time, she volunteered as a parent chaperone, read Chinese folk stories to the class, and taught kids how to use chopsticks. “My home country is Taiwan, a small island shaped like a sweet potato. The culture there often overlaps with Chinese traditions, but Taiwan has an independent democracy, just like the US. Never forget to use your voice, because it is a fundamental human right that not everyone has,” she told everyone.
My heart pounded against my ribcage, echoing the passion of a captivated mind. I sat in a daydream daze– mind stuck in another world, to my dad’s annoyance. I couldn’t peel my eyes off of the excitement and emotion in my lap, wave after wave.
Wingardium Leviosa. My fourth-grader self willed my bed to float. I turned another thin, crisp page with utmost care. I rode a broom over the lake with Harry Potter, picturing windblown hair, lush green forests. It was then that I started to wrap my head around the power of making a fleeting idea concrete with words.
The bell rang as I stood before a bustling playground, kids laughing in the sun and being chased down slides. I was again forced to stare at smiling faces that weren’t mine. My nose stretched the widest, flattest of them all. My eyes squinted in the sunlight. Even when Hannah Harrington invited me to get up, to play cops and robbers, I looked the worst when smiling.
I stared ahead and chased after my friend Erika’s blond hair that caught streaks of light, chased after Keyana’s striking, green eyes as she happily glanced over her shoulder at me. There was something now chaining me. A string so seemingly skinny, strung into beads of nonchalant thoughts and glances in the mirror, strong enough to choke.
I was suffocating in a sea of girls who wore neon crop tops, feather hair extensions, and zebra duct tape bracelets. I kept my head down in a bustling middle school hallway, new wire-rimmed glasses on my face that clarified a blurry world.
“You look so Asian,” my science partner told me.
Finally able to see, I searched in vain for fellow Asian faces in the cafeteria where the other girls sat, searched in vain for a sign I could be as content and adored. But what is an Asian girl to do, when she looks nothing like the kids laughing with their friends, and she doesn’t even own pink Juicy sweats?
The hazy hints, shadows and faded lines, had been building up my whole life– but now that I was faced with my inferiority, big and clear, I wished I had never put my lenses on.
“It smells putrid!” my mother cried.
“Take them out of the kitchen this instant” my dad shouted.
Their voices blended into the background as I knelt before a box of month-old bosc pears, coated with fibrous emerald splotches.
What are the unseen qualities and origins of the delicate yet devastating layer of green that ruins my favorite fruits? What manner of food storage best prevents spoilage?
These pressing questions flowed within my mind and spurred me to grab plastic bags, aluminum foil, plastic wrap, a soup container, and, of course, unspoiled Bosc pears– the test subject of my first ever independent investigation.
Relocating to the basement, where the smell of rotting fruit would not bother my parents, I spent three weeks cultivating colonies of airborne organisms that called my rotting bosc pears their home under different storage conditions. School only got in the way between my bosc pears and I– each day, I awaited the bell which signaled that I could return to my basement to continue my observations. Isolated in an oasis of imminent insights, observing the growth of mold and my own knowledge, I felt alive– faced with peace and fulfillment at last. Eventually learning that plastic wrap was the superior food storage method, I presented my all-important findings at my middle school science fair and clutched my hard-earned plastic 1st place medal with pride.
“This house is sunny and yellow. We need big bedrooms and a spacious backyard,” my mother told me.
“This house is not my home,” was my reply.
Our family had only moved five minutes away, but uncertainty hit like a bullet when I knew I would have to navigate a middle school sea, without the same dark basement to come home to when I needed to be along with my thoughts.
–Welcome to Chappaqua, my orientation guide said.
I witnessed the same loud laughs, iPhones, and for the first time, other Asian faces too. Was this a chance to have everything I wanted as a lonely sixth grader? I introduced myself, smiled at a myriad of new faces, and watched my definition of familiarity shift as the group of strangers my age become “my grade.” I found myself drawn to Ella Kaiser, the other new girl that year.
Ella had moved eleven times in her life and told me stories about redneck neighbors in Missouri and trying exotic dishes in San Francisco’s Chinatown.
“Poor girl,” my mom said, shaking her head. “She is not tied to any place and only knows a life on the move.”
I spent my eight previous years of schooling in the same place but did that make me tied to my old town? When I learned that I was moving, I hardly had anyone there to tell. Perhaps no one there noticed when I left, but perhaps I would remain connected to that place nonetheless. Meanwhile, the academic demand at Chappaqua took me by surprise.
“Expect competition, your new school is tough. Work harder,” my parents had warned me.
That year, my mind bled. I wrote poems that highlighted the soul of inanimate objects, personal essays that forced me to think about my growth for the first time. I learned about exponent properties, protons, I failed a test for the first time in history, but when a treadmill cannot be turned off, one can only continue running.
I get it.
My body jolted in response to a harsh voice behind me, speaking in Mandarin.
I am not an adorable lollipop of a tree,
An alluring sunset,
Or the majestic blanket that is the ocean.
Therefore, you don’t take a picture of me.
Turning around, I forgot about the rows of palm trees under the Taiwanese summer sun, stretched leaves that were great wings I wanted to capture in a frame.
I lowered my camera and responded, my voice stumbling over broken Chinese syllables: “Uncle, that is untrue! You are just as wonderful. Smile for me, I will take a photo of you!”
He told me,
I will do no such thing,
I will put on no such mask.
I am not smiling as I speak,
And for my picture to suggest otherwise would be a sour onion of a lie.
Uncle had polio when he was a baby, so he is paralyzed from the waist down. Yet, when I picture him in my mind, I always forget that he’s wheelchair bound. Maybe it’s the way he spins his wheels so adeptly, moving faster than any human could ever walk.
Uncle swiveled away from me.
Follow me, he said.
Wheeling, Uncle bent over, stroking the Taiwanese ground’s smooth and rough edges with the base of his hard palm, and he motioned towards a large array of leafy joy peering out of sunny pots in an open clearing.
He pointed to potted grasses, gestured at various plump succulents, little pockets of energy and youth that proudly grinned and flaunted four arms, pointy hair, and folded ridges. He led me towards a bright alcove, filled with a bubbly assortment of tanks with squiggling fish. Now you have met my family, he told me. We keep each other alive.
I stared at Uncle.
“Uncle.. I had no idea you created a garden, hidden behind this house. When did you make it?”
Well of course you wouldn’t have known. You children never come outside anymore when you visit. And why should I tell you when I made it? You could have played in it long before, had you put down those electronics.”
I quit Chinese school. Surprisingly, my own parents told me to do so, and even more surprisingly, I found myself arguing against their decision.
“But you’ve complained about Chinese school since the age of four,” my mother said. “You need to devote more time to your studies,” my father added.
They told me, “Continue your interests in writing. Preview math course content. Do something that will make you grow, because you’ve spent enough time on something you don’t appreciate.”
For years, I had scowled at weekly homework assignments, rolled my eyes in response to mandatory quizzes, and reluctantly watched student performances. “Hating” Chinese school had become habitual, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized how much I learned from textbook readings and Saturday morning classes. The history behind diverse Taiwanese cuisines, Asian immigrant stories of resilience and sacrifice, the annual school-wide “Chinese New Year Celebration” that united me with people who shared my heritage. How I had learned Chinese knotting, origami, and calligraphy.
Even though I quit Chinese school, however, I wasn’t really saying goodbye. I instead became a volunteer tutor there, opening myself up to sharing my experiences and knowledge with younger students. Demonstrating character strokes and proper pronunciation was unexpectedly bittersweet.
You are the teacher now, I reminded myself. Not too long ago, as I sat reluctantly in my pupil seat, I didn’t realize, now is the optimal time to absorb more, to perfect those calligraphy skills, to write Chinese pieces because English isn’t the only language that one can pull beauty out of.
I put down my whiteboard marker and turned towards the sixth-grade class, filled with faces that look as annoyed as I once was. With a pride I didn’t know I had, a readiness to help them appreciate what I didn’t, I began to speak.
My mind was a balloon on autopilot– afloat, drifting, dealing with a lack of motivation and passion to keep it grounded. Chappaqua had worked its magic: insecurities about friends and my Asian eyes were flattened by common ground I had found with friends in my classes. Chappaqua had taken its toll: the place and the people around me had created a cooker, boiling an already-brewing pressure to succeed.
Whatever “succeed” was supposed to mean.
The balloon was stretched, expanded. I was forced to squeeze my head, compelled to stay up all night. Frenzied, red-eyed, cramming ideas on crumpled, distressed loose-leaf sheets.
The first bright, newborn sentence was a strand of toothpaste. Squiggling, it stained the clean slate that used to be my blank English homework, science research presentation, school newspaper editorial.
These moments poked; deflation was threatened, but what more can a balloon do than allow itself to be swept by the wind?
While I Waited to See the Great American Eclipse, I
- watched my mother scour the internet to purchase the right solar-filter glasses for the entire family.
- listened to my dad’s coworker gush about his upcoming flight to Jackson, Wyoming where he would see the eclipse in its totality.
- stood outside of the IBM Research Center building amidst telescopes, plates of sun-shaped cookies, and my parent’s chattering colleagues.
- found something terribly anticlimactic about watching a progression that was slow and from far away.
“Em! You haven’t changed a bit!” my high school friends tell me.
They are perhaps recalling Emily who wore striped sweaters from the Gap, a put-together (and frankly bland) outfit that secretly took an hour to conjure. Perhaps they will recall Emily who seemed at ease before every math test, an ease that took five hours of watching Khan Academy and ample help from her father to attain. Perhaps they will recall Emily who navigates her way around others collected, calm, and she will still smile as if she has never had a worry in the world.
I sit at my desk– the same surface I had once considered my “builder’s workshop station.” The same surface before which I spent hours within myself, and upon which I also completed all too many late-night high school assignments. Staring at a dozen faces I navigated high school alongside– a dozen faces neatly arranged side-by-side within the rectangular confines of my laptop’s Zoom window– I am tempted to maintain my plastered smile, and I curse myself for it.
Once upon a time, I built imaginary worlds through fictional stories, crocheted imaginary animal friends into existence, and strove to express myself at a time when my cognitive and motor capabilities were certainly still maturing. I sometimes unearth my old (and often odd) builder workshop creations at home and wonder if I’ll ever feel as creatively energized again without the fuel of childhood boredom and loneliness. Part of me laughs at the fact that I grew up creating misery by wanting things I didn’t have, wishing I was someone else, caring too much about my grades, caring too much about getting into college, where I ready myself to navigate many more seas to do the same thing all over again. Hand placed upon the surface of my desk, I open my mouth, determined to make noise and acknowledge all that I am while giving bigger pieces of myself to others.
Emily is a rising senior at the University of Pennsylvania originally from Westchester, New York.
From Emily: I am second generation Taiwanese-American and am grateful for the opportunities I have had to explore my heritage while growing up. From spending several summers in Taiwan (at this very moment, I am missing my relatives while seriously craving Taiwanese breakfasts and shaved ice!), to taking Mandarin Chinese courses every Saturday as a child, my pride in my Taiwanese identity and appreciation for Taiwan’s rich culture never stops growing. Outside of academics and creative writing, I also enjoy doodling, learning tunes on the guitar, and reading novels by Asian American authors.
I have been a big believer in the mission of this unique contest ever since I first learned about it from a Taiwanese family friend, and am excited to share my work. The chronological format of my piece is inspired by the short story “Indian Education” by Native-American writer Sherman Alexie. I was prompted to create my own “version” of the piece during an English class I took in high school, and have continued to experiment with the crafting of micro-memoirs during creative writing courses I have taken in college as well as everyday moments of introspection. The piece reflects a whirlwind of experiences and emotions that make me who I am, which I hope some readers may relate to!
Keep up with Emily on Instagram.