This column seeks to connect the stories of my dreams/nightmares with my life experiences.
Three yawns and I’m there. I lie under a thick blanket, hiding from the morning Sun that is begging me to wake.
Put on the cotton polo, the Sun whispers. And tuck it into your skirt.
I do as it says, and he gifts me a tickling warmth.
Today will be good, I think. Today, I will quiver a little less in the hallways. Speak confidently during recess. Make eye contact with my classmates for longer than three seconds.
When I walk downstairs to eat a lukewarm slice of peanut butter toast, I wait for my parents to notice. If I can feel happiness rushing through my body, rendering my hands cold and giddy and immobile, can’t they see it, too?
Two bites, nothing.
Four, and nothing again.
The toast is beginning to taste like sawdust, tacky with the sickly-sweet peanut butter. I can’t eat it anymore.
It is time to go, my father says.
Our car is silent, and my hands are a little warmer now.
Fifteen minutes later, I arrive at school. This hellish place, in all its red-brick glory, usually brings a terrible, nausea-inducing monster of dread to my side, but today, it did not appear. I told you. The morning does not matter (except for the dear sun, thank you). Today will be good — and maybe a friend will see that I am ecstatic and ready to take our ten-page geography test. So, when I walk through the main building’s double doors, I smile, cheeky with teeth unafraid to bear the brunt of the ceiling’s fluorescent lights.
This is what it means to be a teenager. Or at least the kind of teenager I read in books and other things.
No one is looking. But then everyone does.
At first, I am wonderfully euphoric. They see me. I am no longer SHORT HAIRED ASIAN GIRL or HUMAN CALCULATOR or a name you cannot remember or pronounce. I am cool now.
I should know better.
The further I walk, the more I notice that no one can actually see the happiness within me, because they do not even look at my face. Their eyes are lowered, mouths plastered with a smirk that muffles the sound of their snickers.
Since they are looking down, I look down, too.
I must have forgotten. The Sun.
To the Sun: You did not warn me.
On my feet are the ugliest pair of heels I have ever seen. They are an obscene orange, each toe adorned with rotting feathers.
My body is blazing now — every bone is liquified, ready to slip away and run.
I want to hide.
But they see you, murmurs the Sun.
Not like this. Not like this.
When you are thirteen and forced to wear thick navy skirts that go three inches past your knees, you do not look in the mirror and give yourself a flying kiss. When you spend two months of the seventh grade wandering the halls during lunch, you do not exercise the chords in your throat because they are lodged in silence, duration unforeseeable. When the cute boy with brown hair approaches you and your friend to ask you out on a “date” but leaves — before you could answer — in a fit of nasal snickering, you cannot bear the taste of Oreos and you cannot lift your head like Daddy said to do because Americans think Asians are passive.
You are stuck, like the book characters whose stories cower within the lines you skip, between something and nothing. You are a ghost and they do not even know how you died. This is how it is. Sometimes you want to feel human — to feel like they can glare at your brown flesh, like they can pinch your cheeks and tell you that you’re cute, because all Asians are, in that way that makes white people swoon like you’re a baby swaddled in a pink polyester blankie from Vineyard Vines. Sometimes you want to feel useful — to feel like they can attach your hip to the door of high school because that is the only place in which you exist to them.
Success is sickeningly sweet. Even though you do become human and useful and even cool for other students to talk to about life and not French homework, you are still naive and short-haired and stubborn enough to hold your head high while the entire eighth-grade points and laughs at you — it no longer matters why they see you. It’s just important that they do. This is what it means to be a teenager.
Correction: This is what it means to be SHORT-HAIRED ASIAN GIRL or HUMAN CALCULATOR or WEIRD PERSON in the SOUTH.
Because when eyes well with tears of admiration and mouths shriek to release attempted friendship at the pretty white girl whose skin is tan enough for boys to gawk at and other girls to swoon over (but, of course, not dark enough for boys to call exotic and girls to consider brutish), you become antsy with the desire to be seen, no matter the reason. Not heard. At least not yet. You find it important that you leave your mark on the world, which apparently starts with an end to being a wallflower in the halls of Catholic middle school.
But high school comes, and the realization is haunting. When the directors (over there, in grey corporate buildings and the lunch table claimed by Lululemon bags and lacrosse sticks) name you, Other, the SHORT-HAIRED ASIAN GIRL or HUMAN CALCULATOR or WEIRD PERSON (in the SOUTH), it sticks. You cannot escape the walls that easily. Do not worry, though. They see you sometimes.
One time, even, in a sea of white people, blond hair, and the special exchange students from Argentina, they really see you. They approach you, which never happens, and point and holler:
“Look! We have another exchange student here!”
You smile and laugh, accepting the name.
Do you feel seen yet?