Outcast: Another American Lyric
“Hi! Do you have the time? I’m raising money to promote awareness for LGBTQ in our local high schools. Here’s a print-out of what we do with the money we raise. Take a look. This is a wonderful, open-minded campus you go to. Our goal is to have high school campuses be the same way. Say, what’s your major? Math? Really? With your hair color, I would have guessed art. Wow, math. Figures that if it were a woman in the STEM fields, it’d be an Asian. An Asian or an Indian, haha. Well, that’s great! Have you looked it through? Would you be interested in donating $20? Or, anything, really.”
* * * * *
“Oh, you’ve been to Taiwan? I am so jealous. I love Thai food.”
* * * * *
You see a performance along the beachside. There’s this teenager doing acrobatic tricks before a crowd. When he is done, he brings a hat before people, asking for money. Your partner gives you money and asks you to give it to him. You turn to your partner and ask why he won’t go give it to the boy himself. He shrugs and nods you to go with his five-dollar bill. Confused, you go and drop the money in the hat.
“Thank you,” the performing teenager smiles at you. You gesture a nod for him.
“Japanese?” You stop. Blink. Shake your head.
“Korean?” You smile and shake your head.
“Vietnamese?” “No,” you say to be polite.
He is absolutely lost. “What are you, then?” American?
* * * * *
You are with family for the holidays. The table is set and the food is warm. Chatter from all around the house fill the air. A sudden burst of laughter reaches your ears. It is in a language familiar for you to hear.
They ask you about school. They ask about your grades. Your internships. Your health. Your sleeping schedule. How much you eat a day. What connections you’ve made. Did you not know that your cousin is doing just fine in that other Ivy League in the east? They ask why you have gained weight. Do you always look this messy? Maybe consider using some skin products. You need to get more sleep. You need to graduate, soon. Are you dating anyone?
Oh. You are. Well.
Did you meet at school? At your internship? At work? Who are they? What race are they? Who is their family? What do they do in their free time? What sport do they play? What about instruments? What languages do they speak? What kind of—
Your partner only knows English? They know nothing of their own culture?
Now that you mention it, you could also do with some improvement. You need to know your language. What’s English going to do for you? Everybody speaks English. You’re no different. Do you want to work at some small company with no international communications? How far do you want to go in life? You should think about that.
Eventually, the conversation changes pace. There is reminiscing of your parent’s hometown. To the home of your grandparents. It captivates you. There are stories of war and survival. Of running along the banks of rivers in bare feet to catch little shrimps. Stories of walking down the street after school to the local candy shop where your mother would pick up her favorite dessert, once a week, with her allowance. You mention you’ve been to that city once, to add to the conversation as your family bite at pieces of pears and apples and dragonfruit after dinner.
To your mistake.
So what if you’ve been there? What you see is the city that’s been rebuilt and modernized in the last twenty years. You know nothing about when the city was just a town, nothing about when the country was of a different name, nothing about anything that had been, before globalization. You’ve lived in the United States all your life, you’ve been so modernized. You know nothing about what it means to grow up there, in that part of that country, and breathe in that air. Your mind has been so simplified. It knows nothing of war and the struggle for survival. You don’t even know your own language. The traditions of our life and your family will die with you.
Your mother calms down your father’s mother.
But she is right, your uncle says. He leans back with a hand on his chin and looks at the table as if in heavy philosophical contemplation. Kids these days, the ones from Asia. None of them care about their heritage.
The table nods all around you. You make quick eye contact to the siblings and the cousins who share in your struggle, but silently wish you had kept your mouth shut. You turn to the younger ones who do not understand and have yet to learn what lies ahead in their future, in this home.
They grow up so ignorant, your uncle continues, shaking his head. You’d be lucky to find any Asian kid born here that’s truly bilingual. That knows what the hell they’re supposed to prepare for the Lunar New Year. I mean, just the other day…
You bow your head to excuse yourself and bring your plate to the kitchen sink. You place it in softly and turn on the water to pretend you are rinsing your plate. You are rinsing your thoughts. You tell yourself you belong in your family.
You must belong with your family, because even when they see how Americanized you’ve become, it is still not Americanized enough for you to belong in the United States, in a land where the narrative is so black and so white, so black against white, so determined to throw everyone in every shade in between back to their motherlands, back to a land that does not wish to call itself your mother, back to the Eastern lands of this Westernized world, full of mysterious superstitions and strange mouths eating strange food and speaking strange languages, conversing with different looking people and filling their days with unordinary things, as if bound by a different part of space, a different place in time.
You turn off the water and rejoin the table.
Elizabeth is studying for her MA in English and MFA in Creative Writing. She hold a BA in Psychology from UC Berkeley and has studied Chinese Language and Culture at NTNU in Taipei. Her poem “Next Word, Please” is published in The Hong Kong Review. You can follow her on Instagram at @imlizzy.notlazy
Visual Artist Bio
Paige Welsh is pursuing an MFA in fiction. Her thesis at UC Santa Cruz won the Chancellor’s Award. You can follow her on Instagram and on Twitter @MarkthatPaige