When you sit in the middle of a classroom, you will be bombarded by “what was the answer to number sixteen?” and “how do you do problem eight?” You will reply, “I have no fucking idea,” and they will watch you as if waiting for you to laugh, to squint your eyes to the characteristic slant they are so used to seeing. They wait for you to say, “I’m kidding, of course I know.” But you don’t.
When you fail your first calculus test, you will feel proud. You will glance at your neighbor’s paper, see the cherry red A-plus plastered in the top right corner and back at the F scribbled on yours, and you will feel the entire alphabet lifted from your shoulder. You will chuckle, as you say, “See? I told you so, I told you I could.”
You take note of their reactions. You crumple the sheet instead of folding it into origami rectangles. You tell them you don’t know how to make a paper crane or a paper lantern or a paper lotus flower or a paper anything, and they ask if you use chopsticks at least. They ask what you eat.
You begin from the bottom, the deep south of menus, from F for failure to A for Asian, but they only hear the A’s. Fried frog legs, not fried chicken. Dumplings, not drumsticks. Chow mein, bamboo shoots, and albatross stew, never angus steak, black-eyes peas, or cornbread. You say that they eat more noodles than you do, that you haven’t used chopsticks in a decade, only at restaurants when you try to be authentic.
But you know there is nothing authentic about having to fail to succeed, to prove that you are the same as everyone. And you think to yourself, you are always a that one or a this one or another one. Another awkward combination of skin and bones from San Francisco or Houston. But you were born in South Dakota.
You grew up playing two-hand touch with the neighbors as November leaves blew across the field. You drove a beat-down Toyota because you cared about air pollution. The first time you ate fried rice you thought, “I wish I were Asian,” and the first time you ate chicken nuggets, you thought, “I wish I were American.”
You once spoke Mandarin like it was your first language. You don’t remember every syllable anymore. You don’t remember your zodiac pet, your Chinese name, or the first time you visited your homeland. They called it that, but when you arrived, you were homesick for pizza parties and kickball.
The only place you felt at home was when you were little, on the playground. You were surrounded by a hundred faces in a hundred different hues, and you were a single watercolor painted on a familiar canvas. This art is now a business. You never play the violin because of the supply, but you never think to be a doctor because of the demand. Instead, you avoid biology, you avoid chemistry, you avoid calculus.
You avoid sitting in the middle. You avoid the questions.