The following works appear independent of any print piece in the Spring 2020 issue.
A Chinese Student in polarized America.
On a steamy August day in 2011, my classmates were preparing to go back to heavy loads of schoolwork and face the ticking clock in each classroom counting down to Gaokao, the Chinese college entrance examination. I was boarding a plane at Hong Kong International Airport, grasping a file folder with my passport, documents, exchange student guide, a map of San Francisco International Airport and a few pages of introduction to Louisiana. I knew Louisiana would be different from the America I saw on TV—skyscrapers, bridges, busy streets with burger joints and dim bars. “Louisiana is one of the poorest states in the US,” I read. What would that look like?, I thought to myself. Surely still better than the poorest parts of China? Words from Obama’s 2008 victory speech in Chicago, which I learned about on my Casio electronic dictionary as English practice, began to sound in my memory: “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.”
I landed in America as part of a high school exchange program. Before that, I was studying at one of the most selective public high schools in Guangzhou. I cried on the phone to my mother for feeling dumb in math and physics classes, and felt small while my classmates were running Student Union, winning national academic awards, traveling globally and performing on world-class stages. I wanted to keep up with my peers, and that included studying abroad—roughly 150–200 out of the 1,000 students in my class ended up getting a Western college education. I thought by going to America, I’d shake off all these pressures of always achieving and be appreciated for my personality, finally be free and happy. The magic words Obama spoke were soon to be met with a completely different, cold, harsh reality. The true America was about to unfold in front of me.
For the first 3 months in Louisiana, I struggled to fully understand English spoken with a Southern accent. But that did not stop me from doing many things for the first time: I read a corny English love novel, attended a dance party, taught my classmates Chinese history, performed a monologue in drama club—things I could not do in China due to the intense focus on studying. But there were also many nights I spent tackling American history, a much thicker textbook than my Chinese history textbook despite America’s significantly shorter history. I was mesmerized by what America was “about.”
Talking to Americans was just as eye-opening, in its own way. My rich, spoiled, white host sister rolled her eyes at friends I made: poor white girls who liked coloring and math, a daughter of two lesbians, Pentecostals who always covered their bodies fully, a Black teen mom, and other Asian exchange students.
I was determined to blend in as an equal to American kids. I wanted to break the smart, studious, nerdy Asian stereotype. However, my determination was not rewarded. Instead, I had my first taste of racism. As the only Chinese girl in town, I thought “exotic” was good. It was rare, after all. I even prepared myself for loads of eccentric questions. But at a point they stopped being just eccentric. The words I was looking for to describe questions like “Does China have internet?” were “racist” and “ignorant.” But I was 16 and in a foreign country for 3 months. I didn’t know how to use those words as weapons to fight back. So I kept the injury to myself.
It got worse when my white host sister started calling me “Chi” and laughed boisterously at me for looking “Chinese” during a Chinese circus show on a holiday trip to Nashville. “Is that your brother, Chi?” She burst into laughter. It was the first time I felt that being “different” meant “inferior” to some people. Nothing prepared me for this. Not High School Musical, Friends, or Titanic, the few exposures I’d had to the idea of “America.” Not even the early warnings about racism from people back home. I didn’t know then what it is like in reality.
It took me many nights of tears to swallow my fear and finally be brave enough to say, “I can’t do this anymore.” When I transferred to another host family—a young white Baptist couple fond of the Southern conservative lifestyle—and a private Christian school, things were a little bit better. However, while she treated me politely, my second host mom still considered it “rude” of me to not attend church with them on Sunday mornings, despite my explicit disbelief in Christianity. Later I realized that they took me in to “educate” me about God. My difference made my classmates, teachers and host family all the more eager to spread the Gospel—the “good news”—to save me from “ignorance.”
Secretly, I had wished my anxiety for the future could be resolved by believing in Jesus. But I knew the brutal competition of American college applications awaited upon my return to China. A white friend didn’t understand why I had to go to some so-called “elite” and expensive college in the US rather than attend the local University of Louisiana campus like her. I could try to explain to her what education meant to a Chinese family like mine, that it was worth it for my parents to send me across the ocean to seek a better, perhaps “elite,” alternative. But instead I said, “I just have to.”
Naturally, my college search became a search for the very opposite of Louisiana. I was looking for a crowd that would value diversity and champion tolerance, inclusivity, and love as well as empathy for the “different.” With that spirit, I was immediately drawn to an online post about an elite liberal arts college in the heart of Ohio.
Oberlin stood out as my curiosity for the “other side” of America grew—an all-accepting sanctuary for marginalized, left-leaning intellectuals. It seemed that if I attended Oberlin, I would be surrounded by educated people from metropolitan areas who would have had interactions with Chinese people and also possess a fair amount of knowledge about my culture. I wouldn’t feel unsafe because minorities like me, a Chinese international student, would be heard and seen. Being different would not only be accepted but celebrated.
For anyone who’s idealized a romantic relationship and gotten their heart broken later, it is not hard to guess that my love story at Oberlin didn’t exactly go well.
It started with my observations of the heated campus political climate. Quickly, I picked up the vernacular that students used in discussions and protests: POC, institution, status quo, colonialism, white supremacy. Activism moved me with its passion. It is something that Chinese society would never allow. Growing up being the “good” student, I naturally was attracted to the rebellious nature of activism in various forms—writing, protesting, slam poetry, visual arts, you name it. Politics changed the way I think about my relationships with others and the society I live in. I became a politics major and a news writer for the Oberlin Review, through which I could learn about people of different communities.
Yet it also didn’t take long for me to sense that something didn’t seem quite right. Oberlin’s student body is 64% white, has a median family income of $178,000, and is predominately liberal. While often openly siding with POC, some white students told me they felt silenced as the POC community grew radical and shut down conversations with “it is not my responsibility to educate you.”
People were afraid to speak their minds and confined themselves to their own experiences in public discussions. In my Intro to the Black Experience class, few white students participated in the discussion because it seemed to be intruding on the “safe space” for black students. I was the only Asian student and I also didn’t raise my hand to speak. Not even once. I thought my job was to listen and learn, since I never lived that experience.
If I was honest then and did not worry about what Oberlin activists thought of my unpopular opinion, I would shout out that I didn’t like all this one-sided self-righteous loud-as-hell noise. I was overwhelmed by the arrogant “it is not my responsibility to educate you”-type of rhetoric that filled my interactions with liberal-minded Oberlin students. As an international student, I was not aware of the racial dynamics in the US at the beginning of college, and that is precisely why I wanted to learn. If you don’t tell me what the issues are, I will never know. And the truth is, I WANT to know.
As opposed to the negative stereotypes of Chinese students and scholars imposed by conservatives—job-stealing immigrants or untrustworthy spies—the liberal students at Oberlin seem to have their own issues with Chinese students: Chinese students are seen as a wealthy and privileged crowd; they are the new “whites,” compared to the struggling first-generation, low-income, and undocumented American students, who are often people of color. Indeed, most Chinese students at Oberlin pay full tuition and often come from affluent cities in China. Even at other US universities, Chinese students are often seen as “cash cows” or “walking ATMs” that “fix” the financial situation, contributing about $13 billion to the US economy in 2017–2018.
Chinese, from time to time, is spoken and heard on campus. Oberlin has a campus culture where friendship stems from allyship, especially when it comes to how students find community through identity. Some Chinese students tend to cling together and share similar political views. It wasn’t that I didn’t have opinions; I simply tried to keep them within my Chinese-speaking community or close friends, rather than discuss them publicly, because I felt safer with those who were similar to me and might not challenge me.
When the tension between the US and China started to grow because of Trump’s trade war and cybersecurity concerns, more negative rhetoric about Chinese students, pushed by American mainstream media, began flooding US college campuses. Chinese students were labeled in international newspapers like the New York Times as academically unqualified “cheaters,” or “communists,” unassimilable into liberal democracy, and “intelligence thieves” with ulterior motives. An East Asian Studies professor and advisor to the Oberlin Chinese Student Association suggested that Chinese students “break up” the “gangs” to avoid unnecessary and sometimes even unconscious hostility from our American peers, students and professors alike. Being a politics major, I was already hyper-sensitive to the political atmosphere on campus. I couldn’t figure out why my very own existence at Oberlin had to be challenged this way, as if I didn’t belong. It brought me down on many days.
Freshmen year, my mental health started to deteriorate due to academic pressure, and I was suffering the emotional distress of an unhealthy relationship which lasted into my junior year. When I finally got out of it, I was drained. My coping mechanisms completely crashed when I failed an economics class due to extreme pressure and fear of ruining my transcript.
My health went into a downward spiral. It was dangerously optimistic of me to think that medication could fix it all. I thought, naively, that I could go on taking challenging courses, until finally I lost all energy to keep up with schoolwork and struggled every single day to go to class. Lying in bed, unable to sleep, counting the seconds, was my loneliest moment at Oberlin. I remember feeling so helpless that I was reaching out everywhere to friends and professors and talking nonsense. Eventually, I was hospitalized and my father flew in from China to accompany me home after taking medical leave.
What was awaiting me at home, however, were questions, confusion, doubts and disappointments from my parents, relatives and even friends about the reason I “became” ill. A psychology textbook will tell you it was a combination of genetic and environmental factors. No one in my family had been “diagnosed”, though my mother and her side of the family tend to be ill-tempered. So my parents leaned into the environmental factors after I tried to explain what happened to me: “You are too engaged with other people’s businesses.” “You lacked boundaries.” “You are not a fit for politics and you shouldn’t study it, it’s too controversial and you cannot handle it.” “You should not have gone to America, their epidemics of mental illness made you sick.” “You are not able to manage your emotions.”
The worst and most hurtful comment I received was from my aunt: “you are ill because you are too spoiled.” I don’t know what that means. Is it that in my aunt’s eyes, getting everything I wanted, Oberlin and a major in politics, was too expensive and unrealistic for my parents to bear? She never said. My father called my mental illness a “rich person’s disease,” and claimed that no one could save me, not doctors, therapists, friends or God, if I didn’t have the will to “power through”. I felt deep frustration from my mother, who had always advocated for me to study abroad, as she began to murmur, “If I had known you were ill, I’d never let you go overseas.”
How do you expect the native to feel the alien when they’ve never set foot on another continent? It has never been equal. In conservative Louisiana, people saw me as this strange Asian girl who was far more interested in getting an A+ in American history than in knowing how to chill and drink at a party. They asked me unbearably funny questions about China and my ethnicity. I was made to feel that being Chinese was out of place, foreign. Yet at Oberlin, a liberal paradise, I was expected, as an international student, to know everything about both national and local political and racial discourse. No one wanted to slow down and explain anything to me. These perceptions and expectations are not the same, but in the end both made me feel that I simply could not fit in in America.
So I left America, a place where both conservatives and liberals alienated me for my Chinese-ness, only to come home to another kind of alienation from my own family, my own people.
Acceptance, empathy, understanding, respect, love… These are the things I crave, not just on a personal level but in the environment I live in. I am aware that these things don’t come easily. Collectively, as humans, we have to learn to practice them together, across differences. It is unknown, scary sometimes. But I am not giving in.
I like to catch myself in a window,
as my form shocks a storefront
or to see my eyes drip down my cheeks
in someone else’s eyeglasses.
In a shadow, my hand
hangs on to my wrist by spit
my expanding-contracting neck
shifting over my dendritic arms.
Car windows tell me
I put myself on the line for vanity,
and lobby doors tell me
my triangle nose points
telling my triangle coat
where to go.
It made no sense that we had a pool in a place named after the Pacific. In school we were taught that our home was a rainforest, a rain-fed wet dream for evergreens and mud puddles. I was born beneath an overcast sky, I learned to find comfort in grey. Daniel, my big brother by eight years, was born Southern California. He was blonde and twisting out of our parents’ grasps as his limbs burned pink.
Our in-ground pool was a lake by any standard. The perpetual rainclouds bred water-bugs and walls covered in slime. I swam until my lips turned blue. Sometimes he would join me in the cold, mostly he would just watch. I’d pull myself from the foggy water, dripping and skinny. I’d make him laugh with my teeth chattering while he wrapped me in a towel that reached the ground. He could never stay in one place very long, busy like big brothers are, but I knew he wouldn’t leave until I got warm again.
I got so good at holding my breath, I could go to the end and back again without coming up once. When Daniel forgave the freezing water he could go twice as far, though. His lungs are bigger.
My father forbade me from jumping on trampolines throughout my childhood, saying that I would end up paralyzed in a hospital bed. So after school on Thursdays I would bike to the Robertsons’ house. They had a big one in their backyard and no rules. I loved myself floating, my clothes full of air. But I hated hitting the elastic black, it would shock me, twist my ankle and take my strength with it. A chemical imbalance, Mom said Daniel had, some days were very high, some days felt low. The day he locked all of the doors in our house and spoke through the screen door: I am going to do it. I’m going to end it.—that day was close to the bottom, his ankles must have broken, he hit the trampoline so hard.
This isn’t about me.
None of it is, really, is what I’m coming to understand.
This is about what violence follows someone being locked up. This is about isolation. This isn’t about me. This is about mobility, security, locks and traps. I have lied so frequently about my family that the formula of falsity reverberates through my skull and comforts me each time I recite it. I think it might be easier because it once was true, it once settled inside the narrative of myself I was trying to sculpt. It fit perfectly—I have two siblings. My brother lives in Portland, still, he is getting his degree from Portland Community College. He was an alcoholic, but he got sober about five years ago. He totally turned his life around. He works with at-risk youth in a public high school outside of the city. He shows them music, he taught them to garden. My brother and I have the same face. We did a face-swap once and I swear to god nothing changed. We joke about who is the more handsome sibling. We hit each other’s arms and chase each other through my parents’ house. All of that was completely true at one point.
I was twenty and drowning, but this isn’t about me. It was a wet spring, 2017, one of the greyest that Portland has seen in years. The trees held water like mouths full, gulping it down. Deep green leaves shook with droplets and bounced like conversations. The northwest was being pummeled with early March down-pours. I would receive calls from my mother in which I could hear her pacing in front of the living room window, holding herself in a tight hug, rubbing her upper arms nervously. The tapping of raindrops from the front yard would weave itself between her words, I knew the grey was beginning to drive her mad.
Portland is a waterlogged city, its winding streets glisten with miniature streams composed of rain. It wasn’t until I moved to Ohio that I experienced an Autumn I could look upwards during without blinking rapidly, pinprick raindrops tickling my lashes. Oregon is a cloud-swirling rainforest, its days brew and simmer with the shaking of rain.
I don’t let myself picture my brother’s smile.
Daniel and I, we talked the most when we sat side by side, eyes straight ahead. My family loves the Portland Trail Blazers. Daniel would frequently surprise me with nosebleed seats to home games, inexpensive and impulsive. We’d sit at the top of the stadium, rows beneath us like scales. Amidst the screams and rounds of Let’s go defense, my big brother and I would talk about our parents, our changing city, our futures. He was planning on applying to a university somewhere that wasn’t Oregon when his girlfriend got pregnant. He confessed to me that he felt stuck in our waterlogged corner of the country, his sentiment cut short by an interception from the opposing team. Have you ever wondered—Daniel’s body shot out of his seat, electrified by the play below us. He then sat, bouncing his left leg rapidly, not facing me—have you ever wondered how different you’d be if you’d been born before we moved to Portland? My answer, “all the time,” was clouded over by the rush of people exiting during halftime, pushing towards bathrooms and food stands. There is something meditative about watching basketball. The methodical movement of it, the back and forth, the hush of a pass. Daniel and I would swing our heads in unison, clutching each other’s forearms in moments of tension, laughing hysterically when our team withstood persistent pressure. I felt glorious watching the games next to him. Daniel could recite a game of basketball like poetry. He knew each player, their history, their motivations. He could look at a court and decode it, observing the conflicts and flaying their complexities in front of me. Next to Daniel, I too could speak the game into emotional resonance. We could be poets together, and we would leave games in a flushed burst, lost among the crowds of people spreading from the stadium onto the damp Portland streets.
My father describes the day after it happened in silhouettes. The large window at the front of my parents’ house hangs above a small flight of stairs. When visitors come and go, they appear in the window in motion exclusively, a flit of a human approaching their destination. My mother often positions her rocking chair to gaze out, onto the front lawn and the steep hill that is a highly trafficked route to the coffee shop a couple of doors down. My father describes the day after it happened through the frame of the window, while he and my mother were sitting in easy silence, sipping coffee at the dining room table. They will spend hours like that, surrounded by newspapers and coffee losing its steam.
My father loves to read obituaries. He finds it stunning, the details that people choose to include about someone who is now dead. Often, when I’m home, before “good morning,” my father will greet my gruff , overslept presence with an excerpt from a dead person’s life. “Listen to this,” he holds an open palm towards me while his eyes remain fixed on the page, “this woman taught preschool for three decades in California, and would get invited to her past students’ weddings. Isn’t that marvelous?” And through my sleep-fogged eyes I am usually able to make out a headline in bold Catherine Carter, Beloved Teacher, is Dead at 85. We relish in the romance of lives which now contain conclusions.
The day after it happened, my parents watched the lanky outline of my brother’s girlfriend ascend the front steps to their door. She knocked, something she had stopped doing months before, when she and Daniel moved in together. When their son was born. When time felt like it was passing comfortably, gaining momentum and taking moments to breathe in the pleasure. She knocked, and my father glanced over top of his paper, “Molly’s here,” which my mother responded to by setting down her coffee after blowing on it but before tasting it, and opened the front door. My father recounts this next part through the punctuated flow of it. Molly took one step inside the living room, her eyes fixed on the floor, and said, “you might want to sit down for this.” They sat on the couch in front of her and watched her pace, backlit by the window. My father lacks patience when information is withheld from him, especially when it dangles itself in the shape of a carrot, or in the shape of Molly, long brown hair swinging with each sharp turn in my parents’ living room. “Molly, what?” I’m sure he asked, although he leaves details like that out in an effort to emphasize the painful: she said it plainly. Daniel has been arrested. Daniel is in prison. To which my parents could collapse against, my parents whose only son was now behind bars, was now being held in a room alone.
This isn’t about me, and this isn’t about prisons. This is about what happened to a family left behind.
I was many state lines away when it happened, finishing my midterms in the Midwest. I was cooking in co-ops with my friends and getting drunk on Wednesdays and my brother was in a cell, mentally ill and out of control. He had texted me just the day before, “you are the light of my life.” As the timestamp on that message approaches its second birthday, I am left wondering if he knew. If he was sending me a sort of farewell, if the lucid part of his mind was trying to comfort me. The days following his arrest I would hold lie in bed and hold his last voicemail to my ear, shaking as his voice coaxed me into a feverish sleep. I stopped looking in mirrors because all I saw in my eyes were his. Some of the only ways I know how to think about my brother are to imagine him dead. I imagine that I am capable of moving on, of it all getting easier to process.
The thing about grieving someone in prison is that the pain heightens with time. Reality stretches on, and instead of healing, all that awaits me in the depths of my subconscious are visions of my brother throwing his head back and laughing at something I said during dinner. I am forgetting what it felt like to talk to him. Our relationship has been stunted and shredded and bloodied. What you need to know is this: my brother’s brain does not regulate its chemicals like most peoples’. He did something violent and regrettable. And his days are forever sculpted by the biggest mistake he has ever made.
There are parts of your life that will not be affected by this, my parents kept telling me, as if the more they said it the truer it might become. My head pounded with their words for months. I walked to work as morning air wove itself between the strands of my throat like liquid. The sun began to rise and the grass became electric green, how fresh, how fantastic. The fourth floor of the Oregon Penitentiary Prison has green walls. Mint green walls and deep green doors and windowless rooms where the “ten most mentally unstable prisoners” are kept, according to a newspaper article I found online. I crossed the street and there was a stocky man with a sledgehammer, the cement spread open like eyelids.
When the day arrived that marked 365 days of my brother’s imprisonment, I was driving north toward Sedona, Arizona. Against the electric blue desert skies, Sedona’s famous red cliff s look like hungry flames. Three friends and I spent a week in and out of breathtaking canyons, and I began to imagine my brother locked in the chambers of my chest. I took him with me everywhere I went, I showed him the beautiful things—the air fluttering in through the car windows as we flew along I-10, the red rock crumbling beneath my feet as I leapt across a creek, my friends’ faces glowing around the gasps of the campfire.
But he added a lot of extra weight. As anyone who has ever gone backpacking knows, every addition to your pack grates on your bones by the end of each day. And a full-grown man? I could barely walk by the time we needed to set up camp at night.
Everywhere I move, I pull him with me and he remains stagnant. He remains in one place longer than anyone I know. I go to class and embrace my friends and scream when I’m scared. On a Tuesday last December, I climbed into a frost-bitten car with three of my friends and drove into Cleveland. We needed to get out of the same tiny town. My best friend stroked my hair as I led my skull rest against the cool glass of the window, watched the world whizz by, my eyes darting across the thin winter light glitter between empty branches. The sun was lowering itself, hissing its last breaths onto Ohio as we sped along. I have the power to escape whenever I want to. I feel the world piling itself on top of me and I run away, I am finding myself in the patterns of my movements. I am left with echoes of my brother, of the man he was. I am left with what I choose to remember.
His being in prison has designated him one pocket of my mind, I trap him between my everyday murmurings and let him rot there. If I open the door to where he lives, the smell is too overwhelming, I can’t see. So he remains there, and I am left in a roomful of people lowering their heads during a classroom discussion about prison. The State profits off of locking up crazy people, I remember saying, my mouth shaping letters that crumbled out of my lips and scattered on the desk in front of me. The professor nodded and gave me a reassuring smile, or so I assume, but I could not see her because of the fog starting from the corners of my eyesight and moving inwards. The classroom was all sheer white clouds but I continued speaking, fueled by people thinking I had no personal stake in the argument—if someone has done something terrible, isn’t it easy to blame a person who can’t defend themselves? And as the room shrivels beneath me, all I can see is my brother speaking to a person who no one else can see.
I put in headphones while I read the paper one morning and I unplug them after a minute and a half, throwing the earbuds across the table and covering my face with my hands. Andrew Bird lyrics chimed through my brain and as the words reverberated down my spine, I am surrounded by what it felt like to watch Daniel walk into a room. With his sweet-slow crooked smile, people hung onto his every word. I throw my headphones across the table and shudder, scribbling in the margins of my notebook that songwriters should stop using prisons as metaphors. “Prison or hell,” he wailed, “prison or hell prison or hell prison or hell”—It isn’t until about a week later that I look up the lyrics to the song. “Those that can’t quite function in society at large / They’re going to wake up on this morning and find that they’re in charge / But those that the world’s set up for, who are doing really quite well / They’re going to wake up in institutions / In prison or in hell / Prison or in hell.”