On Being the Only Asian in Small-Town Kansas

16-2017_Ramen_Noodles_-_ink_print_making.jpgIn my gym shoes, I drew the striped blocks

of my Japanese name, strained


and skewered during roll call

until I sounded like an exotic bird


or an Asian cell phone brand.

People used to ask my mother


where I was adopted. She did not give me

her tall frame, pale eyes, or wheat-colored hair.


Nor did my father give me his language

because I needed to sound like the American


that I am. I learned that What are you?

is a question of geography


and the voices that ask will bray

even louder if I say something smart


like girl or American or simply

human. After an hour of WWII history


my sixth-grade crush followed me

into the girls’ bathroom


to tell me about his grandfather at Pearl Harbor—

weren’t the Japanese stupid, wasn’t I ashamed?


I appealed to the teacher for reinforcement,

coffee-tongued grimace, square-shouldered barricade


and heavily punctuated breaths informing me

that, in fact, they were stupid


for messing with America. He later uncrossed his arms

and conceded to the fifth period study hall


we are fortunate to do business with them,

that they gave us good technology,


and he showed us his Seiko watch. That afternoon

we and they meant different things.



When my grandmother was a child,

she saw the orange plume,


a dancer’s sky-blown veils billowing

against a hushed horizon.


Squinting, she cradled it in the crook

of her saliva-webbed thumb. To her,


it was beautiful. What are you?

is a question of histories and how many


one can hold all at once.

I lecture my composition students


on how to say and spell my name

and a nineteen-year-old English major


tells me that in his interview with the Naval Academy

they are asking boys if they can drop bombs


without thinking, to save America. He adds

his resounding Yes.