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.

On Being the Only Asian in Small-Town Kansas

 

In 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.

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