On the Apron


May 31, 2021

Being Asian American means something here, I think. It means poetry littered with references to bao zi (italicized like the word itself is exoticism crammed into a typeface) and my parents’ broken English; it means joking with my friends about our aptitude in math because it’s fine to laugh at ourselves; it means having sampled most of the Chinese restaurants in the New Jersey area, where I often find myself competing in.
A little about me. I am fifteen. I have spent the past five years of my life entrenched in communities composed of lots and lots of other Asian people. Some are to be expected- extracurricular math classes, art teachers found through the WeChat grapevine. Others like fencing may come as more of a surprise. (But yes, we’re there and our numbers are considerable.)
I used to wish my hair was light and curly, frown at homemade rice lunches, and dream of a surname that wasn’t rough and clumsy, divorced from its original tongue. Then again, I also used to pick my nose and not pay attention in class, so make of that what you will. (I still have not figured out how to say my name in English. “What’s your name?” the referee asks. He’s looking at the list of people he has to check off. “Zh-ao,” I answer, and quickly follow it up with “Zao. Starts with Z.” The first one sounds too much like Chow, the difference between Zh and Ch undetectable. Neither pronunciation is the right one. Sometimes I just point to where my name is printed on his clipboard. Other times I turn around to where it’s been conveniently stamped across the back of my jacket.)
Maybe, I posit to myself, I spend too much time trying to untangle a meaning from my identity. A meme online boasts of the wonders of boba. A friend yells, “A stands for acceptable when you’re Asian!” across the room. Wikipedia lays out common trends in Chinese culture in a clinical tone.
I only get milk tea on special occasions. I check my grades. I bookmark the page.
I have always disliked the category of Asian American and Pacific Islander. Over seventeen million square miles of storied land stuffed into a box to check off on forms. The government can take the census however it wants, I guess. (But I sigh in the middle of another discussion and resist the urge to roll my eyes. “Asian Americans are not a monolith,” I repeat. Are they listening?)
It’s just that we tend to be invisible here. Invisible, as in: it feels like the world is looking at me to be just this one-size-fits-all Asian, hotpot and calculus textbooks and strict parents. I swapped “trying to be white” for “trying to be Asian” in the most performative sense. I am moving through the choreography of my identity as if following a manual.
I’m not a dancer. I can’t put my whole heart into the leaps and turns. I can’t see it as anything but separate from myself. I can’t help being aware of everybody watching. It’s only when the stage light’s off that I feel better. Making imitations of my mother’s perfect dumplings or switching to Mandarin to tell my brother something I don’t want the strangers around us to hear. Even if my dumplings are deformed and my Chinese broken- the second half of Asian American leaving its fingerprints all over my life -I am secure in those solitary moments.
(And the curtain falls.) (And I slip backstage.) (Look at all the scaffolding and electrical equipment.) (The skeleton beneath.)


2 thoughts on “On the Apron”
  1. Aileen,
    When I was fifteen, I was misunderstood, mistrusted, and mistreated. I lived in a shell, which did not belong to me. I had a home, which was my parents’, not mine. I was lost between who I was and who I wanted to be. My diary became my friend who listened and talked to me. However, I lost it after I entered college, but I found myself since then.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *