Bursting Seams

Originally written for Dr. Hundley’s Pop Lit class. Thought I would share. -Yue Yuan, copyright 2016. Do not take without reference or proper citation. Inquire author in comments.

The Arrival: What is your family story around immigration? Write a narrative of your family’s journey.

Burst Seams (of the American Dream)

Your mother and I, when we first go there, had only two pieces of luggage.

I hear this statement-story every time I head home to our family’s wannabe-Frank Lloyd Wright bungalow on the crossroads of {town} and ____-side Chicago, A____ neighborhood. My 爸 (bà), with much bravado and pseudo-humility, berates me with his first generation Chinese “coming to America” graduate school journey any time he can get a word in edge-wise. I heard it growing up whenever I asked for anything, including a pet. “You want a DOG? We were so poor when we came here, we lived like dogs! Your mother and I, when we first got here…” and so on. Every time I wanted art supplies or asked to quit piano or go to a non-school event extracurricular. “Do you know what your mother and I gave up to come here? When we first got here…”

When we first got here, we were poor. I was two and I still remember the ancient, sputtering Toyota, “holy” only in the sense of its threadbare seats and my parents’ reverent excitement about owning a vehicle, any vehicle really. I remember being part of Asian-American college or church communities in Kansas, Iowa, Maryland, Arkansas, Chicago… My first chosen family, though, was in Kansas. I remember Suzi most of all, especially as part of her “gang.” Suzi— a twelve-year-old demon who knew how to pander to adults but make any younger kid’s life a living mobster movie. She taught me my first cuss words, how to fight, and how to nurse a baby bird back to life. I thought she was awesome. Back then, life was all about comparison (“Why can’t you be more like Suzi? Look at how her hands are curved on the piano…”), and I understood what it meant to be raised by a village. At first glance, we lived in a cheap two bedroom, but in reality we conglomerated into three floors, three units, three families in one. Blue light deal at Kmart, as my 妈 (mā) would say. Xiaoxi, Suzi, and I wandered Apt. Q like we owned the place, excavating dead lizards in asbestos-infested, dusty corners and turning purple honeysuckle fields into other planets. It was heaven and hell in Manhattan, Kansas, a poor college town in the cornfields named after a famous metropolis. Paradox and borders and mix-ups, like all the others which define my life.

My mother and father came to the U.S. from country and city, 河南和北京。They refused to compromise on our culture, and I love them for that now. I regret every fit I threw about Chinese schools across the country, from BoPoMoFo alphabet soup in Kansas to the “General” Zhang 老师 in Fayetteville, Arkansas. I regret quitting for the last time junior year of high school in the UIC parking lot, seeing the empty tiredness of my  mother’s face.爸妈, 真的对不起您们。 I have searched for this Asian-American feeling in corners of the universe, in my Hong Kong University study abroad and a Taiwan Fulbright. I searched for the feeling of home in boy’s smiles and empty promises, in the catch of moonlight on Lan Kwai Fong rooftops, and again with B, hovering centimeters away watching the stars on a shoddy picnic bench in Luodong. It wasn’t all empty tiredness, but it was country and city, world’s end, and I was just beginning.

My parents gave my younger brother and I everything. Two poor graduate students came from China, worked 70 hours a week in their respective majors, earned their Ph.D. and MBA degrees, and hustled up the “good ‘ol U.S.A.” social ladder in record time. Well, it still took them and me 18 years to get naturalized citizenship, despite having countless work visas, student visas, and green cards.No citizenship when you choose the U.S. over China, did I mention that? So, as I was sworn in with my little U.S. flag pen, I felt like I betrayed my mother country. Turncoat, that’s what it feels like to be a hyphenated American some days.

My parents gave this country their youth, their love, their hope. What did they receive in return? Two spoiled children who eat Chipotle burrito bowls with chopsticks and Sriracha. Bigger houses, more devices, less family time. These days, when I head home, we are glued to black mirrors of iPads or iPhones. I long for the simple days of smelly rice vinegar kitchens and my mother’s cheapo “these-ingredients-were-left-over-from-the-lab” cheddar breads. I miss being poor but so close, so ready to be a team. We were a team. The American dream? It’s tearing apart the fabric that was…us.

I came to this city with two pieces of luggage, my dad, a car, and naïve hopes. Vanderbilt is the whitest place I have lived in since Arkansas, when I swore to myself I would never return to an area South of the Mason-Dixon line. My life can be measured in departures and arrivals, dim sum and skillet breakfasts, possibility and oppression. It takes everything inside me not to head to the tarmac runway when I hear, “But where are you from-from?” “But where are your parents from?” “Why don’t you just go home to China.” I want to kick somebody. I want to scream. I want to fucking punch someone. We are Chinese-American, but the two are but faux friends, smiling fu dogs who really want to tear each other’s throats out.

The nations inside our family want to kill each other. The identities inside me want to rip me apart.

The seams are bursting, and I don’t know if I can hold it all together any more.


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