Rain hit the broken cement over and over again and the sound of screeching tires slowly faded away. I looked out into the rain. Sydney’s words came back into my head, but I quickly shook them away as I walked into my dance studio, slipping my shoes off at the door.
I was greeted with silence. The cold, brown bars lining the walls were empty and the usually dirty floor was mopped abnormally clean. I slowly walked in, looking around for anyone before heading into the bathroom. Surely, there has to be someone here. The door was unlocked, I thought as I passed the cabinets. I looked around. A bag was already in one of the cubbies. I guess, I’m not the first one here, I thought as I opened the bathroom door and stepped in.
“Heyyy,” my dance mate, Cheryl said as she came out of the stall, already in her colorful Xinjiang costume.
“Hey,” I said as I pulled my hair up into a ponytail and pinned a flower on my head. “How did you even get in here? I didn’t see Lao Shi.”
“Oh. She went next door to buy some food. She just let me in first,” she replied as she wiped her face off with a small towel.
“Really? I thought I was the only in here for a second,” I said, smiling.
“You wish,” Cheryl teased. “Anyways, you ready for the performance this weekend,” she asked as she washed her hands and begun applying a dark tan foundation.
“Yea, I think so. We’ve been working on this piece for a bit,” I said, shimmying out of my school clothes and into my costume. From my bag, I grabbed my tamborine and gave it a little tip tap before setting it downward.
“Ugh. High school is killing me. You’re lucky, you’re only a freshmen” I said as I sat down on the floor and leaned my head against the wall closing my eyes. Cheryl laughed before rolling her eyes.
“You’re so dramatic,” she said as she continued to put on her makeup as I sat down. We sat in silence for a minute as I took out my phone to check for messages. A hand reached over and pushed my head upwards.
“Whoa! Hey,” I cried as I realized that Cheryl had reached over and started dabbing makeup all over my face.
“Lao Shi is going to be so mad at you when she realizes that you have no makeup on,” she said as she continued to dab her foundation, which was definitely a few shades way too dark, onto my face.
“I was getting to it,” I said laughing as I swatted her hand away.
“I was getting to it,” she mimicked as she rolled her eyes.
“I really was,” I insisted and gave her a playful push.
“Not at that speed,” she teased and grabbed her belongings before heading out the door. I sighed. That girl was crazy. The door swung open again and I cranked my head to see who had just entered.
“I forgot my phone. Can’t watch Tik Tok without my phone,” Cheryl laughed as she came back in and left again. I laughed. Crazy, but I definitely love her, I thought as I walked up to the mirror and started applying my makeup.
“Five, Six, and Seven, Eight,” Lao Shi yelled as I scrambled to put my bag down before joining the others. She stopped, looked down at her watch and then back up. “Late,” she said disapprovingly to me, but continued to give corrections. “Again,” she cried and the drumming music started again. Each of us tapped our heels against the ground as we traveled side to side. Bump. Bump. Bumpity. Bump. Bump. We danced forward, exchanging lines. Bump. Bump. Bummmmp. Then, backward, spinning in circles and tapping our tambourines above our heads. Bump. Bump. Bump. The last beats played and I grabbed my skirt sliding into the final pose. Cheryl was on my right, holding her leg above her head with her tambourine pointed sideways. She flashed me a smile. I rolled my eyes.
“Is there something you’d like to share with the class,” Lao Shi asked, catching Cheryl’s smile.
“Not at all,” she said restoring a strict face.
“Okay,” Lao Shi replied as she eyed Cheryl and I, “Let’s continue.” The music played again and again and we danced each time. Slowly, the skins on the side of our feet were rubbed off as they continued to brush against the side of our heels. Our arms became sore from holding up our tambourines and our backs hurt as we continued to bend in unnatural ways. We looked at Lao Shi, hoping for maybe a bit of sympathy, but she didn’t care and insisted on pushing us even more. “Practice makes perfect,” she said as she gave even more corrections. An arm wasn’t straight enough. A smile wasn’t bright enough. One of us was off beat. Again and again we practiced until she was finally satisfied.
She looked around, slowly scanning her eyes through us before finally saying, “You can relax.” The entire class let out a breath of relief as we relaxed from the final position. Cheryl grabbed her heels and yanked them off as Amanda shimmied out of her costume. Another girl plucked the flower out of her hair. Lao Shi raised her hand and we all stopped.
“It was a good rehearsal today. Keep up the good work. Do not forget that we will meet at 3:00 pm at the theater. I hope you are all on time,” she said, pausing to look at me, “and I hope that we will have a successful show. Class now dismissed.” Everyone exhaled and walked to the cabinets to retrieve our belongings, exhausted. I stopped for a second to check my phone and by the time I looked up again, everyone managed to disappear. I quickly grabbed my bag and headed out the door. The rain was falling even harder than before. Bzzt. My phone buzzed and I looked down. Will be late, Ma Ma texted. I sighed and headed down to the grocery store next door. Might as well get something hot to drink, I thought as thunder rumbled rattling my bones.
Warm hot chocolate lined the food warmers. Donuts and bagels filled the shelves. I reached over to grab a hot chocolate before walking down the shelves and to the cashier. The cashier was a middle age woman with thick round glasses and a button down, red vest.
“Bad weather isn’t it,” she asked as she scanned the hot chocolate.
“Yes, definitely,” I said, “I thought the forecast said it was going to be sunny though.”
“Ah yes. I guess the forecast is wrong,” she said laughing, “That will be two dollars.” I leaned down to fetch my wallet from my backpack when she added, “Your English is very good.” I stopped for a moment. I was born here, I thought, English was my first language. I shrugged and decided to take it as a compliment.
“Thank you,” I said as I grabbed the money from my wallet.
“Where are you from,” she asked as she took the money and started counting the change.
“No, like where are you really from,” she said handing me the change. I hesitated for a second. I was born in America. I was raised in America. What else did she want me to say? Was that not an interesting enough answer?
“I was born and raised in America. My parents are from China,” I said, spotting Ma Ma’s car in the driveway.
“That’s more like it,” the cashier said. I said nothing and grabbed my hot chocolate before walking to Ma Ma’s car.
Ma Ma honked at me when she saw me and I quickly ran into the car, closing the door behind me.
“Was dance okay,” she asked as we sped down the road, on our way home.
“Yea,” I said gazing out of the window, deep in thought. Ma Ma looked at me through the rear-view window. I looked back at her. She shrugged and looked back at the road. Even if she did sense something was off, she didn’t say anything and we sat in silence as the rain hit harder on the window pane.
I thought back to the conversation at the supermarket. There was something about that conversation that made me uncomfortable. Something about those questions seemed to arouse a sticky, nauseous feeling within me, but I didn’t know why. I replayed the conversation in my head.
“Where are you really from,” she had asked.
I paused for a second, thinking about it. There was nothing wrong with the question. In fact, it was just a simple, curious question. But why did the question, feel more than just a question. Was it not possible for an Asian to come from a Western country? Why did the question seem like a statement saying, “You don’t belong here. You’re not an American.” Am I different from “regular” people? I hit my head with the palm of my hand, trying to gather up a reason.
“Something bothering you,” Ma Ma asked, interrupting my thoughts.
“No,” I responded and continued to look out the window. Ma Ma didn’t respond and continued driving. I looked down at my fingers and begun fidgeting with my hoodie strings, beginning to feel annoyed. Do I need to justify to others where I’m actually from? It’s not like I have a good reason to deny my origins. Why couldn’t they just take my answer? I sighed. I guess, people naturally have their own deep-seated biases. America equals built by Europeans. If you’re not European, you don’t belong here, I thought as I mopingly stared out the window.
“Anyhow, Chinese New Year is this weekend,” Ma Ma said, “Make sure you clean out your room.”
“I know,” I replied, drily.
“Also, I hope to see good grades on-”
“I know,” I replied, this time a little louder and forcibly. Ma Ma glanced at me through the review-mirror. I looked at her and made a face.
“What,” I said, even louder this time, furrowing my eyebrows. Ma Ma raise her eyebrow and I exhaled.
“I’m sorry,” I mumbled, “Just stressed.”
“That’s better,” Ma Ma responded, “Don’t let stress get the best of you.” I nodded in agreement and took a deep breath, pushing my annoyances.
Ma Ma turned left and we entered our community. The yellow street lamps flew by in lines and the rain continued to pitter patter on the window. I put my head against the window, watching the little droplets travel across the window.
The car turned left and slowed down. “Home,” Ma Ma said, looking back at me as she pulled into the driveway. I grabbed my backpack and slid out of the car seat. Rain hit my eyes, blurring my eyesight and I wiped my face off with my sleeve. For a second, I stopped and stood in the rain. I looked up at the invisible stars and the lonely moon. “I hope I figure things out,” I whispered before dashing through the rain as if running would leave the conversation behind.
— — — —
The smell of Ba Ba’s Shanghai wonton soup and Ma Ma’s Sichuan bon bon chicken filled the air as I entered the house. My brother, Edward, was already at the kitchen table stuffing his mouth with wontons and Ba Ba was in the kitchen, making the next batch for Ma Ma and I.
“Go change first,” Ma Ma said and I quickly kicked off my sneakers and headed up the stairs. I ran into my room and dropped my backpack on the wooden chair before launching myself onto my bed. I closed my eyes for a few seconds, tired from the long day.
Beep! My phone buzzed and I rolled over, checking my phone. Facetime for Calc? My friend, Brian, texted. OK, I responded before changing into random clothes and heading downstairs for dinner.
“Aubrey! What is taking you-”
“I’m right here, Ma Ma,” I said as I turned the corner, entering the dining room. My brother had already finished eating and I quickly grabbed a bowl of rice before sitting next to Ba Ba. We ate in silence for a few minutes. Small talk was none of our fortes.
“So, how was school,” he asked.
“Ehh, it was okay,” I said as I helped myself to a spoon of bon bon chicken.
“Are you getting good grades? College is very competitive,” Ma Ma added as she placed some bitter melon into my bowl.
“I know. I’m trying,” I said, thinking about the failed test from today.
“Okay,” Ba Ba said, leaning over to place a plump wonton in my bowl, “make sure you get everything you need to done before this week.”
“Right,” Ma Ma added, “Nai Nai and Yéye will be coming over to celebrate Chinese New Year and we will all watch your dance performance too.”
“And, we are having dinner with them tomorrow,” Ba Ba said as he crunched on Ma Ma’s bon bon chicken. I nodded, finishing my last wonton. We sat in silence again.
“I’m gonna go shower and do homework,” I said at last, as I placed my bowl in the sink. “Ma Ma, you don’t need to make me lunch tomorrow,” I added before disappearing up the stairs. FaceTime in 10. Going to shower, I texted Brian as I turned on the hot water and stepped in.
Warm steam fogged up the bathroom and my whole body ached. I took a deep breath and stretched. I needed to find a way to bring up my calculus grade, I thought as I lathered soap on my body and then rinsed it away. I stepped out of the shower and walked into my room, throwing on a fuzzy red sweater and a pair of sweatpants. FaceTime?, I asked Brian as I took out my homework and started looking at the first problem. Beep! I looked over at my phone. Sure, he responded and my phone instantly began buzzing. I answered.
“Hey, what’s up,” I said.
“Nothing much. Do you wanna do the calculus homework together,” he asked as he reached out of the frame to grab his binder.
“Sure,” I responded, “I don’t really understand shells and disks.”
“Oh that’s fine. I know how to do that, but we are probably gonna have to go over indefinite integrals,” he replied, uncapping his pen and turning to the first page.
“Yea, sure. I think I know how to do those.”
“Alright, cool. Well, number one, y equals root x,” he begun to say and we started the homework, alternating between the hard and easy questions. An hour passed. Maybe two and my brain was beginning to turn into a microwave. I zoned out a bit and my mind drifted back to the conversation from the supermarket.
Foreigner. Foreigner. Foreigner. The words kept repeating over and over in my head. You are a foreigner in your own country. You don’t belong here. My heart raced and I leaned back. Maybe all this was happening because I wasn’t American enough. If only I had been more American and dropped everything Asian about me, then everything would be-
“AUBREY,” Brian shouted as I jerked upwards in my chair, “Are you okay?”
“Yea. Sorry, I’m just a bit tired, ” I replied hugging my head.
“Oh. True, this time of the year is always rough,” he said, “well at least we got everything done for calc. You should get some rest.”
“Yea. I will,” I said closing my textbook and putting my papers in my backpack for the next day. Foreigner. Foreigner. Foreigner. The words continued to repeat in my head. I opened my mouth. Then, closed it again. Brian peered at me oddly through my phone and I took a deep breath.
“Hey, did you see on Instagram, apparently people are drawing attention to normalizing Asian racism,” I asked, putting my head on the table and peering at him, curiously. He leaned back. A flicker of surprise appeared on his face, but was masked quickly.
“Yea,” he said finally, crossing his arms, “what makes you ask that?”
“Oh. It’s just that like Sydney asked if I was okay with people asking if I ate dog meat like as a joke and a lady asked where I was actually from. ”
“Yea. I’m just thinking about of all this.”
“Well what did you say?”
“I said that I was fine.”
“Well, are you?”
“I mean, I think so.”
Brian laughed. “Then what’s the problem?” I smiled.
“I don’t know. I guess, it’s making me second guess myself.”
“Does it make you self-concious?”
“A little bit.”
“Awww…don’t feel that way okay? Unless, you feel like you really aren’t okay then speak up. Otherwise, I’d just drop it okay?
“Yea. I know. But like, it’s just..I’m confused.”
Brian laughed. “Awww. Don’t be confused. We’re Asian, what do you expect? We are a minority. To many people, we don’t belong here. It’s just the way it is,” he said.
“Well what if, I try to be more American,” I replied, looking at him, “Don’t you think if I maybe became more American, people would just accept me?”
He shrugged. “Your clothes might look American. Your attitude may be American, but the first thing they see is your Asian face. That won’t change. I’d just accept it: your American side and your Asian side. You can’t throw away your heritage,” he replied. A voice yelled in the background. Brian looked back at me. “Anyhow, I gotta go. See you tomorrow, Aubrey! Don’t stress out.”
“See ya,” I said as I hung up, thinking over his words. You can’t throw out your heritage. You can’t throw out your heritage. I sighed. How I wish I could. Maybe not completely throw it out, but change it. Everything would be different and all my problems would go away, I thought as I took out the rest of my homework and begun doing it.
Somewhere in the middle of history homework, my head fell down on the desk. My eyes slowly closed and I could no longer muster the energy to get back up again. The last thing I remembered was the door creaking open as Ma Ma came in, wrapping a blanket around me.