Something Better

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Chapter 10

The following Monday, I visited my first Asian food place in Edinburgh. I had run into Louisa again the previous week, and we had gotten to talking. She had told me about an Asian place she had heard about, and, when I had expressed interest, suggested we check it out together. We'd managed to exchange contact details, before we had been interrupted by another of her friends. She had a lot of friends.

She was with yet another friend when I met up with her on Monday. "Hi," she chirped, then gestured to her friend. "My friend wanted to come along, hope you don't mind."

"The more the merrier," I said, turning to shake the other girl's hand. "Hi. I'm Emilie."

"Shanti," she replied. "I've heard loads about you. Louisa wouldn't shut up about the cool Eurasian she met."

Louisa hit Shanti on the shoulder. "Oh, my gosh," she muttered. "Thanks for telling her that."

I laughed. "I'm flattered."

Louisa kept up a steady stream of chatter on the way to the restaurant. She was outgoing, straightforward, with a more than perfunctory knowledge of American pop culture – characteristics that didn't fit the typical western stereotype of girls from Asia.

In that aspect, I was probably more of an Asian stereotype than she was. Quiet, demure-looking... I remembered how Aksel had taken it on himself to protect my chastity and almost snorted.

"You're from Germany, aren't you?" Shanti asked me, when we were all seated in the store. "What's life like there?"

"Um..." I didn't know how to reply to that. "It's fine, I guess. A little boring, sometimes."

Louisa's eyes widened. "No way!" she exclaimed. "Germany is so cool. Trust me, you don't know boring until you've lived in Singapore."

It was my turn to be taken aback. "I have lived in Singapore," I said. "Well, I was really young, so I don't remember much about it. But I know it's an amazing place – really modern, really clean..."

"It's a fine country," Louisa said drolly, and Shanti laughed. I must have looked questioning, because Louisa explained, "It's kind of a joke for us, because you get fined for every little thing there."

"Oh." I hadn't known that. My memories of my early childhood were fuzzy at best.

"We went to Germany last week," Shanti offered. She tossed her head of dark hair, "Berlin. It's a pretty cool place. But..."

"But?"

She made a face. "No offence, but Germans are kind of... stern, aren't they? And when they talked to the both of us, they kept asking if I was from India and Louisa from China. It got annoying after a while."

"They don't–" I began, then bit my tongue. I had almost found myself saying the one thing that had irked me so much whenever it came from the lips of others. They don't mean anything by it. "I mean... It's an assumption people make based on appearances, I guess. I get the China question a lot, too."

"Yeah," Louisa sighed. "I mean, I thought the people were quite friendly–" she shrugged at Shanti here– "but they were always so surprised to hear that we're both from the same country."

"I tried to explain about race in Singapore, but people didn't seem to get it," Shanti groused.

"Um..." I found myself so eager to explain that I got a little tongue-tied. For some reason, it mattered greatly to me that the people from my second home didn't retain a bad impression of my first home. "We don't really have any concept of race. It's too reminiscent of – well, what happened in World War II. We usually refer to everyone by their nationalities. Even foreigners are called..." I paused to try to translate it, "fellow residents with foreign roots."

"Oh," said Shanti, frowning. "I see." Then she cracked a smile, "Residents with foreign roots? How PC."

"In fact," I added, "my dad, along with other Germans he met in Singapore, only learnt that he was supposed to be 'Caucasian' when he went over. He said it gave him quite the shock the first time. He was always just 'German' back home."

Louisa laughed. "Really? That's interesting. Isn't it kinda ironic how multiracial countries like Singapore tend to do more of the whole 'labelling people by race' thing?"

Shanti's lips twisted. "I know, right?" She turned to me, "There's this whole debate going on right now about whether we should remove the 'race' category on our ICs. There're lots of biracial people who're particularly against this form of categorisation – their ICs can only reflect one race – their father's."

"Wow." I'd had no idea that had been an issue in Singapore. "That's..." Then it hit me – if I'd been a Singapore citizen, I would have an identity card labelling me as being of 'Caucasian' race. Hadn't that been what I'd always wanted – to be seen as a 'whole' instead of two 'halves'?

But then, I realised, some printed words on a card wouldn't change who I was – or wasn't – on the inside.

If Aksel had been here, I found myself thinking, he would be looking at me with that infuriating, knowing look. It was a good thing he hadn't been in the vicinity during this conversation – then I caught myself. What was I doing, thinking about Aksel now? It could only have been that he was, thus far, the sole person privy to my internal struggle regarding my heritage.

I'd paused for too long but they were still waiting for me to finish my sentence. "That's kind of sad," I finished, "to have a part of yourself denied on an official document."

"I suppose it depends on how you look at it," Louisa said. "There are also plenty of biracial people who have said it doesn't matter at all to them."

The waiter came over right then, saving me the trouble of having to respond. He smiled at all of us, but his gaze was mostly drawn to Louisa. As he served our food, he asked, "Where are you girls from?"

"Not China," said Louisa, then she laughed. She gestured towards Shanti and herself, "We're from Singapore."

"Ah, Singapore," he replied. "I'm from Indonesia, originally."

"Oh, cool," Louisa said. "We're like neighbours, then."

He laughed. "That we are."

Some small talk ensued, in which I was a peripheral participant at most. They spoke of attractions in Edinburgh, as well as exchanged some opinions on news from Southeast Asia.

"Okay, I have go to back to work," he said finally. "It was nice meeting you. Have fun in Edinburgh." With a brilliant smile at Louisa and Shanti, and a vague one aimed at me, he turned and headed back to work.

I blinked after him. Way to make a girl feel totally excluded. "That was..." Kind of rude.

"The waiter was so friendly," Louisa enthused.

"He didn't say a single word to you, did he?" Shanti observed to me.

"He probably thought you were from here," Louisa giggled.

That was a new one. I was sceptical, but smiled weakly.

There was a bit of a silence next, as we all dug in.

"You know," Shanti said, over her plate of duck noodles, "This is pretty good."

"I don't like it," Louisa said. "It's too oily."

I frowned. "Is it less oily in Singapore?"

"Oh, no," Louisa said. "Local food in Singapore can get really oily, too. It's just that we've never eaten this style of Asian food."

"Yeah," Shanti agreed. "It's supposed to be an Asian place, but the dishes on the menu all look so exotic!"

"Oh," I tried to hide my surprise. "This has always been what Asian food meant to me, though."

The glance the two girls shared made me feel, all of a sudden, like an outsider.

"Trust me," said Louisa with a little laugh. "Food in Asia is nothing like this. I've only ever eaten this type of Asian food in Western countries."

"And fortune cookies," added Shanti. "You always see them being touted as an Asian tradition in American movies, but… I've never seen them in my life."

I tried to think back to the time of my early childhood, when I had been living in Singapore, but the memories were too fuzzy. I could only remember it being hot – really hot. I remembered eating an ice-cream cone while crossing the road, once, and the ice-cream had melted before I had gotten to the other side.

"Oh," I repeated, with an embarrassed laugh. "Guess I fail as an Asian, then."

Shanti wrinkled her nose. "Well, but... You're not... really Asian." She said this apologetically, but the words were like a bolt to my heart. Then she seemed to hear her own words and floundered, "I mean..."

I tried to smile around the growing weight in my chest.

"It's cool that you aren't fully Asian," Louisa jumped in hastily. "I mean," she waved an enthusiastic hand around, "your heritage is way more interesting. Anyway, you live in Europe!" She laughed, "You know more about European stuff than any of us do. That's way cooler."

But that also meant in the eyes of real Asians, the ones who had grown up in and lived in Asia all their lives, I was a fraud when it came to knowledge about Asian culture.

Best of both worlds? I thought bitterly, not for the first time. I was a part of neither.

For the rest of dinner, we stayed away from the heavier conversation topics and stuck mostly to small talk. I couldn't remember a thing I said – only that I'd smiled a lot to hide the festering lump in my throat. It wasn't their fault – if not for my own insecurities, lunch with them could've been really interesting. They'd had a lot of opinions on the food, and had discussed the differences between Asian food in the West and Asian food in Asia. It had been enlightening, but all it had highlighted to me, at that moment, was that I barely knew anything about the other side of my heritage.

At the end of dinner, after bidding them farewell, and promising to meet up again another time, I headed straight for the dorms. I met Aksel halfway up the stairs, just as he was coming down. I muttered a greeting and forged on upstairs. It came as a surprise when I heard his footsteps slow and then regain speed as he changed direction and came after me.

I barrelled on into my room, ignoring him. He followed right behind.

Inside my room, he caught me by the elbows and whirled me around. "Hey," he said. "What's wrong?"

Why was he here? Did he want sex? I jerked myself away. "No," I said. Horrifyingly, my voice wobbled a little. "I'm not in the mood."

He let me go. I kept my head down, hoping he would leave if I didn't say anything else.

Behind me, I heard the door close and latch. The silence in the room suggested that Aksel had left. I slid to my knees and leaned my head against the wall.

How long I stayed there, hunched up in the corner, I didn't know. Eventually, I heaved a sigh and sat back on my haunches.

"Feel better now?" a voice asked quietly from behind me.

I started, swivelling my head around. Aksel was seated on the floor beside my bed, his legs stretched straight out as he leaned back against the side of the bed frame. He was looking at me.

Suddenly self-conscious, I resisted the urge to head over to the sink to check my appearance. I probably looked a fright. "Why are you here? I thought you left."

He shrugged.

That familiar action of his, oddly enough, calmed me. I scrambled around to sit with my back against the wall, mimicking his position against the bed frame. Then I leaned my head back against the wall. We sat in complete silence for a while that way.

"Why are you being so nice?" I asked finally.

"So now I'm nice?"

I couldn't help it. My lips twitched upwards and I let out a chuckle.

"What happened?" he asked quietly.

I sat still, thinking. Eventually, I murmured, "Nothing I didn't already know."

He was silent. Probably knew what was coming. Was probably sick of the same old topic coming up all the time. But it was my life.

"I'm not European enough for the Europeans... Not Asian enough for the Asians." I closed my eyes and let my head fall back again with a sigh. "What am I?"

Eyes still shut tight, I heard no reply, just footsteps. Then I felt strong hands haul me up and opened my eyes to see Aksel's face very close to mine. "You're you," he said, ice-blue eyes sure and steady on my face. "You're enough." He looked as if he really meant it.

Feeling the tears spring up from beneath my eyelids, I couldn't help myself. I leaned forward and kissed him.

Coldly indifferent one moment, fiercely caring the next. This boy confused the hell out of me. But for some reason, he, too, was enough.

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