By Audrey Fong
I didn’t particularly enjoy visiting his parents’ apartment. It was very Memoirs of a Geisha in the sense that you knew it was supposed to be kinda, vaguely Japanese, but you also knew it was just some crap that Westerners ate up. There was a noren style curtain with a mountain print covering an entrance to a hallway and generic Edo period prints hung up on the wall of their small living room next to family photos. Whenever I visited, his mother would always brew me a cup of green tea, which I always received obligingly with a polite smile on my face. I felt like I had to accept it, even though I rarely drank anything other than water.
It wasn’t all bad or all cultural appropriation or anything. After all, he told me his mom was part Japanese, part Mexican, and part Guatemalan, while his dad was Mexican and part Irish or something white. I can’t really remember. But whenever I visited, it always looked and felt like I was in the home of someone who idolized Japan from afar. It was just a feeling I got and his parents took my presence in their home as an affirmation of its authenticity.
The first time I met his mother was an accident. We had gone over to his place so he could show me his recording setup. At the time I was head over heels for any guy in a band, so of course, I said yes. I also partly said yes to spite an annoying girl in my pre-calc class who also had a crush on him. As we were sitting at the kitchen table, the edges of the linoleum peeling upwards towards the ceiling, his mom walked in, her hair pulled back into a messy bun, large plastic sunglasses stuck to her face, and a stack of papers and folders piled in her arms. She immediately took off her glasses and was taken aback by my presence in her kitchen. I did what my mother taught me.
“Hi, I’m Hannah. I have a class with Alex. It’s nice to meet you,” I said, holding out my hand and putting on the same smile that had won over all my friends’ parents before her.
She didn’t shake my hand. Instead she dropped her papers abruptly on the table and told Alex that he wasn’t allowed to have friends over without asking first. She apologized and asked if I’d like anything to drink. Seeing she had already pulled out a box of tea for herself, I told her tea was fine.
“Oh, you have Itoen. I’ll take that. My family always has Itoen in our cupboards,” I told her. It wasn’t exactly true. I had seen Itoen on the shelves at Mitsuwa and was making small talk to show her what a friendly and well-behaved kid I was. It worked. It immediately drew her back to me.
“Your family drinks Itoen? We used to live in the Midwest and it was hard to find any decent Japanese teas there, so we’re glad we can find it so easily here.”
She cocked her head slightly and looked at me as if seeing my Asian face for the first time.
“What are you?”
“I’m Japanese and Chinese.”
“Did Alex ever tell you he’s part Japanese? We love everything Japanese and want to go there one day.”
Hook, line and sinkered. I knew I had her. There wasn’t a single parent who could resist a precocious, well behaved kid like me. I told her all about my trip to Japan, how my family cooked Japanese meals all the time (again, a slight lie), and how I had wanted to study Japanese, but our high school didn’t offer that. She loved hearing about it and from then on, enjoyed having me in her home. It was as if I was the last accessory needed to make her home feel just right.
Alex and I didn’t really date for that long or even really date. We walked around, shared food, held hands, exchanged our locker combinations, and did stupid teenage stuff like that, nothing remarkable. He didn’t even ask me to a school dance. The only thing that was remarkable about us was how we were the only Hispanic-male-Asian-female couple at our high school. All the other interracial couples were white-male-Asian-female, with one token white-mail-Hispanic-female couple. On one hand, I felt like a sellout for not choosing an Asian guy. But then again, wasn’t it better that at least my guy was a mix of this and that and vaguely Asian? I wasn’t sure.
But I was sure my being Asian was a big deal to him. He liked all the restaurants I took him to, how I wasn’t fazed by rude waiters (as Ali Wong puts it, a staple at all real Asian restaurants), how casually I walked up and down the aisles of Asian supermarkets picking out what I wanted, and how I never judged him for liking anime. Why would I? It’s literally just Japanese cartoons. He liked it and he liked my long black hair and the way it felt like silk.
He also liked my Asian friend group, saying we were so cute together that we could’ve been a girl group. It was weird of him to say that, but it was actually pretty true if only we had spent more time practicing dancing and singing and less time studying for the SAT. I think we intimidated him a bit. From our straight-A report cards to our Ivy League aspirations and lunch periods spent editing each other’s homework, we were very much the image of overachieving high school students who would go on to have successful careers and live in nice little houses in pretty little suburbs and so on. Our futures were hard for him to even dream of and sitting there with us, trying to picture it for himself and coming up short bothered him.
He also liked my Asian friend group, saying we were so cute together that we could’ve been a girl group. It was weird of him to say that, but it was actually pretty true if only we had spent more time practicing dancing and singing and less time studying for the SAT. I think we intimidated him a bit. From our straight A report cards to our Ivy League aspirations and lunch periods spent editing each other’s homework, we were very much the image of overachieving high school students who would go on to have successful careers and live in nice little houses in pretty little suburbs and so on. Our futures were hard for him to even dream of and sitting there with us, trying to picture it for himself and coming up short bothered him.
One day we were sitting in my house, at the same wooden kitchen table my family had had for over two decades. If you looked closely, you could see imprints of words and numbers from all the various homework assignments my brother and I had had throughout the course of our childhoods. Sometimes we’d get so frustrated at our homework, we’d stab downward, pressing our pencil into the paper with enough force to break the lead tip and other times, we’d just stab our pencil through the workbook. My brother holds the record; he once pierced a two-inch workbook his fury was so deep. Anyways, we sat there, jotting away at our assignments. I had brought out glasses of water for us and set out sheets of college-ruled paper. We sat in silence and I focused on my pre-calculus homework.
I can’t remember what I was thinking at the moment. If I was thinking anything, it was probably, “What the fuck is trigonometry and why do I have to learn it? Isn’t this a calculus prep class, not a trigonometry class?”
As I stared down at my homework, carefully copying down problems from the textbook with my favorite blue mechanical pencil, he looked around my house - at the impressionist paintings I had done up on the wall, at the saltwater aquarium in the corner, at the brown couches, at the practical furniture, at everything.
“What are you looking at?”
“Nothing. I’m just surprised.”
“About what? Is your homework hard? I can see if I can help.”
“No, that’s not it.”
“Then what?” I prodded.
“Your house isn’t very Asian.”
“There isn’t anything Asian in here.”
“Should there be?”
“It just feels like this house could belong to anyone.”
“What are you talking about? Do you want paper lanterns in the living room, ancient scrolls on the wall?” I asked, half-joking.
“That’s not it. I’m just saying this looks like an American home. Even my home looks more authentic than yours.”
“Well, I’m sorry that my house isn’t covered in Ching Chong tchotchkes like yours is.”
That really set him off. But good, I wanted it to. I’ve always been good at being angry and staying angry. My parents once said they pity anyone who wrongs me because I never forget and I never forgive. It’s true and I was mad at him. Little things here and there had bothered me about him before this incident, but I had let them slide off my back. Like how being with him made me so aware of being Asian and when you are something, you just are. It’s not something you need reminding of every day because it is so deeply a part of you.
A week or two before his comments, I had gone over to his home for dinner, toting a bag full of ingredients to make inari sushi for his family. A simple sushi, inari sushi is essentially sushi rice tucked into little pockets of canned fried tofu and is one of the easiest dishes to whip up. As I stood in the kitchen next to his mother chopping carrots, onions, and celery into little bits and pieces, I could feel her occasionally glancing over at me approvingly as I mixed the rice vinegar, sugar and warm rice together in a bowl, putting a scoop of it into the delicate tofu pockets until each one was a little pillow of rice and tofu for the family.
When we were done cooking, we placed the bowls of chicken noodle soup in front of everyone and the platter of inari sushi in the middle. It felt oddly out of place with such a classic, American meal, but I knew his family loved Japanese food and wanted to make a good impression. His father grabbed one of the pillows, biting into it.
“Wow, it’s so good. You did such a great job, Hannah. What did you do to the rice to make it so sweet?"
“Rice vinegar and sugar give it its sweetness.”
“Amazing, never seen that before,” he said, taking another mouthful.
Such a simple recipe and extremely common to do when making sushi yet it blew his family away. Every minute spent with them made me realize how easy it was to surprise and excite them with simple recipes and common knowledge that any of my Asian friends would already know. Often in their presence, it felt like I was a doll performing little tricks to please and delight them. I might as well have done the tea ceremony for his whole family.
Looking back, I probably overreacted at his comments about my house, but I hated them. I hated them and the way everyone around me saw my family. I hated how my family had been born and raised in the U.S. but were seen as foreign. I hated the way people complimented our English and how they told us we were the “good type of immigrants.” I hated the way grown, white men approached my teenage friends and me at strip malls to let us know their last girlfriend was Asian (just like us!) or studied abroad in Shanghai. And I was tired of playing along with this charade of being the nice little Japanese friend his family could send all their questions to.
Afterwards, I pretty much erased him from my life, stopped waving to his parents when I ran into them at the supermarket, went on a war path to fight every Asian stereotype. I became the go-to driver in my friend group, driving quickly and confidently, trying to prove to the world that I wasn’t some timid Asian driver. I stopped trying in pre-calc and watched my score plummet. I even bleached out my hair and dyed it Gerard Way-red with Manic Panic. Sometimes I think my dismal pre-calc scores are to blame for not getting into the Ivy League schools everyone else in my friend group would attend, but that would be too easy.
What all of this comes down to really though is, I hated the way people saw us as one thing - an Asian face - and pushed all these ideas onto us. It happens with everyone, no matter what you look like. I get that. It’s nothing special.