There’s something powerful about reading good writing. You can feel the surge of electricity in your brain, the gentle thrum of your heartbeat in your ears. These words have transcended their paper barriers; they’ve reached deep into your chest and tugged at your heartstrings.
There’s also something vulnerable about good writing – like the author took a paint brush and dipped it deep inside their soul, painting their words with raw emotion. It’s the kind of writing that resonates with you and leaves footprints on your heart.
I hope that someday, my words can leave a mark on someone’s heart, too.
My brother is so annoying. I hate it when my sister makes me do her chores. I hear those words on a daily basis from my friends, but those complaints have never come out of my mouth. I don’t have anything – or rather, anyone – to complain about in the first place.
You’re lucky, they tell me, I wish I were you.
If they knew how cold the house felt when I came home, they wouldn’t. If they saw my mother’s dark circles, her tired, veiny hands, her shoulders weary from supporting my grandma and I by herself – they wouldn’t. If they knew how I found solace in a computer screen, in people I’ll probably never meet – they wouldn’t. If they knew how I used to beg Mom for siblings when I was younger, and how she’d smile momentarily before saying ask Santa for Christmas – they wouldn’t.
I asked, and they never came. Was it because I did something bad? Was it because Santa hated me? No. There were tears in her eyes. No, not at all.
You’re lucky to be an only child. You get everything you want.
They don’t realize that you can’t spell lonely without only.
Head in the Clouds, Feet on the Ground
I used to soar at lofty heights on flimsy paper wings, held up by childish notion that yes, you could be anything and everything you wanted to be.
I was the princess of some faraway kingdom concocted by my imagination, sipping on high tea and letting my subjects eat cake. I was an undefeated lawyer that dominated the courtroom, shooting down every opponent with conviction and ease. I was a scientist pouring potentially toxic substances into test tubes and beakers, creating explosions that blew up in my face. I was a doctor that disease itself feared, whose brain held the panacea to every illness. I was the victim of dreams bigger than my brain could hold.
Now I stand on a pedestal of broken dreams, shorn wings at my side.
I was everything and nothing all at once. I was. I was.
Nothing ever moved fast enough for eight-year-old me.
Whether it was a car driving on the freeway, or my cousin sprinting across the field to catch a football in mid-air, in my eyes, they all moved at a snail’s pace. But even so, they all seemed to move at the speed of light compared to growing up.
There was nothing I wanted more than to step on the accelerator, speeding through life at one-hundred miles per hour. I always told my mom that being a kid was too stressful, that I couldn’t wait to grow up because teenagers and adults have it so easy.
But like most things little kids say, that was a bunch of nonsense. I laugh when I look back on it, but that laughter is mirthless.
Now I can’t put on the brakes. I’m spinning and spinning, everything whizzing past me in blurs of color and madness.
Everything moves too fast for me now, and one day, one day – I’m going to crash and burn.
Shark in the Water
Family vacations came once in a blue moon, but when they did, we always ventured to the unfamiliar – well, as unfamiliar as you could get for suburbanites. Once the school year finished and I was free from that prison in disguise called my second-grade classroom, we boarded a flight to Oahu, Hawaii with some family friends. Naturally, I was ecstatic to frolic around with dolphins under the sizzling sun rays and gorge myself on Dole Whip. Like a typical seven-year-old, once we arrived on the sands of Waikiki Beach, I immediately took a running start towards the water and jumped into the deep blue.
Like a good parent would, my mom dropped everything and frantically ran after me. I was picking up mounds of wet sand, clumping the grains together into balls with my small, chubby hands. Cẩn thận, con, my mom cautioned, motioning towards the vast blue ocean, don’t go too far. There are sharks in the water. I don’t want you to get hurt.
I whined and stamped my feet, creating small footprints in the sand, but I obeyed her. Mother knows best, after all, and after thinking about it, the ocean seemed scarier than I first thought. Now, seven years later, I’ve learned that she was half-right.
There were – no, are sharks in the water.
They’re nipping at my arms, gnawing on my flesh before I go up to present my project to the class. I feel their presence when I’m alone in bed at night with nothing but demons to keep me awake and keep me company. They’re swimming around my head when I’m trying to make friends with someone new, taunting me, waiting for my tongue to slip and say something that I’ll regret. When the doorbell chimes or the telephone rings, they’re there, beckoning me to answer, you coward. They are the thoughts that wreak havoc on my brain, a downpour of negativity. Laughing, taunting, mocking me. Water floods my lungs, drowns me in blue.
(They’re always there, beneath the surface.
And they wait, and wait, and wait.)
First, it was my grandfather – then my cousin, then my dog, then my best friend’s brother. My mother stood in front of the open casket, dressed in all-black as she stared down at my grandfather’s shut eyes. He had never looked so peaceful. Don’t cry. We knew it was going to happen. He’s in a better place now.
I wonder what that place is. I wonder how she knows that it’s a ‘better’ place. Is it paradise, overflowing with colorful creatures and vivid greenery? A place where the sun never sleeps?
Or is it the comfort of a cozy armchair, in front of the warmth of the fireplace, a warm cup of hot chocolate on the coffee table?
Maybe a barren landscape with wilted flowers and nothing but the silence to keep you company.
Or perhaps nothing at all?
“No, Where Are You Really From?”
“Your last name is Tran, right? What kind of Asian are you?”
At first, I couldn’t process the question I had just been asked. With wide, confused eyes, I looked at the girl in front of me, who was silently waiting for an answer. Trying to refrain from sputtering, I choked out a small, “I’m sorry, what?”
“You know, like . . . where are you really from?”
America, quite obviously, but she expected a different answer. Something along the lines of yeah, I’m from Vietnam even though my birth certificate said otherwise. So I held my tongue and curtly responded, “I’m Vietnamese.”
But to you, I am Ling Ling. Or maybe I’m just another face in the crowd because all Asians look the same. I am the girl with a clean record and straight A’s across the board. I am the petite and submissive girl wearing an áo dài and a nón lá perched on my head. I am the banana, the karate expert, the bad driver, the rice farmer, the dog-eater, the model minority, you name it – but you don’t know me.
You don’t know how my grandpa was put through re-education camp by the Việt Cộng, nor how he managed to escape Vietnam by boat. You don’t know how he was separated from the rest of my family for a decade, sponsoring them to come live in the States with him.
You don’t know how many nights my mom stayed up poring over TOEFL prep books to earn a near-perfect score on the test. You don’t know how she took on a job while overloading herself on classes because she wanted to get through college as fast as possible. You don’t know how her co-workers laughed at her for ordering ice cream for lunch at a fast-food joint, and you don’t know that she was too embarrassed to attempt pronouncing “hamburger” in heavily-accented English.
You will never know how much it hurts to have your accomplishments undermined just because you’re Asian, you’re supposed to get good grades. You will never know how much I wanted blonde hair, blue eyes, and white skin when I was young because I was taught to believe that yellow is ugly, white is beautiful.
And you want to know where I’m really from?
I’m from the flesh and bone of my ancestors. I’m from incense smoke and a family torn apart by the unforgiving, calloused hands of war. I’m from immigrants who didn’t know much English, apart from greetings and “Where’s the bathroom?” when they first arrived in the States. I’m from my parents’ blood, sweat, and tears, from sacrifice and scars that never healed.
I came from the fire and I can’t be extinguished.
Until I’m Black and Blue
We’ve never visited our next-door neighbors, but I can picture what their house might look like: flowers strewn across the ground in a puddle of water. Shards of broken glass on the marble floor. Smashed, dirty dinner plates littering the sink. Empty bottles of alcohol, too many to count. Shredded photos torn down the middle, ruining what was a lovely photo of a smiling couple. A fist-shaped hole in the wall created during a particularly violent night. There’s a difference between a house and home and this is not home.
Seconds after she starts screaming, all the windows in the neighborhood collectively shut. She yells at her boyfriend, loud enough for her shrieks to ring in his ears even hours later, because real men don’t cry, and even if you told someone, no one’s going to believe you.
And no one does.
She will wipe away his tears on her sleeve in the dark of night, nothing surrounding them but the suffocating silence, whispering I love you over and over again like a twisted mantra. I love you. I never meant to hurt you. I love you. It’s all inside your head.
And he believes her, knowing that tomorrow, she will love him black and blue once more.
Sitting in the corner of the living room is a black bookcase, where dust has settled on its ebony shelves. When my collection grew exponentially large and I was forced to resort to stacking all of my Harry Potter books on the floor next to the bookcase, Mom bought a new bookcase and repurposed the old one into a shrine. On the first shelf, next to a photo of my grandpa, is a dull-colored photo of my mom and her sister – my aunt.
I’ve never met my aunt and I never will.
When my mom talks about her, she wears a smile tinged with sadness. She says she’s moved on, but I don’t think she fully has, even nearly thirty years later. It’s not something you can easily forget: the sight of your sister’s limp body in the driver’s seat brains blown out on the headrest, her ex-boyfriend’s body on the cold, hard concrete outside, gun clenched in his fist and a gaping, bleeding hole in his chest.
She was beautiful, my mom told me once, talented, too. She was just like you, you know. You would have loved her.
When I light incense in front of the shrine, I always glance at the picture of my mom and my aunt, her enigmatic smile withholding a lifetime of memories.
Her ash box holds a thousand stories, ones I’ll never read. She is a sentence fragment, a story stopped at its climax. I blame writer’s block – it happens to the best of us. Even God.