by Owen Pung
The life of a young Mainland-Asian through the American School
| "Are you Korean?" Yet again another student asked about my ethnicity during lunch. At least, Korean was her first guess. She seemed more cultured than the average middle school student, I noted in one of the file cabinets in my brain. I glared at her. If only looks could kill, there would have been a homicide case at the school's cafeteria. The barrier strengthened. Students were dismissed table by table from the cafeteria to go outside. Within the ocean of lively students, there was one, me, who had no group of friends and sought the companionship of one of the ladies guarding the many entrances inside the school building. I conversed with the old lady every day, and eventually, she became my only friend. At least, she was mature and didn't say anything rude to me about my stereotyped identity. Oh well, a friend is a friend. She helped me with registration for the next year and anything school related. I talked to her only. The barrier remained closed to others.
"You're not Chinese, are you?" Oh... It's her again. I glanced at her. Who was she to make me lift my head up? Her hair shined bright like the sun, and her hazel eyes reflected the color of the fallen leaves in autumn with a touch of a grassy field. She was beautiful; it was a shame she had an annoying mouth. I said, "NO!" I lied. She flinched and her eyes widened. Well, what do you expect? I don't go around asking random people's race when I happen to sit next to someone different from me. In this case, everyone was different from me. I rolled my eyes hoping she would get the message to stop talking to me. She seemed to get the idea because she stopped and gave her attention to her friends at the table instead, talking about music. I felt my mind rejecting the outside world; I strengthened my barrier so that nothing could penetrate it.
I saw her multiple times around school. It must be nice to have friends. I guess I had to wait until someone asked inadequate questions about my race again. A year passed. I still had no friends, but nobody asked me about my race anymore. I truly faded from the main scene, a forgotten background character. I felt myself activating a stronger barrier. Seventh grade arrived. Time for a new school year, and another chance at making friends. Or so I thought. The barrier remained powerful.
Seventh grade blurred by until the last couple of months. I found myself some friends and a group to hang out with despite their being the wrong crowd. They talked about games while I wanted to talk about math. They talked about girls while I wanted to talk about books and documentaries. I tagged along and pretended I was one of them. Despite having some friends, my barrier remained forceful, blocking out the outside world. I wonder why? Unfortunately, these friends thought they could treat me like a toy until I cursed at them. Their dropped jaws were unforgettable. They couldn't believe the innocent Owen just said a series of curse words that could make any grandparent faint from the shock. Oh, that's why. They are not for me. Well, I never said that I was an angel; I just happened to dress like one. After all, the devil was once an angel; he was also God's favorite. Don't ever pretend to know someone.
Another year came to an end. I begged my teacher to sign me up for honors classes; I needed a distraction from my loneliness. And to strengthen the box around my mind. The end of the year came; my choir group went to Disneyland along with the orchestra students. I saw a flash of shiny blonde hair. Oh. Her again, long time no see. She was still as loud as ever, but at least she didn't bother me. Seventh grade ended.
The first day of 8th grade, all honors classes. Finally, I was grouped with the right people, with the right mindset and with the right amount of work to distract myself from my loneliness. Time to forget the past and time to move on. "Owen, turn around." I turned my head. "Turn around all the way!" She raised her voice a little with a smile. "OHHHHHH, I love Courage the Cowardly Dog!" I just happened to wear that shirt that day. I let out a small laugh. I noticed that she was very smart, very vocal about her opinion and very dramatic. I remember her acting dramatic when the teacher showed a video of a crocodile attacking a zebra. It is survival of the fittest, get over it. I met many good people just as smart as I was and met some people that eventually became my best friends. Something was weakened. I paid no heed to it.
Three months before the end of 8th grade, I walked with my group of friends until another group joined us. As we were talking, the Courage-the-Cowardly-Dog girl asked, "Are you Korean?" I said, "No, I'm Cambodian," without malice. I wondered, When was the last time I actually felt proud to tell someone else of my nationality? I added, "I am Chinese-Cambodian, with a tinge of Vietnamese blood." She said, "Cool!" She thought the Chinese writing system was aesthetically beautiful. I thought so too. She also began to talk about the Chinese language, how it was full of sounds like " sh, ch, q, zh, x, z." Eventually, we began pretending to speak the Chinese language by making a bunch of Chinese sounds. Yikes, I shouldn't have done that. But she had become my friend, so I didn't see it as a problem. We had no ill intent. For the first time, I felt comfortable talking to someone about my origins. There was a huge crack on the shield. Oh well, whatever. The end of the year came, and I asked her to sign my yearbook. "Have an amazeballs summer," signed Skyler Walker.
Freshman year began, and I had one class with her. The school accidentally scheduled me in an orchestra class. She forced me to stay. Forced. We got closer. We would always talk about music, things we learned in class and negative things about our teachers. We spent the majority of our time talking about anime. I found a new group of friends and my passion for music. Although math was still in the picture, music became the voice of comfort. Skyler eventually became my one friend with whom I shared tears, laughter, anger, and foods. We would always play music together. She would stare at me with her eyes wide at how good I was at the violin. We talked about music all the time despite disagreeing about the best type of music. I loved my fast, intense and dramatic pieces as opposed to her beautiful, slow melodic pieces. Sophomore year, we always volunteered together as a requirement for a class. Every single event, my mother gave her rides; my mother always gave me extra money to make sure both of us could eat. We were two peas in a pod, as friends. She had her boyfriend, and I had my violin. In the span of three years, we were, as the Japanese say, "Nakama," a word that does not have an English equivalent. It roughly translates to camaraderie or companionship. It is meant for a friend whom you treasure so much that they become your family. After all, families are very important in Asian culture. We were each others nakama. I had never seen my barrier so fragile before.
"Did you remember in 6th grade when I asked if you were Korean, and you glared at me?" What? I don't remember that. She told me that she tried to talk to me in 6th grade, but I glared at her every time. Oh. It was her. The Cowardly-Dog girl was the same girl whom I met in 6th grade. Wow. I never realized that the first time I met her was in 6th grade when I was just a damaged boy with no intention to open his heart. He saw everyone as uncultured, rude and ill-intentioned. I never thought that the friend that I cherished was the same person who I had no intention to interact with. The same girl. I laughed, apologized and explained my circumstances to her. She did the same. She tried to talk to me because she thought that I was lonely, but her 6th-grade self was immature so the first thing that came out of her mouth was, "Are you Korean?" We had a rocky start. However, we became two warriors fighting this battle called life together, back to back, watching out for each other.
If only I hadn't been so damaged, I would have talked to her. We could have become friends much earlier. If I hadn't purposely closed my mind and built a barrier to keep people out, then I would have been with a friend that I cherished much earlier. I would have found my passion for music much faster. My middle school live wouldn't have been so lonely. If only I had opened up and let a stranger in, then I would have had much happier memories. My problem was not because others were uncultured; it was because I never once let anyone in to understand me. I was the uncultured one, refusing to let people come in and learn about me, refusing to go out and learn about others.
But let bygones be bygones. The past can't change, but we can still look back and use it to fuel us on our walk to the future. We are all warriors, warriors against our own internal battles and our battles against fate. Although the future is uncertain, one thing's for sure, she will remain one of the people that will stay as my friends, be it months, be it years, we will find time to catch up and to reminisce about the past. Most importantly, a relationship can't be forced. You just have to wait until it eventually falls into place. You just have to wait until the right person cracks open your barrier and lets the beauty of the world flow inside you. The future is uncertain, and the person whom you glared daggers at one day might just happen to be your greatest friend in the world.
The barrier falls apart, and the light finally shines within the dark and lonely mind.