Neither Fish Nor Fowl
He knows my name, my real name. Not Katie. Katie is my English name. I came up with it so that people wouldn’t have to be stumped by a name that starts with an “X.” During the uncomfortable pause as people stare at my real name, I will add, “I go by Katie, by the way.” The sigh of relief from people is almost audible. Now there’s a common, easy-to-pronounce American name. I don’t mind Katie. I wear it with ease, like slipping into a pair of broken-in heels that no longer hurt my feet, and therefore serve as my go-to on all occasions when I have to appear taller and perkier.
I was wearing those heels when Gary escorted me out.
I’m sorry, Xuan. He said it like “Shoo-an,” which, after practicing a couple of times, is the closest he can get to “Xuan.”
It’s OK, Gary. I told him. I’m OK.
He hugged me. Good luck.
Yes, I do need some luck. I wore my lucky dress that day, a sleeve-less, steel gray sheath dress with a black cardigan over the shoulders. It’s the same dress I wore to the interview that got me the job after college. That was six years ago. Time passes so much quicker after school. I have been out of college longer than I was in it. That’s a scary thought. You know that line from the T. S. Eliot poem? I grow old … I grow old … I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled. Maybe it’s a little too melodramatic for a twenty-eight-year-old. My mom doesn’t think so, though. She worries about me. I’m almost thirty, and still single, which would make me an old maid if I lived in China. People think there is something wrong with you if you haven’t found anybody at that age. Too picky maybe, they would whisper behind your back. Thinks she’s better than everybody else. My mom says that there are two types of people who aren’t married at the senior age of thirty—guys who make too little money and girls who are too smart.
It’s hard to meet people in a small town, and harder still to meet Chinese people in a small town. In Cavelier, Illinois, a town about two hours’ drive south of Chicago, the only Chinese people I’ve seen are the ones at the only Asian grocery store in town. I go there often, not only to get groceries but also to enjoy a sense of anonymity. Since almost everybody there is Asian, I stand out less.
Not that I have to meet a Chinese guy, but I suspect my mom would prefer it. She set me up with one once, and I had to drive to Chicago to meet him. We met at a bubble tea place in Chinatown. He was tall, spectacled, and had a strong northern accent. He spoke fast in his accented Mandarin, rolling his r’s without taking a sip of his tea.
He gave me his life story, in the middle of which my thoughts drifted. Men are natural talkers, which seems like a common trait across the Pacific Ocean. I once drove to Nashville on a business trip with my coworker Adam, and in the whole six-hour drive, he kept talking about the different types of stones he was considering for his backyard. Men are confident, sure of the value in their words, and unwavering in the belief that what they offer must be of interest. That is a quality I’m still trying to acquire. My boss tells me that I should be more assertive during presentations. Don’t say “I think” in front of every sentence, he tells me.
When the guy finally paused, he asked me what I like to do in my spare time.
I told him I like reading.
He gave me a sly smile. Reading, really? You can be honest. He wore that smirk as if to say, come on, I know this is the first date and you want to impress me, but who are we kidding here?
At times when you feel like you hit a wall while running, writing, or indeed, living in general, you have to channel an inner madness, a raw sense of motivation that will push you through. That smirk is what I think about when I hit that wall. I concentrate on how I will smash it, pour hot tea over it, or slap it off that smug, mocking face. I wish I did. Instead, I told him that I like shopping and watching The Bachelor. He was satisfied with the answer.
I do like shopping and watching The Bachelor. But I also like reading. I like different things, as people do.
My mom called me to ask how it went on my drive back. I told her I needed to focus on driving, so she would let me out of the conversation I never wanted to have. I did need to focus on driving, though.
My college friends tell me that I’m “Americanized,” but driving is something I’ve never quite mastered. I’ve had my Honda Civic for years now, but I feel a renewed sense of anxiety every time I get in.
Maybe I’d enjoy driving more if the scenery was different.
I wish there were mountains.
The city I grew up in sits in a basin cradled by mountains. Everywhere you drive, you see those giants in the distance, green and gray like frozen waves on a vast ocean, seconds before it engulfs you. Here, it is all flat. Such is the American Midwest. The ceaseless flatness constantly reminds me that I’m far, far away from home.
But I have a home here too. A place should qualify as your home if you’ve lived there for more than a decade, even if that home is just a small, rented one-bedroom apartment with improperly sealed windows that let in the relentless cold of the unforgiving Midwestern winters.
I was going to call Todd, my landlord, about that window. I remembered it again as I got home after saying goodbye to Gary. The radiator was on, but a sliver of chill stole into the room and climbed up the small of my back. I shivered and pulled the curtains tighter.
I’d left in a hurry that morning and didn’t have time to make breakfast. When I got home, it was only ten o’clock, so I had the luxury of having brunch on a weekday. I’m a morning person and enjoy breakfast as a ritual. I make my own soy-milk and drink it with hard-boiled eggs or pan-fried meat patties. When I feel whimsical, I will put together an avocado toast. Now, this is a perfect picture of the Promised Land: a Chinese immigrant who drives a Honda Civic, lives in the heartland of America, and eats avocado toasts.
I don’t know if I technically qualify as an immigrant. I haven’t settled down here yet, but I also don’t know if I will move back to China. I’m sort of in-between.
My high school friends sometimes ask me in the group chat, Will you move back home?
I tell them that I don’t know.
Why? Is the air in America sweeter? Is the moon fuller? That is a joke I get often. Some see my reluctance to move back as a less-than-patriotic act.
I don’t know if the air is sweeter, but sometimes the moon does seem fuller, heavier, more imposing against the backdrop of the flat cornfield than when it hangs above the heaving outlines of the mountains.
After a decade of living here, I blend in pretty well. I barely have an accent when I speak English, which is a huge advantage. Even if people don’t want to admit it, they make certain assumptions as soon as they detect that foreignness in you. It’s hard enough to look different. To also sound different will be a blunder. That is why I repeated Meg Ryan’s lines in You’ve Got Mail countless times: to perfect that Midwestern American English, so it would be very difficult to sense that lingering trace of Chinese-ness.
I’ve fooled most, if not myself.
Maybe that’s why I don’t sound assertive enough in presentations: because every word I utter, I’m afraid that the next may betray me. Maybe that’s why I was let go.
I met with my new boss, Adam, the same guy who was talking about the backyard stones. He got promoted after our Nashville trip and presumably found the perfect stone type for his backyard. The conversation was much shorter than the one in the six-hour car ride, but oddly familiar in that he was the talker and I the listener.
I’m so sorry, Katie, he said. The firm is going through an acquisition, so we have to close some positions.
I was sitting only on the front third of my chair, with my feet firm on the ground and hands flat on my lap. I could feel the sweat sticking my dress to the bottom of my thighs. For a brief second, I thought I would be sick, so I pursed my lips tightly closed. I was glad Adam kept talking, so I only had to nod. As he went on, I had a curious feeling that everything inside of my body was being spooned out, little by little, until it was so hollow that if you yelled, you could hear an echo.
Without the job, I will have to leave the country within the week. My life in the small, Midwestern town in the Promised Land has always hung by a thin thread.
So all in all, not the best day of my life. However, the bright side is that I get to go home early and have some avocado toasts.
You have to look at the bright side, or else how can you face it? How can you face the February wind that billows and cuts? How can you face the ever-stretching road between withering cornfields, so open yet so hopelessly bare? How can you face the incessant questions of when you’re going to be married, why don’t you go back, and whether or not you love your motherland? How can you face the knowledge that you are an imposter, with a fake name and a fake accent, stuck in limbo, neither here nor there, forever in between?
You have to be able to see the silver lining. Now I don’t have to decide if I should stay or go back. It is decided for me.
I bought my one-way ticket home that same night. So here I am, on the thirteen-hour flight to Shanghai, next to a snoring stranger who fell asleep in the middle of our conversation.
I should get some rest too.
When I close my eyes, I see the pale morning light through the curtains of my apartment window, still unsealed. A cold sun hung in the concrete sky above the vast, flat landscape, veiled by clouds, yellow like the cross-section of a lemon.
Yunya Yang was born and raised in Central China and moved to the US when she was eighteen. She is an accountant by day and a writer by night. Her work has appeared and is forthcoming in trampset, Capsule Stories, and Boston Literary Magazine. Find her on Twitter @YangYunya.