Chewing mechanically continues. Lips salty. Crack crack. We’re settled on wooden chairs in a dim cozy kitchen. Chattering until the orange yolk splits the gunmetal sky. Avoiding the horde of loud laughers standing in the living room. A habit I was born with. Balancing each crack of a sunflower seed with a sip of chrysanthemum tea, searing and satiating, quenching the dry toasty kernels. An introvert’s time for a heart-to-heart, all pressure and hesitation melts away.
A sunflower seed is the hard-shelled baby of a yellow sunflower. Stripes of black, in patterns like no other, coat each sunflower seed. Kui Hua Zi, sunflower seeds’ Chinese name, are a popular Chinese street snack and one of the nation’s most popular exports. In America, sunflower seeds are tiny bags of pre-peeled nuts. But for the Chinese, the beauty of sunflower seeds lies in the process of eating — the technique of cracking each seed just wide enough for my tongue to slide out the seed without shattering it completely. I spent years exploring how to unlock this tiny kernel.
Growing up, my mother chided me for being headstrong and quiet. I prefer to call it persistence and saving my thoughts for those who truly cared. At home, I sit in an alcove, hunched over textbooks and homework. Outside, the crickets croon as the dusty moon makes a reappearance. The dishwasher downstairs starts another run while my mother hustles to complete her cleaning routine. And as for my father, with his bronze, metallic glasses and oversized charcoal sweater, his buggy eyes intently monitoring his Dell computer screen, he is not to be botherd. But I want company. Something like an unobtrusive friend who provides companionship. Something like sunflower seeds. To sprinkle a little flavor and whisk away the monotony of a school night, but not complicated enough to distract me from my biology textbook. And God forbid that.
Sunflower seeds are an emblem of my personality. We need to invest time to learn how to crack open the shell. Then, we can savor the seed while licking the saltiness and spices from the outer shell. Its true value isn’t freely exhibited or easily rewarded. It embodies the innermost parts of me — a stubborn being whose true character takes time to uncover. It’s an introvert, a journey to explore and my form of intimacy. My mother with her sharp lips and expressive eyes encouraged me to eat fruit snacks or beef jerky to assimilate into the culture she toiled for. Unfortunately, I remained loyal to the black and white striped seeds. Every so often, doubt would cross my mind, leaving heavy footprints. Do nights spent cracking away bags of sunflowers seeds deepen my connection with the person across from me? Am I doing it right? Am I strange? Am I allowed to stay in my common room on Friday nights in college, cracking sunflower seeds? Will that label me as “antisocial”? What do American norms expect of me?
Before we go any further, let me say — purely from my 18 years of experience as a Chinese-American — on the whole, the Chinese are quieter than Americans in public. In companies, Chinese workers are less likely to leap up in a meeting to exclaim, “I’ve got an idea!” than their white counterparts. At large social gatherings, the Chinese most likely won’t be the center of attention or the person bouncing table to table networking. Perhaps this is the byproduct of a typical Chinese parent’s upbringing, of “quiet is a virtue la”, of “listen more than you speak la”. But as timid as the Chinese may seem, we’re only human. Connecting and socializing runs in our blood, just in a more private way. In noisy Chinese house parties, after drinking a bowl of red bean soup, my friend and I push our way to a vacant room and plop ourselves onto the carpet. With nothing but sunflower seeds on a white foam plate and another to spit the shells into, we start our night.
I listen to her excited travel stories, humorous tales of bad boyfriends and quiet confessions of family issues. I hope to know her, deeply. As she recounts the time her first boyfriend returned with a heartfelt apology, I’m cracking open sunflower seeds. While I voice my fears for college applications, she nods solemnly, chewing sunflower seeds. We alternate, back and forth, with sunflower seeds as our mediator or a third presence. As the cracked outer shells of sunflower seeds pile into a miniature Mount Everest, we know it’s been a good time.
But America disagrees. Its norms unabashedly prefer the charismatic, outgoing, likeable and intelligent person. Introversion is the lesser brother. Society chose extraversion as the favorite child from the start — in elementary school, teachers graded me for participation, or essentially how many words I spoke. Later on, aunties and uncles told me that a “successful” college student not only studies vigorously and learns deeply, but also participates in the social scene: parties, theatre shows or networking events. Parents urge introverts, like me, to “step out of our comfort zones” or to camouflage our colors in order to pass elementary school, to excel in college and to succeed in our jobs. But what I’m about to confess next is the most disheartening. I’ve realized that extroverts and introverts both innately prize the former. It’s particularly ironic when my father, a thoroughly introverted man, tries to make me trade my sunflower seeds for something more American. And I tried. It was exhausting to talk and talk. Why is outgoingness so important? I wondered if it’s because extroversion is so obvious — is it because it’s the first trait we can observe in a person? But at the end of the day, I can only say, American standards clearly don’t include us.
For the most part, in our everyday lives, being an extrovert earns infinitely more perks. People disguise themselves into extroverts and then favor other extroverts, continuing this arbitrary preference. It’s cyclical. So, stop listening to that conventional voice whispering, “Well, historically, extroverts are the ones who make it.” Know that their charisma and talkativeness make them succeed because we let it. Introversion and extraversion are not Abel and Cain, neither is objectively worse than the other, so it’s about time to stop treating them as such. This essay is for introverts like me. To believe that we and our quietness are just as worthy.
Silence hums through the house. Crack crack. A bag of coconut flavored sunflower seeds: finished. Eyes gleaming from the exhilaration of the past few hours. A miniature Mount Fuji on the redwood coffee table. No need for booming voices ricocheting off the striped walls. A meaningful and intimate conversation, nonetheless. Wiping our salty fingertips on a warm towel, we flick off the light.