The version of me that America wants wears a well-tailored, sharp black suit — 00 but not petite — to a nice, white-collar job. Her words unfurl into neat, intelligent sentences; she’s effortlessly slender, a tad shy, and her features are delicate, pretty in an unusual way. She’s assimilated just enough to be both comfortably relatable — like milk tea drinks and lion dances on Chinese New Year — and appealingly exotic, perfumed with the American Dream. As a kid, American and successful and beautiful were synonyms to me: three notes in an ideal chord.
For a long time, in the post-shower morning, I’d look into the fog-blanketed mirror of my bathroom and try to see this ideal in myself. Instead, my reflection was swallowed by an inadequacy that shadowed my too-small eyes, that tinted my skin, that weighed down a body which always felt too heavy and short. I came to associate ugly with Asian, and I resented that ugliness, so much so that I mocked traces of my resentment in other Asians, in lunchbox anecdotes and Asian-American writers.
I yearned to be beautiful, so I surrounded myself by things considered beautiful: I read Jane Austen despite disliking the prose, dry and flowery as aged tea; chose French as my foreign language and studied abroad in Paris; chose Yale, this institution that poured acid down its walls for Gothic, classical beauty, its buildings contrasting red-gold leaves in the fall. I left behind Houston and its buildings unbounded by zoning laws in the seasonless bayou heat, the Chinese restaurants with sizzling platters of fermented tofu, mopped yet greasy floors and dishes with untranslatable names.
Yet the ugliness stayed. I started running daily, redid my wardrobe, stopped eating, started studying, pushed my English into delicate forms that said nothing and everything at once. And still, I felt like an elephant in a tea shop, a blundering, off-color, weighted thing.
Before the spring semester began, I spent two days in New York City. In Chinatown, lumbering around with my suitcase, I stopped to catch my breath. Gray, red, brown, multistory buildings squeezing each other. Sunlight spilling onto outdoor vendors, Chinese cabbage and dragon fruit, lychees, chives. Grandmothers stopping to zip up children’s marshmallow jackets. A mix of roast duck, the butter of egg tart pastries, the dirty streetwater, the exhaust of trucks unloading. My bag was heavy, so I called an Uber.
The man who picked me up looked to be about 50.
“Sorry, sorry,” he apologized, moving a crate of freckled Korean pears from the passenger side into the back. His phone, propped up over the dashboard and doubling as a GPS, was in Chinese. He gestured at the phone and rushed out a string of words that I failed to catch.
“Sorry, what did you say?” I asked.
“Sorry, my English is ugly,” he said, before explaining that the GPS sometimes sent him to the wrong location, so could I clarify my destination, please.
“Grand Central,” I said, thinking about how we’d managed to apologize to each other multiple times in the span of a minute, people used to apologizing.
On the ride to the station we struck up a brief conversation. He asked where my parents were from, where I went to school, and I thought about using my own broken Chinese — my English now felt too complicated in contrast to his — but I did not want to make him feel as if his English was too ugly for me. I thought about my dad, driving Ubers in Houston. I wondered if he had awkward conversations with passengers, with in-between kids like me.
The traffic slowed us to a crawl. “This not pretty,” he said, gesturing to the Chinatown we were leaving. “You come to New York, go to Times Square! Broadway! Get lots of photos there.” I didn’t know how to say that I liked the jumble of noise and smells. On his phone, a rider request popped up and he dismissed it. “This Uber, stupid,” he explained. “If I take this ride, you would get to station too late. Completely opposite direction.” He zoomed out the map to show me, and I tried to explain that it was okay. I settled for thanking him. When we finally reached Grand Central, he took my bags out and smiled. “Your parents must be so proud,” he said, “to have a beautiful daughter at a good school.” Then, he hurried around to the driver’s side and closed the door.
I’d wanted to tell him that his English was beautiful. That if he could make these words say something kind, it didn’t matter that it was accented, that there were crates of Korean pears on his seats.
Good immigrant, bad immigrant. Too often, children of immigrants like me are all too happy to assert our difference: that we wear Yale sweatshirts, hold fancy jobs rather than make takeout, that we are productive citizens. We’re indignant about being confused for newcomers, champion movies that tell stories about nonthreatening versions of ourselves. In doing so, we reinforce the same ideas of wealth, language and beauty that uphold prejudice and keep us from welcoming all immigrants with open arms.
Sometimes, in the mornings, I still feel heavy and ugly. Awkward, uncoordinated, seeking the version of myself that America wants. But now I’m seeing the beauty in the ugly sprawl of Houston as it resists gentrification, holding close accented English words, trying to make America a place that sees me, my eyes, my hair, our mess as beautiful in and of ourselves rather than the other way around.
Liana Wang is a junior in Davenport College. Her column runs monthly. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .