This is not a good story. It does not tell you what you want to hear. It tells you that I lived. Survived. Succeeded, even, in being a dutiful daughter, a good mother, a loving wife. It tells you that I was plucked out of precarious circumstances and made a name for myself—as an orphan of war, sort of—as a well-adjusted, highly-educated American, mostly. It tells you that these words are brought to you by “The Electric Company”, the phonetic marriage of words understood by the silhouettes of two faces, uttering roots and suffixes in sharp staccato. It tells you that I listened to those words and strung them together like clothes on a line for my own meaning—to be cobbled back together to bring you these words—this story. But it’s not a good story. It does not tell you what you want to hear. It tells you that our adoptee culture is like a rusted sieve, the thin screen of metal mesh unable to hold the feelings and emotions of being adopted. So we tell stories or write poems or create art or say or do nothing—only let the sieve filter these words as flecks of copper-color blend in with the sluice of memory.
This is not a good story. It does not tell you what you want to hear. That I was not entitled to life only that I have it—not to be grateful that I lived more so cognizant that I did not die. To this we owe nothing. To them we owe nothing. To me—I owe nothing. This is not a good story. It does not tell you what you want to hear. It does not tell you that I am happy. Or sad. Or angry. It tells you all of that—no more, no less. It’s just a story. But it’s not a good one. It tells you that battle maps were drawn up and strategies constantly re-examined because I had to create my own fortress—to protect myself from pop culture, from systemic racism, from familial expectation, from society’s hopes that I could tell a good story. But I can’t. This promise is unfulfilled. This possibility is lost to the moments when I became an ordinary American without a tumultuous backstory and incapable of writing it out in soft narratives that flow down the flesh of my tongue and onto the whiteness of the pages I’ve littered all these years. The whiteness is killing me. My whiteness is killing me. I speak the language of whiteness in educated shapes and forms passed down by those who tilled the earth of another man’s soil; their scythes repeatedly brought down with the violence of genocide and the hope that they could tell their own story.
Have you heard it? It’s a good one. It tells you that immigration is necessary to cultivate a nation that does succeed—who can write history with the quills of wild turkeys caught for dinner and dressed with vegetables tasting vaguely of fish—the fermented soil leaching into the kernels of the lessons brought by the indigenous people that roamed this land after Mongolia split apart and the Pangaean continent cracked. But maybe that’s the wrong story. Or maybe it’s not true. I don’t honestly know because I only learned it that way from musty-smelling books published in the 1950s—age-old lessons brought to you by retired schoolhouse teachers; their knuckles calloused over from too many raps with the flat length of a wooden ruler to get the story right. But it’s still a good story. Not like mine which isn’t a good story. It competes with others like it with tales of woe, with plans gone awry, with dreams deferred like Langston Hughes’s raisin—once a plump grape ready to be savored, juices sliding down the back of my throat before being swallowed up and lost for good. It’s been deferred for too long—no longer pulsating meaning like the cursor that beckoned me to write it in the first place. This is not a good story. It does not tell you what you want to hear.
It tells you that I reunited with my biological family after 42 years in a moment dictated by chance and the ability of others to ask pertinent questions of people who do not know the answers. But we still asked, rambling down dirt alleys on rented motor scooters, asking for family secrets among plates of water spinach and chicken dishes purchased by an unknown woman 8,000 miles away. We searched for the next clue in a country still sifting through the rummage of their own history, stacked high like baskets on the back of a motorbike about to topple over with the slightest turn of the wheel. There is too much to sort out and so old stories of emperors, imperialism, and dynasties eradicating those before it get shoved into the loose pages of a book written by foreigners who do not really know the land—the soil that brought their foreign occupation—retelling the stories of rape and pillage of a country ripe with resources—whose 2,100 miles of coastline offered pathways to trade everyone wanted and therefore, always tried to claim.
This is not a good story. It does not tell you what you want to hear. It tells you that growing up was easy, save for a society that would have preferred I stay put in the land of drifting lotus where rice-eating, slant-eyed mathematicians kept to themselves, noodles dripping from wooden chopsticks and wide mouths scooping up grains of rice from the lip of a plastic bowl. It tells you that that those stereotypes you wanted me to live up to, for all Asians to live up to, erased our individuality and dismissed much of who I am because the preservation of your imagery was far too important to let go. And so it built in crescendo, white directors taking on complex Asian wars regardless of those who would suffer from those worn out tropes of Asian men only good for martial arts or emasculated roles, de-centering their power or purpose and turning them all into one, yellow enemy. Or framing Asian women, their slender bodies useful for only one thing, sideways vaginas becoming the fetish of men until pop culture erupted into a maelstrom of violence, and I was repeatedly molested as a result. But that’s a good story, right? Oscar-winning, really. Anything that shares nothing of the purpose only the prize makes a good storyline and those of us dragged along that continuum still stand by and watch, the ropes around our wrists digging into our flesh, black blindfolds masking our Asian-ness, wondering if we’ll ever be humanized.
This is not a good story. It does not tell you want you want to hear. It tells you that the story drifts haphazardly on the surface of the ocean like an oil slick polluting the waters of pristine oceans, stretching out into dense threads as the current carries it sideways and back—silvery strands of longing canvassing the beautiful sea life below.
Copyright, Joie Norby Lê, 2019. To be continued…
Photo credit: Mike Frailey 2018