“Stop writing about white people,” Angie tells me.
“But they’re so interesting,” I say.
We’re Facetiming from our apartments. I’m up in Inwood, happy that my housemates aren’t home but anxious they might return and overhear our conversation. Angie is in Carroll Gardens where she lives with her boyfriend Kyle, but she’s moving soon because her parents are closing on an apartment for her in Fort Greene. Whenever I express jealousy about this, Angie says it won’t really be her apartment because it’s an investment. Yes, I think. An investment you will inhabit and then inherit.
“What if you wrote about your grandma?” Angie suggests. “BIPOC stories are trending.”
“I thought we weren’t saying BIPOC anymore.”
“We can say whatever we want because we’re BIPOC.”
“If that’s true, why can’t I write about white people?”
Angie and I are graduate students and adjuncts at an esteemed university. Our teaching jobs don’t pay a living wage, but our affiliation with the school gives us certain perks, like free attendance at a seminar called BIPOC VOICES: Uplifting the Global Majority, which is where we met. For three days our instructors told us to write from the perspective of our oppressors. It would be empowering, they said, to take control of that voice. Now Angie and I are in a fiction workshop together. My last story featured three recently-divorced (white) women worrying about their kids, who were all at Harvard. Angie hated it.
“I’m half-white,” I remind her. “I grew up with people like the Harvard moms.”
In response, Angie launches into a coughing fit. I politely ignore her and open my fridge to take out an egg, a package of natto, and a handful of greens. Like me, Angie hates it when people stare at her while she coughs. We’ve laughed about it, actually—how in those moments of distress when we can’t even breathe, we’re concerned about the discomfort of the people who are watching us.
Angie quiets down and turns back to her phone. “I’m not saying it’s fair, but The New Yorker doesn’t care about the half-white part of you. It’s the yellow part they want.”
I used to cringe when Angie used language like that—yellow, slanty-eyed, Chink. Now I know it’s part of her armor. A kind of fake bravery, like whistling in the dark.
“The New Yorker doesn’t want any part of me,” I say. “Besides, I want to be a good writer, not a good Asian writer.”
I throw the greens in my broth and open a Styrofoam container of natto, struggling to empty the sticky contents into a bowl. I never put the natto in the boiling pot because I want to keep the beans together.
“That seminar messed with your brain,” Angie says.
She’s not entirely wrong. The seminar began with a discussion of whether Angie and I belonged there, which hinged on a single question—did the BIPOC acronym stand for Black, Indigenous, AND People of Color, or Black AND Indigenous People of Color? And even if we belonged there, were Angie and I co-opting the trauma of Black and Indigenous people? And was identifying myself as AAPI also an act of erasure, because it didn’t acknowledge the hierarchy within the Asian diaspora that favored East Asians like me? I was grateful to be introduced to these questions, but I also hated them. It felt weird to argue about whose racism was the worst.
“If representation is so important to you,” I ask, “why don’t you write about Chinese people?”
“First of all, residents of Planet Zelnor can’t be Chinese. They’re Zelnorian.”
This is a fair point. Angie only writes sci-fi, and Zelnor is her favorite setting.
“And second, I’m not trying to get published. I don’t have to take responsibility for the stories I tell. You do.”
Angie claims she is only writing for pleasure—for laughs—for herself. Meanwhile, I’m willing to write anything, to write badly even, just to gain a foothold in the literary tower. If people want to read BIPOC grandmother stories, I will provide them. But Angie is above all that. In my selfish moments, I think she’s okay with being a dabbler because her parents’ wealth has given her an identity. She doesn’t need to see her name in print just to prove she exits.
“I never expected to publish the Harvard mom story,” I say.
“Oh, come on. Don’t hide your ambition!”
I pour the yellowish broth and noodles into a ceramic bowl. The bowl is a gift from my mom. Made in Japan. Ordered from the Internet. It’s one of the nicest things I own.
Angie frowns and leans closer to her phone’s screen. “Are you eating?”
I jab take-out chopsticks in the noodles and say, “Yeah.”
“Aren’t you and Mark going to Fung Shing?”
Fung Shing is a restaurant in Chinatown. Angie took me there once to meet her parents, and before the meal arrived, her mother made me cry. Why do you live in the nosebleed section? Inwood? Nobody knows this place. She said I should move to Brooklyn, like Angie and Kyle. Everybody knows Brooklyn. I told her that if I could afford to live in Fort Greene or Carroll Gardens, I would. Later I thought about why I cried and realized there were two reasons: because I was ashamed I didn’t make more money, and because I was touched that Mrs. Shen cared. My own mother refused to come to New York. She didn't want to learn the names of the boroughs or think about the neighborhoods. The idea of all those people packed into one place terrified her.
“Yeah, Fung Shing,” I say to Angie, but don’t bother to explain that I always eat before I go out because it’s cheaper that way. Since this is a date, maybe I won’t have to pay. But I can’t count on it.
“What are you wearing?”
“Um. What’s Mark’s style?”
Angie blows her nose and says, “Sporty.”
“Polo sporty, or hiking sporty?”
“Hiking sporty. He does rock-climbing, I think.”
Mark and Kyle play on the same kickball team. I haven’t asked Angie what Mark looks like, but I assume he’s white because his name is Mark, and because Kyle is white, and because: kickball.
And also, because I’ve only ever dated white guys. I think Angie knows this.
“Sorry Kyle bailed,” she says.
We were supposed to go out tonight, the four of us, but Angie has a cold—NOT COVID!—and Kyle didn’t want to come without her. Which is fine. Kyle gives off dad vibes, and it’d be weird to have a chaperone. But now I’m getting nervous. What if Mark is a good listener? What if he just listens and listens? That would be awful.
“Make-up?” I ask.
“Go big or go home,” she wheezes. I know I should let her go. Tell her to take some pills, get some rest. Besides, I can guess what she’ll suggest: false eyelashes, red lips. Angie thinks make-up is a sign that says open for business. On first dates and job interviews, it’s mandatory.
I say goodnight and promise to text her later.
“I almost forgot,” she says. “Don’t ask Mark about his ex.”
As soon as she says this, I’m desperate to know about Mark’s ex. But Angie won’t give me the details.
“Just don’t,” she says. “And don’t take the subway, okay? And text me when you get there?”
Angie has repeatedly asked me to text her whenever I leave or arrive at my apartment, but I only do it when she reminds me. And of course I’m taking the subway. A rideshare would cost twice as much as the date itself, and I enjoy using the perks from my university—in this case, a free MetroCard.
When I emerge from Grand Street Station, I realize I’ve under-dressed in an attempt to show off my legs. I don’t know these streets well, and blasts of wind and the smell of open garbage hit me whenever I turn a corner.
I haven’t gone on a date since I started grad school. This isn’t intentional. I believe my life would be better with a guy like Mark. Angie and Kyle and Mark and I could get married and co-host dinner parties and screenshot Twitter threads about people we hate who got tenure. Plus, I’m thirty-two. I don’t want kids, but it’s probably time to find a partner who also doesn’t want kids and build a defensive fort together.
Or I could do what my mom thinks will make me happy: move back to Pennsylvania and get a job teaching at Lyco or Bloomsburg. She’d be less lonely if I did. And if I produced a nice set of babies, maybe she’d leave the house more often? Go to ballet recitals and spelling bees and Easter-egg hunts? But it’s unlikely that anything I do will convince her to leave her warm, safe house, and I’ll watch her life become smaller and smaller until it triangulates between her bed and the bathroom and the TV screen.
Fung Shing is a long walk from the subway. It’s a family-style Cantonese restaurant, with a large aquarium behind the register and round tables big enough for co-worker groups and parties. It reminds me of the place in Honolulu where my grandmother and her relatives liked to go. They rented a side room for the really big events—Aunty Kay’s 95th, Charlie’s high school graduation—and they always ordered the same dishes: walnut shrimp, fried rice, fried noodles, sweet-and-sour pork, orange chicken. The walls were beige and utilitarian, and the food was mediocre, sometimes bad. I never understood why they kept going there.
I see a man sitting alone at a two-top. He looks up approvingly and waves, certain that I’m his date. I wave back and think Kyle must have described my appearance to Mark in more detail than Angie did for me, though saying “she’s half-Japanese” would have been enough. It implies my features: dark hair, not quite black. Fair skin, not quite white. Mark has a handsome face and a set of perfect teeth behind his smile. He stands when I approach. A nice gesture, I think. One my mom would like.
“You’re beautiful!” he says, and kisses my cheek—a nod to our cosmopolitan life.
“You too,” I say, then realize how stupid this sounds.
“Thanks.” He affects a strange accent and lifts a flat palm to his hair. I think he’s pretending to be gay in a stereotypical way. And if so…yuck? I’m not sure, though. It was only a single syllable. I give him the benefit of the doubt and make a confused face.
“Sorry,” he says in his own voice, and we sit down. “I’m nervous. I Googled you.”
I can feel myself smiling. It’s my default face around strangers—deflection masquerading as warmth. Sometimes I glance at a dark street window to see what this smile looks like. I think I look better, prettier, when my face is blank, but I am powerless around other people and must reflect what they are feeling. My smile is the moon. Mark’s is the sun.
“So what did Google tell you?”
“You ran track in high school. Did theater in college.”
“I was terrible at both,” I say, but in the back of my brain, I hear Angie’s voice: Don’t hide your ambition! So I revise the story. “I came to New York to be an actress. Got headshots, went on cattle calls. Almost signed with an agent.”
I look down at the thick white plate that’s already set on the tablecloth. It bears a faint image of my face, but the lines are too blurry to guess what I’m feeling.
“He decided he had enough ‘Asiany’ girls,” I say.
I nod, but don’t know if I agree. An actor’s tool is her body, her face. Mine was not white enough to get white parts and not Asian enough to get Asian parts. It wasn’t the agent’s job to be an anti-racist; his job was getting me work. After he declined to represent me, I prepared for auditions differently. If the role was written for an Asian girl I wore a Chinese silk shirt and drew Oriental cat-tails across my eyelids with black liner. Actually, I’ve done my eyes like this tonight.
“I’m sorry acting didn’t work out.” Mark looks at me intently. “I bet you were terrific.”
I shrug and say, “I like grad school. I’m happy to have healthcare.”
I ask Mark about his job—Angie has told me about this, at least—teaching math at Hunter. For a few minutes we commiserate about the ways in which we’re mistreated by our respective institutions, and I realize that I’m smiling for real. Mark talks about books and has gray hair at his temples. I like that. And best of all, he seems to like me a lot, a fact he communicates by touching my wrist while performing eye contact. When the food comes, he eats all of his noodles and half of my chicken. My mother says she only trusts men who have a good appetite, but I’m disappointed. I planned to take the chicken home and eat it for the next two days.
Mark lives in Tribeca. I confirm that he means Tribeca, Manhattan, and not some weird Tribeca-on-Hudson that’s suddenly appeared Upstate. He’s originally from Connecticut, and when I say, “Oh, like Gilmore Girls?” He says yes, exactly like Gilmore Girls. According to Mark, his parents are “solidly middle class,” but he grew up in a neighborhood of mansions surrounded by real-life Emilys and Richards.
He asks about my parents. I tell him it’s just my mom now and that she’s kind of a shut-in. When he asks me why, I say there’s rarely a single reason for a neurosis. It accumulates over time, like snowfall. Then I change the subject.
Towards the end of our meal, there’s a disturbance at another table. A brown-haired white man is standing above a Chinese family and shouting. The scene doesn’t feel real at first. It feels like one of the guerrilla theater shows I used to do around the city, but now my role is to be the audience. Not to act, but to watch.
“I can’t understand you,” the man says to the father of the family. “I DON’T UNDERSTAND YOU.”
The father is seated between a boy and a girl who are about ten years old. The girl stares at her lap while the man yells at them, and this small detail makes me think of Angie. If something like this happened to her today, Angie would look directly into the face of the shouting man to show she wasn’t afraid, but I can easily imagine my friend as this child, sandwiched between her parents, trying to disappear.
The father slowly gets up from the table. He is taller than the aggressor but he keeps his palms raised in front of his chest. He talks softly. I can’t tell if he’s speaking English or Cantonese or something else, because Mark and I are far away, at the other side of the restaurant. Also, I don’t speak Cantonese. I only speak English.
The angry man, who is white—actually, red-faced now—is palming away a manager who’s come from the kitchen to defuse the situation. I glance at the other tables; everyone is watching. Some with open mouths. Some with raised cell phones.
Suddenly, the angry man lurches forward and spits at the table. The family recoils. The daughter clutches one eye. I think the spit has landed in it.
The man says, “Thanks for Covid, Chinks.” Then he leaves, but he doesn’t run out the door like I want. He takes his time. Looks down at other people, other tables. No one speaks or stands or stops him. The man looks briefly at us, and I give Mark credit for holding his gaze. But Mark doesn’t speak. He lets the man go away.
Once he’s out the door, a waiter hurries over and locks it. Back at the table, the manager apologizes to the family. They look dazed, as if they’ve flown from their bodies and haven’t quite returned. I look at Mark. He has tears in his eyes. I don’t ask what’s wrong. Clearly, lots of things are wrong. I’m not sure why he’s crying, though.
Two customers, both white men, are speaking with the manager and the family. I can’t hear what they’re saying, but the manager is nodding. Maybe the men are offering them a website, a phone number. There are organizations formed for this moment, so that families like this one can file away their suffering in the archives of our city’s hate.
Mark takes a gulped breath. Puts a fist against his mouth.
“Can you believe that happened?”
I don’t respond. I feel so empty.
But yes, I can believe that happened.
“I’ve never seen it before,” he says. “It feels exactly like she said.”
She is Mark’s ex-girlfriend. I am instantly alarmed—he has broached the forbidden topic!—but I’m willing to listen.
The girlfriend was Chinese, but adopted, so she pretty much thought of herself as white. “She didn’t even like Chinese food,” he cry-laughs. “She would have hated this place.” He says they fell in love quickly, but she moved away before they had a chance to really see what they were. She would walk down a quiet street and get panic attacks. It broke his heart when she left.
As if he intends to educate me about the situation, Mark starts to name the acts of anti-Asian violence. Not all of them. Just the ones the media covered the most. GuiYing Ma. Michelle Alyssa Go. Christina Yuna Lee. I think of my mother, safe and alone in her house in Pennsylvania. She lives in a nice development that has rules about how long you can display your Christmas decorations, but when we first moved to the East Coast we lived in a much smaller town, where people called her Chink without realizing it was an insult. Once, at the supermarket, a man followed her and tried to force his way into her car. She kicked and screamed and the man ran away.
Mark continues: The seven women who were attacked by a man roaming across the city, from Midtown to Greenwich Village. The woman in Yonkers who was hit more than 125 times in the vestibule of her building. I think about my grandmother, who once told me—very obliquely—that her brother’s friend tried to rape her in a sugarcane field when she was still a child. She said she ran away. At the time I wondered if she had changed the details of the story to make living with it easier. I never asked if the friend was white—haole, I’d have said—and because my grandmother died several years ago, the memory died with her.
“Am I making you uncomfortable?” Mark asks. He shakes his head. “I didn’t mean to talk about her.”
“Should we be doing something?” I ask. “To help?”
But I know I won’t do anything, and neither will Mark, because we are not afraid. I’m sitting in Fung Shing, I’m living in New York City, and I am not afraid.
My grandmother used to tell me were lucky to be Japanese, because Japanese are the whitest of Asians. I thought she meant that our skin was light in color, but there is another way to interpret her statement. After Japan opened up to foreign influence, it took what it wanted from the region. Japanese soldiers massacred the Koreans and colonized China and Taiwan with brutal violence. Maybe my grandmother meant we are the whitest not for how we look, but for how we behave.
The low mutter of conversation in the restaurant suddenly goes quiet. The family—the victims—are leaving the restaurant. I concentrate hard as they pass by our table. I am trying to cosmically send these people empathy and love. But I don’t look; I don’t want them to carry the burden of my discomfort. The manager stands at the door and lowers his head, and a little bell jingles as the family exits.
After they’ve gone it seems like no one wants to leave, but no one wants to stay, either. Then every table wants its check at the same time. A waiter rushes between the patrons, offering extra fortune cookies and unlocking the front door to let people out. When our bill finally arrives, Mark puts his credit card on the plastic tray and says, “Don’t worry. I got this.”
We leave the restaurant. Mark stands very close behind me and puts his hands on my shoulders. When I call my mother tomorrow and tell her about the date, these are the only details I will mention: He stood up when I came to the table, he ate well, he tried to protect me.
Mark offers to get me a car. I ask him to walk me to the subway instead. He says he’ll ride home with me if I want. It’s a long ride. I say okay.
Neither of us is wearing a hat or gloves. At first we hold our coats closed against the wind, but as we cross the street Mark releases the throat of his jacket and wraps one hand around mine. I let him do this. Maybe I even like it. My pace increases to match his, two steps for each stride of his long legs. While we walk he gives my hand a squeeze, and I can hardly tell where my skin ends and his begins—we are both so cold and bloodless.