Carcassone. A gentle, meandering river. On the actual board tile for the board game, Carcassone, the River expansion wouldn’t come out until 2005, so of course when it did come out we played with the river set as extravagantly as how sultans must have played with chess pieces carved from rare fruit trees.
We would put down our “meeple”, as our uncle called the big, unisex player pieces, and try to “glom” onto an existing city. The more cities we could build and secure, the more points, the more merchants, farmers and thieves, the stronger and better our empire. We spent hours creating these idyllic fantasy German towns, the art evocative of Lord of the Rings, even though in reality we sat only in a dimly lit kitchen with a red ceiling lamp. And in reality, I wasn’t there.
For every time my uncle and cousin played, I was not invited. I was allowed to watch, sitting next to my cousin, as over the years the pair progressed from painting small soldiers green (“I’m in the basement, I just need to solder this piece back on”) to using their first Arduino, back pages of Maker a constant yet unachievable inspiration similar to Martha Stewart for homemakers, to traveling thirty miles out for my cousin’s first Magic the Gathering tournament, age 10 and a poison user fanatic, to where my cousin and I finally differentiated as though mitosis happened to every pair of cousins at age 12 and I went to Hunter and he went to Stuy, leading to the remark made every Thanksgiving by his aunt cutting the turkey: “Well, I suppose Hunter’s OK for liberal arts, but of course Stuy is better.”
I never wanted to be better. I just wanted to be seen.
But every year, as I traveled to their well off home in one of the better parts of Forest Hills, my uncle continued to ignore me. When he saw me it was to demean me. If I popped into his study, although we could certainly have had a conversation about Murakami, Distrust That Particular Flavor, or even his new Piketty book, all of which I’d read and would be happy to discuss, he would instead find a way to make sure I knew exactly how he thought of me. If I said, “I’m going to be on call with my partner,” he’d look at me with a mock “dunce face,” exactly how an unpopular white guy used to try to embarrass me with in 8th grade, eyes wide and eyebrows raised: “On call?” he’d repeat slowly, like I didn’t know English. “Don’t you mean, ‘on a call’?” He’d laugh to himself and return to his computer. I’d shut the door, nothing to say, humiliated. If I made a remark at the dinner table, if I dared speak up and talk about my desires, my beliefs, or my plans, like why I was vegan, I could be sure to receive a scathing comment from my uncle — “I thought that was only for cults,” brows raised again, inviting derisive laughter from everyone else. If my cousin spoke up to rescue me, “Actually, tofu isn’t that bad to live off,” like flipping on a switch, my uncle would reply back reasonably, thoughtfully, even gentlemanly — “Many communities were actually vegan before industrialization.” The worst was when he brought up Asia. If I said, “staying vegan is hard in Japan,” he’d immediately reply, “What are you talking about? Japanese food is entirely rice-based,” and I’d stare at him with disbelief — that his 1 year sojourn in China in 1980 somehow made him more of an expert on Asia today than an American-born Chinese — who, as a matter of fact, had stayed in Japan for two weeks in the past year.
For race was at the center of it all. His Chinese wife, who he openly said he’d courted as “she was the first Asian I’d ever seen,” was naturally strange but non-threatening, just like Bowie’s lover in China Girl. Sex was a factor, too — he treated my Chinese dad, who aped white masculinity, with the same veneration and polite veneer he put on for dealing with other middle aged men. But Chinese women, excluding his wife, received a baseball bat’s swing of hostility and mockery. This also extended to effeminate Chinese men, like my short, autistic cousin. My uncle’s verbal abuse of this Chinese cousin started with calling him “Spongebob” and ended with theatric, savage one hour mimicries complete with his broken English and Chinese accent. He didn’t care if people didn’t laugh. It was enough, that it was funny for him. What made his behavior, looking back, almost inhumane, was the sea change in how he’d treat white folks. Another Chinese cousin was known to be somehow sleeping on the cold floor of their living room as she recovered from surgery on her eye. To Chinese guests like me and her, forget the barest of courtesies — what we would receive were grunts, scowls, “Don’t get in my way,” and a slight eyeroll and a lightly sarcastic “alright.” To white guests, he would turn into host extraordinaire, “Well, please, stay longer if you like — no, of course you can’t sleep on the couch.” His visits from his white brothers were filled with open conviviality, and — which I’d never heard before from him — laughter meant to encourage and please, not to belittle.
When I was 12, I peeped onto my uncle’s PC and saw he had been writing a blog post, on a blog called “The Green Lantern.” At home, alone, I followed the blog every day for five years. I learned so much about my uncle’s cultural tastes, from his delight in writing his own sci-fi short stories, to his preference for experimental music. I followed along on his NYC gourmet travels and jaunts to record stores. I chuckled when he highlighted anarchist graffiti and read with bated breath his early memories of his son.
To all who knew me, I was an heir to punk city intelligentsia. I was part of the avant-garde cultural elite. But to my uncle, I was nothing. My skin alone, my chromosomes, had rendered me worse than invisible, a target instead of the friend I longed to be and knew I could be.
Sometimes other family members would remark on this, not touching the whole truth but rather picking up a shard of it, like a curious piece of beach glass. Once my aunt asked, “You’re learning guitar — are you copying my husband? Are you trying to make him your father figure?” She said this in a tone of disgust, like I was trying to eat a piece of bird vomit. At this time my uncle was learning guitar by means of an obscure jazz pedagogy, while I’d picked mine up in Peru in love of Spanish flamenco, but she’d been right about one thing. I was missing a father. And I’d brought my guitar in hopes of showing my uncle that I, too, just like white people, know and appreciated white culture and was worthy of even a single sentence or word of acknowledgement. But all I got was, “What’s that toy guitar?” said in disdain. Another time I sent a track I was listening to on repeat to my cousin, who said, “huh, not my thing. this sounds more like my dad’s thing.” Such oblique comments didn’t satiate my thirst to be — as I knew in my deepest core — one of the white people in my uncle’s eyes, as though he were the Egyptian god of scales and balances and I was desperately hoping he’d judge me as white, which meant respected, cultured, and intelligent, and not yellow, which meant stupid, dirty, and lower than an animal.
The only time I can remember his treating me with the same chivalrousness he extended to white people was when I was arguing with my aunt. One of my cousins had just published a fashion photography book and I was leafing through it. Walking up the stairs of the attic, she’d said, “That’s all very well and good for photography, but as a general rule women shouldn’t dress like that.” I bristled and replied, “Why not? Women can wear whatever they want!” She took the example of a scantily clad woman and said, “Even this?” I said something to the effect of, “Women should even be allowed to go topless. If you’re talking about the thread of sexual assault, of course it exists, but it’s on the assailant to exercise self-control. That shouldn’t impact a woman’s freedom of expression.” My uncle came around and laughed garrulously. He said to his upset wife, “See? Christina agrees with me. See, I’m always trying to get my wife to wear less.” “Will you shush?” said my aunt, upset, but he just laughed again and floated to the other room.
What I was hoping for, again and again, was just to be recognized. A nod, a glance. I wasn’t asking for belonging, although that would’ve been nice. Just a single evening with my uncle being cordial. I thought I’d finally get that when I introduced my white fiancé over. I would describe my fiancé as a “lateral thinker.” A college dropout, he nonetheless possesses a certain intuitive genius in some areas, albeit in a way that reminds one of the saying “both idiocy and genius are like the lowest notes of vibration: neither can be heard.”
As soon as my fiancé walked in, my uncle was mesmerized. My uncle ignored me wholesale. He clung to every mundane sentence that came out of my fiance’s mouth (a conversation mostly involving how Staten Island used to be NYC’s garbage dump, with my fiance’s main contribution, “Yeah, I’ve been to Staten Island for work.”) Before we left, my uncle disappeared for a bit then came back with a CD in his hands, eyes only for my fiancé. “You said you’re into punk rock? Here are some original recordings from the punk rock scene here in the 80s. Take it.”
On the way back, my fiancé said, “Um. That was weird.”
Recently I was on the phone with my aunt. I’d just quit my job in defense, being more inspired to write than create weapon system views. She said, “You know, I stood up for you — even though my husband called you crazy!” She threw the last part in as a vindictive barb, a mental fishhook; she always had a preconscious instinct for knowing what words would land, even if she didn’t fully know why.
It hurt. It hurt because I knew if it were their son, or my fiancé, my uncle would respond understandingly, thoughtfully, a whole list of gracious excuses for me — “not the right fit,” “below her capabilities,” “toxic culture.” It hurt because still — still! — he could not see me, would not see me, and in fact the only times he thought of me were undoubtedly for that split second a family member mentioned my name and he spat out his automatic response, to tear me down.
But the hurt was an old hurt. And I found I could move on from the hurt. And what I realized is that I’d moved on long ago. Because with every detail I’d absorbed about him, the clearer the picture became before me till I recognized his behavior as run of the mill, white supremacist, from a nerdy, stick skinny president of his college Christian club, to now, his fat-muscle suit always proclaiming a hint of violence and his Chinese trophy wife.
In some ways, I can’t blame him for holding onto his racist beliefs for so long. It took my fiance’s gentle yet firm affirmations against one race being superior, against one culture being superior, to help me, an Asian American extricated in an ivory tower built by and for whites, to understand that my value system too had been racist — against myself and my kind. By watching my uncle’s devastating “yellowface” plays about my autistic cousin, who knew even less social cues than another “fresh off the boat” Asian, I realized that all this time, just as has been documented in black sociology, I’d separated the good Asians and the bad Asians, the cool, educated, dank-meming Asian Americans from the uncool, ignorant gooks. For me, the demarcation was vastly important, as important as the contested boundary line between France and Spain, because to be on one side meant social death and to be on the other meant social privilege. But what I learned, again, helped by my fiancé, was that there were communities in which no such line existed. Sure, there were people like my uncle, but there were also empathetic thinkers, individual thinkers, like my fiancé, who rejected notions of white supremacy to forge a brave new world.
I am now a part of that brave new world. My uncle and aunt will never be. My firmest wish is to, just like the dream of Carcassonne so long ago, create a peaceful valley with streams, a safe, harmonious, and beautiful land where we can dissolve old stereotypes and take our places in a world where what is inside means everything, and what is outside doesn’t mean a thing.
Invite to Contribute to Pandemic Writings
I’ve been collecting writing from friends since quarantine began. It’s seemed to me that quarantine has asked us to find our inner voice and share it, even when not a part of the mainstream narrative.
If you’ve written something during quarantine that you feel helped your personal growth and would like to share in a community space, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to add to the compilation.
The final compilation will be up at Outlander, a new Medium community magazine. We will begin to publish in May —so special invitation extended to writers discussing personal experiences as Asian American and Pacific Islander.