racial ramblings; balancing my characters

Li Hua/ Elizabeth has always been a struggle for me. She’s my main character, and she’s always been Chinese, and I honestly can not picture how this story would play out with a white main character.

Elizabeth has always been Chinese, but I’m worried that I’m basing her entire character off of the idea of her being quiet and submissive and studious. Which, of course, she is, and I’m not going to make her aggressive just to avoid the stereotype. I think I can avoid this problem by fleshing her out a bit more. She plays the piano and she’s quiet, yes, but she isn’t in STEM. I had her as a civil engineer, but now I’m thinking architect. Maybe dyslexic? How does dyslexia work with reading music? Liz has always been a bit of a self-insert character (hence why I can’t make her Indian- we’re walking a tight line here), and she feels like the person I was when I was young and fuzzy and not yet panicked about the fact that I was only halfway in the world. But Liz isn’t a kid, and she should be more than that feeling. She doesn’t think much when I’ve written her so far. She feels a lot. That’s not really enough.

Strictly from a racial standpoint, I’m afraid of misrepresenting the Chinese-American experience. I originally had her as an international student, but then I would have to talk about life in China and her relationship with her mother and she would speak Chinese and it isn’t my place to write a main character with such a present cultural conflict that I know nothing about. I think the balance is that I can write a Chinese main character, and I shouldn’t whitewash her, but the story can’t be about being Chinese.

To achieve this, I’m introducing degrees of separation. Her name has been Li Hua forever but I am in no way confident that that works as a name. I might just do away with the Chinese name and name her Elizabeth from the beginning- certainly would do away with the confusion of referring to her as Hua/ Elizabeth/ Liz interchangeably- which works well if she’s born in America. I’m toying with the idea of one of her parents being white. I was assuming her mom would be Chinese, but I really like the idea of it being her dad. That draws those relationships away from the Joy Luck Club idea of a distant confused American father and the mystical Chinese mom who doesn’t fit into America. It gives the father dynamic a bit more depth, since he’s the link back to that aspect of her life, and introduces a different conflict with her mom- can her mom really understand the added difficulties that come with being viewed as Chinese in America? She doesn’t really look like her mom- how does makeup and hair advice work when her mother has to figure out how eyeliner works with a monolid? Does her mom feel left out when it comes to Chinese cultural events? Does her dad push to teach Elizabeth Chinese, or did she never learn because he wanted to keep the peace with her mom?

I like this Elizabeth a lot. My real concern with this is that at this point the story is pretty white. Elizabeth isn’t white, I know, but she’s American and not super in touch with her Chinese culture. So besides her, we have Melanie and Clara, both white, and Navin (just invented this name, I’m psyched), who’s Indian. Also Antoine is black, theoretically, but I’m not super pumped about that. I think Clara could be black. I like that a lot, actually. It does bring us into a bit of a dangerous territory of falling into stereotypes, but I’m much more comfortable pushing that envelope. Clara was already meant to play with the slutty bisexual stereotype, since she hooks up with Liz and then Navin and ends up pregnant, but would the blackness be too much? Is it wrong to have the one good black character in this book be a wreck? I don’t think so, because none of that happens because she’s black. Also, black bisexual femme is definitely good. I can see this Clara so clearly. Should her name still be Clara? It fits with the way I see her, as this ridiculously tall gorgeous kind of rich person who’s a lot of everything. Also Navin and Clara sound so good together.

So the racial rundown is this. Elizabeth is half white/ half Chinese. Melanie is white. Clara is black. Navin is Indian. Antoine is white now- maybe a French exchange student, because who else would be named Antoine?

Elizabeth doesn’t need to change, she just needs to be rounded out. This is good.

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what did i do to you on dec 29

You said, somewhere I shouldn’t be reading, that I hurt you, that I misled you, that you shouldn’t have listened to me, but I don’t even know what I said.

I met you on the 28th, and you said you still wanted to be with me but I said no. Surely that can’t be what you’re talking about, because you’re better than that.

Ah. I didn’t message you back. I should have known.

I’m not going to pretend this isn’t my fault, but I’m not going to keep pretending that I’m doing it intentionally. I can’t be your everything, and I don’t even know what you want from me. You want us to be best friends again, but the fact is, I don’t think we were ever best friends in that I never told you everything about me. I loved you more than I’ve ever loved anyone and we were very very close. But how is it on me to bring that back? To my knowledge we only ever talked about our days and minor inconveniences and our conversations were constant and intense because we were in love. When the romantic aspect is separated from it, we were never talking about the depths of our souls.

I message you now out of obligation, mostly. Not that I don’t want to, but because I don’t know what to say. I miss you, and I care about you, but it’s like missing something out of the past. I can’t bring it back by talking to you more. Too much has changed. I’ve changed, at least, and I thought you had too, but I keep reading this blog and it feels like you haven’t, like you still love me, and all I can think is why? I was never breathtakingly beautiful, I was never an amazing person. I don’t know what I did to make you care this much about me, so much that you hate me now for not loving you still, and it never really occurred to me that I could hurt someone this much by just not being there. I’m sorry.

I’m sorry.

And now it’s like I’m reaching into this void, trying to take your hand, but you keep stepping back, baby steps, like a swim instructor trying to make a toddler swim farther out into the blue. You’re trying to see how much I care. I know that. You’re leaving me on read on purpose, not starting conversations, and I try, but what do you want to talk about? I think it’s just that I’m here for you, not for me. I’m not here because being friends with you gives me anything. I’m here because I feel guilty for hurting you and leaving you and I feel responsible for making sure you’re still okay. I’m doing a bad job of that, apparently, because I don’t even think that’s what you want. That’s certainly not something that I would ever want- a sort of pity friend. And you say to just tell you that I don’t want to be friends anymore, but that isn’t true, and even if it were, I could never let myself hurt you that intentionally. Maybe that’s hypocritical, because I’ve hurt you more, apparently, by accident.

I just need you to fall out of love with me like I did with you. Softly, in my sleep one day, waking up and not realizing anything had changed. Just seeing your face and wondering at how I no longer wanted to kiss you. It hurt, but an aching soreness, like a fading bruise, not like this twisting sharpness you’re feeling. I want that for you. To guide you down from this gently, to place you on a new plane of moving on. But maybe the only way you’ll let this go is by crashing, and I don’t think I can do that to you yet. Even after all these years, not yet.

you and I were fireworks

the torture of small talk with someone you used to love

I loved this kid. This is undeniable, absolutely a fact. I loved him more than I’ve ever loved everyone. I don’t feel the echo of it any more, more the memory of the memory of loving him. I know I loved him, I remember the facts. But I can’t summon the memory of the pulling in my chest, of crying in my dorm room because I missed seeing him once a week.

Sometimes I feel like he could have been the love of my life. I feel like we could have made it work, long distance, gotten married. I might have been happy if we’d done it from the start. But now? I think I’ve changed, and he’s changed, and I miss missing him. I miss being wildly in love, caring so much for another person. I know he misses me too, and it makes it hard.

I saw him today for the first time in a year. I didn’t expect to like his face, but I did. He’d grown his hair longer, which I always loved. He listened to me, and I cared what he said. We laughed so much, partly out of nerves, partly out of the memory of ah, yes, it was once this easy. He texted me afterwards and asked if I wanted something more. I don’t, for practical reasons. He lives far away, and I don’t want a relationship right now. But even if we did try, finally, after this long, we would just be grasping at the memory of when we were in love. I don’t love him now, and I won’t again. I can never love someone like that again- not because I’m broken or anything, but because I’m not young and open enough to give my whole self to another person. I think I used that up on him, and I’m glad I did. But now I need to care for myself. I’m in love with myself, which I realize is wildly narcissistic, but I prefer narcissism to self-loathing. I need to be on my own team, and I need to be okay without leaning on a boyfriend as a crutch.

I think I just want to leave that love in the past. We were crazy about each other. It was sweet. High school summer love. I don’t want to taint it with adulthood. I want it to stay golden and full of hope. I know that. It feels better, knowing that we’re okay now as friends, that I’m choosing not to be with him instead of losing him. We were a moment, and that’s okay.

and i always look up to the sky

Maybe one day I’ll fly next to you

I’ve always felt wild inside. Since I was small, I’ve yearned for fantastic worlds and dragons and garnet gowns sweeping down staircases. I wanted to live in an abandoned tower in a meadow under endless star-filled skies and grow out long grey hair and be a wizard. These aren’t unusual fantasies. Most nerds want to be magical, want to have unfathomable powers and escape the dullness of a world where they don’t really fit in. Popular kids don’t crave that in the same way.

I’m too old for that now. The only people over the age of 12 who thirst for magic are weirdos. I don’t know why, if it’s me thinking that they’re weird for not succumbing to reality or if they’re just too far gone. I acclimated a little. I learned how to dress, sort of, and how to do my face. But sometimes, at night, when I’m alone, or in the day when the breeze hits me just right, I let myself feel it again. I let myself pretend I’m a warrior princess, powerful and beautiful, destined to change the world. It only ever lasts a moment, before I’m embarrassed and human again, but it wells inside me. It makes me ache.

Maybe, in another life, in another universe.

love, it’s never too late to save this.

darling, if you call me, I’ll come running

I have to make myself do things, it seems. I need to push myself hard. The way I live when times get like this, when autopilot shuts down and everything is hard and the world keeps moving and I look up and I’ve been sitting in bed for six hours and I haven’t showered or done homework, is to just push through it. It’s like if your brain stopped breathing for you and you had to focus on every breath. Consciously breathe. Like, yes, you can do that for a little bit, but it is so difficult to live your entire life that way. Motivate yourself! Call your mom! Eat a fruit! Literally like, yes, these things work, I can force myself to get out of bed, but I can’t make myself breathe when I’m asleep. I can’t make myself breathe when I’m scared or focusing. When you have to keep yourself alive every second, everything else is secondary. My first focus can’t be school ever because my first focus is “try not to die today”.

I felt suicidal on Thanksgiving morning. I woke up and it was there. I felt so stupid. Because I forgot how it felt to want to die. I know what to do, I know how to handle it for the most part. But it’s almost embarrassing because I really thought I was better, that I loved my family so much, that I had made this significant choice to not want to kill myself. And, to be fair, it lasted a while. Months. But now I want to die again. And I feel that draw of forever. Of this is the only thing my life will ever be. And it makes it so much more difficult to force the air in and out of my lungs because yes, my family would miss me, and yes, I could make an impact on the world, but it would just be so easy to stop breathing, stop forcing life into this body, and finally finally fall asleep.

I’m not going to do it. I hope not. I don’t want to. I want to believe I’m stronger than this. After all, I lived through January. But I don’t know how I did. And I don’t know if I could do it all again if I had to.

here comes a feeling you thought you’d forgotten

looking back, you shouldn’t have fought it

I’m afraid. Everyone says the way back from depression is two steps forward, one steps back, but I seem to be in the middle of a step back and I hate it. I guess I thought I’d be the exception. When I began this semester, I was so full of determination and so aware of the desperate fear of not being at Rice that I couldn’t imagine falling back into these patterns. I knew it would happen, but the feeling of numbness that foreshadows this sort of massive fuckup was nowhere in my mind. I did know. I knew that I would be back here. I expected it, and when I woke up late one morning with my head full of fog I knew exactly what was going on. It made no difference. I wrecked my car tires this morning and had to run to class and felt the familiar panic of my life slipping away from me, of falling millions and millions of steps back. It was overwhelming. I would almost rather feel that fear all the time than have it surprise me like that. I thought I would cry in the middle of class. My heart was beating so fast I was seeing spots. Poor, poor me, the sad girl, who can’t do anything right. It isn’t as if other people don’t get nervous. But I, for some reason, can’t handle it. I tell myself it’s because my depression is worse than other people’s sadness, that anxiety takes over my brain, but maybe I’m just being a little bitch and I’ve never had to handle responsibility before. I asked my mother to wake me up this morning and she didn’t and I woke up late and now I feel like I may cry because god, I hate asking for help, because even when I’m screaming for it people don’t seem to hear me. I don’t know how much louder I can be before I’m carted off somewhere. The ridiculous thing is that I’ll be screaming about how much it hurts and suddenly someone will look up like, goodness, did you just say you want to die? Why? As if I haven’t been screaming for six years. Just ask for help, they say, but from whom? Who can I ask that can actually help me? I’m pretending that therapy is helpful because if I don’t I will dissolve into nothingness but it doesn’t help. The medicine does nothing. Therapy does nothing. Nothing matters except this endless cycle of good days and bad days and bad bad bad bad bad bad bad days.

I’m really not crazy, you know.

trying again

Li Hua falls in love for the first time to the sound of a church piano.

She was a quiet child. Her parents brought her to church with them on Sundays and, while she hated the tulle-filled dresses that pricked under her arms, she loved the huge open ceiling, the dust sprinkling through the sunlight, the smell of the cold air, the quiet that pressed into her ears. Her parents were in charge of a committee, or of setting up food for after the service, or of unlocking the classroom doors. Always something. Hua would sit on the wooden steps next to the Sunday school classroom, in a trance brought on by the smell of dusty wood and the 7:00 sunlight. Eventually, the trickle would start. The bang of the front door, the voices rolling over one another, gradually growing louder. The shrill laugh of women who hadn’t seen each other since last Sunday, the sound of some man yelling, inevitably, to find the key to the deadbolt on the piano. The feeling of the church full of people was a warning that, soon, her mother would come to find her, take her by the hand, and direct her into the warm bustle of people dressed in clunky heels and stiff floral prints. Hua would smile (with teeth, her mother would instruct her) and allow herself to be hugged by aunties and uncles who smelled like good clothes and coffee. Her parents were never on the committee to clear up after- some of those people were raised as animals, her father would say in the minivan heading home- so her only moments of quiet were in the morning.

When she turned 5, her parents enrolled her in piano lessons. A lady in the church, Carol Auntie, would collect Hua and 3 other kids from the church pre-school at 3:00 and direct them to the chapel. For 2 hours, the children would meander around the church, never out of reach of the piano’s drifting sound- the clank of keys, more often wrong than right, always uncertain- occasionally punctuated by Carol Auntie’s voice calling for the next child. Quiet as she was, Hua quickly became bored of sitting on the steps and turned to exploring the church with the other kids. Afternoons were full of meandering, which turned to hide and seek when Joshua got restless, which turned to Carol Auntie screaming. Hua and Anne, as the only two girls, would band up when it was one of the boys’ turns to be it. Hua would follow Anne around corners while Joshua or Ethan counted, ducking behind a bench or into a cabinet when they started cheating and skipping numbers on the way to 50. Giggling silently, out of breath, the warmth of their hiding space, the sound of their breathing. Listening intently for the sound of footsteps over the clinking of the piano. On a Tuesday, when Ethan was playing piano and Joshua was it and Anne and Hua were in a broom closet that smelled of Pine-Sol, Anne pressed a kiss to Hua’s cheek. Warm, then gone. Joshua had started crying in frustration, so Carol Auntie was coming upstairs. Hua took Anne’s hand as they fled. Anne dropped it as they charged through the door into the room they were meant to be waiting in, studying the chart of Chinese symbols that someone had hung on the wall 20 years before they had been thought of.

twenty

Twenty was never going to be a good year. I never liked the idea of being twenty. You’re officially not a kid anymore but you can’t even drink to prolong the delusion. Twenty just sucked a lot more than I thought it would.

Twenty feels like being an adult, like shaped thighs and five more pounds and having to buy longer shorts.

It felt like early mornings and clicking lockers, like coworkers and nametags and paychecks.

It felt like having doors swing shut, like boxes in the elevator, like no more sparkle.

It felt like hiding, like shame, like a primal need so fierce it consumes everything else.

It felt like the bottom of a well, like looking up at the outside, wanting to scream but not wanting to be seen.

It felt like scrubbing out the crevices between my organs, like staring in the mirror and daring myself to cry.

It felt like Friday mornings and 90 miles there and back, sweet coffee and cashmere sweaters and honey in your hair, bright 30 second ads interrupting a grey week.

It feels like doubting the stones I walk on, avoiding eye contact because they will somehow know that I don’t belong.

It feels like guilt, it feels like pride, it feels like guilt for being proud.

It feels like blue in my hair and caffeine in my veins, like knowing you have no choice in the best way.

It feels like locking the door behind you and balancing everything.

It feels like lying. It feels too honest.

It feels like life is slipping away.

It feels like wild fear.

It feels like filled in spaces and squared off edges.

It feels like money in the bank and budgets and throwing my own parties.

It feels not good. But important. Can a year feel important? This one does.

writing

When I was young, I wanted to be a writer. Actually, I wanted to be a writer until I came to college and life fell apart (as it does). I don’t know if I loved writing because I actually enjoyed it or because everyone told me I was amazing. The fun part about coming to college is that everyone stops telling you how amazing you are. But in middle school I had an English teacher tell me I was the best writer she’d taught in her entire career. My favorite English teacher in high school proofread my college application essays and told me she wished she could write as well as I could. A few months ago, when I was working at Academy and felt like the emotional equivalent of a brown napkin stuck to a table leg, an English teacher from my middle school whose class I’d never even taken recognized me and reminded me of my reputation.

It’s pretty depressing, honestly, because there was never anything especially amazing about me. I guess I was amazing because I read more than anyone else, because I had good grammar and used flashy figurative language. Because I was good at it. It was a system. But was I ever great? Could I ever write a book?

I tried, seriously, once. I could never really get the plot down. It was a bunch of relationships and ended up devolving into basically a soap opera with lesbians and unplanned pregnancies.

I took a creative writing class my first semester in college and it hurt but in a good way. It hurt like growing. I wish I’d taken it a bit more seriously.

I’m going to try to write here a bit every day. Snippets of stories in my head, maybe? Scenes? It’ll be like exercising. Maybe someday I’ll write a book and be famous and everyone will see how humble my beginnings were. Or something. Unclear.

It’ll be okay though. I’m going to be good.