What We Make

LAUREN LOWE

I WRITE TRITE THINGS BECAUSE I AM TIRED
WITH ALINA MACNEAL

 

I write trite things because I am tired.
I write origami because the world is a hard web to untangle.
I write folded up messages that look like cranes because I am equal parts curious and fearful of knowing myself.
I write toupees because I am blank.
I write soap because I am worth saving, over and over again.
I write “There will be hell to pay” on a protest sign, which is just copying someone else’s protest sign, because I am someone who has an undercurrent of jittery anxiety coursing through everything I do.
I write messages in bottles because I am in need of slowing down.
I write in my head while opening my gym locker because the world is not just a collection of places on a map, but a community of us, intersecting and coinciding without even thinking about it.
I write to find the right combination because I am full of questions I am still learning to ask.
I write the Polish accordion player in the west entrance to city hall, Paweé (?), who gave me his picture, which I started to fold to put into my back pocket. “Don’t do that!” he shouted. “I gave it to you to put on your refrigerator.” So I did, because the world is not as fucked up as we fool ourselves into believing.

 

 


 

 

TRAIN RIDE

Dear Reader,
In the time since I first joined, Writers Room has developed into the heart of my education as an undergraduate student. With it, the people have become an enduring presence in my life. The opportunity to think, write, and be with this particular group of folks has expanded my sense of self in relation to the world around me. These experiences have provided a catalyst for me to think more critically about the intersection of different races and cultures, leading me to consider how those two entities influence the way I interact with myself and the people in my life.

The following piece is part of a project I began working on in the fall of 2015. During Kirsten’s Name-calling workshop, I wrote a couple of short paragraphs about the Chinese name given to me by my paternal grandmother. Throughout the course of the year that followed, I worked with Rachel to develop those sparse paragraphs into a fleshed out essay, which has turned into the basis for my senior project in the English major. The piece that follows is a bit of the connective tissue for the whole project—fitting, as most of it takes place on a train. I invite you to take that ride with me now.

LL

 

 

 

I didn’t really like Texas. I tell my father as much. We’re seated in a mostly empty train car, riding the airport line back towards 30th Street Station. I sit leaned away from him with my head resting against the window. It is too dark to see much of the passing scenery, but my eyes continue to strain in effort to discern the shapes of different shadows outside.

 

We had been in Dallas with our local Chinatown community group for the Chinese-American basketball tournament that was held annually around various cities across North America. I spent the weekend more or less alone as a false chaperone for our youth teams, surrounded by adolescents who felt much younger than myself. I had turned down their invitations to go to the pool or to walk to the strip center across from the hotel (separated by another four-lane highway) in search of ice cream.

 

Even my father, who is lactose intolerant and has no real desire for dessert, attempted to cajole me out of the hotel room. I rebuffed him, citing a deluge of schoolwork that needed finishing before the end of term, pointing to the novels and essays and notebooks sprawled across the writing desk in the room as evidence. At the tournament gym, I strolled between the courts in an aimless pattern, saying hello to people who knew me without stopping for deeper conversation. I kept my hands in my pockets, feeling equal parts haughty and disappointed in my weekend status as an inconsequential spectator.

 

“Eh, Dallas,” my father starts, murmuring noncommittal noises and tilting in his seat as the train rounds a bend in the tracks. “It was alright.”

 

“It was muggy. And nothing but highways and strip malls,” I tell him.

 

“So is New Jersey.”

 

I wave him off. “It’s different.”

 

“Because you grew up there.”

 

You’re the one who decided to raise me there.”

 

He draws his lips to the side and bobs his head back and forth for a moment. Leaning forward, he clasps his hands in front of him. Finally, he shrugs. “Well. Jersey is alright.”

 

I look at him and scoff. He glances at me, lips still drawn. “It’s alright,” he repeats, and I soften my reaction with a small smile.

 

The train slows to a stop. I look back out as the platform comes into view. The conductor barges into the car, bellowing that we have arrived at the Eastwick stop. Nobody looks up. One person from the car ahead gets off and begins to shuffle away from the train.

 

“How many more stops are between here and 30th?” I ask my father, watching the figure move away on the platform.

 

He shrugs. “Just University City. I’d say we probably have—” he scrunches his nose and squints as he thinks, “three more stops until Chinatown though. If I’m right.”

 

As I nod in response, my phone buzzes. I smile. It is a message from my girlfriend, asking to know where I am in my journey home from the airport. After almost a year of dating, more and more of myself has seemed to reside at her apartment. First a toothbrush, then an extra pair of clothes stuffed into a backpack, then a duffle bag, then two duffle bags, then four jackets; my belongings there swelling to include pairs of shoes, boots, the retainer I had been avoiding wearing since I started college, the fuchsia Fruit of the Looms my mother had forced upon me (the ones I always swore I would never wear in front of anyone)—all of my pieces accruing in a quiet fashion over days and weeks until one day I woke up next to her and realized I had not left in three months.

 

My father and I skirted around this shift in living arrangements with awkward linguistic acrobatics. I was always staying “on campus” for the night because I had a lot of work, was exhausted from classes, had met friends for dinner and drinks. I’d tell him I would come back home for the weekend, but staying the weekend in Chinatown somehow kept getting delayed until the following week or getting changed to meeting him for dinner one night out of the week. He always told me to rest up and study hard, to have fun with my friends. I never told him in explicit terms that I was sleeping at Jen’s, with Jen, and he never made mention of the bedroom I left empty in Chinatown.

 

“Felt a little different not playing in the tournament this year, didn’t it?” my father says, glancing sideways at me again. I don’t look up as I type a response to Jen, telling her that there is one stop left before 30th Street Station.

 

I frown at my father and give a quick shrug. “It was different. I don’t think I would have wanted to play though. I’m getting too old.”

 

Returning my attention to my phone, I send another short message to Jen, telling her that I don’t know how to tell my father I am not going home with him. When she responds that it would be okay for me to stay there and see her later in the week, I shake my head at the screen. I tell her I’ll handle it.

My father lets out a short laugh. I furrow my brow, turning my phone over in my lap as I stare at him. Seeing the look on my face, he laughs again. “You are not old. I know you think you are, but—when I played, I played for a long time. Running up and down that court five, six games in a row. You know…”

 

As he continues, I turn my phone over in my lap, end over end. I push myself off the window, sitting straighter in my seat. My palms grow slick with sweat.

 

“It was always good to get to know the guys from the other Chinatowns at tournaments,” my father goes on. Every so often, I make faint noises of assent with the robotic instinct of a person too intimate with old family lore. “We were all friends—we did some crazy things, I’ll tell you—but when we were on the court we were—”

 

“On. The. Court. I know,” I finish for him.

 

He nods, not seeming to hear the flatness in my tone. A faraway look takes over his features. For a few minutes, I eye him as we sit in silence, wondering how far back his reverie is taking him.

 

My father had played in these tournaments—and all of the smaller regional ones that filled the season in the lead-up—from the time he was in middle school through his late twenties. Basketball was the one thing in his life that he never downplayed his love for; it was the one thing I watched move him to palpable emotion. Over the years he accrued stories of his escapades on and off the court. As often as I heard him tell them while I was growing up, he always reminded me that he hadn’t shared even half of them with me.

 

“You still went though.” My father’s voice again. I look at him. There is an appraisal in my father’s eyes, wanting to know the answer to a question he avoided all weekend in Texas. Asking, why’d you even bother?

 

Answers run through my head in quick succession.

 

The first, grandiose: I had gone under the pretense that I would hold out until the last second, when, the team in critical need of a leader, I would reveal that I had, in fact, packed my basketball shoes; stepping on the court surrounded by younger teammates, I would lead the charge to a surprising victory.

 

The second, nonchalant with the ease of a twenty-something eager to see the world: I had gone for the simple thrill of the vacation, to escape from looming exams and indulge in the exploration I’d never been.

 

In the end, I shrug, answer, “I thought it was important to still go and support the younger girls playing as a veteran player. I don’t know.”

 

My phone buzzes with another message from Jen. I glance at the screen, rolling my eyes when I see that she has asked me if I’m only choosing to stay over because I miss cuddling. I tell her to shut up and that I’ll see her soon. I lock my phone after she confirms that she will meet me at the station. Folding my hands under my thighs, I lean over to glance out the window. More lights are beginning to show, and I can more easily make out the silhouettes of skyscrapers clustered on the near horizon.

 

“Did you talk to the New York girls?”

 

“Huh?” I turn back to look at my father.

 

“Did you talk to any of the girls on the New York teams? They’re all closer to your age, right?”

 

I glance back out of the window, trying to formulate an answer. “I—uh—yeah, some of them. Only a couple. They’re nice.”

 

He smiles and nods, looking towards the front of the car. The conductor stands in the doorway, preparing to lean in and call the next stop. “They’re a good group…talented too,” my father muses. I nod.

 

The train begins to slow, and the conductor bursts into the car once more. “University City!” he announces. Several other people in the car begin to rouse themselves, reaching into the overhead racks to gather their belongings.

 

“You know, you might consider playing with them next year.”

 

The train comes to a stop. I watch as people disembark from the train. My phone buzzes. It is Jen again, telling me which benches to walk towards to find her when I arrive. A heavy, shaky breath pushes through my nostrils, unbidden. I pinch the bridge of my nose for a couple of seconds. My palms remain damp and warm.

 

“I think it could be good for you, playing with them,” my father tells me. “I’m sure they’d have you—”

 

“I’m getting off at 30th.”

 

I look back at my father. He is staring at me, his mouth hanging open at a slight angle, his lips still forming around his next word. He looks as though I have slapped him across the face.

 

“30th?” he repeats in a slow voice.

 

I look down at my phone. “I haven’t seen Jen in a little while since we were away…I want to stay there tonight,” I admit.

 

He nods. “Okay.”

 

For a minute, we sit in silence, hands clasped in front of us in identical positions. He continues to look taken aback. I wonder if this was what he had looked like when he dropped me off at school for the first time and was surprised to find that I hadn’t looked back—hadn’t, for the first time, needed his resolve to help me leave him. I examine his hands, counting the darker spots that have begun to proliferate across his skin. With a frown, I try to remember if he has always had so many. His age is beginning to show. I suppress a sudden urge to cry.

 

“Will you be able to get the suitcases?” I ask, my voice a whisper.

 

He nods. “I’ll be fine. Can you get all of your things? I can—”

 

“Jen’s meeting me at the station, so she’ll help me carry the extra bags.”

 

He falls quiet for a moment. “You know, you could have told me you wanted to stay there.”

 

“I wasn’t sure until a little while ago,” I respond, clenching my jaw.

 

He turns halfway towards me, drawing himself into the pose he adopts when he’s getting ready to lecture me. “You never communicate with me—”

 

“Can you not, right now? Seriously?” I snap at him.

 

He pauses, then looks away with a slow nod, drawing in a heavy sigh. An immediate, instinctive apology forms on my lips. I lean toward him for a moment, but teeter back towards the window with the train’s momentum as we enter a curve on the tracks. I suck the soft skin inside of my cheeks between my teeth and bite down hard. A burning sensation pricks behind my eyes. I scrunch my nose and glance out of the window.

 

The train slows again. Others in the car begin to stir, gathering their various belongings, forming a haphazard line down the middle aisle as they ready to disembark. My father looks at me before sliding out of the seat. I slide out into the aisle after him as he retrieves my suitcase from the overhead rack.

 

“You’re sure you’ve got it?” he checks again. I nod as I take it from him, pushing it ahead of me in the aisle. He puts an arm out. I duck into it, hiding my face in his shoulder for a few seconds. When I pull back and look up at him, he is looking at me almost like he has never seen me before. I wipe my palms on my jeans.

 

“Are you going to come back during the week?” he questions.

 

I turn away from him as the train comes to a stop. “I’m not sure yet,” I mumble. “Probably later in the week. Maybe on Thursday. I’ll text you.”

 

“Remember when I dropped you off for your first sleepover?” he asks. I glance at him, eyebrows raised. His features mirror mine with a sort of blank surprise. His own question has caught him off guard.

 

I was three or four years old. I was supposed to sleep over at my older brother’s house. He and his wife lived in the suburbs of Philadelphia, in a large, creaking, stone house. I had never slept anywhere other than my own home, and I had only ever been to my brother’s house for family gatherings.

 

My father dropped me off in the early evening, an hour or two before dusk. My mother was not there, despite the fact that my brother was her son. I shuffled my way around the house as my brother and my sister-in-law gave me a tour, allowing me extra time to settle in with them. While my father remained in the living room on the couch—go, he had mouthed when I turned to see if he was coming—they lead me to the guest room, bed already made up for me, pointed to the towels hanging in the hall bathroom, let me pick out nighttime movie snacks from the pantry, pulled out board games for us to play later. The list of preparations they had made felt endless.

 

Before my father got ready to leave for the night, the atmosphere in the house shifted. All three of them seemed to tiptoe around me as I sat down on the couch. My sister-in-law handed me a blanket and left to make popcorn in the kitchen. I wiggled my feet back and forth under the blanket. My brother was saying something to my father, down on one knee in front of the television, fiddling with a VHS tape. My father stood next to the couch, his hands balled into fists at his hips, his lips pinched and pulled sideways.

 

I glanced up at him. With a note of finality in his voice, he asked me if I would be okay. I wiggled my feet again and returned to watching my brother. With the false bravado of a stubborn child, I told him I would be fine, feigning exasperation. As soon as the words left my mouth, panic began to well inside of me. He leaned down, running his hand over my hair. I only offered my cheek for a goodbye kiss, still not looking at him.

 

Keeping my eyes on my brother, I watched my father’s figure withdraw in my periphery. His silhouette seemed to pause in the outline of the doorway for a moment, but when I blinked he had resumed his movements. I listened to his voice grow fainter as he said goodbye to my sister-in-law, trailing through the kitchen, out on the step, and then gone, finally, as the screen door swung shut.

 

I looked around the room, through the large windows on the far wall. The backyard looked darker than I expected. The sun had almost finished setting. It was dark in the living room too. My brother had turned the lights off. The television screen cast a harsh, pale blue glow over the living room. I wasn’t sure what movie we were going to watch, and I was too shy to ask. What flavor popcorn were we going to have? I never had anything other than whatever we had at home. I realized that there was a lot about this place that I didn’t know. What sounds the house would make during the night, if it would be too hot or too cold in the guest room, if the sheets would be soft or scratchy, if the pillows would smell like they did in my bedroom at home.

 

I realized that home was very far from where I was, where I would continue to be. It was on the other side of the river, across a bridge I could not recognize, separated by streets and roads I could not name. Home was with my father—and right that second, home was receding down the driveway, and in another moment, it would be halfway down the block.

 

I lurched out of my seat.

 

Throwing aside the blanket, I called out for him as I bolted towards the same door he had left through. I ran as fast as my legs would carry me, not stopping when my brother turned to me, or when my sister-in-law said my name, or when my feet touched the pavement and I realized I was still in my socks. I didn’t stop sprinting until I was sure that yes, my father was still there, at the end of the driveway, and my feet stepped into the golden glow of headlights that stopped moving away from me.

 

I don’t remember all that came after, but I remember sitting in the car with my father that night as we left. I cried a lot. From the stress of the situation, from the guilt of disappointing my brother and sister-in-law, from the fear that my mother would be angry with me, but also from the relief that I was in the car, with my father, going home.

 

I nod, turning back away from him. “I lasted all of two minutes after you walked out and came careening down the driveway in my pajamas before you could drive off,” I recall.

 

“Yeah…you were still little.”

 

Not anymore, I want to say. I bite down on the inside of my cheeks again, thinking better of it.

 

“Well, uh, let me know when you meet up with Jen,” my father says. I nod. “Tell her I say hi,” he adds, after a moment.

 

The conductor opens the door and smiles at me. I glance over my shoulder. My father looks down at his seat, just seeming to remember that it was still there. When he is seated again, he looks back up. I wave. He gives me a small smile, and in a rare moment, I think he might begin to cry.

I coach myself through my next steps. Gather your things, yourself, get to the stairwell. Don’t look back. Don’t look back. Do you have your keys? As I pat my pockets, checking for my most pertinent belongings, I hear the train screech and groan into movement behind me. I want to turn, to wave the train down, to tell the conductor that I’ve made a mistake—I got off at the wrong stop. It was a mistake; it was all just a misunderstanding.

 

The third, most genuine answer materializes: I went because it was my duty to do so. Because I am the upholder of your legacy, on or off the court, and it feels like I am quickly running out of time and space to continue to be that person.

 

Don’t look back. You’re fine.

 

I move towards the stairs, shoulders squared, clutching the strap of my duffle bag. The train screeches once more. I pause, my hand nearly on the door to enter the stairwell. After a second, I glance back over my shoulder. My father is looking down at his hands.


 

 

DRESS-UP

WITH BRENDA BAILEY, NORMAN CAIN, AND CHANDA RICE

 

 

I learned how to dress up from Paulette’s Barbies.
My brother learned from the older cool guys.
Crinoline slips are my favorite with white ankle socks.
We’ve all got distinct flavor or style.
Don’t do no good if you don’t wash up!

 

 


 

 

OI-LING

 

 

It’s the door handles I remember from my first trips into Chinatown. Long, slender, cylindrical brass handles. The shine rubbed off in various spots from years of use. I used to rush forward to them, eager to beat my parents to the door.

 

 

I would reach out, the dips and ridges of the surface, and pull. This required a great deal of effort, as the handles sat well over my head. I’d plant my feet about a foot apart, place my free hand against the panels of the adjoining door, and give a single hard yank. The practice proved to be futile—try as I might, I could never get that door open on my own. More than once I missed getting hit in the face by a narrow margin, as the door would swing outwards in a sudden motion with the exodus of unknowing patrons. As many times as I ran up to that door, I had my father open it for me, his arm materializing over my head to do what I did not possess the strength for. The door would open in a smooth swinging motion under the command of his touch. It was always my father who let me into that space.

 

 

These were the doors to Imperial Inn, my family’s restaurant of choice over the years, as they have known the owners since before I was a thought in anyone’s mind. Imperial has always been a constant—it is a fact that I’ve been going there with my family longer than I can remember, but when I think about the restaurant of my childhood, its memory comes back in odd fragments of vivid detail. Though I know that we often went there for dinner, in my mind it was always noon, always time for yum cha. Perhaps because it was so dim in the main dining room, time seemed to come to a halt when we sat down to eat. The restaurant used to feel so full. There seemed to be an endless stream of people, both patrons and staff, that my father and my aunts had to greet. I would watch
them all laugh as I remained seated, my legs swinging to compensate for how they couldn’t yet touch the floor and my fingers rolling chopsticks back and forth across the table. People came over to our round table so often that it was as though it had its own gravitational field.

 

 

I would get bored of watching the adults interact within seconds. My head stayed on a swivel, watching the waitresses and their food carts snake between tables. A long stack of big blue tanks against the wall housed lobsters and fish. Up and to the right of the tanks hung a giant stuffed swordfish. Overhead the round tables were chandeliers, their crystals clustered in tight diamond patterns. The room was both divided by wooden arches carved with distinct, Eastern patterns. The same patterned wood accented the wall around the bar and register. In my mind, so much was happening that I could not seem to keep the pieces together. There were carts everywhere, their high metals sides darkened by grease. I was at the mercy of my family’s preferences as they would point and list off names—ha gow, lo bak go, shu mai, lo mai gai, pai gwut—in quick chatter that was at once familiar and unintelligible to me. The waitresses kept up at the same quick pace, placing dishes in front of us with nimble ease. This, this, this, and then they moved on to the next table.

 

 

Sometimes though, they would pause. They would say hello to me. They would lean in close enough so that I could see the texture of their make up and smile at me, the creases around their eyes deepening while they revealed their teeth in pacifying grins. It is from them that I remember first hearing my Chinese name. “Hello, little Oi-ling!” as they passed by with their carts and patted my cheek. “Oi-ling must be a hungry girl today,” as they snuck extra dumplings—my favorite—off carts and placed them in front of me. “Oh, Oi-ling, so pretty now,” while they delivered a Shirley Temple soda I never ordered. “Hi there, Oi-ling, want to take an adventure?” as I was relinquished by my family into the arms of a bartender and carried back through the kitchen to be given various treats by endeared cooks.

 

 

It was there that I was christened as Chinese.

 

 

At some point growing up, the name fell out of use. My family stopped meeting as often to eat together and they dispersed throughout the country. My parents separated. Imperial Inn ceased to be the place of togetherness I had once regarded it to be. I followed my father around, trying to match his ease of presence as we walked through the neighborhood to go to dim sum—yum cha fell out of use too—on Saturday afternoons alone. I joined the Chinese community group he helped lead. The Suns. I was given a black windbreaker that said Suns on the front in Chinese. I started to wear it whenever I knew I was coming into town, like a badge I could pin on to show I belonged. Most often though, my ability to belong was passed down to me from my father.

 

 

“You really Joey’s daughter?” people would ask.

 

 

“Yes,” I would answer, and then I was in.

 

 

I didn’t wear the windbreaker in school unless I could layer and hide it under another jacket. I didn’t have to remind people I was half-Chinese there. They reminded me.

 

 

“Do you eat dog with your dad’s family?” people would ask.

 

 

“No,” I would sigh.

 

 

I grew up in two places in two ways—at school, as the Chinese friend, and in Chinatown, as the white friend. No one seemed to know how to reconcile the halves, so I didn’t.

 

 

After my parents got divorced when I was in middle school, I have only been back to Chinatown with my mother once. For many years, she seemed to give that district of the city a wide berth, as though my father had also taken her access card to the neighborhood when he left her. I did nothing to encourage the idea of a communal space, nothing that suggested to her that I felt she could still belong there. I did not tell her that this was because some days I was unsure if I belonged there. So my junior year of high school, I was surprised when she asked if we might possibly be able to go to dinner in Chinatown for her birthday. She asked with a this-is-what-I-want certainty that her speech’s qualifiers betrayed. I could tell that she had been agonizing over the question of the question for days.

 

 

We went with my older half-brother, Jack, and my nephew, Kevin. I stayed several paces ahead of them the entire walk to the restaurant. I wore my Suns jacket and kept my hands shoved into the pockets as I searched the faces passing me. Most of them looked like they belonged. Some didn’t. None of them looked like my own. I could feel the tightrope line between neighborhood citizen and savvy tourist thin out beneath me as I walked.

 

 

“Are you afraid to be seen with us, Lauren?” my mom called from behind. “Are we going to ruin your street cred?”

 

 

I don’t know how to exist with you in this space any longer, I didn’t tell her. I didn’t say that when she and my father split up that I drew a dotted line down the middle of me and have been tugging at the “TEAR HERE” tab ever since. That judging from the way people kept looking at me, I possessed no street cred to be ruined. That the swagger I carried underneath my Suns windbreaker was nothing more than a thin balloon of false presence—hot air that could be released by the blunt tongs of a fork. That I kept my sunglasses on even as the sun set in the hopes of hiding the slant of my eyes that wasn’t there. That I hoped I had camouflaged myself in enough confidence so that no one in town looked at me and thought, outsider outsider outsider. I said none of that.

 

 

“You walk too slowly,” I replied instead, and tossed a smile over my shoulder at them without slowing my pace.

 

 

There was a sparse crowd seated inside. I had heard that the side dining room was up for sale. No one greeted us except for the hostess. No one seemed to remember my mother, but then, no one seemed to recognize me either. Our waitress was a young woman I had never seen before. She placed forks down next to the menus, said she would give us some time to decide, and started to head away from the table. I caught her attention. My mother and Jack watched me as they shrugged off their coats and hung them on the backs of their chairs. I fingered the zipper on my jacket as the waitress turned back and smiled at me.

 

 

“Could we get tea, please?” I asked.

 

 

“Oh, of course,” she said, smoothing out the surprise in her voice.

 

 

“What kind of tea would you like? Black, green?”

 

 

“Heung-pin,” I said, mimicking the syllables I’d heard from my aunt before. The waitress raised her eyebrows and gave a small laugh. I felt my face flush with color. After a moment she nodded.

 

 

“Heung-pin?” she checked.

 

 

“Yes, please,” I said. “And could I get chopsticks as well?”

 

 

“You speak Cantonese?” she asked, her brows knitting as she looked me over.

 

 

“Ah—no, not really,” I admitted with sheepish laugh. “I’m half-Chinese, so I know some words but that’s all.”

 

 

“You’re Chinese?” she asked. Her mouth dropped open in surprise. I nodded with a grin. A small surge of pride shot through me.

 

 

“I would never have guessed,” she continued, glancing and Jack, Kevin, and my mother. “You don’t look…”

 

 

I smiled and looked down. “Yeah, no, it’s not just you. No one ever guesses.”

 

 

*
As I’ve gotten older I’ve gone to Imperial Inn less and less. My memories from when I was younger have begun to slip away from me. I can still see the ladies with their carts lean in to play with me, but I can only hear them pronounce the first syllable of my Chinese name, “Oi…” before it blurs and trails off.

 

 

I ask my father.
“Oi-lyn,” he tells me. “Lyn. It’s lyn.”
“Are you absolutely positive?”

 

 

He’s not. He tells me that he’s sure it means true beauty though. He doesn’t tell me to stop getting so worked up, that it’s not a big deal, and that’s how I know this failing of memory is a big deal.

 

 

My grandmother, who gave me the name, is dead. My eldest aunt isn’t sure. My younger aunt wouldn’t know. My father can’t commit to the knowledge one way or the other. My mother, who swears that she knows, is not Chinese. When I turn 20 she gives me a scroll with my Chinese name written in calligraphy. She pulls this out when I begin to question that second syllable.

 

 

“It’s ling,” she promises. “It says ling. I asked Mrs. Chin—remember, from Clinique? Remember her? Do you—okay, I was just checking—her husband did this for me. It says, Oi-ling.”

 

 

I nod at her and let the matter drop, but I walk away thinking that for all we know, that calligraphy could say tree. Or dog. Or lyn. I trust Mrs. Chin though, and so I settle on Oi-ling in my head. She or her husband would have said if it sounded unnatural. Something is missing from the name now without my family’s assurances behind it, but I need some semblance of an anchor. Oi-ling it is.

 

 

One of my aunts calls my father one Sunday morning and asks if we would like to meet for dim sum at Imperial when she and my cousin are finished at church. My father says yes. We have moved into Chinatown, so it takes us mere minutes to walk to the restaurant. As we make our way there, my father remarks that he sees so many white people, lo-fans, around Chinatown anymore because they’re all moving into the area. I nod and try not to feel as though he’s not talking about me. An old Chinese man hobbling down the sidewalk stares at us as he passes, his hands folded behind his back and his brow furrowed at our incongruous appearances.

 

 

My father and I walk step for step. I get ahead of him in some places when space on the sidewalk thins out because of the crowd. When we reach Imperial though, I stop short of the door. I look down at the door handles. They’re well within reach, and I know the door is not as heavy as I once believed it to be. As I am contemplating the door, my father steps in front of me and pulls it open. He glances at me before walking in and gives it a few pushes as he passes to hold it open for me. I keep my hands at my sides and follow behind him.

 

 


 

BEFORE I DIE

 

 

You’ve gotten up early, because getting out of bed in the morning is no longer the worst part of your day. It’s become, perhaps, what it’s supposed to be—a moment of transition, of movement, of action. Your bed is no longer a seductive, suffocating trap of blankets and pillows; no longer does it feel like a prison.

 

 

You’re outside, standing on a street corner. Just standing. It’s strange to be awake before the city really comes alive. It’s stranger still to feel like you’re coming alive too. (But you do not dwell on the strangeness of these things so much any more, because you’ve learned to stop letting the unfamiliarity of feeling alive keep you from living.) There is an eerie, unusual silence about the city, but it’s not unpleasant. When you’re not focused on the steady inhale-exhale-inhale-exhale of your own breathing. The quiet hum of the city swimming its legs over the side of the bed, yawning, and stretching its limbs is there with you too.

 

 

Though the future is no more certain for you than it was before, you know where you’re going today, and that is enough. You’re in no rush. Because of this, you’re outside, standing on a street corner—just standing—watching the sun begin its ascent over the dark outline of the skyline. The colors, the warms hues of red, orange, and gold, they’re brilliant, you think. Even more brilliant is the thought of that city silhouette, and all of its people. Even more brilliant is the thought of thousands of people all waking up, all getting ready to join you in the world.

 

 

You inhale, exhale. You think, I am alive, and I am ready to be.

 

 

LAUREN LOWE

LAUREN LOWE is from somewhere just across the bridge in South Jersey, but finally migrated over to Chinatown, Philadelphia in summer 2015. Currently a junior English major and a peer reader at the Drexel Writing Center, she is fueled almost exclusively by words, sports, and dumplings (in that order). She was a member of Rachel Wenrick’s 2015/16 Writers Room independent study and Robert Watts’s Summer 2015 War Stories.