3 CATALYST 【催化劑】

I didn’t have a lot of guy friends growing up. I was an early bloomer, and most guys teased me for my boobs, saying behind my back that I must have had plastic surgery because Asian girls don’t have boobs. I didn’t mind—even without all the teasing, at that age, I was content with the friends I had. (And my parents probably wouldn’t have liked it if I had a male friend.)

My first guy friend . . . I met him in middle school. I call him Oppa now, the Korean word for older brother, but our friendship didn’t start out so well. I met him in Problem Solving class in the seventh grade. He was a real jerk back then and always had a glare on his face, like most guys I remembered. He was really mean to me, and he probably hated me because I had a crush on his so much nicer best friend (my current boyfriend, a story for another time) and was always annoying them—in his eyes, I was probably a brat.

He was almost a bully to me, and I antagonized him. No one really knows how we went from wanting to murder each other to becoming almost siblings. The only thing they know was that he made me cry once. Everyone assumes that I cried because he had been meaner than he normally had, but actually, I cried because I saw him almost die.

Near the town we live in, there are a set of abandoned factories. The roads to and around those factories are wide and smooth, perfect for racing. That’s where our town’s freshly minted drivers go to show off their skills, mostly the juvenile testosterones. Needless to say, being two years older, Oppa was one of them. He was always boasting about winning these races, only losing once or twice, and, of course, I told him to his face that I didn’t believe him. So, to prove me wrong, he invited me to spectate. One problem, the race would be around nine at night. He wouldn’t let me back out, and so that day, he came to the house and, for the first time ever, I saw him be a gentleman. Because Korean and Chinese cultures were similar, he knew how to act around my parents and knew what to say to them. He got them to believe I was playing volleyball with him and a bunch of our friends at the park and, to this day, my parents still have no inkling of where I actually went.

It was pretty cool, actually. It was the first time I went out past curfew and the first time I lied to my parents about where I was actually going—it was kind of liberating. I felt free, that’s the closest I can come to describing it. And then, watching as the drivers raced made my adrenaline rush. I was having such a great time that I ignored all the other girls’ jabs at me—they were saying something along the lines of “the goody-two-shoes Asian ran away from home” or something like that. I didn’t care. I sat with my crush (obviously) and cheered for Oppa. He really was good, he was really good. If the other guy was going 80, he was going 100. It was so scary watching, but it was so much fun to watch his car overtake the other and to see him maneuver even the curves with a grace that he never had at school.

It was the fourth or fifth race of his that night when it happened. The other guy must have been a sore loser because he challenged Oppa again to another race and, this time, when Oppa was about to overtake him, the other guy shoved Oppa’s car to the side. Oppa missed the curve in the road, and his car flew off the road. His best friend and I were the only ones to run to the wreckage, everyone else too stunned to move. I didn’t even know I was crying until Oppa made his way out of the wreck with only a few scratches and he laughed at me for being a crybaby. At that point, I didn’t care if he had been mean to me for the whole school year. I was just so relieved he was alive—after I had hit him a few times for his insensitive joke, I hugged him. That’s really when the friendship began, I think.

When I look back, my friendship with Oppa is probably one of the most important ones I have ever made. He’s taught me so many things, and the most important thing: I can be a wild American teen and still be the good girl Asian culture dictates me to be.

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2 MIRROR, MIRROR 【鏡子,鏡子】

Growing up, there were not many other Asian families in the town I lived in, and so I easily stood out anytime I walked out of the house. All the teachers knew me because I was one of five Chinese students in the elementary school I went to, and all the other students knew my name. It was weird, to say the least, when a person I didn’t know would come up to me and greet me by my name. It took forever for my five-year-old brain to realize that I hadn’t forgotten people I met and that these were strangers coming up to me.

One huge disadvantage to having so few Chinese families in town was that other people could not distinguish us apart from each other. My friend and I were a prime example of this. Every time in class, whenever our teachers would call on either one of us, it was as if they were trying to identify a twin in a pair of identical ones. It didn’t really matter to me whenever our names were switched—in fact, I got used to it after some time—but it did take a toll on our friendship.

You see, this friend (I’ll refer to her as HK from now on) bears quite a resemblance to me, not only in appearance but in traits too. Chubby and short but also stubborn and smart. We were always friendly to each other, but we could only tolerate each other’s existence for a given amount of time, due to our obvious differences. We were similar, yes, but whenever we had our differences, those differences were the complete opposite of each other. She focused more on herself in conversation and in her actions while I spent more time on altruistic goals, helping my sisters or enjoying time with my friends. She was pure Chinese while I was an eighth Malay, a fact she pointed out whenever she criticized my Mandarin.

Our tolerance only further shortened when even our parents began comparing us. Love-hate, that’s what her and my relationship is like, even to this day. We’re both trying to outdo each other, never letting the other win at anything, but we both lend a listening ear whenever the other needs comfort. Once the hour’s up, though, we both can’t stand each other.

All that talk we’re given as kids to be kind to one another, that talk was overridden by a competiveness I only feel around her. And in a conversation I had with her, HK also admitted to the same fault. Though we feel guilty about it, we can’t help it. Whether it’s the drilled-in “Be better than everyone else” speech from our parents or just an innate desire to stand out and to not be just another Chinese girl, we both just can’t move on past this childish instinct.

Despite it all, I still call her my twin, my estranged twin and a mirror of things I strive to be and a mirror of things I strive not to be. She’s the standard I hold myself to, and sometimes I wonder just how many people compare us and just how many times they do. Do they see two Chinese-American girls drowning in a culture our parents throw on us? Or two faceless girls who don’t belong in their world?

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The family I was born into is not the family my sisters were born into. The world I entered is not the same world my sisters face. No one experiences life the same way as another person. In a world caught between two different cultures, life for me was like balancing on a tightrope. Too much of one side and I’d fall down.

My parents, both born in Malaysia, had it easier. Malaysia, being a Southeastern melting pot in its own right, has a major Chinese community. There was no need for them to assimilate into another culture, unlike my sisters and I who had to deal with the constant strain of adjusting to a culture that was not ours. And in a way, we’re still under the same strain. Chinese-American girls living with Chinese parents dancing around the American culture.

At least, that’s what it feels like to me.

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