NATIONALITY BLANK-AMERICAN

KATHRYN LEE

When my grandfather died last summer, we burned his clothes at sunset. In the rice paddy in front of the family house—after harvesting season, when there were no more green blades peeping through the water—my cousins set down a burn barrel. A lit match fell from my uncle’s roughened fingertips. I watched as smoke spiraled upwards from the inside, climbing higher and higher until flames finally emerged. Cotton button-down shirts and dark mid-length pants—clothes that had draped off of a man who’d been too thin to wear them—sailed from our hands and hung, briefly, in the air, like an angel without a body, before dropping into the barrel. 

There was an infinite quantity of things to burn. My cousins walked in and out of the house, carrying out large bundles of clothing. There was no rush, only a tacit agreement that the fire was at our behest. Not vice versa. 

We stood outside until every last piece of clothing that had belonged to my grandfather—a reserved, kind, gentle farmer and father of five—had been carried out of the house and incinerated. 

~*~ 

I didn’t know my grandfather or the rest of my family well. I was born in America—mei guo in Mandarin; literally, “beautiful country” in English. And though I visited Taiwan almost every summer, my lack of fluency in both the local Taiwanese Hokkien dialect and the more universal Mandarin, as well as my grandfather’s taciturn nature, ensured a lack of basic communication. 

My grandfather represented everything that ostracized me from my family. He spoke Hokkien while I spoke English; he was older while I was younger; he was quintessentially Taiwanese while I was tentatively American. And as the patriarch, it was he who had acted as a microcosm for the entire family’s values and attitude. 

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He lay on the couch most days watching the afternoon news (and sometimes reruns of Taiwanese soap operas at my grandmother’s pestering) while I squirmed on the faux red leather couch nearby, the humidity causing patchy sweat stains on my tank top. Vacations in Dounan, my ancestral home, were the quintessential “nothing-to-do” summer lulls that every kid dreads. Our house was flanked by rice paddies and unknown neighbors. The nearest building was a car dealership across the street. Walking to town would take eons under the burning sun, which prided itself on consistently heating the landscape to over a hundred degrees Fahrenheit. 

But I was secretly grateful that neither of my grandparents spoke much to me. There was less to be ashamed of, whether it was the exposure of my broken Mandarin or my complete ignorance of the local customs: I hid behind my sister when my cousins took us to night markets, endured pointed comments about the way I held my chopsticks (crossed inappropriately at the top, the most obvious sign that I wasn’t purely Asian), and startled at the sputtering sound of the postman’s motorcycle outside our door. 

I drowned myself in unease, manically worrying that every time my sister turned to converse with my cousin, she would be occupied for hours and there would be no one to talk to me. There would be no one to make it appear as though I was already occupied and didn’t need the well-meaning but uncomfortable extra attention that my uncles or grandparents felt obligated to provide. Despite the trademark square-cut face and ruddy cheeks singling me out as a member of the Lee family, I felt like a wai guo ren, as foreign as a European. 

My grandmother and I would walk through the local supermarket, a huge building akin to Target, my eyes wandering over all of the items yet struggling to fully read the labels. I knew some words here and there: “the,” “best,” “cake.” But it was the one elusive word, “chocolate,” that would steal from me half the item’s identity. Rinse and repeat for the hundreds of other items in the store. 

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Still, I knew more than I realized when my grandmother introduced me to one of the store employees with whom she had become acquainted on her weekly grocery runs. “This is my granddaughter,” she said, dark eyes owlish behind large spectacles. “My youngest son’s daughter. She doesn’t understand Mandarin or Hokkien.” 

I fisted my damp palms in my shirt. They all—my grandmother, my uncles and aunts, my cousins—felt the need to preemptively excuse me during their conversations with others. She doesn’t speak Mandarin or Hokkien. Speak freely. She can’t understand you anyway. 

“The youngest son who went to America?” The employee leaned forward, eyes glittering with poorly-hidden interest. In Dounan, where people seemed to live and die in the same few square miles, I was an oddity. I gave the employee a tense smile. “Where do you live?” 

“New York,” I said in Mandarin, hoping my accent didn’t peek through too much. “Oh. My nephew lives in Virginia. Vir-gi-nia,” she said. She sounded out “Virginia” slowly in Mandarin, taking my grandmother’s assessment of my language skills to heart. I nodded. 

“You know, you shouldn’t lose your connection with your home country. It’s important to be able to speak Mandarin! Don’t forget it.” 

This was another theme in Taiwan: every adult that seemed to come within a one mile radius of me felt the need to exercise some unspoken, unsolicited form of civic duty in reminding me to remember Taiwan! as if I was the second U.S.S. Maine. Each time, I replied with a pasted-on frozen smile and bit back the desire to respond in Mandarin, I know exactly and perfectly what you said about me. 

At night, in my father’s old teenage bedroom that I shared with my mother and sister, I twisted in the sheets and tried not to fall off my tiny cot. I stared at the ceiling, decorated with tacky gold wallpaper that I imagined had been the height of luxury back when the house 

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had first been constructed fifty years ago. I listened to the piercing creak of a metal hinge outside the room and the click that followed it—my uncle coming to shut off the hot water for the night. 

I twisted. I stared. I imagined. I listened. And I wished I were back in New York. But the truth was, even the comforts of being in America couldn’t protect me from being split. Different threads of life looped around my wrists like handcuffs and pulled in opposite directions. Tawainese echoed in every corner of my home in New York, from the Hokkien my parents spoke to each other and the monthly long-distance phone calls with my grandparents I had to stumble my way through. American, on the other hand—loud, brash, proud—whooped and shouted through the unmistakable reality of my New York life, replete with my friends and Hollywood movies and my secret stories written in English of which I knew my parents would disapprove. 

In New York, I could pretend I wasn’t such an enigma to myself. I walked into two-hour weekend Mandarin classes, but walked out with little recollection of what I’d learned. I accompanied my family upstate to Buddhist temples and clasped my hands together in prayer, but all thoughts rushed out of my mind as soon as I bent my head. I went to school, accepted good grades in English class, and scurried away at the first suggestion of taking Mandarin as my foreign language. 

~*~ 

The reality of being Asian-American—or any nationality blank-American—is that you will seldom manage to solder together your two worlds. They slide past each other without touching, like trying to force two magnets of the same polarity to attract. You will find yourself longing for one just when you think you have committed to the other. You will hear the endless joyful chatter of people who are not you, people who have their feet firmly planted in one world. People who are free from the self-imposed obligation to choose. 

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Your physical features will be strictly nationality blank, some higher divine force’s way of trying to make your life easier by letting others know your background. Yet all it does is mask the uncertainty that swirls and eddies in your stomach. Because despite what color your eyes are, what color your hair is, what color your skin is, half of your soul longs for something different, something easier, and the other half chastises its sibling for wishing so. ~*~ 

I tilted my head skyward, watching the auburn sparks, like little stars, return to their dark celestial home. The last vestiges of my grandfather, crumbled in the flames. Everything that had made up his life, everything that had made him him, gone in a few hours. 

I imagined each spark as a part of my grandfather. His white hair. How thin he’d been in the last year of his life. His arms around me as a young child, back when I’d been light enough to sit in his lap. 

My shoes sunk into the gummy dirt. No one spoke a word. 

I looked down at the withered, dry straw of the rice paddy—the final verdict that harvest was long gone and all that remained was barrenness—and felt relieved I hadn’t known my grandfather better. 

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author's corner

KATHRYN LEE

is a senior at Great Neck South High School in New York. Along with writing fiction, she also runs her own book review blog. She can usually be found advocating for the use of the Oxford comma and trying to wean herself off of em dashes.

"This work is a reflection on my experience as an Asian-American teenager through the lens of my grandfather's funeral. I discuss the struggle between being Asian and being American, and how those two halves mesh together in an imperfect way."

©2020 by Binsey Poplar Press