by Frances Kai-Hwa Wang
I wish I would have had the nerve to have taken you for a walk along the water last night. I would have liked to have walked with you and shown you the river, especially with the moon so full, heavy like a ripe hachiya persimmon, silver skin translucent and ready to burst, but I had already started disengaging from the moment, creating distance, creating space, and I was afraid.
For someone who talks so much about staying present in the moment, I sure know how to create distance.
Sitting next to you in that lecture hall was electric, every accidental brush of your elbow against mine, the way you leant into me to ask my thoughts, the pressure of your shoulder against mine. Am I imagining this? Are you leaning into me or am I leaning into you? I finally had to extricate myself to go hide in the bathroom to text a friend,
"I AM MELTING!"
My friend's response, "Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate!"
You don't know, but I've had a crush on you forever, since the first time we met, so many years ago.
At the time, I was still in shock, just coming out of heartbreak and marriage. It was a wonder that I managed to pull on boots and even get to that lecture that S insisted I attend.
At the time, my imagined criteria for dating was that a man be willing, willing to go out with me.
My father laughed when I saw the possibility of dating or even marrying again someday. No. My father was surprised enough that someone had been willing to marry me the first time, since I had been so old at twenty-two. But now, with four children and an angry ex, he said that all any man will see when he looks at me is four college tuitions. No man would be willing to take on that much debt. Stop dreaming. Be realistic. No man will ever want you. You have to survive on your own.
Then I met you, and you were everything that I didn't even know that I wanted. Tall, handsome, smart, brave, creative, kind, community activist, Chinese American, bilingual, bicultural, not too old and not too young.
But that did not matter as I was mostly so amazed that someone like you could even exist, so much like me and who I wanted to be, so much of what I didn't even know was possible. I told everyone that I had met the perfect man, that the perfect man exists, and that that was enough.
If there exists one, there must exist another.
First Date Protocol
I always make sure to tell my dates that I write about everyone that I meet.
Discretion is not my strong suit, but if I like him, I will try to protect him, to disguise and to hide him.
One date is so freaked out that he stops talking for fifteen minutes. Dead silence. Not one word. While I keep driving straight ahead.
Another date is intrigued, "Oh, what do you write about?" Then gives me a string of pornographic suggestions to write about him.
What they do not realise is that for me, what is public is not real.
What is real is not public.
I am searching for someone who can read through my illusions and find what is hidden in my stories.
My children laugh about my public persona, "I'm Frances Kai-Hwa Wang, I do what I want."
How I wish I really were my public persona.
Instead, I shift between the public "Frances Kai-Hwa Wang," the everyday "Frances Wang," the legal "Frances K. Wang," the Chinese "Wang Kai-Hwa" and the personal "凱華." I am tired of explaining the differences, I am tired of being the bridge between cultures. I want to find someone who can read me, just as I am one of few who can read the hundred different things encoded in your Chinese name.
My father once told me he does not care what is written on his tombstone because the transliterated name he has used for the past fifty years is not his real name.
I cannot explain the disappointment I feel when Chinese people call me "Frances"—which feels ridiculous because it is my name, too—because really I want to retreat into the quiet of "凱華" for a little while.
A friend goes with me to Chinese School, where she is promptly cornered by a bunch of Taiwanese moms who demand to know, "Why did Wang Kai-Hwa have to marry a white guy? She is so pretty. She is so nice."
Have to? What? Pretty? How?
Maybe because no Chinese parents would let their precious protected ABC sons near me?
When you marry a white guy, white people think you are trying to marry "up," but the Chinese aunties know it is because you are a failure as a Chinese person. Too tall, too awkward, talks too much …
The first time I heard someone talk about her experiences growing up in a Japanese American concentration camp, I cried all the way home. I had read about the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II in books, but to hear it first-hand …
She told many stories that day, but the one that hits me hardest takes place after the camps. In her first job as a young adult, her co-workers are so suspicious that they follow her every time she leaves her desk, even to the drinking fountain, even to the ladies' room, even to the boss' office where she asks, "Is this company policy that everybody follows me?"
I thought about all the old white people in my life—teachers, neighbours, mentors—and I feel betrayed to realise that they are all of the same generation. Outwardly, everyone is very nice and polite. But how much of the old suspicion remains? How much of our socialisation remains hidden? How many people have I trusted and loved with this kind of unconscious undertow?
I once did a poetry reading at a bookstore which had also invited the Ladies Auxiliary Club to come read. The room was half my people and half little old white ladies.
As I read "The Beauty of Brown" about a beautiful brown boy and the colour of his brown skin against mine, the little old white ladies started to giggle nervously and shift in their seats. The mood quickly became sultry and hot.
For me, this was a story of identity. For them, it was a story of the forbidden.
The bookstore owner joked about the dirty dreams all these little old white ladies were going to have that night about brown and black men.
I'm not sure how I feel about that.
Our paths cross every few years, and I squeal and minor fangirl every time. I tell my students and my children about him, teach his books, tell his stories.
The perfect man exists, and knowing that is enough.
If there exists one, there must exist another.
What is public is not real, what is real is not public.
My mother puts out a call to all my older cousins to set me up with one of their friends before my birthday comes and it is "too late." My mother tells my cousins that money doesn't matter, education doesn't matter, race doesn't matter, breathing is enough.
Then in some mangled air-traffic delay, our paths cross again in a crazy long layover at an airport, both of us in the wrong city, both of us just passing through, both of us in a bubble. With nothing else to do, we talk, just talk, talk for hours, talk for days, and he is even more perfect than I knew; and I am happy, just happy, happy for weeks. My neighbour sees it in my face right away, remarks on how the glow lingers.
As we talk through one of my poems, I realise that it is not just that he is tall and handsome and smart (although that is a big part of it). It is an identity thing—more than conversation, more than intellectual compatibility, more than language, more than physical attraction (although there is a lot of that, too), but in getting to know him, I get to know myself. In understanding him, I understand myself. In wanting him, I want myself.
I am so curious.
This is so awkward.
Why does he have to be so virtuous?
Images of what a life with him might look like flash through my imagination, accented with quiet bowls of jook early in the morning light, beef noodle soup at midnight, seamless family reunions where people can actually talk to him, mutual friends, shared interests, events made tolerable by the other, no need to explain or to translate. I wonder "how Chinese" he really is and how much I am projecting.
I realise I have already crafted that life with my children, where we can function fully in English and in Chinese, with whom I do not have to segregate parts of my life, who make me better than I am, who can code-switch and keep up, always.
But they are children.
It's all I can do to not tweet, not shout, "SOMEBODY STOP ME FROM PROCLAIMING MY SECRET CRUSH ON THIS PERFECT MAN."
After two and a half years of not being able to write anything creative, I finally start writing again.
I AM SO DISTRACTED! All I want to do is write poems.
I was unhappily married for a very long time. I have a lot of experience with loneliness and unrequited affection, gaslighting and cultural kan bu qi. I fear I do not need much to be content. I am tempted to poke, to ask how happily or unhappily married he might be. I have my suspicions. I could guide him. That is what a good friend would do. But I dare not. I can't be that one.
So I am writing.
And that is enough.
It has to be enough,
she says publicly in a poem.
Frances Kai-Hwa Wang is a second-generation Chinese American from California who now divides her time between Michigan and Hawai'i. She is a contributor and essayist for NBC News Asian America
. She has also written for AAPIVoices.com, NewAmericaMedia.org
, JACL's PacificCitizen.org
. She teaches Asian/Pacific Islander American Studies at University of Michigan. She has published three chapbooks of prose poetry, been included in several anthologies and art exhibitions, and created a multimedia artwork
with Jyoti Omi Chowdhury for Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center. She has a weakness for a well-crafted argument and a lyrical turn of phrase. Visit her website
for more information or follow her on Twitter