Angela Cai, from “Untitled”
In retrospect, I see my experiences in grade school struggling to reconcile the high expectations from my Chinese home with the expectations of my American school as microcosm of the contrast between the ideals of “industriousness” and “self-examination.” While painful at times, this will ultimately be written down in my life history as a positive transformation. If you can live in two different cultures in this way you can, in a sense, take the best of both worlds—Chinese industriousness and ambition synergized with American self-awareness and pursuit of happiness. I never would have understood my American culture and appreciated it as much as I do, for what it possesses and what it lacks, without the contrast of Chinese culture in the background. Small talk, formerly a nuisance, is now a pleasant exchange with friendly strangers. My apologies and expressions of gratitude, I hope, carry more weight and thought. I never throw napkins away. And someday, I’ll make my parents proud doing something I enjoy.
Maybe you need to have read the entire essay to understand this, but the really key sentence in this paragraph is “I never throw napkins away.” (It refers back to a story Angela has told earlier about Chinese thrift.) What I love about this closing passage is how Angela mixes a thoughtful set of reflections on what it means to be part of two cultures with a sharp eye for telling, experiential detail.
From Kaveh Danesh, “17”
A year after the divorce, I still get anxious sometimes. It has the ability to seep into me like the vomit seeped into the cracks in the asphalt on the day of the Mariner’s game—just take over, leave me immobile, hopeless. And when I wonder what I should make of this rich history of vomiting—from ten, to 17, to the rest—I’m not sure what to say. I could tell you that I want to be a doctor to help properly diagnose patients, or that I want to be a writer to express the human condition, or that I want to be a medical writer to do both. Those are all true, but they’re not the truth.
I could also tell you that things can change in a heartbeat, so appreciate what you have; or that there are some things you have to do your best to put up with; or that life isn’t perfect. Those are all true, too, but they’re terribly cliché—and I don’t think the whole truth can ever really be cliché.
What I hope to say is something that is neither incomplete nor cliché. . . .
So I’m cheating on this one a little bit, too, because I think Kaveh still needs to figure out what he wants to say that is “neither incomplete nor cliché.” But what I admire about this passage, and about Kaveh’s writing in general, is how someone who is able to render experience in such convincing novelistic detail—who can write as good of a “scene” as anyone can—is also committed to trying to analyze and understand that experience in as plain terms as possible. I like how Kaveh tries to evoke and explain things all in the same piece. It’s an unusual and compelling fusion of artistic and intellectual ambition.
From Yang Zen, “Reimbursement”
“Your Grandmother, just this December flew to Taiwan alone to collect this bonus.”
“For your grandmother, only two things are on her mind. After all, all her children are all well: she lives with your uncle, who has wife and kids. I’m in the U.S., so she doesn’t worry. Your older and younger aunts have married. Therefore, her grandchildren, Xingchun and you are her mind. Now, Xing Chun’s wife didn’t have the first baby because the embryo had implanted in one of her tubes, but now that she is pregnant again, your grandmother wants this baby to survive. That leaves you. You are still young. We can’t see how you will turn out. You don’t have a wife. You can’t support yourself. She is uncertain about your future. Therefore, she wanted to give her half of this bonus to help you pay for your college tuition,” Dad says in frustration, “I have told her that we will be fine. They found the tumor in lungs right after she returned.”
Mom shoots up: “Why are you describing things this way? You shouldn’t give kids this kind of pressure.”
Dad nods his head dismissively: “Ay yah, I say not to make him feel guilty, but to tell him.” Then he takes a slow breath, another shot of vodka.
The government gave $200,000 Yuan to veterans or their families. The half that my grandma wanted to give me converts to less than $8000 American dollars.
That is not enough for one semester.
But. I see — grandma. Sleeping on the train seat, alone, smiling, content.
This passage concludes an essay, written almost entirely as a dialogue between Yang and his parents, that explores how different generations of his family understand their affections and obligations toward one another. What I find so powerful about this piece is that you really need to read to the last line to get Yang’s point—that it is through his father that he begins to understand his grandmother, and his family, and himself (at least a little). I remember that Yang had a hard time figuring out exactly how to end this essay. Well, in the end, he did.
From Ashley Ruba, “Business Suits and Combat Boots”
I danced, pushing into strangers, repeating movements, lost in the early morning hours. It was one o’clock when the party ended and we wearily walked out of the building. Both of us had school in the morning; the cold outside air flooded our bodies, signaling our return to humanity, to our moral inhibitions. That is, until the next mention of the next show. The countdown to buying tickets—a click from a computer to printed barcode on paper. The waiting and planning out rides and necessary hotel accommodations; the anticipation of the school hours before; the waiting in line in the cold or the rain or the sun; the set changes from the uneventful openers to the final favorite band. All the planning and waiting and wanting accumulate into a few hours of sweat and singing and energy. This is what I lived for: a small portion of my life dedicated to forgetting about my life.
I’m cheating on this one a little, too, since this ends not Ashley’s essay but one of the sections in it. But what a great closing line! And what a wonderful set of seemingly mundane examples that lead up to that final insight. The punctuation and rhythm of the closing sentences is stunning—both complex and breathless at once.