B Y V A L E R I E W U
Sometimes I dream that my body is made up railroad tracks--tracks that stretch across the vast expanse of my arm, trail under my stomach, come to a stop at a spot just right underneath my head. I imagine a train stopping, passengers stepping down from the exit. Someone’s suitcase smacks into the spot right above my left earlobe. The train pauses there for a second, biding its time as if waiting for something--anything, maybe someone to get on and be transported somewhere else, but no one does. It sighs, as if disappointed, and there’s a faint movement at this point in time, one that makes me think that there’s something I’m missing, something that I should know. But then the train leaves before I have the chance to call it to mind, and suddenly it’s rushing, zooming off to somewhere in the unknown, somewhere I can’t get to. My body becomes silent. I can no longer remember.
The sun is blazing down on my back, but I don’t have a braid, fortune cookies, or wicked-looking teeth. I am not a job-stealer, I am a person working a job. I am digging, digging so hard and so far that I can feel my fingers begin to ache. For a second, I hold them up to the sky, wanting, no, needing for someone to see my pain, my suffering, my oppression. In response, I receive a laugh. The sun is no longer yellow, but orange, and it’s laughing, mocking me, turning me invisible. Get out of here, it says, this isn’t your place, your continent. I protest the rights of not only my race, but also the rights of all immigrants, no matter their race, their gender, their sexuality, their religion. An immigration ban is shoved into my mouth; I swallow, but it’s still there. For a second, I see the Statue of Liberty in my mind, and she’s crumbling and falling down, but I just can’t stop it, no matter how hard I try.
Here in this ethnic conclave out in the West--the wild, wild, glorious west, I have proved Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis. There is nowhere left for me to run, and so I stay, still pursuing my American Dream. Gold is a prominent moving force here, mostly because of its value, but also because it’s yellow, and it’s worth something--the only yellow thing of worth that America recognizes. There are gold flecks in the water; they are flecks of opportunity and the American Dream. I reach my hands in, try to grab at them. My father laughs. You’re not grabbing them the right way, he says. He gives me a pan, scoops the water into it. See, now try. I shift the pan up and down, left to right. I just can’t get it, I’m crying and shaking my head, I just can’t get it and they’re disappearing and I don’t know why. You’re not grabbing them the right way, he insists, and when he takes the pan from me I see it consume him. He flows down the river, the waters of the American Dream rising over his head until it pulls him under completely.
Sometimes I lie and say that my family came here on boats, canvas bags strapped to their backs and their children crying at their feet from the cold and hunger. They didn't. My parents were working-class, but they came here on a flight, two seats in economy class. Peanuts were served periodically.
The Transcontinental Railroad, true to its name, connected each coast of the United States to the other. Described as the main “artery” of America, it was completed in 1869. A spike was driven. There was no acknowledgement of the effort that had gone into it, the “Bones in Transit” being shipped back to China, the inequalities.
I am angry at the injustices of the world, although I also realize that it is less my place than it is those who came before me. But it is twenty-seventeen, and I am still trying to paint red, white, and blue on my back like they would make me belong. I am young and undefined, genomic sequence no. 1 saying that I have yellow skin--no, it’s not an assumption, it’s a fact. I eat rice for dinner. Sometimes, my family’s late-night conversations go back to my grandfather fleeing the Communist Revolution. I talk about how in my United States History class, there is nothing for me to say. My teacher’s eyes light up whenever someone says that she is distinctly related to Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, or Theodore Roosevelt. I have no history here, in this country, except the history of those who look like me, and even then, they are not me. I wish America could be intrinsically a part of me, the way others have great-grandfathers who fought and died for America in the second World War, the way others have direct relations to the people that matter on this continent. I wish I mattered too.
My grandfather died for a country, but not this one.
I am invisible, although I wish I was indivisible. There are far too many factions inside of me to say that I am unified, although not necessarily divided either. I try and protest that race is a social construct, not a biological one, but others tap the yellowness of my skin. You can say that again, their smiles tell me.
I am a yellow girl still trying to find my place in this world within the dusty pages of my worn-out United States History textbook. Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896. Supreme Court says yes, “separate but equal.” Korematsu v. United States, 1944. Supreme Court says yes, internment and exclusion based on race is constitutional. Girl v. World, 2017. I try to stitch myself into the fabric of the human experience, just because there are no others like me and I need to not just be seen, but heard. The world tells me no. The gavel slams.
There’s a time machine in my backyard, and so I press the button, hoping that it’ll take me back to a time when things were somehow fair, just. Before my eyes, the chronology packet in the back of my United States History binder becomes a flip book. The colonists are throwing the tea into the harbor, the pinnacle of American independence, and I couldn’t be prouder of my country at this instant. The landscape shifts. I am a Union soldier in the Battle of Gettysburg, but I still don't know what--or who--I’m fighting for. I am looking at Uncle Sam telling me to join the army; I am looking at a compilation of everything except for myself. Who do I fight for? Who do I fight for? It is 1963 and Martin Luther King Jr. is speaking. There should be freedom and equality. I have a dream. I have a dream.
“I don't think these are your words,” English teachers tell me. I use words like superfluous and acknowledgement and deceit of oneself in my English essays, and watch as points are docked off for the use of a language that they believe is not my own. My parents are immigrants, and English is like molasses to them: thick, heavy, congealed. It is hard to roll off the tongue. I ask if I should take an Advanced English class next year. I plead. It is all I have.
I am told that “people like me” should stick to the “technical” fields. I am told that because of my race, I am not--will never be--creative enough. It takes me a long time to figure out that I must pretend that I am not proficient in writing. I say more instead of superfluous, realization instead of acknowledgement, lies instead of deceit of oneself. The next time I receive my paper back, I get a comment. Good job sticking to what you know, it says. There is a heaviness in my heart that won’t go away.
I wish I could could cut out the native from the copy of Native Son each teacher keeps stashed in their drawer but never reads, stick it on my forehead. Simile? No, metaphor. Maybe then they would understand that my words are all I have. They are all I have.
Sometimes I dream that I’m a railroad, my body stretching as far as the eye can see, from sea to shining sea. I am built, again and again and again. I close my eyes; I am a colonist, I am a railroad worker, I am a spokesperson for my race. I have a dream. I have a dream.
I look out across the vast expanse of the West, the hopes of a nation beneath my feet, the sun reflecting the color of my skin. Maybe this is my home, but I don’t know yet. The train stops, and the unknown is there, waiting for me.
I get on.
H E R M E N E U T I C C H A O S J O U R N A L
Valerie Wu is a student at Presentation High School in San Jose, California. She was a National Gold Medalist in the 2017 Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, and her work has been featured and/or recognized by Susan Cain's Quiet Revolution, TheHuffington Post, Teen Ink, and various local publications.
(The 2017 Alice Sullivan Prize for Fiction)
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