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Published in the "My Third Skin" Anthology (Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria)


“So, how has it been for you? Do you like the city?”

I often wonder how honestly I should answer these questions – they do come up quite a lot, seemingly as great ice-breakers. If I’m being completely blunt, the city has been horrible. I’ve bumped into racist people almost everywhere: the subway stations, the main streets, or the most quiet, peaceful neighborhoods. Old grannies sitting outside on their balconies, pointing at me with their canes, asking me to go back to my country; groups of youngsters shouting racial slurs until I’ve walked long passed them; drunken males approaching to say hi to me in Chinese – all of these incidents are too bad to make my experience great, yet not bad enough to make me leave. I’ve wondered how much tolerance one may harbor to overcome the annoyance of these meaningless jokes, and every time I think I’ve run out of patience, I somehow find the strength to brush them off. I've also often wondered if it is right to brush them off – maybe I should have screamed back at them, called them out on their behaviors, and got myself ready to flee if they result in violence. But I’ve never, once, done anything more than walk away. I’ve convinced myself that this is the better way to deal with rude strangers. I tell my friends there is no need for confrontation. I tell myself I’ll forget about them.

I am scared, though, from time to time. During my second month in college, one of my Japanese friends was attacked by a group of drunk and racist youngsters. This happened on the same path we would take every day, from the dorm to our favorite restaurant. I told myself he must have provoked the fight in some sort of way. His manner, maybe, was the problem – he’d always had this big, loud personality that seemed like arrogance sometimes. I know that didn’t justify anything, but it was comforting to believe that such an incident was unlikely to happen to me. But then, I’m not sure how unlikely it really is. I tell myself I’ll figure that out if I stay here a bit longer. Maybe I’ll know whom to avoid on the street by a glance from 10 meters away. Maybe I’ll feel comfortable enough to stand up myself, and the color of my skin, and the features on my face. Maybe I’ll feel so belonged that I can talk about these incidents knowing for sure that despite them, I do deserve to be here. Maybe one day.

And so, for now, I would say, “Well, I’ve just been adapting, you know. It’s a new environment, after all.” Then I move on to talk about how green tea is supposed to be more bitter where I come from, how seeing snow for the first time was so exciting, and how the cold weather has got my nose running for weeks.



“Why do you have to worry so much, babe?”

I’ve found my comfort zone in a new person, and many times when we’re together, I forget that this city is not my home. We would walk anywhere, hands in hands, to a restaurant, on the streets, to the corner shops; and some people would stare for a little too long, but then they always keep quiet and turn away. No stranger has ever been rude to me when I’m with him, and I do often wonder why. Is it because they know he’s from here, and he’s one of them, and therefore I should be one of them? Is it because he’s tall, with tattoos on his arms and a beard on his chin, which makes him seem intimidating? Is it because of male chauvinism? When I’m with my girl friends who were born and raised here, I’m still not off the hook.


I ask him to go almost everywhere with me, and he never gets why. He doesn’t get a lot of my worries, but not always in a bad way. When I’m stressed out over schoolwork, he would make me a cup of tea and ask me to calm down. When I’m running late for a meeting, he would remind me not to forget my scarf, because I’m late anyway, but I’m not sick, at least, yet. He talks with manner and care, and a lot of bubbliness. He lets me be myself, even when that means walking side-by-side with me in complete silence. He always finds a way to enjoy the surroundings of our presence, and the touch of my hands holding onto his, despite the tangled thoughts in my mind. I’ve always felt like he’s happier than I am, thanks to his ability to enjoy the little, current things. I let him teach me how to be happy. In return, I remind him to be thoughtful - my worries might sometimes be more sensible than his oblivion. I do often wonder, though, if I appreciate what he could offer more than he does me.


There was this one time when he told me his best friend was getting married, and he wanted us to drop by her apartment to congratulate the soon-to-be bride. The plan was simple: I would finish my classes at 5:15, and he would pick me up from school so we could head straight to dinner at her place. I asked him to buy the prettiest peony bouquet he could find. Peony is a symbol of prosperity and harmony where I come from, and so it makes a very common yet meaningful wedding gift. I had already bought a little vase. It didn’t look too fancy, nor was it actually expensive, but it had the perfect shape to highlight the bouquet I was eyeing. The plan sounded great until my boyfriend arrived around 5:40, in haste, without any flowers. He’d had a flat tire, and we didn’t have enough time to make a stop and buy anything in replacement – I was anxious about being late. Fortunately, we arrived just in time to help set the table, but then everybody else brought something. A set of plates, a voucher to the nicest vegan restaurant in town, or coupling pairs of slippers. I felt bad just giving the vase, unwrapped, plain, without the flowers, so I didn’t. I was in the middle of an awkward promise to send the gift later when my boyfriend made a joke, that he would bring something the “next time” she got engaged. I felt the obligation to laugh, and I remembered thinking how relieved I was, that everybody else was actually laughing.


When we were driving back to our place, I tried to convince him to send her a gift first thing in the morning, but he said the couple was flying to Paris then. Why did I have to worry so much? It was just a flower bouquet, anyway. It’s not like it was their flight tickets to Paris. They weren’t even mad, and they were his friends. He was supposed to know them better than I did, and if he said it was okay, it should be okay. Maybe they were open-minded people who didn't take themselves too seriously, just like my boyfriend. Why did I have to feel so bad? Why did I need him to pick me up from school in the first place, anyway? I could have caught a subway and got the flowers myself, knowing exactly where to get them. And so I would say, “Well, I shouldn’t, should I? We can always get them something later.” And we moved on to talk about how expensive weddings were those days, and where people should be heading for their honeymoons.



“I feel like you’re victimizing yourself, are you not?”


My closest friend from secondary school wanted to study abroad, but his family couldn’t afford that. He ended up acing the entrance test for one of the most prestigious colleges back home and is now working hard to graduate as a valedictorian. The guy doesn’t give up on almost anything, despite how challenging his life has been. His mom left when we were in primary school. In high school, his dad threatened to kick him out of the house when he came out as gay. He moved out just a few months before our graduation and worked as a barista since then to afford the costs of living. He barely talks to his dad or anyone in his conservative family, so he talks to me. Every weekend, around lunchtime, he would ring me up on Messenger and we would chat for 30 minutes before he has to get back to work.


In one of our calls, I told him I hadn’t felt very happy lately. I wasn’t sure what the reason was - maybe it was the racist people I met once or twice a week, maybe it was the boyfriend who’d found me more and more difficult to understand. Maybe it was the gloomy, cold weather, which made my nose run for more than a month already. Maybe it was all of them at once. I’d been missing everyone back home much more than usual. My mom would have understood why I was so frustrated over the peonies – she’s the type of person who cares about every tiny detail. She’s excellent at picking out the best presents because she does so in such a personal and sincere manner. When my friend came out, my mom gifted him a rainbow hand-knitted scarf, despite being relatively new to the concept of homosexuality herself.  This year, for the first birthday that I’d spend away from my entire family, she sent me a silver pendant that takes the shape of a peach blossom flower. It echoes the nickname my Dad used to call me when he was still well - “Peach Blossom”, and in my native language, “Đào”. The message was clear: my mom wanted me to know that wherever I was, Dad would still be with me, and so would everyone else in the family.


I couldn’t indulge in the sentimentality that I craved for too long, because, on the other side of the phone, my friend was getting more and more impatient. He asked if I was so unhappy, why I didn’t just quit. It’s not like I would have such a big problem with that – many colleges back home would be happy to count my credits from freshman year and let me continue to my sophomore. But he was right, I chose to be here. I chose to be on the 6th page of my university's weekly newspaper, as the twenty-third South East Asian full-time student of the institution, in their effort to provide a diverse studying environment. I chose to walk around in a foreign neighborhood, being a foreigner, wearing a foreign skin. I chose to represent something so much bigger than myself – a nationality, a cultural region, and the idea of being a global citizen. And yet there I was, whining about some completely predictable and mundane setbacks. Am I victimizing myself? Do I just long for the familiar feeling of being mommy’s little girl? Since I got here, I’ve been avoiding her calls, knowing they often last for hours on end, with unnecessarily minute instructions on how to keep myself warm, stay hydrated, or take care of my sleep schedule. How could I wish people to be more like her, now?


I was going to say, “You’re right, I should stop being whiny and toughen up.” I was really close, I promise, it was on the tip of my tongue. But then I saw myself squeeze the phone as hard as I could and threw it across the room. The sound of metals hitting a wall got a short echo to it, and I could hear my friend’s interrupted voice, somewhere from under my desk: “Hello? What’s got…?”



“So what’s got you to therapy?”


My therapist is a middle-aged woman, graceful and rather modest, often dressed in an oversized patterned skirt paired with a buttoned shirt and wide, puffy sleeves. I’ve made the decision not to ask anything personal about her, even though some details of her life have come up in our sessions sometimes. She used to spend two years in the Philippines, has a daughter who is around my age, and likes filling her office with plants and flowers. She is comforting, like, I guess, how therapists are supposed to be. Every time I walk out of her office, I feel terribly positive and positively terrible. Some sessions have got me straight to my bed crying, but some have given me the explorative motivation to drop by a new teahouse. There has always been this feeling of relief, like I’ve been honest yet accepted, and I realize I need that now more than ever.

I often start with racism, because it is easy and quite obvious. I don’t stop at the big incidents, though. I allow myself to mention the glances, the stares, the squints, the possibly made-up signs that my unfortunate, sensitive eyes have spotted. The time I helped an old man pick up his grocery bag from the floor, and he snatched it out of my hands without saying a word. The time I went on a bus, and the person sitting next to me quietly switched seats. The time a sales clerk refused to swipe my credit card a second time when it failed. I remember checking my pockets to find no cash and walking home empty-handed.

I move on to my relationship. Countless occasions of getting lost in thoughts now result in a complete vomit of words. They go on and on and I can’t stop for one second, and I feel as if the more I let them out, the uglier I become. I talk, about the way he’s surrounded by so much security, love, and comfort that he can’t imagine how I need him to be there as early as classes are over. How I needed the peonies to be there, too, and how much it saddened me that they weren’t. How I hate that I’m so fragile and that the smallest things can stop me from being as happy as he was.

I continue with my friends, and family, whom I left when I chose to be here. Half-an-hour phone calls do feel like reports sometimes, now that I’m not happy, yet I keep feeling the responsibility to be. I want to live my best life here, because I have to, for the people I love. What would my mom think if she knew that I’ve been struggling? Ever since Dad’s accident, she has been in and out of the hospital every single day, and at some points, it started feeling like I’ve become the only source of joy for Mom. The day I took off, she cried so much on her way back from the airport, that my friend had to sleep over at my house to make sure she was alright. I often think about the nights she’d spend alone beside Dad’s bed, the mornings she’d wake up early to have a quick shower before heading to work, and the holidays, the dear holidays. She’d decorate a peach blossom tree with ornaments from years ago, put out marmalade and dried fruits in glass vessels on the table, and watch fireworks on New Year’s Eve, all by herself. I remember the nights she couldn’t fall asleep because I wasn’t home, and the mornings she wouldn’t eat because she couldn’t reach me on the phone, and the birthdays, the dear birthdays. She would think about the presents for weeks, and if she didn't have time to prepare them, she stressed herself out. She stressed me out, sometimes, with her long phone calls, constant messages, and repetitive stories at the dinner table. But then she let me go. She was there, cheering when I found out I got a scholarship and bought my flight ticket. She packed my luggage with me. She reminded me to bring my favorite teapots and cups, and a few packs of flower seeds. She seemed to know that I needed to be away from her, and that saddened me even more.



My therapist asked me to make a list of healthy habits, which I’ve followed whenever I can. I ask Mom to hang up every time I need to go, and to my anxious yet determined requests, she mostly says yes. I ask my friends at school to walk with me to the subway station when it’s convenient for them. Sometimes, I would invite them to my apartment, where I serve green tea in those beautiful patterned pots and cups. Some other times, when I feel like it, I buy flowers from the store and put them nicely on the kitchen table. I don’t talk to my best friend so often anymore, but I know when I do, I’ll be better. Maybe he will, too.


There come some days when things do look up. A stranger in the supermarket shows me where I can get paper bags instead of plastic ones because he notices how confused I seem. My college friends start buying green tea and store boxes of them in their apartments. My boyfriend comes back from work with a peony bouquet in his hands, whispering the words “Happy anniversary”. My mom is finally done with her knitted collection of flower pot sleeves, which we both know Dad would love. It is within these days that I feel as if I’m so much closer to like the city. That I find comfort in the newness of it all.

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