My best friend in kindergarten had thick threads of gold for hair and ate apples like the American girls on TV and they told her she was beautiful. I imagined Rumplestiltskin making her hair shine, and I asked her if her hair was real. She laughed and explained that her hair was real, but Rumplestiltskin wasn’t.I preferred my apples peeled and sliced, my hair thin and flat and black—and didn’t care that no one called me beautiful, because they called me competition. To kindergarten me, it was a title of honor that meant that I was good enough to matter.
But in high school, we hunched over textbooks and ate lunches of kimchi, rice crackers, soymilk, mantou and tofu while, miles beyond school gates, people protested that immigrants were taking away their jobs. We compared test scores, swallowed happiness like gum not meant to be consumed, struggled under the weight of expectation and sacrifice.
I spent time hanging out with my ears ringing of every parents’ words to their children—how they ought to be more like me, a clear image of the model minority, diligently submissive and with standardized goals—like window shoppers that never checked the price of an item because they never planned on committing to it anyway.
On car rides to journalism events, my father tells me not to do it. On car rides home, my mother tells me not to do it. He says: “The work is unrewarding.” She says: “To speak is to cause trouble.” He says: “I knew a reporter who decided to give up and be a lawyer. It’s more stable.” She says: “We came with nothing. Why do you want to go into something that gives you nothing?”
I decide the paradox of choice lay in the fact that “Americans” don’t need an American dream, while ours was confined to a Hobson’s choice. I wonder why my citizenship certificate didn’t give me a fast pass to a dream my parents sacrificed everything for.
We will always be waiting for Rumplestiltskin in a never-ending line. I can’t tell if I am rejecting the lessons of my culture or the lessons my culture learned through trying to prove their worth in a land that tried to reject anyone who didn’t fulfill their vision of “American.” We didn’t have anything left to give. Rumplestiltskin never visited.
I longed for a simpler time, with simpler issues—where I sat by my friend, with my apples peeled and cut, as she bit into hers and everyone told her she was beautiful and classically American, and I didn’t resent her at all.