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Chapter no 9

Yellowface

THE CAMBRIDGE EVENT SPARKS A MINOR TWITTER DISCOURSE, featuring all the

usual suspects—lots of threads covering what happened with various degrees of outrage, lots of people weighing in with their own opinions, most of them using it as a chance to grandstand and show off profound thoughts that are only tangentially related to what was actually said. A couple of people agree with the question asker—I learn that she’s a sophomore at MIT named Lily Wu, and that she’s written a whole angry thread about the encounter in which she calls me, among other things, an oblivious White woman with no real ties to the community and a disingenuous, self-interested faux ally.

But more people are on my side than hers. Her replies are full of comments like Your position sounds like reverse racism to me . . . and Oh, you like censorship? Might I suggest moving back home to communist China! It’s a whole mess. I don’t comment. By now, I’ve learned that the best way to deal with negative backlash is to bunker down, silent and unscathed, until the whole thing blows over. In any case, Twitter discourse never does anything—it’s just an opportunity for firebrands to wave their flags, declare their sides, and try to brandish some IQ points before everyone gets bored and moves on.

A WEEK LATER, I RECEIVE THE FOLLOWING EMAIL:

Good afternoon,

My name is Susan Lee, and I am the events coordinator for the Rockville chapter of the Chinese American Social Club. I recently read your novel The Last Front, and was really impressed by your grasp on this forgotten aspect of Chinese history. Many of our club

members would be very curious to hear your story. We would love to host you at one of our club meetings. We usually do a Q&A with an invited guest, followed by a buffet dinner (free of charge to you, of course). Please let me know if that would be of interest.

Thank you, Susan

I almost delete the email. At this point, I delete most event invitations that don’t offer honorariums unless they’re truly prestigious. Susan Lee’s tone reads as formal and stilted in a way that makes me suspicious, though I can’t quite put my finger on why. (I always briefly worry, before accepting any invitations, whether the organizers are really setting a trap to hold me hostage or kill me.) Besides, Rockville is all the way in Maryland; it’s a pain to get out to from central DC if you don’t feel like spending a hundred bucks on an Uber round trip or sitting on the red line for an hour, and it’s not a paid gig.

I should have said no and saved myself the humiliation.

But Lily Wu’s words echo in my mind—“disingenuous, self-interested faux ally,” “oblivious White woman with no real ties to the community.” Aside from the Asian American Writers’ Collective, which I donate to and which can’t exactly shun me, this is the first Asian organization that’s wanted to host me since the Cambridge debacle. This could be good for me. This could prove, to the Twitter conspiracy theorists, that my support for Asian Americans isn’t an act. That I wrote The Last Front because I’ve studied the history, and because I care about the community. Maybe I’ll even make some new friends. I imagine the optics of an Instagram post of me eating catered Chinese food, surrounded by admiring Chinese fans.

I look up the Chinese American Social Club of Rockville. Their website is a dinky little single page featuring Comic Sans text against a bright red background. I scroll down past the giant header to find several badly lit photos of club functions—a buffet dinner with a local business leader, a New Year’s banquet where everyone is wearing red, a karaoke night illuminated by garish flash. From what I can tell, the club members range from middle-aged to elderly. They look harmless. Adorable, even.

Oh, what the hell? I wait a respectable few hours so that I don’t come off as desperate, and then I email Susan back.

Hi, Susan. I would be happy to come speak to the club. April is quite open for me. Which dates work best for you?

SUSAN LEE GREETS ME AT THE PARKING LOT OF THE SHADY GROVE metro station.

I’m not so comfortable with my new wealth that I can just fling money at Ubers, so I’ve taken the red line all the way to the end, and she’s offered to drive me the rest of the way to the club. She’s a short, petite woman wearing a very crisp suit jacket. Kim Jong Un’s girlboss propagandist sister immediately comes to mind, only because I’d once seen a news photograph of her wearing a similar suit and sunglasses, but of course I can’t mention this comparison out loud.

Susan greets me with a firm handshake. “Hi, Juniper. Was the train ride okay?”

“Yeah, fine.” I follow her to her blue sedan. She has to toss a few books and blankets into the back to make space for me, and the car is suffused with some cloying, herbal odor. “Sorry about the mess. Here you go—you sit up front.”

Her lack of formality strikes me as rather unprofessional. I rankle a bit that Susan’s acting like she’s picking her daughter up from school instead of chauffeuring an acclaimed guest. But no, no, that’s my own bias coming through. They’re not a glitzy bookstore, I remind myself. They’re just some little social club without a big budget, and they’re doing me a favor by wanting to be associated with me.

“You speak Chinese?” Susan asks as we pull onto the highway. “Huh? Oh, no—no, sorry, I don’t.”

“Your mom didn’t teach you? Or your dad?”

“Oh—I’m sorry.” My gut twists with dread. “You must be mistaken— neither of my parents are Chinese.”

“What!” Susan’s mouth makes such a perfectly round O of shock, I would laugh if this whole thing weren’t so awkward. “But your last name is Song, so we thought maybe . . . You are Korean, then? I know some Korean Songs.”

“No, sorry. Song is my middle name, actually. My last name is Hayward. Neither of my parents are, um, Asian.” I want to die. I want to open the car door and roll out onto the highway and be obliterated by oncoming traffic.

“Oh.” Susan falls silent for a moment. I glance sideways at her, only to catch her sneaking a sideways glance at me. “Oh. I see.”

I feel shitty about the mix-up, obviously, but also a little defensive. I’ve never pretended to be Chinese. I have noticed that people often operate in a gray area with me where they might think I’m Chinese, but don’t want to presume or ask me to clarify. I’m not fooling anyone on purpose. I don’t have a big sign that says WHITE! stamped to my forehead, but shouldn’t the onus be on other people not to presume? Isn’t it racist, in a sense, to assume my race based on my last name?

Susan and I don’t speak for the rest of the drive. I wonder what she’s thinking. Her face looks tight, but maybe it always looks that tight; maybe that’s how all middle-aged Asian ladies look. As we pull up to the church— the Chinese American Social Club of Rockville meets Thursday nights at a Presbyterian church, I guess—she asks me if I like Chinese food.

“Sure,” I say. “I love it.”

“Good.” She kills the engine. “Because that’s what we ordered.”

Inside, metal fold-out chairs are arranged in rows before a pastor’s lectern. I’ve drawn a larger crowd than I expected; there are forty, maybe fifty people here. I thought this was just a club, not a whole congregation. A lot of them are carrying signed copies of my book. A few people wave enthusiastically when I walk through the door, and I feel stabs of guilt in my gut.

“Up this way.” Susan gestures for me to follow her to the lectern. She adjusts the mic to her height, and I stand awkwardly behind her, surprised that we’re starting so abruptly. I wish someone had offered me a glass of water.

“Hello, everyone,” Susan says. The mic screeches; she waits for the feedback to die out before she continues. “Tonight we have a very special guest. Our esteemed speaker has written a beautiful novel about the Chinese Labour Corps, which many of you have read, and she’s here to give us a reading and talk to us about being a writer. Please, everyone join me in welcoming Miss Juniper Song.”

She claps politely. The audience follows suit. Susan steps back from the lectern and gestures for me to begin. She’s still smiling that tight, strained smile.

“Well, hello.” I clear my throat. Come on, this is nothing. I’ve done a dozen bookstore talks by now; I can get through a simple club meeting. “I guess, well, I’ll start with a reading.”

To my surprise, it goes just fine. The audience is tame and quiet, smiling and nodding at all the right moments. A few of them seem confused when I begin to read—they squint and tilt their heads to the side, and I can’t figure out if they’re hard of hearing or if they can’t understand English well, so I slow way down and talk very loudly just in case. It takes me way longer to get through my excerpt as a result, which leaves only twenty minutes for the Q&A, but honestly that’s a relief. Anything to burn time.

Though the questions, too, are total softballs. Actually, most of them are quite sweet; they’re the sort of questions you might receive from your mom’s friends. They ask about how I became so successful at such a young age. How did I balance my studies with my writing career? What other interesting things about Chinese laborers did I encounter in my research? One bespectacled old man asks a very blunt question about the size of my advance and my royalties rate (“I did some math and I have some thoughts on publishing’s business model, which I would like to share,” he says), which I dodge by telling him I prefer to keep those details private. Another man asks, in broken English, how I think Chinese Americans should better advocate for representation in the American political sphere. I have no idea what to say to this, so I mutter something about social media visibility, coalition with other marginalized groups, and the disappointing centrism of Andrew Yang, and hope that my rapid English confuses him enough that he thinks I’ve uttered a coherent answer.

One woman, who introduces herself as Grace Zhou, tells me that her daughter Christina is in ninth grade and asks whether I have any advice for her about the college application process. “She loves to write,” she says. “But she has trouble fitting in at school, especially because there aren’t many other Chinese Americans, you know, and I was wondering if you could offer some advice for her to help her feel comfortable expressing herself.”

I sneak a glance at Susan, whose mouth is now pressed so thin it could have been drawn on with a pencil.

“Just tell her to be herself,” I offer weakly. “I also had a hard time in high school, but, um, I got through it by throwing myself into the things I loved. My refuge was books. When I didn’t like the world around me, I would read, and I think that’s what turned me into the writer I am today. I learned the magic of words early on. Maybe the same will be true for Christina.”

All that, at least, is true. I can’t tell if Grace is happy with this answer or not, but she passes on the microphone.

At last the hour is up. I thank my audience graciously and make for the door, hoping to slip away before anyone drags me into conversation, but Susan materializes by my side just as I step away from the lectern.

“I was hoping—” I begin, but Susan guides me, almost violently, toward the plastic foldout tables at the back of the room.

“Come,” she says, “get some dinner while it’s hot.”

Some volunteers have put out trays of the catered Chinese food, which looks so greasy under the fluorescent lights that it turns my stomach. I thought Chinese people were supposed to be snooty about cheap Chinese takeout. Or maybe it was just Athena who’d obnoxiously declared never to consume a bite of food that came delivered from places named things like “Kitchen Number One” and “Great Wall Express.” (“You know that’s not authentic,” she told me. “They just serve that shit to white people who don’t know any better.”) I use the plastic tongs to select a single vegetarian egg roll, since it’s the one thing that isn’t literally glistening with oil, but the tiny grandma at my shoulder insists I also try the kung pao chicken and the sesame noodles, so I let her pile helpings of those onto my plate while I try not to gag.

Susan guides me to a table in the corner and seats me next to an old man she introduces as Mr. James Lee. “Mr. Lee has been very excited about your talk ever since it was announced,” says Susan. “He even brought his book for you to sign. Everyone wanted to sit with you—I know Grace wants to bother you about her daughter’s college applications—but I told them no.”

Mr. Lee beams at me. His face is so brown and wrinkled it has the consistency of a walnut, but his eyes are bright and friendly. He pulls a hardcover edition of The Last Front out from his bag and offers it to me with both hands. “Sign, yes?”

Oh my God, I think. He’s adorable.

“Should I personalize it to you?” I ask gently.

He nods. I can’t tell if he can understand what I’m saying, so I glance at Susan, who also nods her permission.

To Mr. Lee, I write. Was such a pleasure to meet you. Best, Juniper Song.

“Mr. Lee’s uncle was one of the Chinese Labour Corps,” Susan informs me.

I blink. “Oh! Really!”

“He settled in Canada afterward,” says Mr. Lee. So he does understand what we’re saying. His English is slow and halting, but all his sentences are perfectly grammatical. “I used to tell all the children at school that my uncle fought in World War One. So cool, I thought! My uncle, the war hero! But nobody believed me. They said that the Chinese were not in World War One.” He reaches out to take my hands in his, and I’m so startled by this that I let him. “You know better. Thank you.” His eyes are wet, shining. “Thank you for telling this story.”

My nose prickles. I have the sudden urge to bawl. Susan has gotten up to chat at another table, and that’s the only thing that gives me the courage to say what I do next.

“I don’t know,” I murmur. “Honestly, Mr. Lee, I don’t know if I was the right person to tell this story.”

He clasps my hands tighter. His face is so kind, it makes me feel rotten.

“You are exactly right,” he says. “We need you. My English, it is not so good. Your generation has very good English. You can tell them our story. Make sure they remember us.” He nods, determined. “Yes. Make sure they remember us.”

He gives my hands one last squeeze and tells me something in Chinese, but of course I don’t understand a word.

For the first time since I submitted the manuscript, I feel a deep wash of shame. This isn’t my history, my heritage. This isn’t my community. I am an outsider, basking in their love under false pretenses. It should be Athena sitting here, smiling with these people, signing books and listening to the stories of her elders.

“Eat, eat!” Mr. Lee nods encouragingly at my plate. “You young people work too hard. You don’t eat enough.”

I want to vomit. I can’t stay a moment longer among these people. I need to break free from their smiles, their kindness.

“Excuse me, Mr. Lee.” I stand up and hurry across the room. “I have to go,” I tell Susan. “I need to—uh, I forgot I have to pick up my mom at the airport.”

I know it’s an awful excuse the moment I blurt it out—Susan knows I don’t have a car, that’s the reason she had to come pick me up at the train station in the first place. But she seems sympathetic. “Of course. You can’t keep your mother waiting. Just let me get my purse, and I’ll drive you to the station.”

“No, please, I couldn’t impose. I’ll get an Uber—” “Absolutely not! Rosslyn is so far!”

“I really don’t want to put you out of the way,” I gasp. “You haven’t finished your dinner. I had a lovely time, and it was so great meeting everyone, but I—um, I should really just let you enjoy your night.”

I burst for the door before Susan can answer. She doesn’t chase after me, but if she had, I would have sprinted until I was out of sight. It’s so undignified, but all I can perceive then is the relief of cool air on my face outside.

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