…….My plane leaves at 6:00 a.m. It’s 2:30 a.m., the same time I woke up the past three mornings—no alarm needed. The meetings I’d flown in for started at 9:00 a.m. each day. The days usually wrapped around 5:30 p.m., 8:30 p.m. back at home, the time I’d be getting into my pajamas and watching TV with my husband. My body likes routines. My body isn’t happy now. My neck stiff, I sit up and stretch my arms. At least my not acclimating to the time change is paying off now with my early flight.
…….I snap on the bedside lamp. The hotel room isn’t bad, but it isn’t superb either. The carpet and curtains are a matching drab gray. The upholstery on the armchair, also in a shade of gray, needs a deep cleaning. The desk and dresser have the usual signs of wear—scratches, dings, and watermarks. The shower is nice, though. I adjust the water temperature. The white subway-tiled floor and walls of the shower are clean. The showerhead is massive and produces a high-pressure rainfall that I know I can lose time under, so I focus on the tasks at hand—wash and rinse, and rinse a little more.
…….Showered, dressed, and with my suitcase packed, I open the curtains for a last look at the city. The shower and the view—these are the high notes for this hotel. San Francisco stretches out below me. When I checked in, I wasn’t thrilled to be up so high—33rd floor—in earthquake country, but the view is something. The sun hasn’t come up yet, so I can’t make out the bay, but the city and bridge lights more than compensate for the night-obscured water and hills.
…….Fortunately, there haven’t been any quakes during this trip. Not yet, at least. Thinking there’s no need to press my luck, I grab my suitcase and do one more visual sweep of the room to make sure I haven’t forgotten anything.
…….The hallway is quiet. An ice machine hums. The elevator, which was slow and packed every other time I used it, is quick and empty now. I check out with no issue. The man at the counter says there’s no need to call for a car. He assures me there are cabs at this hour.
…….I stand inside the hotel’s entrance and look through its glass doors. A few cars pass by. No cabs, though. I step outside and look up and down the street. Homeless people, some in clusters, some slumbering solo, line the sidewalk in both directions. A homeless man shouts from under his stained blanket, “Go back to your country!”
…….I step back inside the hotel and launch a rideshare app on my phone. My driver, Alexei, will be arriving in four minutes. He’s right on time. When I wheel my bag outside, Alexei, an older man, gets out of the car, favoring his right leg. He doesn’t look well enough to be lifting things, so I tell him I can manage my suitcase, but he waves me back. Taking hold of my bag, he grips the rim of the car’s trunk with his other hand to brace himself and manages to hoist the suitcase up. I can’t help myself. I lean in to help.
…….He thanks me, his words heavy with what sounds like a Russian accent. “Not so strong now, but you should have seen me when I was your age.” He winks and closes the trunk. We get in the car, and he looks at his phone mounted on the dash. “To the airport?”
…….I tell him yes and give him my airline, then we’re off. We pass the huddles of homeless people on this street and pass more slumbering bodies—some lying down, others sleepwalking through drug-glazed dreams—on the streets leading out of the city. If I were down and out, San Francisco, with its beautiful year-round weather, would be where I’d want to end up too.
…….“I like driving at this time,” he says. “It’s peaceful.”
…….I agree with him. The highway is empty. We’ll make it to the airport in no time. I’ll be able to find something to eat, get some coffee, and have ample time to relax before boarding starts. Maybe I’ll even look for a new paperback for the flight. Being a nervous flier, I like to indulge in brain-candy-type books on flights, books meant to help pass the time, not necessarily to illuminate. My brain, having to reconvince itself with every bout of turbulence or loud mechanical whir that flying is safe, has no capacity on flights to learn anything new.
…….I look up and see Alexei glancing at me through the rearview mirror. I know what he’s doing. Him being a white man, I ready myself to answer his questions.
…….He asks if I had a nice trip. I tell him I did, and I wait. He asks if the temperature is okay. I tell him it is, and I wait.
…….People wonder when they see me, when they try to categorize me. Non-Asians see only Asian, but there’s something about me that makes them want to guess the type of Asian I am. Chinese is the most popular guess, followed by Japanese. I get Thai and Vietnamese too. Rarely does anyone guess the Asian half of me right—Korean. Asians wonder about me too. They wonder what sort of exotic white I might be. Maybe I’m a Spaniard or from Eastern Europe, they guess. When I explain my two sides to Asians, they seem happy to see themselves in me. When my white self is revealed to non-Asians, though, there is disbelief. There is doubt. There is only Asian me.
…….“You going home?” he asks me.
…….A veiled way of asking where I’m from. I nod, tell him I’m headed back to New York City, and wait for the usual follow-up question: But where is home really? He keeps glancing at me through the mirror. I know what he sees.
…….A white coworker, someone who called herself a friend, someone who knew of my mixed-race background, once described me as having black eyes and black hair during a lunch outing with other coworkers. I corrected her and said my eyes and hair are brown. She reminded me of my Asian background. I was the only person of Asian descent at the table. Everyone smiled at this woman’s reminder to me of who I am. I don’t know why, but I didn’t let it go. Usually, when it seems people are set on their definition of me, I laugh off their inability to see. I was tired, I guess. I told her that her eyes and hair were darker than mine, in fact. She told me that wasn’t possible. I asked her to hold her hair up to mine. Laughing, she complied. My hair was significantly lighter than hers. She was shocked. Everyone else was too. She asked me if I dyed my hair. I told her, “Yes—in the two minutes since you first said my hair was black, I dyed it.” Needless to say, we didn’t remain friends.
…….Asians make me feel proud to be Asian. Sometimes there’s even a gloss of jealousy to their smiles when they learn that I’m part white. Growing up, I tried to make non-Asians see all of me too. As an adult, I can rationalize why I tried so hard, why I still sometimes try. Whiteness is the ideal. TV shows and movies tell us so. Books tell us so. The way non-Asians treat my Asian mom tells me so. The way I’m treated tells me so.
…….Growing up, I wanted everyone to know that I was part of the ideal. I tried so hard to make them see. I still try, but not as earnestly. Asians see. Non-Asians, though, can’t shake their disbelief. Tired of the skepticism, I don’t offer up an explanation of me as quickly as I used to. I fight the constant urge to make them see. I make them ask their questions. I make them work to label me.
…….So I wait for Alexei to ask me where home for me is really, but the typical question doesn’t come. Instead, Alexei tells me how much he loves New York and how he spent time there with relatives as a kid. They lived in Brighton Beach. He loves Coney Island, he says. He asks me if I ever rode the roller coaster there.
…….“The Cyclone? No way,” I say, thinking maybe he’s one of the rare ones who doesn’t need to categorize me to feel satisfied. “Roller coasters are scary, and that one—I hear it’s so rickety. It’s like almost 100 years old, right?”
…….“Old might seem weak, but we are built strong.” He chuckles.
…….I laugh too. I wait for him to ask about me, but he continues reminiscing about Brighton Beach. Listening to him talk about the meat dumplings—pelmeni, he calls them—that his aunt used to make, I look out my window, and my eyes meet the driver of a turquoise pickup truck that is rolling by us on the highway. In this second, as the vintage-looking vehicle passes us, I register that the driver of this truck is a middle-aged white man with a red-hued face and gray eyebrows. In this second we share, he registers something about me too.
…….The truck slows until the driver is in line with my window again. The driver is looking directly at me. His eyebrows are pinched together and his face is turning an angrier red. He points at me, his finger stabbing the air. I snap my eyes forward. My mouth dries. My hands sweat.
…….“What is this man doing?” Alexei asks.
…….I close my eyes and grip my seatbelt’s shoulder strap. Alexei’s car surges ahead, then slows down. Alexei swears under his breath. “Crazy man,” he mutters. He taps his brakes. He switches lanes and wrenches his car back into the other lane. “Why is he doing this?”
…….What triggered this man, my racing mind wonders, but my heart is sprinting even faster, and my heart, with its rapid beats, measures the intense notes of the man’s rage and knows without a doubt why this man is doing this. Go back to your country! his furious stare screams. Go back to your country! There’s no room for misinterpretation. I know what he sees.
…….Alexei hits his horn. The man in the pickup lays on his and doesn’t let up.
…….“Ma’am,” Alexei says, his voice shaking, “maybe you can call the police? I don’t know what this man is doing.”
…….“Are we almost to the airport?” I manage to ask.
…….“Almost. But he won’t let me get into the lane.” Alexei slows his car down. Its horn still blaring, the truck slows down too, blocking Alexei’s attempt to get over again. “Maybe you should call the police,” Alexei repeats. “I drive. You call.”
…….This man is putting our lives in danger. Of course, I should call the police, but my head is still catching up to my speeding heart. While I understand with absolute certainty the situation I’m in, I can’t believe this is really happening. Shock, I guess, is what I’m feeling. I reach for my phone. The truck jerks into our lane.
…….“Ma’am?” Alexei pleads as he hits the gas to speed out of the way.
…….I nod and unlock my phone. Another car approaches us on the left. The driver hits the horn a few times, and the pickup truck races ahead, as if those short blasts of warning from an outsider, a witness, break a hex. Alexei sighs. I put my phone away, thinking I probably should still call the police, but my mind is reeling. Did we really just experience that? I can’t believe it, but I know we did. Alexei switches lanes, and we exit.
…….“Never in my years,” Alexei says.
…….I can’t speak. My Asianness is usually the cause of ignorant assumptions or curiosity. How many times have people thought I was lying or being rude when I said I didn’t speak Chinese or Japanese? How many times have people been amazed that I speak English so well? And math questions—don’t even get me started. This racism, although not subtle, has always stayed in the realm of ignorant politeness (even if feigned) before today. This racism was always something I could shrug off. This racism was nothing compared to the American Indian or Black experience, so who was I to complain?
…….But now? I take a deep breath. I can’t just shrug it off. Never has such fury been directed at me. I take more deep breaths to calm myself.
…….Alexei stops the car in front of the terminal. We get out, and I help him heave my suitcase out of the trunk. This is usually when I’d make a joke about how I need to stop bringing my whole closet with me. I can’t joke now, though. Alexei’s hands are shaking.
…….“I’m glad you were driving,” I say to him. “You really handled…that well.” His careful driving, I feel in my bones, saved us.
…….He nods and closes the trunk. He hesitates. A tear forms in his eye. He’s in shock too. It isn’t enough anymore. The thought persists. It isn’t enough anymore. It isn’t enough anymore for Asians to serve as caricatures for poking fun at. It isn’t enough anymore to remind us that we aren’t white. It isn’t enough anymore to shout at us to go back to our countries, even though, for many of us, this is the only country we’ve ever known. My eyes well. I don’t mean to start crying.
…….He hugs me and pats my back. “You are okay,” he says.
…….He squeezes my shoulder. “Everything will be okay.”
…….“Thank you,” I repeat, wiping my eyes.
…….His eyes glistening, he nods. “Just give me five stars, and we’ll call it even.” He laughs softly.
…….I laugh too. He gives my shoulder another squeeze and gets in his car. Seeing him drive off, I feel like I’m watching decency slip away. I tell myself I’m being overdramatic. I tell myself there are still plenty of good people in this world. I take another deep breath, wipe my eyes again, and roll my suitcase inside.
…….As I head to the luggage drop-off point, I’m asked if I speak English by a man trying to figure me out. An ignorant question or a dagger in disguise? After seeing the hate in that pickup driver’s eyes, how can I not think that the questions are meant to wound? I pretend like I don’t understand him and keep rolling toward security. I’m asked where I’m from by an older woman while I’m waiting for a stall to free up in the bathroom. Pretending I don’t speak English again, I look through my purse for nothing in particular. In the terminal, a kid laughs at me and mimics an Asian language—ching chong chang. The boy’s parents don’t rebuke him. They laugh and tug him down the corridor. The questions and mocking of Asian languages—all of this is not new, but it all feels more insidious now.
…….I refill my reusable water bottle. I look at the paperbacks on a newsstand display. Nothing seems appealing. I think to forgo my usual brain-candy, but it’s going to be a long flight with bumps and whirs and the turbulence in my own mind over what just happened. I need a distraction. I settle on a thriller labeled a New York Times bestseller. It has to be decent, I tell myself, if it sold so many copies. I buy the book, a coffee, and a bag of almonds. I’m far from hungry, but it’s a long way home.
…….I sit down outside my gate. I remove the lid from my coffee and hold the steaming cup under my nose. The good things—I focused on them before and I will focus on them now. The smell of coffee. My husband, who makes me laugh until it hurts. My parents. My siblings. My friends. The happy gatherings we have. Even this trip had its moments—we got the project done, and the view from the hotel was something to marvel at.
…….I blow on my coffee and carefully sip from it. Feeling calmer, my mind tries to rationalize things again. Maybe I’m overreacting. Maybe that guy was mad about something else. Maybe Alexei wasn’t as good a driver as I think. Maybe he cut the guy off and that was what triggered him. I think these things, but my heart knows what it knows.
…….A commercial for cold medicine ends on the wall-mounted TV by the gate. A news anchor stares into the camera with deathly seriousness. He tells us viewers that he has breaking news. A dangerous virus has been identified in China. The news anchor works in “China” as much as he can. Every fourth word, it seems, is “China.” Talking heads pop up and share the screen with the news anchor. They discuss the horrors of wildlife markets and how they must be the source of the disease. (The way they’re talking, it seems these markets are the source of all disease.) The images of the markets flashing across the screen are repulsive, but there isn’t anything appealing about the American industrialization of meat production either, I think. As I listen to them talk, I remember reading somewhere that the Spanish Flu originated in Kansas. Pig farms along birds’ migratory paths—key ingredients for a disaster.
…….Trying to remember what I read about the Spanish Flu, hoping that what I’m watching on TV right now is just hype, I breathe in my coffee and wonder if I should buy some more hand sanitizer before boarding the flight. I look in my purse. My hand sanitizer bottle is still a quarter full. I notice now that the man sitting across from me is looking at me. I know Asian—thanks to the TV, Chinese specifically—and disease are all he sees.
…….I sigh and close my purse. Sipping from my coffee, I don’t feel the usual urge to convince him that I’m not what he sees. I don’t need him to know that he’s got my Asian half wrong. There is no wrong. If we’re all the same in their minds, that’s fine with me. I don’t care anymore. And more importantly, I don’t need him to know that I’m half white. I don’t want to be associated with an ideal that can generate the kind of hate that the man driving the pickup truck showed me, the kind of simmering disgust I’m seeing on the TV right now. This man, his eyes darting from the TV to me, collects his things and moves to another row of seats. I sip from my coffee, thinking that’s fine with me.
Deborah S. Prespare lives in Brooklyn. She completed her undergraduate studies at Cornell College and received an M.A. in Writing from Johns Hopkins University. Her work has appeared in Menda City Review, Potomac Review, Red Rock Review, Soundings East, Third Wednesday, Valparaiso Fiction Review, and elsewhere.