Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, I began at UC Berkeley as a double major in English literature and fine arts. Although there were thousands of Asian American students, there were just a handful in the English Department then, and even fewer in the Art Department. But that wasn’t why my social life was nonexistent. I was just naturally kind of a hermit and spent most weeknights in my apartment doing homework and watching Jeopardy!
I still remember the time when the TV show was having “college week.” I was glued to the set because I was really hoping they’d have a contestant from UC Berkeley. One evening I fixed my usual dinner of champions, Top Ramen with the “Oriental” flavour pack, and sat down expecting some rousing entertainment provided by Alex Trebek and my fellow college-level scholars.
I don’t remember which college had to shamefully claim her as its own, but all the contestants wore sweatshirts with their school names emblazoned on the front, and in my faulty, snarktacular memory, her sweatshirt read Rice. Honestly, at first I thought she was cute. I had high hopes that she would prove to every TV-watching family in America that Asian women area force to be reckoned with. She had a perky, bobbed hairdo and looked smart, which is to say, she looked Asian. On first glance, I thought she must have believed her right side was her most photogenic, because during the entire game her head was turned toward the left. However, what became quickly apparent was that she was all goo-goo eyes for the white guy on her left with whom she had chummy rapport. Between each of Alex Trebek’s questions in answer form, she made chatty little comments to Lover Boy, constantly tossed her hair, and winked like she was plagued with an embarrassing facial tic.
OK, I thought. Convivial relations with the other contestants, and joshing familiarity. That’s so college! Right. But after the third or fourth time it happened, and even the sixth time, I was starting to get pissed. Where was her Asian competitive instinct? Seriously, she was letting him win, and she seemed happy about it. I wanted to shout at the TV, “Hey, RICE girl! Get a hold of yourself!” After a while, even the White Guy started to look a little peeved. He gave her a look like, “Um, could you please stop touching me cuz my girlfriend back at Texas A&M is probably watching and also, uh, you’re kinda creeping me out.”
C’mon, woman! I’m as romantically deluded as anyone, but if I was on freaking Jeopardy! representing my college and the entire Asian American population, I sincerely hope I would self-censor my burning desire to rub myself all over Hunky Boy. Where were her priorities? First win a million dollars, then you can hump his brains out . . . LATER. Offscreen, OK? In the privacy of the network green room.
But instead, Asian Girl lost miserably, and when the competition was over, White Guy walked off the platform like she didn’t even exist, and she was the one who ended up getting crushed. I wanted to feel bad for her, but I didn’t. My Oriental flavour Top Ramen was cold and so was I. I felt betrayed and disgusted. Poor RICE. What an effing idiot.
Actually, I was looking for female friendship in real life, too.
I felt like a Chinese fighting fish in a small, confined fish bowl. Additionally, when I spotted other Chinese American women on campus, I imagined that we gazed at one another from inside our individual fishbowls, the view distorted by the imaginary glass and water. As we looked at one another without talking, maybe we alternately saw each other and ourselves smaller or bigger than we really were.
I think it’s easier for Chinese parents to push for the tangible results of top grades rather than to encourage their children to pursue close relationships. It may not be until much later that social awkwardness rears its pimply head. And by then, the subtle hierarchy and clues to the kingdom might simply further elude a nearsighted brainiac. For me, competition for grades trumped fun and friendship, and that pattern began early. I felt close to neither Chinese nor non-Asians, with only my A pluses and test scores to offer cold comfort.
And I wonder, is this when the combination of high achievement and feelings of isolation takes the next step into Tiger Personhood? When one doesn’t get close enough to anyone to develop sympathy, empathy, or bonds of friendship, it’s easier to stay inside the ever-tightening walls of that locked Chinese box.
The Tiger enclosure is a lonesome cage. It’s a form of self-imposed solitary confinement. And if I could go back in time and talk to my younger self, I would say, “Honey, let’s not all be alpha females in separate cages.”
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