My Existence Doesn’t Require an Explanation / by Jessie Tseng

By Kyle Lucia Wu

Kyle reading her essay at the Burn The Book premiere on April 19. Photo by Bridget Haggerty.

Kyle reading her essay at the Burn The Book premiere on April 19. Photo by Bridget Haggerty.

I am from Here, I often respond. In my mind, there’s a capital H: it’s a proper noun. But you don’t know what it means. You ask me for more.

Here might mean: I was born on this patch of sidewalk where my feet are planted as I check my phone. I’ve never lived a day off of this bench in the park where I was trying to read. I haven’t yet lifted my heels from this barstool in Brooklyn I’d like to sip water on.

Here might mean: I’ve lived in New York for ten years and they say that’s when you can claim residency. Yes, a parent of mine was born somewhere in the continent of Asia, you with the clever and perceptive eyes, but that doesn’t mean I have to tell you what hospital I was born in.

Here might mean: how few words can I say to get past this? How can I be simultaneously invisible and yet so on display? How can I stop hearing: So where are you really from?

There was a predecessor to this question. Back when my head reached just to my mom’s thigh, my forehead below her pants pocket, she’d answer stranger after stranger as she buried her fingers into my dark, short hair.

Where did you get her from? they said.

When you’re young, you don’t yet know what makes you different. I didn’t realize that it was strange that people would come up to my mom, a blue-eyed woman with glinting yellow-gold hair, and act as if I were an acquisition she’d scouted from abroad. She was the parent I lived with, who took me to school and to the pizza parlor and to buy new ballet slippers, and these kinds of questions were new to her—new to her flaxen hair and those sea-glass eyes and her pale, freckled skin. She couldn’t quite grasp their intent.

She’s mine, my mom would say. This would puzzle them; of course I was hers. She paid for me, didn’t she? But where had she adopted me from?

When you don’t look the same as everyone else, your origin story is public property. It is their right to be entertained. They want to hear about orphanages, political dissidents, roofs made of straw, seven siblings in a bedroom, or a mail-order mom. The one asking the question will always have an excuse. He (and it’s usually a he) was just curious! He was just trying to be friendly! He just wanted to know which parent was the Asian one –– oh, my dad? Wow, it’s usually the other way around! He normally can tell what kind of Asian a girl is, but I had stumped him, so he had to ask! He thought he heard an accent (even if I hadn’t opened my mouth)! He was about to tell me I was really pretty, but never mind now. Where am I from with these manners?

I’m from Here, like I told you. It’s a wild dream, this lost city of allowance, a place where I don’t have to explain myself, be cross-examined at the grocery store, or justify why I walked into a room. I’m no longer a backdrop for you to shine stereotypes on. I’m able to just exist. You know, the way you are.

Kyle Lucia Wu is the Programs and Communications Manager at Kundiman, a nonprofit dedicated to nurturing Asian American literature, and the co-publisher of the literary journal Joyland. She was awarded the Asian American Writers Workshop Margins fellowship in 2017y. She has an MFA in fiction from The New School and teaches at Fordham University. Her work has appeared in Literary Hub, Guernica, Electric Literature, Vol 1 Brooklyn, The Rumpus, and Interview Magazine.