“I’m boycotting your Chinese bricks!” Tim said to me.
It was dusk in Middletown, Connecticut. I was playing Settlers of Catan with my college roommate and his father. We were trading bricks, but our business negotiations were not as smooth as I hoped they would be. When Tim said this to me, my heart told me that I was in no position to speak out against a man who was only screwing with me in a game of Settlers of Catan. I genuinely did not feel offended, but my brain said that I should tell him that this was an incredibly insensitive thing to say, that you can’t say that kind of shit in this day and age. What I learned in high school told me that I ought to be angry and outspoken in this sort of situation. My more socially conscious peers told me time and time again that jokes shouldn’t just be jokes, since jokes are the perfect gateway to casual racism, but I held my tongue.
“OK, for that, I’m not trading with you for the rest of this game,” I said. I maintained a smirk so that Tim knew I was not really upset.
“Sorry, that was my Trump impression,” Tim said.
When the world started classifying the coronavirus as a pandemic, universities dished out eviction notices by the dozen. The barren New York streets at that time reminded me of a childhood video game of mine called “New York Zombies,” where you play as one of the sole survivors of a zombie apocalypse and traverse Central Park, Holland Tunnel and the New York subway system while fighting off the walking dead. The apocalyptic vision of the Big Apple as a ghost metropolis had never felt more tangible. Perhaps it was because of the novelty, but I grew to like that idea.
With one week left to pack my stuff and find shelter, my college roommate, Harry, offered me a place to stay in his house in Connecticut. The offer took me by surprise, given that he was as talkative as a rock for the majority of my first year. His parents, Tim and Kate, were less exaggerated versions of Homer and Marge Simpson — an everyday man and his wife, who showed affection towards each other with nonstop teasing.
I kept in touch with my parents in China via Skype. They insisted that I do two things. First, they wanted me to use the experience of being in the Gregory household from March to August as fuel for future writing projects that recalled the time when the world had gone to shambles. Second, they wanted me to get along with the Gregory family, because, according to them, “no one has ever done a greater favor for us in our lives.”
I was a vampire. I really didn’t care much for going outside, so I didn’t get to see the outside world in shambles. There was always a roof over my head. I only found cause to be angry about the little things that shouldn’t have made me angry, and because of that, I couldn’t always get along with the Gregory family.
One night, I made the egregious mistake of eating buffalo wings with a fork. Tim stared at me with bulging eyes and a slack jaw, which made him look like a cartoon character.
“Why aren’t you using your hands?” Tim asked me.
“Force of habit.”
“Ok, well, if you go to any other place in this country, and they see you eating wings with a fork, people are going to think you’re a lunatic,” Tim said.
My brain began to tingle. Just like when we played Settlers of Catan, Tim felt the need to constantly remind me that I was a foreigner. He was not wrong. I was a foreigner, but I did not want to feel like one.
“Honestly, I don’t care about what other people think about me,” I replied. “This is what I’ve always done. I don’t like getting my hands dirty.”
“Are you saying we’re savages then?” Kate chuckled.
“Alright, but if you ever go to a bar, you’re gonna get mocked by everybody else,” Tim said.
On one hand, I didn’t want to be a foreigner. On the other hand, I didn’t want to give into the pressure to assimilate. My heart said to not make a big deal out of it. After all, eating wings with a fork is a trivial thing, but my brain was heating up like an impassioned furnace. It was too busy trying to reconcile the desire for individuality with the desire for a sense of belonging. It couldn’t help but overheat. I couldn’t stay silent, so I let out a crude exhale. It was one of those exhales people do when they want to say “fuck off” without saying “fuck…
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