Learning How To Swim

Learning How To Swim

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Before I Graduate

I don’t know about you, but sometimes, on my way to something really grand, I’ll sit in silence and peer out the window.

It’s nice to bathe in the moments that come right before the finale: the burning in my chest, the sparks in my eyes, even the tingle just beyond the belly. This part’s always my favorite.

Ever since I was about five or six, my parents would count down the years until both my sister and I left for college. It was a number I found myself dreading… 12, 11, 10… though, it was never about my parents having to let go. I’d like to think it was a reminder that the time we spent together was precious and that the effort I put into my life really mattered. What did I want to learn? Who did I want to be? College had always seemed like this far-off concept that never quite arrived. Until the day that it did.

Moving out was hard.

Moving three thousand miles across the country was even harder. I left friends that I admired, family that I loved, and palm trees that graced only my dreams. Home became a multiplicity of things. If you know me at all, you know that perhaps I wasn’t fully devoted to my life out in the East. Yes, there were so many highs, but there were also handfuls of lows that boggled my sanity. Like many others, there were times I considered leaving. To this day, I can still remember the frantic calls made at one in the morning in the basement lounge as I muffled back tears.

But what good would that have done? Would I have met better mentors or more supportive friends? Would I have been a better person? The grass always seemed greener even though I was standing in a field of marigolds.

Four years later and here I am, right before the finale. Exactly fourty-seven days out. But graduating doesn’t necessarily mean bigger and better things. For some, it means infinite nine to fives that are spent staring out looming glass windows and reminiscing over days when all we did was lay out on the greenspace and pass around carafes of twisted teas. For others, it means gripping that diploma for dear life and wishing we could shake the meaning out of it.

And just like we did in elementary school, and middle school, and high school, and college, we’re going to make a lot of mistakes. Mistakes are what make us human. But if I leave you with one word of advice, it’s to never make excuses. Make mistakes and make them deliberately. Be decisive. At least, you’ll have a goddamn backbone.

I don’t want these years to be the best years of my life.

I want every year to be the best year of my life. I want passion and I want truth and I want long contemplative conversations over gin and tonics, and I want love. Most importantly, I want love.

I wish love to each and every one of you in your future endeavors. And I truly hope you found fragments of yourself within the folds of then and now; the parts that burn in your chest, the parts that sparkle in your eyes, and even the parts that tingle just beyond the belly.

There Is No Time To Grieve

I used to sit and dream of these moments.

I used to light cigarettes in hopes that the smoke would push my memories of you deeper into the abyss. But I could still feel them, lingering there like the faintest whisper of my name. I prayed—prayed to whatever was worth praying to.

I was a fool for you.

But heartbreak makes for good poetry material.

There is no time to grieve.

Life keeps going no matter how slowly you breathe, no matter how long you stare at those pictures: the ones of us holding hands, the ones of us smiling, the ones of you pretending you were in love.

I hate thinking about the time that has passed. Not because I dread the memories, but because they were all too sweet. Four years is a long time.

Four years is an eternity in the blink of an eye, it’s the moment your lips meet mine,

it’s every breath I could not breathe.

Sí, Io Sono Cinese

There is scrambled shouting, explosive laughter, elders sitting calmly at the head of the table, and an excess of food.

Between heated conversations concerning career paths and the whereabouts of long lost relatives, it’s clear I am at a family gathering located at an overly embellished banquet hall. Aunts and uncles whose names I cannot recall are reminding me of how little I used to be and how I may not remember the precious bonding moments we shared. I turn a blind eye to embarrassing jokes by my father and laugh hysterically at my cousins’ attempts at keeping up with the Joneses. As a twenty-year-old quickly approaching her senior year in college, I now crave times like these where dozens of relatives are able to spend one rowdy evening together around the dinner table.

The majority of my adolescent life consisted of early Saturday mornings at Chinese school and the constant nagging of my mother to speak my native tongue, Mandarin.

While my parents tried their best to integrate their heritage into American traditions, the scales tipped rapidly to and fro. My reluctance stemmed from the inconvenience of speaking two languages and the unforgiving realities behind Asian stereotypes. Fortunately for this hyper-emotional budding youth, growing up in the Bay Area bubble meant Asian supermarkets and popular Boba joints were plentiful and no one thought twice about the color of your skin. I was raised in a house where everything new had to be tried at least once (including all sorts of questionable foods). My best friends at school were Indian, Pakistani, Chinese, Vietnamese, Mexican; the list goes on. Race was never an issue in a world where minorities were abundant.

Almost immediately after heading East for college, I noticed a dramatic shift in perspective.

Dumbfounding questions were thrown my way from strangers in alignment with their generalized ideals of the Asian culture. Being inept at most types of mathematics, snide comments about how I wasn’t really Asian if I was bad at math left permanently stunned creases along my forehead. Was being a Chinese female raised in America really that outrageous? I gave them the benefit of the doubt. Despite the blaring differences between my physical appearances and that of others, many people would tell me—but you’re not like most Asians. And they were right. But I’m also not like most people. I enjoy red and purple hues in my hair, yoga and long hikes for fun, and ear-splitting electronic music. I quickly began to question my motives. Had I deliberately created a barrier between my heritage and myself?

During my time abroad I experienced racial prejudices far beyond the run-of-the-mill jokes.

Being harassed by locals in several European countries clouded my initial excitement of true cultural immersion. In order to combat the slanderous chants and surly glares in what would be my home for the next few months, I quickly picked up the Italian language and used it habitually. When my family came to visit at the end of the semester, it was as if the locals had upped the ante. I could always feel their eyes prying us apart from the hundreds of people walking by. There were close encounters but we managed to return home safely, tongues raw from biting back our words. There was no reason for me to be ashamed of my genetic makeup, yet it stung that these people saw me as nothing more than a color.

Being Asian by heritage means I am the one responsible for bringing about change.

People will put you down based on their petty misinformed bias, but there is never an excuse for ignorance. I am Chinese by birth, American by choice, and if you only see me for how narrow my eyes are, I only see you for how narrow your mind is.

Strength

Poetry by Karen J. Wang

2 January 2016


Strength does not feel like iron bars growing in the place of soft flesh.

She’s more like shallow breaths and balmy temples.

Show me strength disguised in a cape and shield,

And I’ll show you faint and dark scars across my chest.

Strength strikes with a vengeance at night.

She is crippling, abusive, and so damn heavy.

Dry throat and fuzzy head, I’ve grown an interest in ceiling fans and carpet.

Strength sings you to sleep at night with the pattering of tears on the pillow

and shakes you awake at odd hours just to scream, “You Are Alone”.

People are talking and I can’t hear a word they’re saying,

So I count the beats of my heart with the ticking of the clock in the other room.

Strength feels like forgiveness on the tip of your tongue

held back by memories too painful to recall.

But I’ll play them over and over and over until my vision blurs

and even your name sounds foreign in my voice.

Strength does not feel like “I’m my own superhero”,

She’s more like silent screams and tears hotter than my bath water.

Finding My Groove

Originally Published on March 24th, 2015

I’m consumed in a shroud of darkness.

Students in pleated skirts, shiny cufflinks, pressed ties, and black monogrammed binders flutter anxiously to and fro across the campus quad. Like marching bullet ants, I catch glimpses of furrowed brows and muffled conversations concerning summer internships and the like. On days like these I feel trapped in the leather bound coffin I created around myself, listening intently, palms sweaty, as the locks click shut.

I’ve been creatively inclined since before I can remember.

My aspirations as a child strayed far from academics while gravitating towards anything involving construction paper and colored pens. To my parents’ frustration, every favorite subject line in the About Karen section was always art. As I progressed through the adolescent years, I immersed myself in whatever I thought seemed fit: makeup artistry, fashion design, studio artwork, and even modern dance. While friends, faculty and my greatest supporter, my older sister, reinforced my efforts at school, the looming shadow of disappointment from my parents fell heavy upon my ego.

My gears began to grind as I reached the ripe age of 17 and it came time to choose a university for the next chapter of my life.

I was catapulted into the realm of college counseling, SAT’s, subject tests, AP’s, campus tours, and endless essays describing why I felt worthy of attending X University. The problem was—I didn’t even know what I wanted. East Coast or West Coast? Large campus or small campus? Liberal Arts or a specialized degree? People demanded answers and I was in no position to give it to them.
Conveniently enough, my older sister had been accepted into Bentley University a few years prior and raved about its prime location and small class sizes. While I must admit Rachel and I often act like the poster children for the idiom “two-peas-in-a-pod”, we couldn’t be more unalike. I admire her ability to excel in areas I could never enjoy, specifically accounting, but my vines reach far beyond the boundaries of a textbook.

The pungent stench of my overworked motor infiltrated every nook and cranny of my senior year, quickly spreading to my bitter attitude and disdain for my parents.

Art school was out of the question and dinner table conversations turned sour at the mention of my future. Since I failed to provide a good reason for staying close to home, my parents were set on me heading east. After several months of dead-ended arguments, my fate was sealed in a padded blue and white envelope labeled “Bentley University”.

Suppressed by the horrors of GB’s and directionless Gen-Ed’s, my preliminary years were filled with the relentless banter of my inner conflicts.

Peers and mentors always asked me the same probing questions, and each time I gave the same lackluster response. “Yes, I am from California. No, I don’t know why I chose Bentley. No, I don’t know what I want to study. I’m sorry if you’re disappointed by my answer.” Confused looks from strangers were prompted with the stinging phrase, “Then why are you here?” Without the security of a background in accounting or finance, I felt the net unravel from beneath me. I was lost in a world I didn’t recognize.

It wasn’t until the beginning of my junior year here at Bentley that I finally found my groove.

With the opportunities presented by my study abroad experience, my fire for graphic design and writing rekindled, giving me new hope in potential career endeavors. Like misplaced pieces shifting in a jumbled Rubik’s cube, I can hear the gears begin to readjust. The opportunities were there all along; I just had to work a little harder to uncover them. While I chase longingly at new aspirations, I am comforted by the fact that I’m not completely alone. Though I still fear the day my multicolored hair resorts to its natural hue and the shards of metal are removed from my ears and face, support from loyal friends let me know these acts of individuality have not gone unnoticed. My efforts to stand out in a crowd make me the odd one of the bunch, but if that’s the case then hey, so be it. At least I’m living on my own terms.