Jia-hong Sun: You Are A Little Self-Conscious

The not-so-fictitious portrait of an international, first-generation, low-income, queer student at Brown University

Guest Columnist
Tuesday, May 16, 2017
This article is part of the series Commencement Magazine 2017

You bend down to tie your laces. You think the shoes are funny-looking. They are made of cowhide, and you have never worn ones like these before. You are traveling to America! Better wear something nice! You giggle at their old-fashioned ideas.

You stand up and twist the door knob. Light cascades into the room you are about to leave. You turn your head to the three of them. You say Ma, Grandma, Grandpa, bye for now. They say, best of luck in America, call us if you need money. Your heart warms but then sinks. You are about to leave them behind to fly solo on this one-way trip across the Pacific Ocean, with a return ticket purchased only for an unknown point in the vastness of the future.

Yet this is not the time for tears. You pucker up the edges of your lips, wishing that their last image of you be your smiley creases. You close the door of the familiar Confucian East behind you, and you open another into the wild Anglo-Protestant West. In this prestigious, elite and freethinking institution that was not originally built for people like you, you will stop speaking the language you have known for your whole life, and you will adopt a foreign tongue to help yourself thrive.

After 24 hours, dragging along 100-pound bags and flying 6,800 miles, your eyes are bloodshot. At the first mingling event, you meet some of your classmates — hundreds of them. They are busy getting to know each other, and you aren’t sure you even speak the same English as they do. You manage to squeeze a sentence out, can I join your group? I don’t want to be left alone. You are a little self-conscious, and they just smile.

Language isn’t the true barrier. Culture is. It is a chiffon scarf softly covering your eyes. It is gentle and at times almost invisible. Yet its existence makes every decision slightly more effortful.

On your way to class, there is this three-story house with a vast backyard where little blond children throw balls at each other. On your way home after a late night at the Sci Li, there are these lights that keep every shop on Thayer Street illuminated at 2 a.m. On your food trips, there are the gigantic soda cups at Johnny Rockets and the humongous popcorn bags at Eastside Marketplace. You wonder why a family here needs such huge spaces when children in another neighborhood not far away play by the curb. You wonder if it is a waste of energy to keep buildings lit all night. You wonder if the food here makes you fat. You are a little concerned.

The new iPhone comes out, and it is all the buzz in your dorm. Neighbors jump up and down with their new toys, gathering together taking selfies. You also need a new phone; your current one is in a sorry state. You are a little self-conscious as you listen to their laughter, and you swear that you will get one, too. You tutor algebra. You watch people swim. You peel avocados at Andrew’s. You chop salads at Jo’s. At this rate, next year, perhaps, you will have a replacement, too. It’s the waiting that makes a possession more valuable. You tell yourself that that is true.

Before you came, you were indoctrinated with the idea that your place of origin makes you inferior in America. You were told that America is not the post-racial country it aspires to be. Heads pop out of a passing car on Hope Street and yell chink at you, and so that is confirmed. You shrug it off. You are only a visitor, and therefore you don’t count in their demographics, right? It is their ignorance anyway. You are self-conscious, but they just laugh and drive away.

You feel foreign, utterly foreign.

While you are working to get a new phone, something else bugs you, too. There are some knots at the center of your existence. They reside in the veins where your blood flows; in the muscles that move you around; in the nostrils where oxygen comes out and in; in the eyes where your tears secrete and gunk accumulates. Most importantly, they are in the brain where your identity is constructed.

You are scared. You are utterly scared. You aren’t allowed to be anything but heterosexual. This was never part of the plan. How would you navigate life with this clandestine identity? How would you respond to your conservative friends’ slurs and jokes? How would you respond to aggressors, especially if they are family? Your head spins everyday for an answer. You make a pact with yourself to put on a perfect show of concealment. You watch your words, your steps, your posture and your breathing. Your clothes could speak too much, and your laughter could give it away. You are self-conscious, and they? That is the question you want an answer to but could never ask.

You decide that you have had enough. You decide that you need to break out of this shell. It has been too long since any light visited your cell, like the day when you first left home for Brown and light filled up your room, feeding you with warmth and strength for this journey you then embarked on. You need that again in your life. You speak up. One day after the next, you untie the knots that have bound you for so long. One after another, your true friends filter through the funnel. You are self-conscious, but they embrace you and tell you that you are loved and protected. It will be an ongoing struggle, but you have taken the first step.

You have fallen in love with what you study. Books pile up high on your desk as you read about subjects that would have been too bizarre to even cross your mind just a few years ago. You spend days and nights with your eyes half open (or half closed) in the Rock, pounding keys on the qwerty board until a single more glance at your thesis hurts your eyes. The day you give your thesis presentation you are a little self-conscious, but they applaud and cheer you on.

Four years after arriving, I am dressed in regalia at Commencement.

Four years after arriving, I become the first college graduate in my family.

Four years after arriving, the barrier called culture has decreased in magnitude.

Four years after arriving, I sometimes stutter in my native tongue and am more eloquent in this foreign one.

Four years after arriving, I no longer envy my neighbor’s new phone.

Four years after arriving, I realize being who I am is the source of my strength.

Four years after arriving, I still don’t know what the future holds.

Four years after arriving, I am writing for the Commencement Magazine, and I do not know how to write the ending.

Four years after arriving, I realize I do not have to write any ending, for what I have is enough.