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A GLOSSARY OF TERMS FOR 旦一 [narrative]

to fragile boys everywhere

Preface:

Your name is DANIEL HU. This is not a Chinese name. Your parents named you in Mandarin first: 旦一. This name has since been supplanted by DANIEL such that 旦一 is now your middle name instead.

旦一 is made up of very simple characters because your parents figured you might grow up to be too illiterate in Mandarin to recognize even your own name in writing. They chose a similar-sounding English name that would allow you to blend in with your peers. In your early childhood, you appreciated this second name for the invisibility it lent you. Teachers have no problem pronouncing your name. There is no need to tell the baristas at Starbucks how to spell it.

But behind this cloak of DANIEL is still 旦一, quietly lurking in the liminal space between first and last name. Sometimes he takes a peek at the outside world from behind DANIEL. 旦一 cries when characters die in movies. He feels lightning run across his skin when he reads particularly electrifying poetry. He writes because he can barely speak the language of his name, because words have ground him down to dust and there is nothing left to do except stare at the page and cry. He writes because he loves words as much as they hate him.

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ACADEMICS: You have spent the last thirteen years of your life in school. The implicit expectation from your parents and peers has been that you ace all your classes, to “win” school insofar as an education can be won. “Winning” school has therefore been your perpetual goal. This pursuit is all-consuming. Some nights you wonder if you have wasted the best years of your life on things that really didn’t matter in the end. You have found a few basic household remedies for these all-consuming nighttime thoughts (see: CALMING DOWN, TECHNIQUES IN SERVICE OF).

ACCENT: The ears are always sharper than the tongue. You can listen but you cannot speak. When you attempt Mandarin, your speech is pulled down by the gravity of a heavy English accent. The syllables roll clumsily out of your mouth. Your English is better, almost fluent, but occasionally you find yourself slurring words and stumbling over speech. The exact cause of this phenomenon is unknown. Sometimes you find that you cannot say anything at all, despite your best efforts (see: CONFIDENCE, LACK OF).

CALMING DOWN, TECHNIQUES IN SERVICE OF: Tetris. Poetry by Ocean Vuong. Taking walks in the hours between 1 and 3 a.m. on cool summer nights. Stress eating. Taking a shit while browsing Reddit. Listening to the sound of your own breathing, taking note of the steady expansion and contraction of your lungs, enclosed in the cage of your ribs. Everything inside you beats: the thunderclap of your heart, the shuddering of your breath, the quivering of your stomach. It all beats. Like wings. Like things longing for freedom, longing for escape from this prison of flesh, blood, and skin that you call your body.

CONFIDENCE, LACK OF: Silences are their own family of sounds.

DIASPORA: Your parents tell you of the sacrifices they made to bring you here, to America. They tell you of the life they have left behind. You see this sacrifice every day. You and your kind are aliens in America, the perpetual foreigners. You find yourself gravitating towards stories of exile and tales of unfamiliar earth. You read about Aeneas, the mythological ancestor of the Romans. Aeneas barely escapes the destruction of Troy, his war-torn homeland, bringing his culture and his gods with him. Unlike Troy, China still exists. But it is not your homeland. You were not born there. You do not speak the language. You are not of China. But America is not your homeland either. You are hopelessly untethered.

MODEL MINORITY: Do math (see: ACADEMICS). Keep your head down (see: CONFIDENCE, LACK OF). You are well on your way to joining the ranks of the “good ones.” You and your people are meant to be smart, but inconspicuously so. This is why your parents made your first name DANIEL and not 旦一. You have been invisible for as long as you can remember, trying to look for yourself.

ROMANTIC ENCOUNTERS, FUMBLING OF: It is clear that you need the most help in this department. Your parents are private people. The only kind of overt romance you have ever seen has been that of books and movies. It is only several mistakes later that you realize that these are not, in fact, good role models.

The first mistake comes during high school. You are weightless until you see him. He comes like a dream and he is all rough edges. You have heard that love is something soft, smooth, something with feathers. This is perhaps true of the love you feel for your family. But this is different. This is not love, or if it is, it is a flavor of love that feels like gravel and sandpaper. Your world had previously been all circles and clean lines, no edges but curves. His presence bends you into sharp angles. You ache at night and are afraid to fall asleep because you think you might find him there. You begin looking at yourself in the mirror. You wonder if you should do something about your hair. You occasionally see him in the hallways at school. You have struck up a few short conversations with him and you think that he may be warming up to you. You think in a few weeks, you may ask him out. A few weeks turn into a few months. 

And then you have waited too long and now he is dating a girl.

You think perhaps you should follow his example so you also ask out a girl. She says yes. You break up with her two months later over text because she does not make you feel like he did. She is upset, according to her friends. Also according to her friends, you are an asshole. You find yourself agreeing with that sentiment. You have not talked to her in a while. There are three separate drafts of apologies saved on your phone but you have not worked up the courage to say any of them. 

The third time is a slower, longer mistake. It is the only one that your parents know of, and of course they disapprove. They do not say so explicitly, but she is a white girl and this is disagreeable to their sensibilities. Their disapproval adds mystique to your relationship, making it illicit and all the more intimate. She is soft-spoken, but there is a core of steel to her, and this is endlessly alluring to you on account of the fact that you have never had that kind of conviction in your heart, or at least you have never been brave enough to express it. 

But there are things that she does not understand (see: DIASPORA). It is unfair of you to expect her to automatically understand these things about you when you cannot understand them yourself. You do not explain this expectation of yours. It is on her to do her homework about your life. She should read A GLOSSARY OF TERMS FOR 旦一, but you will never allow her to read it because it is for your eyes alone. You have set for her an impossible task. There are parts of yourself that you hate but you desperately want her to love them. You have not let her wander past the facade of DANIEL and you are afraid to. You want her permission, or really anybody’s permission, to tell you that you may love these parts of you. 

By the time you finally break up, she is already kissing other boys, at last getting the honest affection she could never get out of you. You have spoken to her a few times post-breakup and it seems that she is doing well. You wish her the best.

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You have spent your whole life waiting for someone to tell you how to start it. You have prayed for rain and you have cried for wind and you have stared into every mirror and every glass and every stagnant pond in every forest to search for yourself. You have been searching in the wrong places. 

旦, the first character of your name, means “daybreak.” It is a pictogram. The sun, 日, is climbing over the horizon. Start looking toward the sunrise, perhaps.

Love them, but before that, love yourself.

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Afterword:

A GLOSSARY OF TERMS FOR 旦一 is, quite obviously, for 旦一. But it is also for DANIEL because he too has his place and he too is learning to love. He is you and you are him. The only division is in the space between the names on your birth certificate. You are a dual identity. This is for you. All of you.



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