I‘m sitting at a table at my sister’s wedding reception in the Harrington Hotel in Schuyler, Massachusetts, setting paper bells on fire with my Bic lighter. The tissue paper burns easily, with great efficiency and a minimum of residue, and has very little odor that I can detect. Drinking has an astonishing effect on my sense of smell. A few Jack Daniels is, for me, an olfactory stimulator. I can smell the molecules of air, recognize and decode the intermingled fragrance of dust motes and perfume, chicken divan, sweat and industrial cleaning fluid.
Smoke wafts toward the high atrium ceiling, above the tables strewn with champagne glasses and cake-streaked plates, above the dancers flapping on the makeshift parquet, over the pink-and-lavender decoration scheme to which I’m committing arson. There’re bird turds on the glass ceiling, like irregular blotches of white paint, and in my drunken ill-humor, I read a malevolent Rorschach.
My ex-girlfriend, Lydia Cherrington, is over there, flitting from table to table like a pale pink moth, false and bright. Only she’s a moth with her own flame; she’s drawn to herself. I haven’t seen her in five months, not since the day she told me she was leaving.
“I’m sorry, Jae,” she’d said, addressing the wrought-iron CD stand in the living room, not sounding so much sorry as inconvenienced. “This just isn’t working for me.”
Taking my cue from her, I’d nodded. “Fair enough,” I think I’d said. “If it’s not working, it’s not working.” It had taken her all of two seconds to clear out.
I pour myself another drink from the bottle of J.D. I swiped from the bar.
“Hey, Molly, want to dance?” I say, nodding suavely to a young cousin of my new brother-in-law, who’s walking by with a friend. Her hair is reddish blonde and she’s wearing too much black mascara.
She turns her head at just that instant and says something to her friend. They giggle and pass by, brushing my table with their hips, leaving me to wonder if they heard me at all, or if I’ve suddenly become invisible, miming propositions behind sullen smoke.
The feeling is reinforced seconds later when my own cousin Mi Young happens by.
“M.Y!” I say, jovially. “Dance with me, baby!” I start to get up but she presses down on my shoulders with both hands.
“Oh, my God,” she says. “Jae, who’s that amazing guy in the tartan vest? Don’t look, don’t look! There, over by the cake. Oh, God, did he see me? He’s goooorgeous!
I look over at a tall blond with ruddy cheeks, standing beside the ruined remnants of cake with his hands in his pockets. In a green d red plaid vest, he looks like a young Scottish nobleman. Lord Duncan McDuigan of the clan of the Edinburgh McDuigans.
M.Y. crouches behind my head, her hands still on my shoulders, peering out at him.
I shrug. “One of Whit’s friends from Princeton, probably,” I say. The band is outstanding. Beverly and the Boyfriends. The lead singer, a black woman in a burgundy mini-dress, has a voice like smoke on velvet. Ecstatic, filled with sass, she twirls around the microphone like a woman possessed of sweet demons. She starts the lead-in to Proud Mary.
“C’mon, M.Y.,” I say. “This is a great song!”
But she straightens up suddenly and says, her voice filled with a resolve born of headlong desire, “Oh my God, Jae, I’m going to ask him to dance!”
And I feel like Charlie Brown when, for the three millionth time, Lucy snatches the football away as he’s running up to kick it. You wouldn’t think hope still possible after so much defeat. Good grief. I lie panting on the ground.
The fact is—and it’s taken me twenty-six years to amass the data—women just don’t go for us Asian guys. Korean women or American, doesn’t matter. We’re at the bottom of the food chain, the booby prize of the Darwinian mating lottery.
The fact is of the food chain, the . . . women just don’t go booby prize of the for us Asian guys. . . . We’re at the Darwinian mating lot- bottom of the food chain, the booby tery. Branded as nerds—with buckteeth and thick glasses, sunken chests and small dicks; calculators strapped to our belts, mechanical pencils lining our shirt pockets—we’re the sexual equivalent of Kansas.
Oh, sure, women like Lydia will give us a whirl once in a while. Charmed by our intelligence, no doubt, or more likely, our earning potential; to confirm their sense of themselves as liberal or daring, openminded or charitable; because they have issues with their fathers; because they perceive Asian men as less threatening, kinder and gentler, and they’ve been grievously hurt by a former boyfriend. It’s always some version of the same story.
You don’t believe me? Check out my web site, CharlieChan.com. Log on to vote for your favorite virile Asian man: there’s Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s—”Miss Go-right-ry, I must plo-test!”• Mr. Moto; Charlie Chan; Kato, the inept assassin from Pink Panther; Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles — “No more yankie my wankie.” Oh, sure, there’s Yul Brenner—but what kind of Thai was he? Not Mai Thai. What a collection of hotties, hey? Download them all here! Step right up! Haircuts alone to drive a girl wild.
And don’t even talk to me about Jackie Chan. He’s more like a mascot, a furry pet with flying leg kicks. He’s not sexy, he’s cute! They won’t even give him a woman! Hanging from helicopters, crashing motorbikes, he’s an asexual robot-man with slanted eyes and an aw shucks Stepin Fetchit grin, no threat even as he karate chops his way through stunt after stunt.
The day they cast an Asian man as James Bond is the day I break out the red velvet smoking jacket. “The name is Whang. James Whang.” With a debonair snap of the wrist I flick my Bic, and another paper bell prepares to meet its Maker.
“Jae Myung, what are you doing?!” My mother applies a viselike grip on my lower arm.
Finally, a woman who loves me! “Hey, Ma. What’s happenin’?” I put the lighter down.
She flaps at the partially burnt bell with a cloth napkin. Her hair is fastened into a neat bun with a silver dragon. Scaled, clawed and whiskered, it has jade eyes and a rhinestone-encrusted back that undulates like a snake in a Liberace dinner jacket. It perches atop three extremely long and wavy silver teeth that Ma stabs into the back of her coiffure with a terrifying courage that has alarmed me since my youth.
I try not to look drunk.
“I’m going back to the room now,” she says, glancing at the bottle of Jack Daniels and giving me a scolding look.
“But, Ma, it’s a party. Don’t you want to dance?”
Ma winces. “Too loud,” she says.
“I can’t believe this, my own mother,” I say.
But she’s not paying attention. She’s gazing out at the dance floor, toward my sister and her new husband, her face soft with pleasant visions. “I wonder when I attend your wedding,” she says.
She sighs deeply. “I saw Lydia,” she says. “Aiee, so skinny! She ask about you. She’s nice girl.”
“Oh, Ma, you said she looked like a stork.”
“Girl can look like stork and still be nice,” Ma says, shrugging.
I fidget with my lighter, flick the Bic over and over.
“What happened with stork girl?” she says, after exactly half a second.
“Ma, I don’t want to get into it right now.”
She’s looking at me closely. Her eyes are like pieces of obsidian, volcanic rock, with a hint of flash and fire.
“Marry soon, Jae Myung,” she says, admonishingly. “Before too late. All the good girls taken. I tell you, you get stuck with bride from bargain basement!”
“Hurry, sale ends soon,” I say.
“You want, I take you to matchmaker,” Ma says. “Find you nice Korean girl.”
“Okay, Ma,” I say. “Sounds good.” I sneak a flame to the singed edge of a half-burnt bell.
“Aiee, Jae!” Ma says, grabbing the lighter from my hand. “Tell Sunny I left.”
“Better tell her yourself,” I say. “She’ll be mad.”
But she’s already walking away. Her blue floral back makes its way across the room, like a tiny clump of flowers among the groom’s Sequoia-like assembly. She smiles gamely at them all, puts her dainty hand on their lumbered arms. I think of that old song. Something about finding a girl like my dear old Mama. Dum dum de dum.
And I suddenly want to weep for love of her—my tiny transplanted Ma, four foot six in tennis shoes, with her hair pins like ice picks and her breath redolent of garlic. The way she makes seaweed soup and fried dumplings for me whenever I come visit (as if any white girl could do that!) the way she wrings cabbage kimchi like she’s strangling a chicken… She reads her Korean Bible at night, turning each page of translucent rice paper with the whole of one hand, lips moving gently, as though she were whispering with God. She speaks English like a cross between a poet and a carny barker; eats pickles for breakfast; and keeps my father’s funeral portrait, festooned with black ribbons, on an altar in her bedroom. How could you help but love a woman like that?
The truth is that I would love to find a nice Korean girl like my Ma. Some sweet, shy Hae Jun fresh from Seoul, who giggles behind her palm and speaks English with a lilting malapropism. Only twenty-six years of living in this country has ruined me. It works both ways is what I’m saying. I’ve been corrupted by visions of Barbie and Marilyn, of blue eyes, substantial busts, and Roman noses. Who I’d really want to date? I’m ashamed to say. Claudia Schiffer.
I pour myself another drink and look out at the dance floor toward my sister, who’s changed out of her wedding dress, the traditional white with the train and the veil. She’s wearing something red and black now, more her style, with a flared skirt like the trumpet of a flower.
She’s dancing with Whit, who’s still wearing his black tuxedo pants and white dress shirt, but no longer his coat and cravat. He’s a strapping, yeoman-like WASP, with coat-hanger shoulders and a ruddy complexion. Yellow-haired, cerulean-eyed. He’s the kind of guy who, for mysterious reasons of his own, must crush your hand to rubble when he shakes it; and he shakes it too often, in my opinion, reserving special strangulating grips for me, his scrawny Asian brother-in-law.
Sunny is a wild dancer, her long hair whipping across her face, arms above her head, legs wide, kicking out. Whit shuffles stiffly in a two-foot radius, his face flushed pink, sweat trailing at the edges of his hairline. He looks hot and foolish; he can’t keep up. She revolves around him like a planet.
My sister could’ve had any guy she wanted. She has that power some women have, a kind of cruelty men find irresistible. It masquerades as independence, rooted in mystery, in coolness, a not-quite-playful contempt. Of course, she’s beautiful, that goes without saying, with thick, black hair that reflects light like glass, sloe-eyed and tawny-skinned. Oriental-sex-kitten-triple-X-geisha-Filipina-mail-order-fantasy all the way. And don’t think she doesn’t milk it to her advantage.
Sunny knows how to play it.
That she chose Whitney Merton should’ve been no surprise. She’s always been impossibly co-opted by white culture, thought no man worth having without those baby blues and hair with no color to it at all. She collected boys like that in high school and college. It was a joke between us. The guy who took her to the senior prom, Mark Fahey, we used to call “Doughboy.” He was a football player—more muscle than paunch at eighteen—but you could already see the way the flesh would settle, the way he’d succumb to hereditary flab. He had the pink softness of a baby rabbit. I wanted to prick him with a fork to see if his juices ran clear.
Whit was different, I saw that right away, though he had the same golden mien. He carried his own coolness. Different from my sister’s—or mine—for that matter, which comes from an outsider’s detachment, the slanted eye on a straight arrow world. His is a patrician withholding, the mantle of privilege worn at a jaunty angle. Noblesse oblige and keep the change. When he looks at Sunny, a hard light comes into his eyes—the light more of colonialism than love, if you ask me—and he bares his canines like a wolf.
A swatch of pink comes between me and my view of Sunny dancing. I look up and into Lydia’s wide green eyes.
“Oh, hi, Lyd,” I say.
“I would’ve come over sooner, but Greg Wickersham—you remember Greg, from Marcy’s New Year’s Eve party? He was telling the funniest story about Sunny’s kleptomaniac roommate. You know, the one who stole her pearl ring?”
I am silent.
She pulls a chair up beside me and leans in.
“How are you, Jae?” she says. I shrug.
She’s still lovely, goddammit, especially when she sighs in exasperation, with her hair all pushed to one side. I want to kiss her. I want to set something on fire. I’m missing my Bic lighter like it was an amputated limb.
“You’re not handling this very well, are you?” she says, peering at me.
“What do you mean?”
“This.” She gestures toward the burnt bells, the bottle of Jack Daniels.
“I’m doing fine,” I say. “Just great.”
“Oh, Jae,” she says. “You are not.”
“Okay.” I shrug. “I’m not.”
She shakes her head. “See? This was exactly the problem,” she says.
“What was exactly the problem?” I ask.
She looks at me fiercely. “You never knew,” she says. “You never knew what you were feeling.”
“I didn’t need to,” I say. “You always told me.”
She shrugs. “I was giving you the benefit of the doubt.”
I chase a piece of ice in my drink with a finger. Had I known what I was feeling? I thought so. That I had loved her, for example. That I had wanted her to stay. But there was always a part of me to provide the counter argument. With white women, the sense of foreignness is unshakeable. That feeling of distance, of approaching them from the other side of a slight chasm. For can we ever truly know or love The Other? Confucius say, “No way, no how.”
Lydia is looking down at the table, her veil of hair obscuring her face. I have a sudden memory of kissing that hair, the taste of it in my mouth like autumn leaves. I’ve licked hollows and rises hidden along her body, dark, intimate places that opened to me with a generosity I found astounding. If I wasn’t good at identifying what I was feeling, maybe it was because I was simply feeling too much.
“What ever happened to ‘Once Asian, never again Caucasian’?” I say, softly.
“I never said that. You said that!”
“Well, whatever happened to it?”
She gives me a look of deepest sympathy. “Jae,” she says. “You try to make everything about race, but it’s really just about you.”
“What about me?”
“Just look at you, Jae. Just look!” She points to the bells again. Exhibit A.
I nod. “Fair enough,” I say.
“Don’t say that!” She gets up. “You always say that,” she says. “Fairness has nothing to do with it!”
“Fair enough,” I say again, quietly, to myself, because she’s walking away. And my mother is right; looking at her from the back, she does look like a stork, with her long, thin legs and her dancer’s careful bearing.
I take a long drink and watch her go, feeling like a Korean Humphrey Bogart in my crumpled tux. “Of all the gin joints in all the world, she has to walk into mine.” There’s a certain romanticism to an occasional manly display of alcoholic self-pity, I always say. Jack Daniels with a gutwrench chaser.
“Hey, Jae!” my sister calls now. She’s at the edge of the dance floor, holding out both hands to me.
I smile and wave my glass, suddenly not feeling like dancing anymore. Whit stands behind Sunny with a smile on his face, one arm draped lazily across her shoulders.
“Come on!” Sunny beckons.
I down my drink and get up. You don’t say no to my sister. Lesser men than I have tried. All the Chang women are fierce this way bossy and iron-willed, which is probably why we Chang men prefer to languish in torpor and die young.
Sunny hauls me and onto the parquet and we start to dance. Beverly’s belting “Simply the Best” in that ravishing, whiskeyed voice. I’m a little dizzy. The music seems plugged directly into some outlet in my solar plexus, it thrums and pounds from my gut.
“You’re not having a good time,” my sister says to me, accusingly. She has to shout in my ear, dancing alongside me.
“Yeah, I am, Sis, absolutely,” I say.
“l saw you talking with Lydia,” she says.
I pretend not to hear.
“What’d she have to say?”
I shrug and do a little twirl. “…better than all the rest…”
Sunny is silent for a moment. “Jae?”
“Are you okay?”
“Absolutely,” I say. I give her my best what-me-worry grin.
She looks at me, unconvinced. “We’re worried about you,” she says.
“Is this the royal ‘we,’ we’re talking?” I say.
“Me and Whit,” she says.
“Oh, Whit’s worried about me, is he?” I look over at him, dancing with the maid of honor.
The song comes to an end and the band segues into a slow number, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” I hesitate, but Sunny puts her arms around my neck and we ease into it.
“He is, Jae. I know you think he doesn’t like you, but he’s really making an effort. And you don’t make it easy, you know.”
My sister’s neck smells like hothouse flowers, her hair tickles the side of my face. There’s something so achingly familiar about her to me, in a deep-down-to-the-bone way, on a molecular level, the ladders of our DNA matching rung for rung.
She’s four years younger than me. I remember looking in the nursery window to see her, jaundiced and squirming, behind the glass. I remember the day she came home with my mother from the hospital, the little green knit cap she wore to cover the unruly hair she was born with. My grandfather, who came all the way from Seoul to see her, had said, “Don’t worry, she’ll get better-looking,” and my mother had wept, “What’s wrong with her now?!” But my grandfather had been right, she was ugly then, bulbous-headed and bug-eyed. My father and I called her Mr. Magoo. She had grown beautiful, though. Mysteriously and without warning.
And it’s not just that Whit is white bread, really. He’s handsome enough, and he’s smart, and he’ll make a ton of money. All that privilege and power in the world will make Sunny’s life easier. It’s just… he’s not extraordinary enough for my sister, that’s all. He’s not special.
“I don’t know, Sis,” I say. “The way I see it, finding someone to love for the rest of your life is like picking fruit at the grocery store. You look for the ripest, the best-looking, pass over the ones with bruises or squishy spots. You smell it or squeeze it, or do whatever you want to it, but until you get it home, you don’t really know what you’ve got.”
She laughs into my ear with a soft breath. “How much did you have to drink?” she asks.
“Mmm-mmm,” I say, meaning ‘I don’t know.’ I don’t want to talk. Because words involve meaning and meaning begs interpretation, and it is precisely this that makes us feel furthest from people. I want only to dance and sway and feel her breath in my ear. I’ve got my eyes closed; we’re shuttling back and forth like a loom. “. . .ask me how I knew, my true love was true. . . oooh. . .”
I feel a tap on my shoulder, and Whit’s voice is in my ear. “Hey, bro,” he says, “mind if I borrow the bride?”
Sunny hesitates, but I keep on, pulling her after me like an anchor. Maybe if I ignore him, he’ll go away. It’s not too much to ask, I don’t think, to not have to give way just this once, to capitulate or surrender, or lay down on my back with my vanquished belly exposed to the victor. I just want to be brother and sister, like we used to, one last time, taking for granted the solidity of one another’s existence, the side-by-side certainty of it.
I used to read Sunny bedtime stories—”Little Red Riding Hood” and “The Gingerbread Man.” Catch me if you can. She loved that story. Can’t catch me, I’m the gingerbread man. And I just want to keep Whit out of it for a little while longer. To be Whitless. Without Whit. Run, run, run… To be left alone with my sister and Freudian implications.
“Whit,” Sunny says, like a warning.
His hand is on my shoulder again. I stop to look at him. He’s trying not to lose his temper, I can see that. His blue eyes are so icy they appear edged with rime.
“Really, Jae, don’t you think you’ve had enough?” he says. “Time to call it a night.” He’s cut in now. He’s holding Sunny’s hand, and they’re both looking at me. The upward tilt of his head is disrespectful, each pinched nostril presenting with condescension.
How deeply I despise him makes itself known to me suddenly, like glimpsing the bottom of a dark lake. He is the marauding invader, the Mongol on horseback. Our enmity is long and bitter. Behind his taut face, the eyes give him away. He’s looking at me with hatred, certainly, with haughty über-man contempt, but there’s something else behind it. Uncertainty, confusion. He’s not sure what I’m thinking. He’s not sure what I’ll do. Score one for the inscrutable Oriental. The implacable, impervious Mr. Chan. Unable to be scruted.
“Scrute you,” I say.
“I beg your pardon?” Whit lets go of Sunny’s hand.
“Jae!” my sister says.
I put my hands up as though I were surrendering. Harmless. Unarmed. Even without my trusty Bic. Whit makes as though to touch me again. I hit him as hard as I can.
The next thing I know I’m on my back in the middle of the floor clutching what feels like a broken hand. The music’s come to a halt and there’re people clustered around me with their scared, curious faces. Whit looms above me with only a pinkish spot on the side of his jaw.
“Too much to drink,” he says, sotto voce, to the crowd.
I close my eyes. I hear my sister’s voice murmuring to people. “He’ll be all right,” she’s saying. “Thank you very much.”
I am hoisted, carried aloft by many sets of mystery hands, and set down again gently.
“Thank you,” my sister says.
The music starts up again, but it’s farther away now. I open my eyes. Sunny’s leaning over me, her expression grim, like a doctor with a failing patient. I try to sit up. Before I can say anything, she throws a glass of water on my face. I gasp.
“What the hell was that?!” she demands.
Whit is nowhere in evidence. I wonder, vaguely, what has happened to him, but I feel no sense of triumph.
“—ruining my wedding!” she’s saying. “Getting drunk and making a spectacle—”
My head hurts and my mouth is suddenly very dry. I can smell the musk of her perfume, the chemicals in the carpet I’m lying on, the faint, accumulated odors of longing and fatigue. Water drips from my face and hair, onto my sodden lap.
“Sorry,” I say. “I’m sorry, Sis. It’s just that — I don’t know — I…”
She sits beside me on the floor. The bell of her skirt reminds me of the bells on the table: fetching and light, highly combustible. She looks like she could burst into flame, so flushed are her cheeks and neck.
“What, Jae? What?!”
When she was younger, I used to be able to make her laugh. I would do imitations of the Three Stooges, stick a finger in my eye; I’d make idiot faces and walk with a funny hitch like a demented hunchback. She would start to giggle, higher and higher, more and more, as though she were filling with air, floating into laughter like an untethered balloon.
Fire and Air. Which is it? The one unable to exist without the other, but not the other way around. I look at my sister’s beautiful face, with its discernible traces of the child she has been, a softness of line like the pencil markings beneath an oil painting. And, because it is essential, I choose Air.
“This isn’t funny, Jae,” she says. “Who’s there?”
“I don’t know, Miss who?”
My sister looks at me. Her face is incredulous. Then she starts to laugh. Not a childish giggle but a helpless sort of in-spite-of-itself adult guffaw. She turns red again from the effort.
“It’s not funny,” she says, pursing her lips.
“No,” I agree. “It’s not.”
Whit comes back into view, squatting down on his haunches next to Sunny. He peers at me tentatively, as though I were something unaccountable he’s just come across on television. “How’s he doing?” he asks.
Sunny shakes her head.
He wobbles where he’s perched, trying to balance on the toes of his shiny black wedding shoes. My sister reaches for his hand and he takes it. With the other, she reaches for mine.
Somewhere in the room, they’re still playing music. “Chain, chain, chain/ Chain of fools…” It occurs to me suddenly—inexplicable as it may seem—that my sister really loves this guy. With his chiseled features and his handshakes and his pollen-colored hair. Love, not so much like choosing fruit from the grocery store, after all, but more the fruit choosing you, leaping into your shopping cart with a daring hope and provocation, rubbing its firm, green rind against your cheek and smelling, promisingly, of ripeness and juice.
I see, with some regret, that my sister has gone off with the Bartlett pears, when all her countrymen were Anjou. Apples compared to oranges, despite all warnings, and found surprisingly well-suited. A macintosh and clementine together. Clementosh. Macintine. I see Sunny’s offspring clearly, my future nephews and nieces; our bloodline diluted through the funhouse mirror of gene pooling — more Charlie’s Angel than Charlie Chan, more Who’s Who than Fu Manchu. I imagine little towheads with almond eyes, freckles sprinkled across a high ridge of cheekbones. I see olive complexions and reddish brown hair; small, flat noses and thin lips.
“Uncle Jae, Uncle Jae!” they will clamor; their small hands clutching at my sleeve as I tell them tales of the Yi Dynasty; legends of the sagacious King Sejong; the bitter story of the betrayal of Queen Min by the Japanese imperialists.
“Tell us again, the one about the shaman and the tiger!”
My sister gets up, as does my brother-in-law, brushing the creases from the front of his tuxedo pants. He offers me his hand, his palm broad and deep as a catcher’s mitt.
“No hard feelings,” he says.
And I think, well—and I think, maybe. . . . When you’re inscrutable, it’s difficult to know whether your feelings are hard or soft, or whatever they may be. The blank face may mask nothing, after all, like a curtain drawn across an empty stage. Nothing to be scruted.
I am thinking about my web site—Charlie Chan, Kato and the rest—and what they all have in common, what I recognize in them, even as I deplore their scrawled cartoon edges; what I credit them for. They have the gift of adaptation, doing whatever it takes to fit in, or to take in, a world that does not seem to be their own. Kato fending off his master’s attacks; Long Dong finding a girlfriend; Charlie Chan capturing the villain. What could be mistaken for coolie servitude is in fact keen intelligence, a quick acceptance of things as they are and a fast adjustment to how best to go with the flow. It may be misinterpreted as weakness, scorned for its smiling, unknowable face, but it’s really a kind of evolutionary strength. Like the hooded eye to keep the desert sands from stinging. The impassive expression to hide the proud heart of the Asian prince.
Whit is looking at me, but there seems to be a glint of warmth in his pale-lit eyes, and I can see the mark where my fist grazed his jaw. For my sister’s sake then; for the inscrutability of love and the aching after Otherness; or simply for the sake of my manhood, peer and proud compatriot of Mr. Moto and the gang; for the dignity of the race, or the courtesy (if all else fails, we will kill them with our manners!); or for the sake of my own unfathomable but no less broken heart. I allow him to take my hand and pull me up.
Scruteless was published in River Styx volume 58/59 in 2000/2001.