Looking In
by Caroline Chen

From the writer: In response to a probe dealing with the influence of the community on the individual, I depicted the way my perspective shaped the way I saw the community. As a Taiwanese-American, the classic juxtaposition of two cultures is salient in my experiences. I recalled a particularly vivid experience to convey the Chinese community through an outsider's eyes.

From the teacher: Caroline's work is in response to thinking about community--the way we define it and the ways we are defined by it. Caroline went on to give her time and energy to Stone Quarry Hill Art Park through service learning within our course, and her inquiries regarding community continued to grow. Her essay allows the reader the opportunity to see how time and tradition and culture might come together to form these perceptions of self and the community.

From the editors: Chen's intriguing narrative overflows with graphic descriptions of a child trapped between glass walls and peering into two very separate worlds, neither of which wholly accepts her. Her exploration of her position as a Chinese-American woman is thoughtful, reflective, and captivating. The reader empathizes with her struggle for inner-peace, all the while questioning his or her own social acceptance and constraints.

The musty air and the sagging seats with stuffing spilling out indicate the weariness of the high school auditorium. I drum my fingers on the polished wood of the armrests, over the grooves of carved initials: "J.Y. + C.A." Indifferently, I wonder if their relationship has endured as long as the engraved proclamation. J.Y. must be a girl, I decide for no particular reason. Jayne . . . Johanna . . . Jackie . . . ? Slouched down in the shabby velvet seat, I feign aloofness to the excitement buzzing around me. Taking great care to appear as disinterested as possible, I 'casually scan the hall with the attitude of a removed outsider.

From my vantage point toward the rear of the auditorium, I can see over the top of rows and rows of black-haired heads. I watch them gossiping, scolding, and chattering animatedly to one another in a language I seldom hear outside my home. Chipmunks, decidedly, is the word that comes to mind as they scurry about greeting newcomers loudly like long lost relatives. "Have you eaten yet? Ai-yah! You are too thin! Come sit over here!" There are no hugs exchanged, but the warmth is undeniable. "Say ‘hello' to Auntie and Uncle," the children are instructed. Disregarding the unmistakable warning tone in their parents' voices, mischievous children run around just out of reach while the grandmothers and grandfathers smile understandingly. The little girls, some already squinting through thick lenses with plastic frames, are dressed in the pigtails and red Mary Janes I remember so well. I envy their insouciant play, blissfully unconcerned about disheveled appearances and deferred studying. As an observer, I perceive something very foreign about the scene, yet so familiar to me in my memories.

A gradual hush falls over the crowd as the lights dim and a man strides across the stage. Speaking too rapidly for my comprehension, he announces each performer with a ringmaster's booming intonation. Act by act, the singers and dancers and actors dazzle the entire audience -- except me. Frustrated by the meaningless dialogues, I tug on my mother's sleeve each time the audience erupts in laughter. "What did they just say? What's so funny?" Annoyed, my mother merely dismisses my entreaties, swatting my hand away as if it were a pesky housefly, and turns back to focus on the production. Even QVC and ESPN are more interesting than this stream of incoherent skits, I grumble. The sweltering stage lights and the tightly packed bodies intensify the heat in the room intolerably, but I seem to be the only one bothered by the mugginess. As the clapping subsides and lights illuminate the entire auditorium, my mother finally turns to me. "Wasn't that a great show?" she beams. Sure.

As the confusion of exhilarated voices floats into the lobby, I find myself trapped in a corner by gossipy old ladies. There is no escape. Friends of my mother, I correctly assume. I could never quite grasp how complete strangers could uncannily identify me as Tai-Jen Chang's daughter. I cringe at their comical uniformity, each with the standard tightly curled hair (special sale: perms only $32!) and garish ensembles of plaids, stripes, and gaudy florals. Overpowered by the scent of drugstore perfumes mixed with the ubiquitous aroma of cooking oil, I have no choice but to listen to their exclamations. "Ai-yah! How tall you have grown! How is your mother?" The ritual never varies: smile stiffly, nod politely, and stammer a few stilted fragments in response while silently begging them to leave me alone.

Was I a part of this community? Although we share a common quality inherent to each person's identity, I have somehow managed to lose the essence of the community. Born Taiwanese but raised American, ethnicity often plays a dominant role in my interactions when I am immersed among ethnic Chinese. I have worn the pigtails and red Mary Janes, I have been dressed in plaids and stripes, and I have even found myself exclaiming an occasional "Ai-yah!" At the same time, I am too tall, too loud, too outspoken. I covet my mother's easy affinity with Chinese people, but this level of familiarity has deteriorated into an overwhelming sense of emptiness over the years. Perhaps when I outgrew the pigtails and red Mary Janes, I also outgrew my status as a full-fledged member of this community.

Scorning the cursory welcomes and feeling foolishly distant, I slink back into the auditorium where the cacophony of voices fades into a soothing hum.

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