This Cave

I am riding atop a folding device, seething into a past life.
it sunders my world into multiples of itself.

Without the need to reassemble
the burgeoning plural of this picture plane
I am able to grasp that this is
beyond the confines of fantasy
the stepwise motion of fiction into interior.
this cave is necessary.

— Joohyun Kim, “as rhizomes we will live one million years or more”


“There is only one race: the human race.”

— everyone

Subjective: Anything can happen. The itch is gone. No more stomped up dust slaked on her sweat. She can access mysticism only after she applies yellowface, when she no longer feels the need to be in so much opposition. Perhaps the unclenching opens a space for contemplation, possibility. For years, she fought to articulate difference and that singlemindedness threw disdain on frivolity. She is done fighting so much. White people were always in the landscape first, even if they weren’t.

My first morning in Wyoming, I woke to all the skin on my forearms flaked as if from a mild sunburn. I jokingly called myself a snake, except I didn’t shed the skin whole, slipping it off. It dragged off of me in shreds.

Hannah, a nonfiction writer I’d met through Facebook, had visited Laramie when she got accepted into the MFA program. We were accepted into the program at the same time, but I was too poor and shy to visit; my attendance at their welcome weekend would have been like interviewing the program as if I had so many options to choose from. Over Skype, she gave me the details when she returned home to Shanghai.

“Ginger, I would really, really think about what you’re getting into. It’s so, so white. It’s so, so different. Think about it, seriously. ”

I wanted to hug her, watching her through the screen as she sat in her parent’s dining room, the heavy scrollwork of the high-back cherrywood chair sprouting from her shoulders like in those traditional Chinese paintings that lack dimension. With no apparent perspective at all, flat figures are planted at pleasing intervals in a domestic scene. A maiden sits in a dark red chair, too much larger than her dog and the nearby playing children. Off in the distance, the single face of a wrinkled mountain applied onto the painting like a sticker. Except it’s not quite in the distance. It’s just small and set apart from everything else.

Hannah ended up going to Columbia instead, feeling more comfortable with New York as an analogue to her home cities of Shanghai and San Jose. I had moved from the awfulness of Indiana to the even worse awfulness of Laramie, Wyoming, a town of 30,000 people. A third of that population are students at the only university in the state. I won’t speak of the ways that it was so typically provincial; its tedium, couched in homey sameness and harmless backwardness, is designed to censure those who hate it.

Hannah and I continue to keep in touch through Facebook, and I often notice her photos and travel posts, making sure to ‘like’ them all because I like her so much as a friend. I feel the need to do that. I get caught in the thrall of conscientious friendship, logging on to Facebook to get a sense of the world, then finding myself entrapped in my social excursion. What I’m enacting, with my march of little thumbs-ups and emojis to systematically support the posts of those I love, is a social exchange stand-in for in-person neighborly exchanges and familial gestures of togetherness. I am waving to you from my driveway. I am passing through your barbecue on my way home. I am listening to your daily stories in often the only way I can. I am checking in, but from a distance. I associate certain names and profile pictures with little surges of affection as I spin down the feed with intermittent flashes of fascination. It can take hours at a time.

There are others on my Facebook feed. Their presence resulting from friend requests that I accepted because of an intimidatingly large number of mutual friends. I don’t know them well, and their profile pictures, small and lacking color, are impervious to my goodwill — I scroll mindlessly past.

There are also others on my blocked list, about a dozen. Ten of them are men who have sent me inappropriate messages, or had insisted on responding to my posts with bad politics. Two of them are exes. Just as I visit my friend’s list for a selection of friends whose updates give me joy, I visit Facebook for the assurance that bigotry or maddening politics won’t invade my curation. I don’t consider myself obligated to maintain Facebook as a representative snapshot of the world, in which the most adamant and idle take up the most space with their ample voices and ample time. My blocked list is important to me, and shall be maintained for as long as my Facebook lives.

Subjective: Repetition and rumination.

When I was in high school, a friend and I had secret LiveJournals. It was where we assumed personas that were completely unperformable in our daily lives, a certain melodrama that exposed a vehemence and willingness to self-harm that we believed would have been surprising to our classmates and teachers, and unthinkable to our parents and friends. Sarah and I were the quiet, plain girls in the back. Sarah and I were slightly unfashionable kids who ate lunch at the edge of the quad. We were the Asian girls who would always remain the Asian girls, surrounded, as we were, by a large population of rich, white, local kids. Sarah came to school every day on a bus from Koreatown. I walked to school from the house my mother had recently married into, the house of a Jewish doctor who wrote out a check to her for $1000 every month, forbidding her access to any of his other accounts or funds. Sarah and I were the ones who didn’t get Ford Explorers or BMW 3-series for our birthdays. We walked to the grocery store and bought tokens to take the MTA bus to her mother’s dry cleaning business in the next town, where we would sit in the back rooms and talk for hours until one of our mothers would pick us up to separate us, to reclaim us and force us to live the miserable family lives we were each a part of.

Sarah was raped by her father’s friend when she was six or seven. The friend of her father’s was a part of a circle of drunk Korean men who gathered at her father’s house in the evenings to smoke and shout, strange in their suit-pants and dissipation. Most of the men owned their own businesses and worked eighteen hours a day in communities that were primarily Korean-speaking. They had silent wives and children who worked as many hours in addition to cooking and cleaning in the evenings.

I was a regular accompaniment when my mother went to meet with her many boyfriends, a slew of old married Chinese men who paid our rent, took us out to dinner, and gave me their teenaged daughter’s cast off Cabbage Patch Kids. At times, American men without any accents would call the house, but when I answered the phone, they would hang up and never call back. Sarah and I knew these things about each other, but rarely spoke of them. We shrugged off each other’s scars, trying hard to surpass what we saw ourselves to be — not quite right, not quite lucky enough, patchy with down and bald gooseflesh.

On LiveJournal we would post brief little torrents of vague feelings, loneliness and heartache. We could be as depressive as we wanted, because it only meant we were more romantic, more alluring. We would climb the gates of her community pool at night with our exorbitantly expensive 1 MP cameras and take pictures of the night sky, the scratchy grout of the steps at the edge of the pool, our thin wavy arms and hands in the water. Sarah and I understood what it meant to have a secret life documented anonymously. Strangers, all teenagers, would follow our journals, and we would follow theirs. Some of the teens were white, but some of them were Asian (though never black or any other minority). Online journaling provided us an artful anonymity, us who didn’t raise our hands in class but got good grades, who never spoke but had Asian faces that spoke for us. Online, the default was white. We were a part of a group of kids who were interested in aesthetics, privileged kids who might have messed up home lives but also access to online communities and emotional privacy. The near-anonymity created a deeply romantic space in which our feelings were valid and our bodies very likely to be beautiful because they were placed in a space of white teenaged fashions and feelings. Sarah and I could write under the conventions of the genre and no one would know what we looked like in the real-life hierarchy of high school.

I would update nearly every day, describing the world around me from the shadows of an overhang. Each small post a prose poem. I would fall a little in love with the Asian emo boys who kept journals about how they were sweet on some blonde girl who would never love them back. I would post photos, the light lustrous but bad, of streetlamps and trees, and the boys would fall in love with me back. Back then I didn’t understand myself as anything more than desired or undesired, and to be popular in a secret world was a way to control myself, to leak out only what I wanted to, to reveal things about myself that were so secret they were almost lies.

Halfway through high school, when I was sixteen, Sarah’s family moved across L.A. and she transferred high schools. I met a twenty-year-old man who would be the controlling, diminishing funnel in my life for the next three years. I decided to date him because he was Thai and paid attention to me specifically because I was an Asian girl, something that made me invisible to the white boys at my school. He was the only son of an immigrant couple who had left their first child, a daughter, with her grandparents in Thailand.

He was selfish and cruel. He called me dozens of times throughout the day and was deeply suspicious of me. I had to report to him all of the ways that my life diverged from his direct oversight, and I mistook this attention for care. In ways reminiscent of my mother (this was not lost on me) this man swept through my belongings, my privacy, and my feelings. So trained I was to think that everything I did was a betrayal, I would even confess to small instances of thinking badly of him. I still spoke to Sarah online and kept the secret of my LiveJournal even though I knew that omission was a deceit to my boyfriend. Sarah and I would chat with each other on AIM, making each other laugh with our inside jokes and goofy stories. We would pick apart our days for the funniest and most dramatic moments, and rock back and forth in our chairs, laughing silently to ourselves. She in her small family apartment in the easternmost part of L.A., her parents sleeping in the next room, and me in my boyfriend’s apartment downtown, his body facedown on the bed after drinking and a desultory blowjob from me.

Subjective: She couldn’t ever overcome herself. If she met a white person for the first time, and they were brusque, or rude, or any way unfriendly, she wondered whether it was because of her race before she considered the possibility that they may be just unpleasant people. Unpleasant in a colorblind way. Even though there is no real way to be unpleasant in a colorblind way. Unless they were actually without any sense. Unless they were not actually people. Or machines made by people.

My boyfriend confronted me one day with the contents of my LiveJournal in a wholesale gesture of discovery and arrest. He had found the page through my browser history on his computer. “I wish I had a place to express myself in that way,” he said. He wasn’t upset that I didn’t share this part of myself with him but rather that I had taken a privilege and selfishly neglected to share it for him to use. Any secret I kept was really just me taking something away from someone else. At what seemed like the only choice at the time, I deleted my journal and gradually became too engrossed in my other lies to keep up with Sarah. I stopped going online. I was expending tremendous energy in sneaking out of my parent’s home, trailing after my boyfriend in pool halls and smoky basements, trying and failing to turn in high school assignments on time. I was always tired, falling asleep while inchingly side-stepping along all the thin little strands of my entrapment.

A few months into my senior year, a classmate of mine, Bijan, shouted at me in the middle of science class. He was a charming goth kid who liked to loudly ask obvious questions in class. He dyed the edges of his black hair red and tried to stay out of the way of his Iranian father’s punches and put-downs, spending most of his evenings with his American mother, who taught him how to put on eyeliner. We had taken the same classes for years, but I wasn’t aware that he and I were linked in any way. At that point, I was so used to being half-there, a nearly see-through figment on my high school campus, that I was surprised that anyone would notice me enough to call out my name. He had been talking to Sarah and she said I had told her he was gay. “It’s not true. So I’m not going to speak to you anymore. I don’t speak to people who lie about me.” Then, out of spite he announced to everyone in class that I was fucking a nasty old guy, someone who was statutory raping me. I tried to stop him, asking when Sarah had told him this. I hadn’t spoken to Sarah all summer. Her family had moved again, and I didn’t know her new phone number. I didn’t even know that she and Bijan were all that close. “I’m not talking to you anymore,” he repeated. Sarah called me a few weeks after that incident, and when I confronted her about the malicious, gossipy episode with Bijan, she hung up the phone. We never spoke again.

By 2004, when I graduated college and moved from L.A. to Chicago, having an internet presence was already passé. It was a mark of authenticity to eschew Myspace and Friendster, and Facebook had not yet spread to my alma mater. The public life of an internet persona was a fitting counterpoint to my intense angst about privacy and mystique, supplementing my smugness about making sure I was never Google-able. It felt like a time when untraceability was a sign of artistic integrity, though I’m not sure where that idea came from. I just knew that my favorite personalities, those who seemed to have a writerly or artistic bent, were only ever fleetingly online, leaving remnants of their output as secondhand references in online platforms. This intentional obscurity may have been my own imagination, an attempt at aggrandizement through absence, but it was something I clung to for a long time.

This didn’t mean that I stayed off the internet. During my first summer in Chicago, I became initiated into browsing the internet as a “relationship activity” by my boyfriend, who was living with me, jobless. At my boring receptionist job, I spent my days restlessly browsing the internet. My boyfriend browsed the internet all day, too, smoking cigarettes into plate-sized ashtrays, unsuccessfully applying for jobs online and chatting with me on GChat. I was going broke and beginning to resent the way that the internet could provide my shiftless boyfriend with an all-day unpaid occupation. At night we lay in bed next to each other, reading the internet, too lazy and poor to do anything else. Once again, I was so tired all the time, pulled down by a relationship that took so much energy to withstand.

Subjective: Maybe even from outer space she has a race. At any moment she can see what she looks like to herself, herself who is looking at her from above and at a distance. The gaze of those around her, of the buildings above, of the strata of some other race’s ancestors below. The entire gaze of outer space sees her first and foremost as a color.

It was Mia, a friend from college, who turned me on to the possibilities of online stalking. She was avidly interested in the type of personal information you could glean from the internet. A black woman who was frustrated by the lack of men approaching her because of her race, she joined online dating websites when it was still considered embarrassing to do so and relentlessly pursued every available online detail of potential dates. She became aware that she was contacted by men at much lesser rates than white women, and often only by men who indiscriminately contacted every available woman on the dating sites, mostly black men who took fuzzy bathroom photos of themselves and had monikers like “Playa420iz” and “BoiNigga310.” Though she still lived in L.A., Mia would browse Chicago Craigslist and alert me to cute secondhand shoes, jobs that Ian could apply for, and awful forum postings. She was the one who found Ian’s online presence, a tacky Blogger site that featured many stream-of-consciousness miscellanea about brushing his teeth at noon, afternoon masturbation in the living room (on my futon), and finding himself still in love with his previous crush because he found his current girlfriend (owner of the futon) too unrealistic for his purported self-deprecating dating tier. Mia quickly looked up Ian’s unrequited love and found a Myspace photo of a white woman from northwest Indiana with dusky hair on her upper lip. Suddenly the internet was humiliating. Commenters on his blog, all with grainy avatars of white women, left sympathetic responses to his posts and often used the winky face. I began to look up his blog nearly every day. His online persona was disgusting and fascinating to me.

I was with Ian for several more years. Eventually I stopped checking his online activity. It was only when I accidentally stumbled onto a secret email account that I realized his secret life online had gone on for years, and had taken on a solidity and realness, whose details and trajectory I couldn’t have imagined or anticipated. We struggled for years with my desire for an emotional loyalty manifested through economic support that he refused to give or earn. Instead, there were constant online activities — message boards, gaming, and interminable browsing — that could fill the hours of his day. A mutual partnership of earning money, sharing housework, and looking forward to things was put off by the silence around a secretive online life. While we had moved from apartment to apartment, city to city, and referred vaguely to our hypothetical vacations and children, the unspokenness of certain things between us had allowed himself to grow used to the idea that he was good enough for me, and for me to accept the idea that I was in fact not too good for him. I knew, from my teenaged years, how much of an escape that a compartmentalized online life could provide, and the impulses that motivated the detachment. I tried to understand and give him the latitude that I needed during my own abusive relationships. But my relationship with Ian began to feel less and less distinguishable from my other relationships. I began to feel that the internet contained much less of the democratic potential that it promised, that power and privacy could only be accessed by those who already had it. These several things grew hard and callused like garden trees between us. And around the trees a cave.

Subjective: What has always been most sad to me came from knowing it could be different. I am not one of the lucky ones who can make myself real without writing it first. As if seen, as if shared, as if uploaded into the imagination.

Face: Me

On Glenn Ligon’s Palindrome #1

I Just Want To See The Sea

“The world has always been broken, and it is exactly because the world is broken that this city is not just my city, nor yours, nor theirs, but is everybody’s image mirrored on the shards.”

The Dead Girl's Room

“Though I knew she must sometimes have felt the way I did — had laid in the same bedroom feeling awful for sleeping too late, procrastinating, cutting corners — in her death she had, it seemed, become perfect.”