Last year in the land of the free and the home of the brave – Chapter 4

Since my boyfriend is also writing about his time in the U.S. and he just bought me a new keyboard for my birthday, I finally had the inspiration and means to resume this project. Thanks so much, honey.

Homecoming came exactly when the leaves started turning red and the chilly air of fall started to breeze in, bringing with it the mild sorrow and the unavoidable nostalgia.

I didn’t remember since when I hated Homecoming so much. Suddenly everyone you knew asked you to vote for them to be Homecoming Queen or King. What were we? High school kids vying for popularity? Well, I guessed in a sense we all were: we were just human beings fighting, killing each other for power and fame, thinking those would make us happy. And then campus suddenly became overcrowded. Parents, aunts, nieces and nephews flooded the campus with their laughter, conversations, and hugs. While others enjoyed their reunion with their families, the reunion that most of them didn’t need this special occasion to celebrate since most of them lived only 20 minutes from home, I had to work extra hours, tolerate the heightened homesickness, and secretly envy those happy smiles. I wished my parents were here, or simply I wished somewhere 10 thousand miles away, my parents were smiling proudly like those parents I was talking to. What could I do to bring back the rare old times when my family was still together? What could I do to make them happy? What else did they want me to do?

I still had Anna with me. This Vietnamese girl 2 years younger than me was incredibly mature and determined. The first time I saw her, on the tennis court, I just approached her and talked to her in Vietnamese. 2 years ago when April did the same to me, I thought it was cool but weird, and now I found myself desperately drawing to people of the same race, same nationality.

And of course I had Reva, the overweight, uptight Republican girl with a loving family but somehow they never showed up during Homecoming. They were always working, and the dinner in candle light with their daughter was obviously not worth the 2-hour drive from Pittsburg to Elizabethtown. Reva never felt the necessity for them to be on campus during this occasion. Maybe when you could already have something, you didn’t need it that much anymore. Maybe I was just a spoiled, melodramatic kid who couldn’t handle others’ happiness. But then I remembered in our first year, most Asian students wept on Homecoming day. The Homecoming emotional wave hit just in time, about one and a half month from the beginning of the semester, right when we were at the peak of misery, enough for the homesick to build up and not used to the torture of it yet.

So Anna, Reva and I sat at a booth table, rather separated from the rest of the cafeteria, eating our dinner in silence. The food was better than usual – the college of course had to show to the people who paid each year 50 grand that their money didn’t completely go to waste – the pork was served with gravy, the steak was lean and juicy, the salad was fresher, the desserts were fancier, and the cafeteria was intricately decorated in satin, table cloth, and candles. Candles! So fascinating, so intimate, so romantic.

– Chi, stop playing with the candles. – Reva yelled at me jokingly with a smug smile. I knew she didn’t mean it. Half a foot taller than me and more than twice my weight, she always tended to treat me like a kid, although she never had to move houses, pay bills, or do taxes, just to name a few.

But this time she was right. I was burning a napkin with a candle, and although I blew out the fire right away, the over sensitive fire alarm right above our heads could go off any minute. So I put the half burned napkin aside and started to play with the melted ice cream in my bowl, and now it was Anna who grinned at me. Unlike Reva, Anna never overtly mocked some of my childish behaviors. She respected me like an older sister who did not only help her with class materials but also gave her tips and hacks about college life, rules and procedures. Actually I admired Anna so much. 18 years of age and she already had the mindset and life experiences of a 30-year-old. More than that, she got along even with those she didn’t get along.

– So, how was your day, Chi? – Reva asked.
– Same old same old, law still sucks, finance is still hard, I still can’t serve the tennis ball over the net. – I said and winked at Anna, who immediately laughed dryly. We were practice partners in the tennis class, and clearly teaming up 2 tennis-illiterate kids just above 5 feet tall wasn’t exactly a good strategy. Most of the time, we just hit the balls all over the place and ran around the court picking them up.
– What about you, Anna? – Reva continued her dinner routine.
– Everything’s good. I am going to volunteer tomorrow. – Anna replied. Happy or sad, her voice stayed the same, the dry, almost bored voice.

Of course to Anna, everything was good even though she was struggling with much more issues than I was. I wondered where she got that optimistic attitude and determination.

– Really? Where? – I asked in surprise. Usually she would ask me if I wanted to join.
– Just in Lancaster.

I shrugged. I wouldn’t join anyway. Volunteering was not my type. I only volunteered before to travel, or to create some connections in hope of a summer job.

– Do you like to volunteer? – I asked. Anna was still in the stage where she was so eager to help and try new experiences.
– It’s ok. – She replied, again not showing much emotion or a definite reference.
– If you do, then our college has several volunteer trips in spring break. There’s a trip to DC every year. And the Christian club had a trip each year too. Last year they went to Dallas, I was with them, it was so fun. But you have to pay though. For the DC trip, it was 100, and for Dallas, it was 300.
– Nah, if I have to pay, I won’t do it. – Anna shook her head. Of course she wouldn’t. – It doesn’t make sense to pay to volunteer.

I smiled. There were a lot of things that didn’t make sense in this free country.

– Hey, you are only off campus this weekend for half a day, right? – I asked Anna. – Do you want to go to Schlosser after you get back? I finally can make sweet soup.

When I went to NYC about 1 month ago for the US Open, I bought 2 pounds of dried longan and 1 pound of dried lotus seeds. 2 attempts and I finally learned how to make my favorite dessert from those ingredients. The first time, I made it too sweet, while the longan was almost dissolved. The second time was successful, and no one I would like to share this success with more than Anna. She wouldn’t sniff as if I was giving her poison. She wouldn’t ask what it was and then frowned as if I just told her the name of a poison. She wouldn’t obnoxiously stick her tongue out and dip it in the soup then waited for 5 minutes as if to check they were not dead yet. Close-minded Americans were the worst.

– Sure – Anna said with a beam in her eyes, too much for me to appreciate. – I can cook dinner too. I make coke chicken, and you can do the stir-fried cabbage. I can bring a cake, too.

Usually I wouldn’t cook dinner at all. The food I wanted to eat – vegetables, seafood, tofu – was horribly expensive, while the other types of food could be easily found on campus. And thus cooking was either pricey or unnecessary. But with Anna it was different. The time cooking with her was more of a bonding time, a sharing time where we could both vent our problems. Plus, she was a very good baker. She just started learning how to bake when she got to Elizabethtown but her cakes already tasted excellent.

When we left the Market Place, there was music coming out from the Blue Bean Café. Campus was not as crowded as it was earlier during the day, but many families could still be seen sitting at the couches at the café, or on the chairs along the hallway. Some were hugging each other goodbye. Again I felt a mild sorrow. I wanted to talk to my mom, but again was afraid. What could I tell her? What should I tell her?

Outside, it was dark, and the cold air breathed into me a chilly shiver. Anna, Reva, and I said goodbye and headed in 3 different directions back to our dorms. Pressing my hands against my elbows, I sighed and thought to myself another Homecoming had passed.

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