In all the books I love, the hero doesn’t strike first. But then again, none of the heroes look like me.
Let’s say the smart white girl from the wealthy family that you always thought was so pretty ends up being part of your study group, and she comes to your house with the others to work on the final project. She wrinkles her nose and asks if there are roaches, and instead of hating her you hate your mom and dad. She’ll never love you, but that’s preferable to their love, which you’ve grown to need a translator for. They taught you you were ugly long before this white girl caught your eye. They are nowhere near to hear her English; they’re off at one of their two or three jobs. You’ve learned about the Black Panthers in a gym room closet, you’ve learned about the AIM patrols in your neighborhood, but you don’t know how it all connects to crushes balanced atop nests of roaches. Don’t know what to do with these feelings but tuck it all away and hope it doesn’t crawl out like it will at sudden moments for the rest of your life. Can’t seem to figure out what all of that has to do with your war-torn family and this beautiful woman who hates the house you’re raised in, its scuttling denizens. Whether or not they’re real, she imagines you infesting this place.
In my twenties, my body is bloated from overeating and I don’t know what to believe in that will make me happy, so of course I am getting porn. I am so scared someone will recognize me and force me to erase my name from every radical leftist petition I’ve ever signed. I start to pull out of the small parking lot when two white men in a big American truck pull in at the same time, swerving it in and blocking my way like that American-made tonnage is their dick. They’re taller than me, in their truck and also on foot, I can tell. I throw my hands up and roll my eyes, then as I back my car to get out of their way, one of the white men unbuckles his seat belt, threatening that he will jump out and kick my ass. Then he and his friend laugh at me, that laugh of superiority that you don’t even need to hear the noise to recognize: “Look, we played chicken with this chink, and we won.” Here’s the part where I say I went home and whacked off while fantasizing about having sex with his girlfriend, but that’s not true. Instead I stored the memory away and now it eats at me every time someone says they think I’m a great guy.
I lied about my age so I could work at the supermarket pushing carts and cutting apart cardboard boxes with a razor, the triangle of its sharp head encased in a white metal sleeve. I am really sixteen when I am walking parallel to the train tracks on the back end of Minnehaha, back toward Phillips, trying to find a path through the snow. A car whips past, window open, a voice yells chink. fuck you, I shout back into the whip of the dark. The tires squeal and a white boy jumps out, pushes me down. I recall he called me a gook and a faggot, too. I get up and slide my hand into my pocket, the metal cold, silent as I push the blade out, which promises to extend my reach. A pretty white girl is pleading from the passenger seat for him to leave me alone. He’s a fucking asshole, she explains to me, as if that explained everything. Bless her anyway. I don’t know if it’s for her or my fear of potential police that keeps my hand, curled around a sharp promise, behind my back. In all the books I love, the hero doesn’t strike first. But then again, none of the heroes look like me. In a few minutes, I’ll walk home, unbruised but defeated, and ask my oldest brother for a gun. I don’t explain why. He nods, but he never gets me one. Out of all of us, he remembers the war the most. He knows all about promises we can’t keep.
It’s not a majority-white school. In seventh grade, the tall blond tomboy asks you to dance. You have no idea all the boys have a crush on her; you’ve been busy with comic books, and the only romance you know are tragedies from Greek mythology and Arthurian legends. She’s your best friend and you’ve laughed together every day, so of course you say yes. You’re both smiling as you sway on the linoleum where, just moments before, you and other members of student council folded then cleared the lunchroom tables out for this DJ to play his slow jams in the dark. You laugh with her, as you always do, even when she puts her chin on your shoulder. Suddenly you notice three white boys looking at you two, snickering. They come right up to both of you, and whisper in her ear. Loud enough for you to hear. Everyone can see you dancing with that gook, they laugh. She responds by flicking them off, pulling you closer. Years later you’ll wonder how she created her armor. You know those gooks only want one thing from white girls, another said. He’s one of your best friends. To this day, when you think a woman just might, through whatever miracle, see any beauty in you, you can still hear them laughing through the cages of their teeth. The biggest fist you have is the one banging against the inside of your rib cage.
“Document” is reprinted by permission from Thousand Star Hotel (Coffee House Press, 2017). Copyright © 2017 by Bao Phi.