thanksgiving in California

I spent Thanksgiving at home in Southern California,
at a table crowded with mismatched plates.
Family and friends. Immigrants and children of immigrants.
Foreign accents peppered the conversation like
the seasoning that I’d so lacked in the school cafeteria.
I ate no entrees, only side dishes
served from chipped crock pots
and stained rice cookers.
We sent home leftovers not in tupperware but in recycled plastic tubs
once filled with ready-to-bake cookie dough and now
tasked with harboring tikka masala and thit kho,
dishes prepared from raw components by practiced hands,
Bright bursts of flavor taking refuge behind printed plastic walls.

I’m sure my college friends wondered about the people on my Snapchat story:
My family but not family. Immigrants and children of immigrants.
How do I describe the kinship between us?
Us whose parents cannot speak each other’s languages but
have the same history, a shared ancestry, a common trajectory.

In the refrigerator light, I confuse bruschetta and pico de gallo.

I’m grateful for my new friends, but the Danish cookie tins at their houses
are full of baked goods instead of sewing supplies,
so I can’t find the threads I need to weave a new story,
especially not when going back home is so easy.
See, when I’m with my old friends, I can be an individual.
My ethnicity an afterthought instead of a defining characteristic.
We create our identities not within us, but in the spaces around us, and
fellow people of color have no need for saturating color filters.

But among non-Asians, non-immigrants, non-people of color,
I’m more ambassador than citizen.
My Asian-ness cannot be scrubbed from the space around me
any more than the color can be scrubbed from my hair.
Sometimes I look up and realize I’m the only Asian in the room,
and that realization makes the room smaller, like my identity is
ballooning into unacknowledged space.
So I downplay my pre-med track and emphasize my English major.
I cannot yet tell if it’s because I long to be different or because I long to fit in.
Do I defy the Asian stereotype out of bravery or of shame?

Back home, I have no answers. I need no answers.
I can be both the perfect daughter and the artsy rebel,
because every room has more space in it
without my consciousness of being a minority,
And it’s so much easier to sit at the dinner table
if you can leave your ethnicity at the door
with your shoes.

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