When it all came crashing down in Houston, I was dating Connie. I met her on OKCupid, but she claimed she'd seen me on the train before, and in some metaphysical way, I felt like I already knew her, too. She was Chinatown ice cream, a seeming contradiction considering that most Chinatown residents shart their pants when introduced to lactose. Ice cream was a foreign object our bodies rejected, but being raised in America, we wouldn't be denied. We wanted our gummy bears. We wanted our hamburgers. We wanted our fucking ice cream.
In the Chinatown ice cream truck there was always red bean, green tea, and the dreaded durian, but Connie represented a special flavor that anyone from Rowland Heights to Fairfax, Virginia, would recognize: black sesame. Our parents put red bean in ice cream, and Japanese heads even had matcha, but the greatest contribution my generation of Asian Americans has made to ice cream is undoubtedly black sesame. We'd seen black sesame in tong yuan, fried sesame balls, and even pancakes, but to infuse creamy, whole milk, lactose-laden ice cream with black sesame was extremely fucking future. Each generation must have its own ice cream. This was ours.
We complain about silenced minorities and the lack of Asian-American voices in our culture, but it's not that we don't talk. Go to any boba spot or Chinatown ice cream shop on a Friday night, and you'll hear a lot of chicken talk. If you happen to be reading this book in Alabama, and there isn't a Chinatown ice cream shop for you to peep game, just go on Yelp, which is also Exhibits A, B, and C for the squawking Chinese American. Nothing encapsulates the over-reduced Chinese-American mind better than Yelp. We aren't quiet, we aren't devoid of opinion—we're an extremely passive-aggressive, tribal, prescriptive people who can't agree on how we feel about Indians. But it's extremely East Asian to even ask these questions, i.e., how we should feel about Indians as a group, as a race, but not as individuals? Other Asians—like Filipinos—are much better about these things and much more liberal in their acceptance and understanding of life in general, but if we keep it to the Dogmatic Three—China, Korea, and Japan—every opinion was reductive and authoritarian.
In Korea you have chaebols, in China you have Confucianism-Maoism-Momism, while Japan has legislation on the proper way to fold and present a receipt. I once walked into a 7-11 in Tokyo, got a Pocari Sweat, took a sip of said Pocari Sweat, then walked up to the register to pay. When I reached the counter, homie said to me: "You should not do that in Japan."
"Drink the Pocari Sweat before you pay."
"Is this rule specific to Pocari Sweat?"
"No, anything. Do not eat or drink before you pay."
"Are you from America? 'Cause your English doesn't sound like you grew up in Japan."
"I am definitely Japanese. I was born in Japan, then went to high school in California and came back to Japan so I know how people in America drink things before they pay, but you should not do it in Japan. It is very offensive."
"But I'm paying."
"It doesn't matter, I already thought bad things about you."
"That you are a thief."
"What if I don't care what you think?"
"This is very dishonorable."
It occurred to me early on that as an Asian American what I think about myself doesn't really matter, nor do intentions, because the ultimate arbiter of our lives is public opinion. We go through our lives making calculations based on expectations and declaring judgments using our advanced research skills despite never really touching, seeing, or feeling the things we're judging. While the West anchors identity in the autonomous mind—"I think, therefore I am"—Asian identity is the sum of our judgments of other people: "I side-eye, therefore I am."
Connie was an avatar of Generation Black Sesame but chose to quarantine herself in the old Asian-American mold. On our first date, she told me she had moved to N.Y. from L.A. largely because she read my blog, loved food, and related to everything I said about Asian identity—the power of an ancient culture hurtling forward unbound from arbitrary restraints—but I doubted it. She had been formulating all types of ideas for Baohaus from California; she criticized our forays into vegetarian curry, and seemingly had a plan for my life before ever meeting me. My mom was the same. I'm pretty sure the minute my dad's Calpico hit the lips of her vagina, she was screaming: "I understand you!" "I know what you need!" "You must keep bar license active!"
Connie was a less effective American remake of my mom cloaked in skin-tight racerback dresses. If you told Connie and my mom to get to the same 99 Ranch Market from the same starting point, my mom would get there twenty minutes faster, taking back streets and residential service roads, while Connie would sit on the 405 driving in the sand, arriving at the 99 Ranch Market after all the good hollow heart vegetable was already bought up.
I'd seen girls like her at Taiwanese-Chinese gatherings for years. My aunts and uncles loved propping them up.
"She has straight A's! So smart."
"You must see her play violin, great form, beautiful hands, how you say .?.?. exaquisite! Yes, exaquisite!"
"Her face very generous will bring luck to a family."
My cousin Wendy was like this. She went to Yale, was relatively tall, had the titty buffet on smash, and got paraded around at all our events in some derivative of the qipao. It was like she won the Heisman every weekend and did the potluck circuit for her adoring fans. The only thing she didn't have was bound feet. That would have unified all the belts in her weight class.
Taiwanese-Chinese people just assume we all see the same math so there's no hesitation when pouring on the compliments. Nor do parents hesitate in pointing out your girl's bad fortune. For years, I heard complaints about my ex.
"Eddie's girlfriend, Vivienne, has stingy face. Bad fortune, she will take all your luck."
"Limp, too! Bad energy. I saw her wipe the table! She doesn't clean, she just smears the sauce into table more. Who taught her to wipe a table?"
"Eyes are small. Not generous. That's why she doesn't want to clean."
ALL OUR EYES ARE SMALL, WHAT ARE YOU AUNTS AND UNCLES TALKING ABOUT?
Connie was the first woman I ever dated that could have been potluck-approved. For that reason, I stayed in the relationship, because hate-smashing the superficial ideals your race has held over your head is victory between the sheets. She knew kung fu, she had won an East L.A. beauty contest, and her father was a herbal medicinist, but it all felt extremely foreign to me. Not only did she not understand my Dipset references, but all she wanted to talk about was vegetables and being Asian. It was as if her entire life revolved around race and vegetarianism, which after a while start to feel like the same thing. When all else fails in romance, do people just give up and marry the manifestation of their favorite restaurant? I guess that would explain why so many people in middle America look like they married a Cheesecake Factory.
But I couldn't resist. The relationship started off like the Spring Breakers experience got white glove–delivered to my couch: kung fu grip on the throat, lobster sauce on the walls, Gucci Mane might as well have been watching in a bathtub. She was fresh out of culinary school, working at Dirt Candy, and would come over right after her prep shift in the afternoon 'cause she liked riding reverse while Yo! MTV Raps was on. It was around the time "Rack City"—Tyga's strip-club anthem—came out, which made me want to throw change around my living room 'cause I'm too cheap to throw Washingtons at someone who's already agreed to have sex with me. Like George Bush paintings or French Montana records, it was extremely entertaining but devoid of any deeper enrichment.
She was the Carl Lewis of my single life. In record time (thirteen days), she started leaving all her things in my crib, stayed over every night, woke me up at random hours to tell me about sweet potato muffins and ask if I was listening to her. I didn't realize what was going on until it was too late.
"You know, Serena's recipes are so smart. We're making sweet potato muffins at work."
"Dope," I mumbled.
"It's one of those recipes where it's not just a substitute muffin that isn't as good as the non-vegan ones, it's actually so much better."
"That's awesome. Nobody wants to be Plan B, not even a sweet potato muffin."
"Yeah, it really bothers me when people assume vegan food can't be as tasty. It's not less delicious because it's vegan. I think it's actually better."
"Vegan discrimination is super fucked up."
"Are you making fun of me?"
"No, I definitely agree that vegan food shouldn't be discriminated against, and I'm ready to march."
"You don't have to listen to me if you don't want to."
"You gotta let me live. It's two a.m. on a Tuesday and you're talking to me about vegan food discrimination and sweet potato muffins. Do you think anyone in the universe wants to talk about this right now?"
"Why are you so mean?"
"I'm not mean, I'm just not interested. You need to talk to someone else about the plight of vegan food identity politics."
"What is wrong with you? You are so crazy!"
"And I really think a lot of people would agree with you. I'll even agree with you if I can go to sleep."
"If you don't want me to be here, you can just tell me."
In all honesty, I wished she didn't stay over. The sex was face-melting, but I hated feeling like I was staring the rest of my life in its muffin afterward. I lied to her anyway.
"I want you to be here."
There was nothing wrong with Connie. My boy David kept saying "she checks a lot of boxes," and he was right. Connie came into my life, rearranged my kitchen, cleaned my room, befriended Evan, got me eating breakfast, and kept the crib smellin' like lotion. But it only made me even more suspicious. What did she want? She was definitely trying to trap me, but why me? Why did I deserve this?
And why did she double-plate breakfast?
My room doesn't even have a door, but my plate got a plate, the eggs had miso, and the salad had microgreens. The food was delicious, the service was incredible, but I was uncomfortable. Everything Connie did made me feel like I was an orphan being relocated to the Russian Tea Room, but I liked my lo-fi lo-life. Evan appreciated Connie more than I did.
"It's nice having Connie around."
"Son, this apartment was Iraq before she came."
"Iraq has its charms. And people in Iraq don't want to eat kebabs on two plates."
"Ha ha, yo, why do you care if she uses two plates? She washes them anyway."
"It just doesn't make sense! We're in a shit apartment, why is she trying to make it Le Bernardin?"
"She got plans for herself, my g."
"That's what I'm sayin'! She got plans for me and I can tell they're really bad plans. They're like Dad's plans when his friends came over to the house!"
"Fuck, I hated those plans."