She sounds the way a photograph looks. It’s so strange, this habit we’ve developed in the past 70 years or so of forcing out a smile whenever cameras appear. The default human face doesn’t smile. Imagine how terrifying it would look if someone always appeared as she does in her profile pictures, perpetually wearing a Cheshire Cat where her face should be.
Elizabeth had recently been prescribed new medications. She took a dose of Lobutrin a little bit before talking to me, and she sounds cheerful, on the verge of giggling, throughout our conversation. She’s a talented artist, graduating high school this year, and going to NYU in August. She currently has a 3.8 GPA. She wants to study design, business, and possibly race and gender studies.
After her parents’ divorce while she was in the eighth grade, Elizabeth lived with them alternately for a few years, first with her father in Michigan, then in Acton, Massachusetts, before moving to live with her mother in Lexington.
“I decided I didn’t like Lexington my junior year, so I was just like, I’ll switch to Concord because my dad moved to Concord, so I did that for two weeks, and then I was like, ‘Fuck that,’ and I moved back to Lexington. And then this year I did Lexington for, like, one day and then was, like, ‘Hell no,’” she says.
She informed me later that she moved from Lexington the first time because a boy there tried to bribe her into having sex with him in exchange for Adderall. She didn’t know who to talk to about the situation and was so uncomfortable that she left the school.
Elizabeth seems to describe her parents as, at best, walls between which she bounces. “I honestly don’t have much to say about them. They don’t provide me much of a support system; I just do what I want to do,” she says. She talks about how she feels this has made her clingy, has made her desperate for companionship, has made her value her friends more than they ever value her. Her voice chimes happily throughout. Maybe this situation will matter less to her as she moves forward in life.
She refers to her anxiety and depression frequently. If NYU takes note of her rapidly falling grades in the second semester of her senior year, she says, she has a ready explanation.
“Before they rescind my admission, they’re going to tell me. They’re going to tell me, like, ‘Why are your grades shitty?’ If my grades are really that shitty, I’ll just be like, ‘Oh, depression.’
Elizabeth has difficulty deciding how being Asian has affected her life. “I can’t think of a general statement, but I can come up with lots of small things,” she says. “Like, I’m always referred as that blonde Asian.” She drags out the last word for effect. “I’m a cool Asian; I’m everyone’s little, midget, Asian friend. I don’t really care because it’s my friends calling me that, but, like, at the same time, it just doesn’t feel right.”
“It doesn’t make me feel bad. Like, I’m happy to be Asian now; I used to hate it a lot,” she goes on. “I think that’s just because, like… It was just me being dumb and thinking white people are awesome; I don’t really know.”
“I’ve talked to other Asians too,” says Elizabeth. “I feel like a lot of them just try to be white and try to be American because, well, obviously white people have it better. Also, when I was younger, I felt like I had to fight against the stereotype of just being a nerdy little Asian, but now I’m just more comfortable with who I am. I don’t care if I’m Asian; I got fucking bangs. I look more Asian than ever. People are just like ‘Oh, Elizabeth, you look like an anime character.’ Like whatever, like awesome, I look like an anime character.”
She bubbles along in this impossibly quotable vein for a while.
“I wanna get by. I don’t wanna work that hard,” she says, describing her greatest hopes and dreams. “I want a wedding because I want to throw a fucking party, and I don’t want to get married because I don’t want to deal with the legal fucking shit of getting divorced, because I saw my parents go through it and I don’t want to deal with that.” She pauses for a moment. “Honestly, I feel like my biggest dream is just to meet someone I actually like and just have a stable relationship and support system.”
“Or I just want to open up a cute little café, which is really dumb, but I just like the idea of having a cute little café.”
My most cherished memories of Albert are of him sitting in his room with the door closed while he studied.
Not that I ever faulted him for that. Albert, a third-year, studies actuarial science. He has a 4.0 in a program I’ve seen a number of friends fail out of. Perhaps the only way you can survive it is by constantly telling yourself you’re not good enough, convincing yourself before every exam that you’re going to fail (conveniently forgetting that you’ve gotten As on every exam in your university career), and taping a sign above your desk that says, “Study harder, you idiot.”
“Outside of studies, I guess you could say I’m not doing much. I’m focusing on studies right now,” he begins.
Albert’s parents never gave him a clear reason for why their family immigrated from Beijing. What he does know is that they moved to the US, and then left it for Vancouver while he was a small child.
“At the time I was pretty lonely, because I didn’t really have anyone to play with, because we did move… We just made a transition, and at the time I didn’t really have any friends,” he says.
His parents also didn’t have much time for him. “My dad was working two or three part-time jobs, because we didn’t really have money. My mom wanted to get a better job, so she was studying at a college,” he recalls. He often cried, wondering why they couldn’t play with him, or take him to ball games.
Things are going better for his family now. “I actually can’t get over the fact that we just keep spending money,” he says. “We just bought a boat, so we blew a lot of money on that, and then I saw the backyard being renovated. Oh, also we got a new fridge; it’s pretty dope. I’m like, ‘Wow, how do we have money for this?’ and my dad’s like, ‘You want to see my gun collection?’”
Albert mentions to me that it’s nearly mandatory for actuarial scientists to secure an internship the summer after their third year. He’s not trying hard enough to find one, he says.
“I’m wondering to myself, is this really what I want to do? Do I really want to work so hard right now to work even harder down the road?”
Seeing Albert doubt his convictions is something of a religious experience for me. “If I work hard, put 100 per cent effort into an actuarial job, I think maybe it’ll just be too much stress on my life; maybe I might miss out on things like family.”
“One thing’s for certain is that I don’t want to work too hard; I don’t want to bring too much stress upon myself when I work, and then I’ll just die with regrets,” he says. “Because in the end when you die, what’s the point of work, right? You work to get money for your family, but you want to die happy, you want to die with the knowledge that you made an impact on your family and that you were there for your family, so I think that’s pretty important too.”
At 9:30 am, Ivy, speaking over Skype, makes it clear to me that she only has 20 minutes to talk before she attends a meeting.
Ivy lived in Beijing until she was four and visits the city annually. The description she gives of it sounds like a venture capital report.
“It’s changed a lot in the past 10 years, very urbanized now,” she begins. “Highways are loops around the city, so anywhere within the second loop, with the centre being Tiananmen Square, is very bustling and busy, and subway cars are very full.”
She tells me that those who live within the second “loop” are extremely wealthy and that crossing the loop takes about 30 minutes by subway. She describes nothing but urban infrastructure. By the time she is done telling me about the city in which she was born, I am ready to invest my untold millions in projects there.
“The Chinese have a 3,000-year history of lessons… Why would we want to give up that tradition?”
Currently a third-year student at Queen’s University’s commerce program, Ivy describes her current projects: producing and promoting a healthcare app, as well as doing marketing work for a small business her father is opening in Toronto. She is also active in varsity figure-skating, the Queen’s commerce students’ society, and a number of other organizations, continuing a trend that began with a childhood filled with skating, swimming lessons, classical piano, and multiple academic clubs.
Ivy’s parents divorced when she was six. Both remarried, and she has a functional relationship with both sides of her family. She echoes something Elizabeth told me, saying that she’s glad her parents divorced.
“They’re both a lot happier,” says Ivy, “and I think that it’s really their problem and nothing to do with me.” Elizabeth simply prefers it to watching them constantly fight.
“The thing is, my dad was always very open about his feelings and his pain and sadness over the divorce, and that’s something I didn’t need to hear about,” says Ivy. “There’s something about the feeling of being around my mom rather than my dad. Being around my mom, I always feel like if the sky fell down, she could still hold it up, and I always felt very safe with her; but with my dad, because I saw him weak, and that’s not something that a child wants to see his parents like, I never felt very secure with him.”
She is unequivocal about the benefits of her background. “I think that China is a booming economy, and I think I’m lucky that I have maintained a very high standard of Chinese. I can read and speak it fluently; I can type it because that’s just recognizing characters,” she says. “It’s always valuable to know a different language, but especially Chinese now, because there’s a lot of opportunities in China.” Asked to explain what is valuable about being Asian, she explains what is financially valuable about being Chinese.
“People label Asians as ‘Asians.’ I think that’s really the only difference,” says Ivy, dismissing the idea that there is meaningful contrast between her own race and others.
“Currently, I don’t feel like, doing entrepreneurship, people see me as the young Asian girl. They just see me as a very young entrepreneur.”
Our conversation is cut short by her front door opening. “One sec,” she says. I hear footsteps.
“Gan ma?” (“What’s happening?”) she calls downstairs. She realizes her business acquaintances have arrived. “Oh, jin lai ba, jin lai ba. Wo zhai kai hui” (“Come in, come in. I’m having a meeting”), she bids. She hurriedly answers my last question and then bids me farewell.