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Editors' Pick

Why is it so hard to take up space?



Because you are only 5 feet 1.5 inches tall, and your limbs only stretch so far. You often speed-walk to keep pace with anyone over 6 feet.


Because your family tells you that you didn’t drink enough milk while you were growing up.


Because you hate the taste of it. As a child, your grandma would feed you spoonfuls of milk from a mug, with a few balls of Kix at a time, and it was barely bearable. In college, you tried to consume milk in a bowl full of sugary cereal, like all the other students, and then almost threw up in the dining hall.


Not because you’re lactose intolerant. Your college suitemate was surprised that you aren’t because – as you learned from her – a lot of Asian people are. You then wished your body rejected dairy, but immediately retracted that thought, because your grandma would still have made you drink milk, twice a day, every day, so you wouldn’t end up small like your mom.


Because in Vietnamese, they call short people lùn. Later, when you take Vietnamese classes as an adult, you learn that word translates to something very rude, and that thấp is a kinder way to describe people who are small in stature. You wonder why no one in your family uses the more polite version.




Because at Tết parties, your relatives laugh at your broken Vietnamese. They say, this girl doesn’t know her own language, this girl doesn’t understand what we are saying. But you do – most of the time. Only when you open your mouth to say what you think, feel, want, the words get stuck in the back of your throat, like a delicate fish bone. You know the language is still inside of you; you’ve just forgotten how to get it out. Even when you manage to successfully extract a few words, a prickly discomfort continues to linger, a reminder that without your realizing it, an essential part of you has been dislodged and washed away over time.


Because you begged your mom to pull you out of your Vietnamese language classes when you were seven. You cried and told her you didn’t like it. You convinced her you couldn’t fit in with the other kids in your class, even though they were just like you, children of Vietnamese refugees and immigrants.


Because back then, all you wanted to be was American, meaning White, meaning just like all the other children in school. You thought that if you could speak perfect English, no one would question your place in America.


Because when you visited Vietnam for the first time in the summer of 1998, wearing your Limited Too outfits and unpacking canisters of Tang and Pringles from your luggage to gift to your Vietnamese aunts and cousins, you knew you were a Việt Kiều. This is what Vietnamese people in Vietnam call the Vietnamese who went overseas and now returned to visit. As an eight-year-old, you interpreted it to mean something like tourist or outsider, based on the stares you encountered in your family’s neighborhood in Saigon. You turned down your mom’s suggestions to explore the city with her; you’d rather stay inside your aunt’s house with your cousins and go unseen in a place that was supposed to be home.


Because you are so lucky to grow up in America, your mom said. You came to understand what she meant during that summer in Saigon, when you observed children in worn, sun-faded clothes walking into restaurants to sell matchbooks and lottery tickets to uninterested diners, as your mom ordered Chinese fried rice for you. You swallowed your rice, which now tasted oversalted with the guilt of unearned privilege. For your family, the chance to leave all those years ago felt like winning the lottery, when so many others were left behind. Still, you can’t help but speculate on the counterfactual: had you stayed, would you at least know what it was like to feel at home?




Because since you were a little girl, you understood that you needed to adjust to the world, if you wanted a place in it.


Because you learned from Catholic school that the wrath of nuns is more concrete – and thus, scarier – than the wrath of God. There you learned the rules of submission: how to line up in single file, how to genuflect at the end of a pew, how to keep tugging on your knee-high stockings to keep them from rolling down your calves, how to raise your hand to ask for permission, but not to ask questions that start with why.


Because you should understand that your voice is a nuisance that no one cares to listen to. Your grandma had a rule of silence at home, when she babysat you and your cousins after school. She set down bowls of rice, pork, and hollow-heart spinach in front of you, sternly telling you to be quiet so you can eat faster. You used to think, the rambunctious chatter of children, even if they are her granddaughters, must have grated on her. But now, you think, maybe it’s because she felt unsettled being surrounded by so much English, so much she doesn’t understand.


Because you also once didn’t know any English – or really, anything about the American world outside of your family home – until you started school. On the first day of Pre-K, your mom cried when she let go of your hand at the drop-off. Partway through the year, during parent-teacher meetings, the teacher asked your mom if there is something wrong with you, if there is something wrong at home? She told your mom that you often sit in a corner of the green reading rug by yourself, instead of running around with the other children. And in that private moment of retreat, like many others that will follow later in life, you’ll realize that you will still be noticed, but not in the way you want.


Because all you want to do is to say the right thing at the right time, and not be discounted. When you began working in corporate after grad school, you’d ruminate on what you want to articulate in meetings. Does everyone here know something that you don’t? Will people think you’re being difficult if you ask questions? Do you even have anything new to add, anyway? As your internal dialogue spirals, the real-life conversation quickly moves on and your point becomes irrelevant. Colleagues would advise that you speak up more. This feedback comes from a good place, you know. They want to see you succeed. Still, you feel a kind of unease that’s hard to explain. You’ve heard the statistics and anecdotes about how Asian employees hit a ceiling when it comes to advancing into leadership positions. You wonder if you’ll hit this ceiling too, if you’ll be passed over for opportunities because you’re not as loud or assertive as your peers. Or simply, because you are not White and you are not a man. You wonder if there is only one way of being and moving through the world.




Because if you don’t draw attention to yourself, you’ll stay safe.


Because you remember your mom, aunts, uncles, and grandparents huddling in the living room, in the early years of coming to America, assembling hundreds of pairs of cheap fashion earrings, earning a total of fifteen dollars a day, grateful they were able to find work at all. You trusted their fear when they said, keep your head down, keep working, stay out of sight, out of mind, and you’ll be alright. For decades, you accepted this myth of invisibility, until the president of the United States began referring to COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus,” then later, as the “kung flu,” defending his choice of language, as if words do not have the power to kill like a virus does. You believed you could pass unseen until your social media feed began to flood with video footage of assaults on people who look like your relatives during the COVID-19 pandemic. And something inside of you finally shattered.


Because you noticed how mainstream media gave little coverage of these attacks for some time, until it was too late. Until a mass shooting across three spas in Atlanta took eight lives, including six Asian women, in March 2021. You logged onto work calls with a crack in your voice, thankful that your non-essential job allows you to hide behind a computer screen, where you can cry at your desk without anyone’s notice. You asked yourself, how is it possible to be traumatized by something that didn’t happen to you? Then you realized that this violence confirmed a truth you’ve been trying to ignore since the day you became a naturalized US citizen at age 17: no amount of assimilation can protect you. When it came time to enroll in your workplace benefits that year during the pandemic, and every year after, you weighed the likelihood of your dying in the next calendar year. You told yourself that you’re still relatively young and healthy. There’s nothing to worry about, you reasoned. But in the end, you always enroll in life insurance.


Because at the start of 2022, an Asian woman was pushed off the Times Square subway platform as a train rushed through. Then, a few weeks later, another Asian woman was followed home and stabbed in her Chinatown apartment in New York City. You told your Korean-Vietnamese friend, who had recently moved to Manhattan, to come stay with you in Boston, so she can get away from a city that she grew to fear more than love. When she arrived, you agreed to revisit your favorite dim sum spot in Chinatown together. But instead of taking the subway downtown, you offered to drive.


Because while commuting home alone on the T one evening, you reminded yourself to stand far from the edge of the platform. You tried to stay calm when, from the other end of the platform, a man with a duffel bag stared in your direction, then made an effort to get in the same car as you, in the seat across from you. You avoided eye contact with the man, trying to make yourself as still and small as possible, before rushing out at your stop, relieved to see no one exiting the train behind you that night.




Because you were told how you got here. And you were told why you don’t have a father: your mom became pregnant with you when she was twenty-two and unmarried, a grave sin in the little Saigon neighborhood where your mom grew up, after your grandparents migrated south from Hanoi after the 1954 Geneva Accords. Your mom considered an abortion.


Because your grandma was concerned about your family’s reputation, she kept you and your mother hidden inside their home, until your family received news that they had been approved to leave for America, when you were still a baby. Even then, no one was sure whether your mom would be able to take you with her.


Because you weren’t included on the immigration papers that your two refugee uncles in Boston filed to sponsor your grandparents, mom, two aunts, and eldest uncle to America. The paperwork was done before you existed. Your mom heard stories about other single mothers who had to make the impossible choice of leaving their babies behind while they emigrated abroad, with hopes of retrieving them later. Officials were concerned that women would claim children that didn’t belong to them, to acquire a two-for-one passage to America. Somehow, your mom convinced the immigration officials that you belonged to her.


Because a daughter is inseparable from her mother. Your mom knew that you weren’t supposed to be here at all, so she did everything in her power to forge ahead with you. She left her home, she left your father, she learned a new language, she started a new life. And in return, you try to do everything you can to be a good girl – to be quiet, respectful, studious, agreeable, invisible – so that when your mom lets go of your hand, she’ll know you’ll be alright here, in a country that thinks they know everything about you by the look of your skin.


Because you question whether you should be here at all.


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