The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living

I’m playing a game with myself where I try to take the biggest steps that I can without collapsing onto my side like an aging racehorse. It suddenly occurs to me that he has been following me for some time. Perhaps, in my five-beer state, I am more interesting to the average bystander than I’d like to think.

I notice he’s staggering too. I almost want to let out a laugh or a high-five — the cheap instant bonding of the fellow inebriate. He’s about sixty, maybe even sixty-five, and he has the grizzled look of a veteran or any number of other professions that take sensitivity to be superfluous. In another world he could have been my grandfather.

The only lights are from the red and white Bank of America ATM and his face has an almost clown-like quality that I would have found distressing under normal circumstances.

Twenty more seconds. He’s still following me. He used to be way out in the middle of the road, but now he’s shifted course almost twenty degrees just to get closer.

“What’s up?” I offer.

“You.” There’s no greeting before the address, not even the implication of where one would go. His voice is alarmingly empty. He sounds like he’s talking to the TV, or to the epitaph of a distant relative who made too many unwarned visits and snored on the couch a lot.

“What’s up?” Once more, carbon copy of the last one. Good job, I tell myself. You sound like a natural.

His eyes now have the quality of a middle schooler who’s just been introduced to a microscope.

Take a look at the fly. Relax, it’s between two sheets of glass, it won’t bite you. See the wings?

“Where are you from?” he asks, same ghostly tone.

“I dunno man, round here.”

“Uh-huh?”

“Yeah.” I try not to make eye contact. I’m thinking about this speech my mom gave me on the phone after the election about watching out for white people. They have guns, she said. They shoot, like, anything that moves, she jokes. Alright, I said, letting myself chuckle a little before hanging up.

“Around here, you say?” still looking at me. By this point I had forgotten the chain of dialogue that produced the question.

“Yep!”

“No you’re not.” The first one’s kind of teasing almost. There is a hair-tussling quality to it, a c’mon, what the fuck are you talkin’ about, dude? That’s all gone by the second one.

“No you’re not.”

And then the elephant in the room:

“You don’t look it.”

“Well - “ I start stammering, feeling exposed. “I guess I’m not really -

He’s looking at me sideways with the microscope gaze again. I think about the time in fifth grade we dissected a rabbit and before the first incision our teacher forced us to take a moment of silent reflection for the poor animal’s dedication to our scientific edification. We need to respect all that we observe, he said.

I’m still thinking about rabbits when the first kick comes. And the second.

“Then why the fuck did you lie to me?” He keeps repeating with almost journalistic detachment as he pummels me. The kicks don’t hurt but by this point I’ve abandoned any attempt at trying to process my immediate surroundings as real, I’ve inserted a television Chiron around the bottom third and now I’m imagining I'm on my couch listening to a distinguished group of panelists break down the situation for the folks at home. He has an unmarked backpack and for a split second - I guess this still scares me - it occurs to me that there’s a passing chance I may get killed. I look around and then - and this scares me more - decide not to do too much about it.

I’m too scared to register the dark comedy of dying in front of an Insomnia Cookies, taunted by the odor of ice cream sandwiches. And then he’s gone. Amidst tears I manage to whimper out a soft “fuck you”; a garbage truck promptly swallows it.

 

I was in middle school when I first came across Borges’ “The Garden of the Forking Paths.” The story’s mystery centers on a Chinese man - Ts’ui Pen - who tries to construct a novel in which every possible narrative outcome coexists peacefully. While the story was, in many ways, nothing more than an illustration of the many-worlds theories that have formed the backbone of shoddy science fiction premises for years, there was an otherworldly comfort to the central conceit of the Garden - “in other possible pasts you are my enemy; in others my friend.”

As a risk-averse and deeply indecisive child I found something vindicating in Ts’ui Pen’s logic, although it was years before I could formulate why. Perhaps one could call it the Borgesian excuse. The premise of the Borgesian excuse was simple: any act of decision-making results in the potential alternatives to that decision becoming inaccessible. Choosing a path meant torching the others I had bypassed. But by simply forgoing choice, I could simulate something close to Ts’ui Pen’s garden - a state in which all possible outcomes exist simultaneously, each one on an equal plane of halfway reality. Borges had effectively given me a justification for my inability to commit to any course of action - not choosing allowed the hypothetical to take on the authority of the actual.

When I finally learned to verbalize the Borgesian Excuse - probably somewhere around the tenth grade - I was shocked at how much it had invaded my daily experience. I could miss a three-pointer and definitively out myself as a hack shooting-guard, or I could drift along the game undetected, thereby fanning the perception that I was potentially passable. I could verify my checking balance or run off from the ATM to reside in a reality in which I was potentially not broke.

The most effective application of the Borgesian excuse for passivity, however, came in cases of cowardice. If I never got in the way of aggression, I would never have to retaliate, and therefore would theoretically never have to part with the idea that I was someone who could retaliate. That response became a little harder when it came to cases of racial aggression, but I was lucky. My family could supply with me enough books and television that by age five, I was able to construct some median of the American home experience. I asked my parents to go to Target to buy sidewalk chalk and I drew hopscotch grids in the driveway not because I cared for it, but because it seemed like an obligatory childhood experience I could check off the bucket list. I had the resources to learn English to the point that I had no accent, and over the years I also learned how to speak Spanish with the slight Northeastern twinge that implied I had never learned a foreign tongue before and that by logical necessity I was unable to speak any Korean. I was lucky to afford to go to schools with diversity programs and live in neighborhoods that had independent movie theaters and Chinese restaurants without french fries on the menu.

My parents often told me that I should live proudly, because I was the son of pioneers after all, because my grandparents had moved to the United States back when oriental was still in the popular lexicon and never took shit from anyone. I had been lucky to freely construct the blandest American existence possible for myself, but I could simultaneously maintain the delusion that I was fueled by the blood of pioneers, that I could summon a certain inner strength and self-assuredness to fight back when the situation necessitated it. But in the meantime, the best course of action seemed to be to avoid trouble. And I was very good at avoiding trouble. Besides, I was Asian, which carried with it a certain expectation of docility.

 

I’m playing a game with myself where I try to take the biggest steps that I can without collapsing onto my side like an aging racehorse. Out of the corner of my eye I can see him lumbering and instantly I am put on edge. There is something primal inside of me directing me towards his direction. Soon, I find that everything is falling into its predicted place like an instruction manual. Step 1: Wait for him to notice you are Asian. Step 2: Wait for that to trigger some reminder that his sense of The Real America has been corrupted beyond repair. Step 3: Wait for him to funnel the entirety of that nationalistic malaise towards your physical person - by this point you should be about 15 degrees to the right side of him. Step 4: Let him take the first swing, thus transferring legal culpability (you gotta keep that F-1 Visa intact, kiddo). Step 5: Boxing lessons every Sunday were in fact a good idea, you should thank your parents and remember how the gym-leader with a Napoleon complex taught you how to make a proper fist, A MAN’S FIST, not that sissy bullshit you made when you tried to fight that kid after basketball practice and then just made up, not because you’re a pacifist or any of that Mahatma Gandhi crap but because “peacemaker” is the most attractive synonym for “coward” in the English language, anyway, remember how to make that fist and go for it, you’ve covered your bases and this is the probably the only time you will have moral grounds (and legal, remember we already sorted that out) to pummel an old man.

When I’m done, he’s slumped off to his side and struggling to get some breaths in. I flip him onto his back so he’s looking at me the way one stares into the sun, and somehow this does not strike me as childishly megalomaniacal, and when I do so I also cock my fist up to let him know this isn’t over yet.

So say it, shithead, I tell him, such a receptacle of testosterone by this point that the Schwarzeneggerian quality of this retort is completely lost on me.

What?

I want you to say sorry.

The garbage truck honks past in the distance but it does so right as the man is coughing so as not to ruin the moment.

I’m sorry.

Good, I say, letting him go with a careless toss.

 

“If he was so old, why didn’t you just beat the shit out of him?”

My friend barely looked up from his phone as he offered his rejoinder. This was the first time I had told the story to another Asian guy, and it wasn’t exactly the response I was expecting. I was hoping I would at least get a good party story out of this whole ordeal, and it’s obvious from the initial focus group response that I will not be.

Why didn’t I beat the shit out of him? I assume it’s the same reason why I never said anything when a Boston cop pulled over my parents before sending them off with a slit-eyed joke. Or the same reason why I found the need to apologize to the TSA agents who herded me like cattle across the immigration line of JFK airport. Or the same reason why I let out a nervous laugh when a waiter wondered aloud to himself whether Koreans ever ate at fine dining establishments.

“Fucking idiots,” I’d always mutter under my breath.

I remember a conversation I had with a Chinese friend just as Trump was winning his first few nods of mainstream acceptance and the center-left blogosphere erupted in a comforting drone of “but if you look at precedent” pieces. I had asked him whether he thought there should be some kind of Asian solidarity protest, if that was even possible.

“I don’t know, dude, that’s a pretty Americanized way of looking at things. Asians don’t march.”

Asians don’t march. It was true. That was the Confucianist way, after all: why try to plow through a rock like those litigious round-eyes when you could just walk around it? There were larger things to worry about: food on the table and family to share it with. In just about every Asian-American household I’d been to it seemed like social equality was something that was always put on temporary hold, something that kept getting outsourced down the generational chain.

Over the next few weeks — as I got better and better at telling my story, isolating the tantalizing details, setting the scene like a noir movie, banishing the garbage truck segment to the cutting room floor — I noticed a trend. While my non-Asian friends reacted with horror and dismay, for my Asian friends - especially men - it became something of a revenge fantasy. Had I spat in his face? Did I kick him in the balls?

It was always in the same tone, too - the pseudo-ironic California surfer thing, complete with generous deployment of “bro” and its many linguistic cousins (brah/bruh/brao). The tone was one I was familiar with - when I was in middle school in Seoul, the highest ideal of cool was always the stereotypical frat bro: tanned, tank-top, dubstep remixes. For a culture that was predicated upon quiet — if not seamless — integration, the endless pursuit of perfect camouflage, the male frat bro became an icon of rebellion. Being a “bro” meant, for the first time, that we could greedily hoard all the experiences we had been denied or denied ourselves our whole lives: alcohol and girls and fraternal acceptance. Asian guys don’t march, they rush.

The salmon Chubby-clad specter of the Asian fraternity brother followed me deep into high school, and it was an ever-present feature in the minds of Asian guys, a mutual fetish we were all equally embarrassed of. The Asian frat bro didn’t listen to Confucius, never kowtowed to anybody, impolitely ransacked life for all its experiences, never made compromises to death and never planned around its inevitable occurrence.

Perhaps more than anything, the AFB could award himself a pedestal upon which to view the lesser members of his tribe, the Chinese grocery store owners and Korean service industry professionals of the world who — in their minds at least — were weak souls that had simply never found the courage to escape servility.

Some people never grew out of the habit. I would meet them all the time, at get-togethers with distant family friends, at bars, in the line for nightclubs. They drove expensive SUVs and proudly smoked cigarettes, they asked for my thoughts on the Patriots (I had few), or they’d ask for my thoughts on golf (I had fewer). They voted for red-blooded Republicans who liked businesses and bootstraps. They spoke loud enough to make my parents uncomfortable and hiked up their pants and used old-school slang with a subtle desperation to be acknowledged, as if this was another marker of their Americanness that we should best appreciate. They spoke of their past lives as scrawny, accented Asian teenagers as if talking about a family tragedy or non-repented sin.

And they all had this one habit, almost a verbal tic: an inability to speak normally to non-Americanized Asians. Whenever they came across sushi chefs or Taiwanese cabdrivers they’d default to the same tone white guys use, where you speak really slowly and over-enunciate all your vowels and th sounds, not in the interest of comprehension but simply because you can. It was certainly one way to live. They certainly thought of themselves as pioneers, and maybe they were right: they had likely endured something bordering on agony in service of self-reinvention, something I have never been able to do. I could never be sure that some of my smug laughter at these adult AFBs wasn’t envy.

I remember talking about an all-Asian frat in Pennsylvania with a friend once, who was also Korean. Just a bunch of douchebags who try way too hard, she had told me.

I laughed and thought about this Damien Hirst sculpture my mom had forced me to look at when I was in grade school: a taxidermy shark in a glass tank, lunging right at the viewer but never getting to them. Not a savage beast of the waters as much as a pale copy of its corpse, a parody of one. The joke, I guess, was twofold: the dead shark acting the part of a real one, and the audience was acting the part of cynically detached observer when - deep down - they were just as afraid of one day ending up encased in formaldehyde. It was called The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.

 

I’m playing a game with myself where I try to take the biggest steps that I can without collapsing onto my side like an aging racehorse. It suddenly occurs to me that he has been following me for some time. Perhaps, in my five-beer state, I am more interesting to the average bystander than I’d like to think.

I notice he’s staggering too. Maybe it’s because he’s drunk. Maybe this isn’t the first time he’s been this week, this day even. He might be homeless. Maybe he just got laid off from his job. Maybe he was born in a tiny milling town somewhere and always got beat up by neighborhood thugs, and maybe that’s why he’s always had to resort to violence as a kind of survival mechanism I had the good fortune to avoid developing. Maybe one of those thugs was - and I’m really grasping for narrative straws now - a Korean guy, let’s call him Dave Chang (Like the chef? Maybe a different name, something much more ominous and Stephen King-villain sounding, how about Chet). And Chet Chan and his posse of East Asian tough kids rolled around in their bicycles and stole Drunk Guy’s lunch money all the time.

Anyways, this is all going through my head as he beats me, and I notice that it doesn’t hurt too much and I’ll probably be fine and my not resisting is not so much an act of cowardice as it is of magnanimity, quiet courage, a social good. Like, if I get him to purge all this disgusting stuff inside maybe he won’t have these urges when he actually has a broken bottle in his hand. He watches me smile my martyr’s smile and he stops.

What's that all about, you insane or something?

In church back in Seoul we learned about turning the other cheek.

Are you finished? I ask calmly.

Yeah.

In church back in Seoul we learned about how Saint Stephen let the rocks hit him without protest. Would Saint Stephen have marched?

All out of your system?

Yes.

Okay.

We exchange numbers and make plans to get coffee.

 

Of course, the ultimate tragedy of Ts’ui Pen’s “garden” is that it is nothing more than a novel. For Borges, the only setting in which the what-happened and what-could-have-been can coexist is in the realm of pure fiction. In Ts’ui Pen’s garden, the imaginative capabilities of a writer are not forces for shaping reality as much as they are useful means of retreating from it altogether.

In many ways, Borges was right. I wrote fiction all throughout middle school, mostly odd wish-fulfillment fantasies about 6’4 Korean guys who were very, very good at basketball. The climax of each tale, however, was invariably some heroic standoff with an interchangeable old white man - coach from an opposing team, maybe, or just some asshole down the street.

In high school, I wrote fiction somewhat out of necessity, after the negation of all alternatives. I couldn’t play sports or lift or talk convincingly about Coachella and I cared too much about staying in school to sneak vodka to class in water bottles and I hated the idea of withdrawing myself to a destiny of math clubs and Asian friends. I had always liked writing and indie music, so publishing poetry in the literary magazine and making pretentious comments about Jonathan Franzen became my ticket into mainstream society.

I remember in senior year I joined a creative writing workshop with about eight of my classmates. On the first day, we were told that what made fiction good was “stuff.” What’s stuff? Tuna cans in the pantry. Welcome mats with mustard stains on them. Dinner in the oven while your dad tries to fix the VCR. That’s stuff. Any questions?

But what if my stuff has to come italicized and romanized?I don’t have to explain what a potluck is the way I have to dedicate precious page space typing some stilted Wikipedia-cadence bullshit about what Chuseok is. Also, do you know aesthetically revolting Korean looks written out alphabetically? It seems your “stuff” doesn’t disrupt the Feng Shui of the paragraphs they are generously deployed into.

I never said any of this aloud, of course. I just grappled with the weird absurdity of Asian-American art, an entire group of people stereotyped into silence and suddenly forced to find a voice, through deception or force of will or sheer luck or some combination of the three.

I decided as a matter of principle, however, that I could never write about being Asian. Stories about generational discord and being embarrassed about kimchi weren’t cool, after all - they were bad pitches for middle school required reading at best. Cool stories, I was reminded daily, were about “stuff.”

I quickly fell into my default of deception. I wrote pieces about Tide and swordfish dinners and Greyhound trips and jazz music and crafted a lot of racially ambiguous protagonists and patted myself on the back for not deploying a single Korean word during the entire workshop.

At the risk of sounding insufferable, I guess there is something fundamentally post-modern about the Asian-American experience. I talk to a lot of friends about how weird it is that we got our entire cultural vocabulary from televised families, how we adopted their memories as our own. David Foster Wallace, Pynchon and DeLillo predicted - with equal parts aversion and morbid curiosity - a society in which diversionary acts of mass entertainment would become the only source of communal experience. For a lot of us, cross-referencing our odd Asian family reunions against Nickelodeon scripts for cultural accuracy was part of everyday life in grade school.

At times, I wondered what motivated me to mine the same tired tropes of Middle America for my stories, when there was such a vibrant canon of Asian-American literature I could be inspired by. I was certainly afraid of being viewed as someone who was exploiting the perceived exoticness of the Asian experience for literary acceptance, papering over poor prose with white guilt. But more importantly, I noticed that while my peers and teachers would certainly congratulate Asian students who wrote from a personal vantage point, the interest would never extend beyond the purely sociological. I think there’s something so unique about the familial dynamic you’re portraying. My uncle actually took a trip to Tokyo last spring, and he was able to sit in on this local family having dinner, etc. For all the carefully deployed, moderately liberal, New Yorker-informed praise I couldn’t help but think there was a sinister subtext to it all. Thank you for giving me this New And Challenging Culture to process. Thank you for expanding our collective horizons.

And of course, I’m glad you’re one of us now so that you can report on who you used to be - or, perish the thought, might have become if we hadn’t rescued you - with the adequate critical distance of the English speaker. Thank you.

I was certainly guilty of exploiting this mentality myself, usually for grades. I remember each year we would have to give a three-minute speech to the whole class, and I soon found that the easiest way to ensure a good grade would be to paint Korean society as some corrupt, quasi-totalitarian hellhole I had been lucky enough to escape through my good wits and democratic (both capital and lowercase d) values.

I had fun giving those speeches. For a few minutes I could feel the egotistic head rush I assume tour guides frequently experience, the pleasure of shepherding my politically-correct audience through foreign and hostile terrain. Sometimes I wondered if this truly was an alternative to hitting the gym and wearing Sperrys, that I had perhaps wandered into an even more subtle and insidious form of AFB-hood. And while I convinced myself that my Disneyification of East Asia was a purely utilitarian move on my part, whenever I called my family after those speeches I would feel the disgusting outlines of suppressed guilt, that my grandparents had risked a lot by coming to the United States and I was tacitly endorsing the degeneration of this journey into farce. Truly some pioneer I was.

There’s actually another layer of humor to the Damien Hirst piece, by the way: how easily lived experience can be counterfeited. False experiences, simulations and deceptions can - given enough years - take on the appearance of a life, cohere into a mock-organic whole.

Look at the shark, the way its gills seem right on the cusp of contracting. Is it dead, or simply plotting its next turn?

Maybe neither, maybe both.

 

I’m playing a game with myself where I try to take the biggest steps that I can without collapsing onto my side like an aging racehorse. It suddenly occurs to me that he has been following me for some time. Perhaps, in my five-beer state, I am more interesting to the average bystander than I’d like to think.

He beats me. You heard this before.

In some ways, and this is probably the alcohol, I feel more honest as it happens. I feel like a spy relieved of duty. But some sick part of me wants him to acknowledge me, wants him to congratulate me for my years of service. The greatest imposter to ever live. If I hadn’t looked so Asian you would have thought of me as one of your own, you asshole. I’ve probably watched more Seinfeld episodes than you. Can you name the backup shooting guard for the Celtics back when they won in ’08? No you fucking can’t. It was Eddie House. Maybe I should be kicking you.

And then it’s over, like nothing ever happened. I start walking home thinking about whether lighting strikes twice. Could there be someone else around that corner? I decide to get some cookies instead. I grumble unintelligibly to the guy behind the counter about crazy people out on the streets. I laugh merrily about the particular crazy guy I’ve just run into, but there’s a weird quivering in my voice I can’t remove and the joke falls flat.

When I go back to my dorm I have an urge to punch something but my roommates are all asleep. I start passive-aggressively whispering to the man instead. It’s not fair that you ruined my joke. It’s not fair that you get to be unabashedly patriotic, simply because you probably have an over-inflated respect for all the adults in your life, because the adults in your life never had to struggle finding the right words to say to the police, and the adults in your life never had to look like fools when people started talking about sitcoms or sports and you didn’t have to go upstairs and lock yourself in your room to Wikipedia pop-culture relics so you would be extra sure that you’d never run out of stories to tell at dinners and that you’d make doubly fucking sure not a single fucking reference ever went over your head. Perhaps you suspected that the adults in your life were cowards, but it wasn’t fair that they never were put in situations where they could confirm it for you. And that’s not fair. It’s not fair that you got to confirm it for me.

It’s not fair that I won’t be able to walk around at night without staring back every two minutes, even now, even seven months later. It’s not fair that you’ll have nothing but a mediocre hangover in the morning but I’ll think about this nonstop for two weeks and intermittently for many more months and every time it comes up in conversation I’ll laugh and say “it was fucked up but whatever,” and it’s not fair that I’ll try and fail to write about this five different times but abandon it out of shame or guilt. And there are many ways in which I am more fortunate than you are, and perhaps from your perspective you are the victim. And it’s not fair that you and I both have our reasons and learned nothing will stay the same people, more or less.

 

Someone told me once that being Asian-American was a serious anticlimaxes and learning to get used to them. That this was a destruction partially of our own doing, the natural conclusion of generations asymptotically striving for “passability.” Passable decoys of the white upper-middle class. Passable decoys of Americans. Passable decoys of not-yet-Americanized Asians when we went back home. Even when we were victims, we were simply passable victims: unidentified Chinese workers buried beneath the Gold Rush tracks, the interned Japanese valued only as rhetorical counterarguments that footnote the liberal triumph of FDR-ism, Koreans slaving away in sugar plantations in Honolulu (this article is a stub, you can help Wikipedia by expanding it).

In the days following my encounter with the man I often wondered if I was complicit in this legacy, simply because of how flat and devoid of catharsis the event had been. The kicks hadn’t even hurt. The man might have been crazy. In a weird sense I felt guilty of the half-assedness of the whole thing, and I would see the Damien Hurst piece again, as if I had somehow been mauled by a shark that was stuck in formaldehyde all along. Not a shark attack as much as a parody of one to be carefully dissected by detached criticism.

If there was one thing I did take away from the whole affair, it was that perhaps Ts’ui Pen was onto something that could explain why older Asian-Americans had been so socially passive.

If you never engage with society, you never have to confirm how terrible it truly is, how few options you really have at your disposal. That indigestible truth simply becomes one of many possible realities. Forever and ever.

When I was named the editor-in-chief of my newspaper in high school I remember my grandparents had bragged about it for weeks, how Joon had beaten all the white kids, how he had broken the putrid institution wide open. When I got into college they told me to go as a conqueror, to take and take everything the American university had falsely promised them when they flew to the East Coast so many years ago. I was the son of pioneers, after all, and I could speak perfect English, and I wrote things that even the whitest white kids liked to read, so what did I have to worry about?

I never told them about what happened in front of Insomnia Cookies. I told them about my dorm instead, or my roommates, or if I was in the mood I would give them a heavily sanitized account of a couple parties. I told them that I loved school and I was getting everything I wanted and I never answered to anybody and I never looked behind my back when I walked.