I started kindergarten in China without a parent at home. My mother and my father were in America, this place that the extended family I was staying with showed me on a map, and whose distance they tried to demonstrate by moving furniture around in the living room. When that didn’t work, they took me outside to our garden, where we grew sour, green grapes in the summer, and drew pictures for me in the dirt.
“We’re here,” my grandparents told me, pointing. “And your mommy and daddy are there.”
But the “there” they showed me was something I could see and touch; the “there” where my parents were I could only see in the photos they sent to us, accompanied by letters filled with promises big and small: that they would bring me to America one day to live with them, that I would get an electric keyboard the very day I arrived, that they would buy me a necklace made of real pearls, that I would one day go on a plane and fly through clouds.
Before my father left, he read me picture books in bed every night, hoisted me on his shoulders when I couldn’t sleep, and took me on long, wonderful walks at night through our neighborhood. One of the books he read me was about a young boy who goes on an adventure to India, where everything glitters with gold and princes ride through the streets on elephants. I was two and a half when he left. Three when my mother left.
It was soon after that that I started the Chinese equivalent of kindergarten. At home, my family spoke Mandarin—the country’s official language—so I had trouble keeping up with the other kids in my school in Shanghai, who spoke to one another in Shanghainese. I understood most of what they were saying, but whenever I tried to respond in their dialect, I sounded like someone with a speech impediment, stuttering and stammering and making weird O shapes with my mouth. I communicated in my own made-up patois that was one part mispronounced Shanghainese, three parts Mandarin.
“She’s probably just stupid,” I heard one kid say to another.
I wanted desperately for the other students to like me, to find me interesting, but nothing about me seemed interesting enough, even more me. So I came up with a new tactic.
“My parents live on a boat,” I told some kid during lunch. “They keep whales as pets. My dad knows how to fly a plane. That’s how he got to America. Once I touched lightning, but guess what? I didn’t die.”
It didn’t work. No one believed me, and I had exactly zero friends.
Meanwhile, I told my aunts and uncles and grandparents that I was having the time of my freaking life at school. I told them that I was friends with everyone, that my best friend was the daughter of a judge and she brought me orange juice every morning. I told them that we learned new songs every day and that the teacher praised me for my singing in front of the entire class and that she told everyone that they should learn from me. I told my family that the teacher took us on fields trips almost every day, to the zoo or the movies. When my grandfather picked me up from school in the afternoons, I’d ride on the back of his bicycle and from the moment he started pedaling, I’d begin to tell him all sorts of outrageous lies, like how once, at the zoo, I had been chosen to ride on an elephant and I did it with such bravery that everyone clapped and the teacher had even cried because of how proud I had made her.
Eventually it got to the point where my auntie called up the teacher to thank her for all that she had done for me. She told my teacher that I had been going through some difficult times because my parents were living in America, and she had been worried that I might find it difficult to adjust to life without them on top of starting school, but that everyone at home was grateful to my teacher for filling my days with trips to the zoo and the movies.
“There was a pause,” my auntie told me years and years later. “And then your teacher goes, ‘Well, that does sound terrific. I wish I was that good of a teacher, but unfortunately, we’ve never done any of those things.’ At first, I was puzzled when I realized you were lying to us. I thought to myself, My niece isn’t the kind of child who lies. But then, I realized you were being extraordinarily strong. You were protecting us. You knew we were worried about you, so you tried to save us from worrying by lying to us and telling us that you were flourishing.”
“Mmn,” I said, embarrassed by her theory that my lies were heroic acts, and by my theory that I was just a loser kid who wanted attention.
When I moved to New York to live with my parents, I was five years old and I had to learn a whole new language. Learning a language when you are not a baby turns you into a baby. A baby with the face and body of a non-baby. A baby who cannot articulate any of your feelings or needs or wants. A baby who cannot prove to the world that you are smart, that you are capable of complex thoughts, that you are more than the language you do not yet know. I pissed my pants the first time I needed to go to the bathroom, because even though my parents had taught me to raise my hand straight up in the air and say, “BATHROOM!” if I needed to pee, they hadn’t taught me what “Go ahead” meant, which was what my teacher said to me. Not knowing what to do, I remained in my seat, praying I could hold it in for another few hours, and then suddenly, the entire class was shouting at me while I sat there, pissing myself.
In my first year in America, I went to my babysitter’s house every day after school. She watched over me and a few other children. When my mother picked me up, I told her that I was friends with every single kid at my babysitter’s house. That they saved their chips from lunch and gave them to me. That they hugged me every hour because I was so cute. If my mother noticed that every time she came to pick me up, I was always alone in a corner, and that the other kids didn’t wave goodbye to me like they did to one another—if she noticed, she never said a word. She was merciful that way.
When I learned English, I started to lie in two languages. In fourth grade, my best friend Hanzhi told me that there was a midget in his class who was like a foot smaller than everyone else, and I took that story and made it about me and told everyone in my class that I had a friend back in China who was so small that he could actually die from taking a dump unless someone held him up and prevented him from falling into the toilet and being flushed away. My father told me that he knew of some distant cousins who had eaten a cat, and so in seventh grade, when my biology teacher said, “You know, in some countries, people eat cats and dogs,” I had the idea to blurt out, “That’s true! I’ve eaten a cat! And it tastes like just chicken.”
For the next two years of my life, I didn’t go a day without hearing some kid say, “Break me off a piece of that kitty-cat bar!” or “Meow…yo, her mouth is watering because she thought she heard a cat!”
By the time I went to college, I was done inventing tall tales. I wasn’t telling people that I had eaten a cat because I wanted someone—anyone—to be interested in me, but I still didn’t believe that telling the truth about myself would make anyone want to know more, so I continued lying, only my lies became slightly more nuanced, and slightly more complicated. I had a boyfriend who wrote fiction and who told me that maybe, one day, I might be as good as him. Instead of saying what I actually thought, which was, Hey asshole, more like one day you might be as good as me, I said, “I really want that to happen.” I pretended exuberance when what I really felt was irrepressible depression. When I couldn’t contain my depression any longer and allowed a tiny, tiny part of myself to emerge, my friends would tell me that seeing me sad was unsettling for them. That I was supposed to be the rock, the stable one.
“You’re never sad,” one friend told me when I didn’t laugh at her jokes one night.
“I know,” I said, continuing to lie.
I laughed at jokes that were sexist and racist.
When I started having sex, I faked all of my orgasms, which, by the way, is not something that teenage boys whose previous exposure to sex has consisted mainly of internet porn are likely to pick up on. As I got older and my partners grew more experienced, I realized that I couldn’t keep faking orgasms, so instead I faked apathy. I told every new boyfriend that I happened to be one of those women who prefer giving to receiving, which is pretty much the general narrative affirmed by most mainstream depictions of sex, so most dudes were like, “OK, cool.” The one or two real orgasms I had took so long and required so much patience and trial and error on the both my part and my partner’s that I feared it would drive them away. I was certain that if I was too demanding, if I kept asking for things, someday someone would tell me, “No, you’re not worth it.”
When other people told me that I was a doll, that I was precious, that I was cute, that I was just so nice, I nodded and affirmed these little lies because I felt that the truth of my being was too monstrous to reveal. I had to lie. I had to pass as a nice girl, a nonthreatening girl. I had to pass as the kind of girl who could hang with dudes and listen to their sexist tirades about how girls were such nags, that girls whined all the time, that girls always wanted dudes to spend money on them, that girls spent too much time putting on makeup that didn’t even look good. I had to pass as the kind of girl who didn’t take anything seriously, especially not the bigoted humor that I had been subjected to my entire life. I had to pass as all of those things because if my friends saw the real me—the me that was scarily angry, and who took things very seriously, and that was so, so far from nice—they would surely abandon me.
Right at this moment, as I write this, I am fighting the urge to lie. I want very much to lie to you, my dear dear Rookie hearts, to give this article the happy resolution that my real life doesn’t yet have. I want to say I’ve stopped lying, that I no longer feel the need to protect the people in life from the parts of myself that are difficult to admit. I want to say I no longer fear that my loved ones will abandon me if they learn that I’m not a happy person, I’m not an easygoing person, I’m not a confident person, that I don’t always feel attractive or particularly sexual, that I do things that I’m not proud of, that most of the time I feel wildly lost and confused and scared and angry and sad.
But I won’t lie to you. I will be honest, even if honesty is not always charming, even if being honest means risking rejection, risking disgust. Let’s start with this confession: When I attended the first Rookie party ever (!!!!) a year ago when Rookie was just a fledgling baby of a thing, I felt out of place and awkward and unable to think of anything, like literally anything, to say in conversations. Instead of enjoying myself, I panicked about every little thing: Is there a circle forming and am I now outside of it? Wait, do I have anything funny related to gym teachers that I can say right now? Oh my god, people are talking about tampons! Tell your tampon sex story now before someone else jumps in. Oh god, you dummy, someone already jumped in! I went to the bathroom so many times just because I didn’t know what else to do with my body.
When it was all over, I felt like a failure of a social creature. And instead of owning up to that, I decided to publicly post on Facebook how I had met one of my idols, Miranda July, and that I could die happy now.
“Miranda July?????” my friends wrote me. “I’m jealous!”
I still laugh at jokes that I don’t think are funny. I still don’t speak up because I’m afraid to take up space. I still fear that my friends will abandon me if I am not completely entertaining and captivating and cheerful all the time. Recently, I was really let down by a friend, and instead of telling her that, I kept it inside, afraid that just by acknowledging my feelings, I might seem too demanding.
When I graduated from college and started working and paying my own bills, my mother asked me, “Do you miss being a teenager? Do you wish you could go back to high school?”
“Are you kidding me?” I cried. “I hated high school. Those were the worst years of my life.” I felt smug, condescending, knowing my mother would not understand. How could she? My mother had always been happy. She had always been popular—she was president of her class through middle school and high school—and was still popular now, as an adult. Everyone who met her adored her; strangers routinely stopped her on the street to tell her how stunning she was. My mother once told me that she was a generally trusting, happy person and even though she knew deep down that it was impossible, she truly believed that she had never been lied to by anyone, ever, in her entire life. My mother basically gleamed with health and well-adjustment with every waking breath, and could never figure out how her own flesh-and-blood daughter ended up so sulky and unlikeable as an adolescent. My mother could never, ever understand me—or so I thought.
“Me too,” she said. “I hated high school. Those were the worst years of my life too.”
That’s when I realized that I wasn’t the only one who made up stories to protect my loved ones from the ugly truth. If my mom does it, everyone does. We hide behind these characters we’ve invented for ourselves—the happy partygoer, the “low-maintenance” girlfriend—because it seems easier than asking everyone all the time to confront the truth, which can be as boring as “I have nothing to say,” or as simple as “I feel insecure.” That even in this article, I have taken on the role of Adult Who Has Some Hard-Won Advice That You Should Listen To, though I don’t know why you should listen to me, and I don’t know if what I have is advice so much as a story.
I wish I could say that I’m done lying, but I’m not. I’m not even done telling tall tales. I still make up shit all the time in my fiction and my poetry. But I can’t keep making up stories about who I am, and playing this imaginary character who is never vulnerable, never disappointing, never difficult, never too much.
All I can say now is that I’m trying to stop lying. And that’s not a lie. ♦
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