A Fish Out of Water
This chapter contains depictions of parental abuse and casual racism
Chen Hong Yi is an idiot.
Or at least he’s managed to convince everyone that he is; it’s hard to match the report card with the face, particularly when that face is spouting terrible jokes in the hallway. Jokes such as the gem that ends with this punchline:
“The poop! Get it? Get it?”
Outside of his fellow toilet humour connoisseurs, who guffaw enthusiastically and slap him on the back, no one can help feeling slightly less intelligent than before for having understood the joke.
“I made that one up myself!” he exclaims amidst their groans. Of course he made it up. No one else could possibly have.
It’s not that they don’t appreciate it, really. Everyone in the BU Marine Biology faculty knows Chen Hong Yi, the international student with the mad pranking skills and the endless catalogue of bad jokes. He’s infuriating, or he’s fun, depending on who you ask. The one thing he never is is boring.
Boring. It gets so boring sometimes. You know how it is, when one owns goods in such excess that there is no longer any laudable modesty in pretending there’s nothing there.
There are people who make use of that extra capacity to memorise classics, and there are those who spend it proving old mathematical conjectures. And then there’s Hong Yi. Hong Yi who finds feats of the mind so droll that he regularly engages, instead, in the practice of feigning idiocy. Being silly. Baiting snide remarks.
He loves being smart, no one can tell him otherwise. But people seem a lot more drawn to That Dumbass Hong Yi than Straight-A’s Star Pupil Hong Yi.
Alright, so maybe he actually does get a kick out of strapping horns to the tops of doors and watching the reactions when tutors slams them shut; maybe it’s because he is an incorrigible prankster that he keeps ten fart cushions in his locker for the days he feels inclined to conduct an orchestra of flatulence and vehement denial. Or the reason he has purple food dye. Or the electric gag pen.
But that’s not all there is to him, he’d insist. Obviously there’s some profound meaning behind his enjoyment of bad fart jokes.
Hong Yi, ever the socialite, makes the effort to be there when his friends decide they’ll be going out tonight. Even though he’s wary of being out too late. It’s common courtesy to be there with your buddies while they’re going through alcohol-induced humiliation.
“Don’t you think it’s a bit…I dunno…late to be out?” He shifts on his feet, squinting down at the road beyond the Towers.
Flashing a grin, Jacob slaps him on the back. “Stop being such a mummy’s boy!”
Pete’s sleek new car charges into the driveway, and suddenly everyone’s being bundled into the backseat. Hong Yi protests to no avail. Doors click shut. The engine revs proudly.
As the car rejoins the traffic down Commonwealth Avenue, Jacob flings pulls his buddies into an aggressive football huddle. “For the benefit of Berrigan, we’re down for beer pong,” he says. “Harold chose the game, think we stand a chance?”
Beer pong? That will–as far as he’s read–involve beer, balls, and gravity.
Berrigan snorts. “Yeah, easy-peasy!” he says. The rest answer with equal vigor.
Chen Hong Yi loves the sea.
He lived his life before in Beijing, and has lodged two years at the Warren Towers. But he considers the glassy, blue New England Aquarium as much a home to him than either place. He spent a semester of his life there, learning from behind the glass with all that blue light upon him, blue so intense he thought it might seep into his skin. It was the professor he was attached to there, a scowly Dr. O’Malley with the disposition of a hunter, who had recommended him to the folks at the Marine Biological Laboratory.
It’s hard to explain what precisely he loves about the deeps and its secrets. He thinks fish are absolutely rad, as are the invertebrates that cohabit the greatest niche of the earth. He has an entire notebook filled with notes on marine animal behaviour. He watches silly octopus videos in his free time. But he thirsts after the mystery and the strangeness, still, as if something deep down were calling him to join it.
It’s quite something, this love. Vast and fierce enough that he’s set all his life choices irrevocably around it.
There is a catharsis in watching the seagulls circle over the white masts in Boston Harbor, listening to those messy white birds scream at the morning for fish. He sort of thinks it must be nice not to know the restriction of roads and walls. It must be nice living on the wind. He sometimes sees them go out farther than the shore, farther than the last visible boat, out to where they are swallowed by blue.
Chen Hong Yi is not an idealist.
He misplaced his idealism long ago, one day, while he was staring at the wall, gravel grinding at his knees as the skin on his calves was split by a rattan cane.
Like every other student, he has been topping classes as long as there have been classes to top. School starts them off early, and almost as soon as he is eligible for competitions does he start bringing awards back home, trophies and plaques that rapidly accumulated and fill the shelf his father installed for the very purpose so a second, then a third, has to be nailed beneath it in subsequent years. His parents are so very taken by the shiny cups and medals.
Fertile field suddenly thrust into their hands, they take immediately to sowing. On Sundays, Hong Yi is locked up alone with his books. Given little choice otherwise, he learns not to hate them but to look to them for comfort. They open windows of salvation in his little world of concrete and dust.
Elementary knowledge becomes amateurish expertise. His novicehood morphs into a flowering, angry sort of thirst that is not soothed even when he’s opened and scoured every last book in the study.
It is perhaps the first time he’s ever seen his parents smile, when he comes to their room one evening and says the books are too simple for him.
A dormant dream of theirs is reanimated then, one that both were forced by circumstances to abandon.
Hope becomes insistence. Insistence moves their hands. Insistence becomes paranoia.
It’s not enough, they bellow and screech, eighty is not enough, not when there are twenty marks left unattained, twenty whole rungs left to scale. Eighty isn’t enough to make you a doctor, eighty is a peddlar’s score. They have him answer the strokes of the cane with a mantra of borrowed aspirations, until he is sobbing promises and pleas.
Hong Yi makes good his pledge. Eighties become nineties and reports on his excellent work displace complaints about his conduct.
Then nineties stop being satisfactory, and his parents start goading perfection out of him.
Chen Hong Yi is not one to abide by rules, most of the time.
He’s gotten to know Harold’s house over three visits, but he has no less trouble navigating it than the first time. It’s hard to see through the menagerie of party-goers bouncing to the throb of the speakers and the gyrating lights, now a furious shade of green. There’s kids sprawled over the sticky tables and a band on the stage that’s totally killing it. The lights shift again, this time to green, and men are talking up women, mischief and the threat of malice in the placement of their hands.
Hong Yi and his lot avert stares from the rest. The third table on the right is all set up for the messy game about to get underway.
They’re welcomed by friends; no one minds sweaty hands all over their shoulders, or thick alcoholic breaths clouding up the air. Friends laugh in his ears and offer to buy him beer. Cheeky idiots. They know about his acetaldehyde dehydrogenase deficiency (though possibly not by name). Typical East Asian trait. Turns him as red as a firetruck. Sucks to the highest degree.
At the table, Harold is drumming his fingers on his forearm, Harold of the infield, unrecognisable now in his v-neck tee and torn jeans.
"Hey, they’re here!” A grin widens his lips. “Jake the Rake!”
“Good to see you didn’t chicken out!” Jacob retorts with equal spirit. “Ready to lose?”
“I’m ready to have fun.”
A game of scissors-paper-rock determines that Jacob is to start. He soaks the ball in the nearest cup and lifts it level with his eyes. He doesn’t contemplate the cups, nor does he weigh the ball–merely swirls his hand and flings it at the triangle of cups, so swiftly that no one is ready to gape. “Woah, slow down!” Hong Yi yells, snatching the table’s edge to watch.
The ball arcs, and squarely makes a cup in the third row.
Chorus of cheers, noise and expletives. Nothing they aren’t familiar with. Harold downs the shot, makes a foul-mouth exclamation and a massive grin. Then he takes the ball; he’s in his element now; he’s thrown a thousand times. Everyone can see the ball soaring across the field.
The shiny red sphere flies in a stirring of breaths, and plops neatly into the second cup of the first row on their end. Yells and high-fives are exchanged. Jacob sniffs at the furor and flicks the sticky ball out of the cup into Berrigan’s hand while he gulps the drink down.
The Aussie throws next. It is an unfortunate throw. Everyone’s eyes follow his clearly-misaimed ball, cheers going up at the other end of the table already. But in the split second following, Hong Yi’s fingers tighten on the table–and he seeks, for moments, his connection with the tug of the world beneath his feet.
The ball grows inexplicably heavy.
The curly-blonde-haired boy on the other team drinks.
Amid cheers and back-slapping and complaints of nausea, Hong Yi leans into the crowd to listen. “Did you see that?” A sceptic in the background. “The ball wasn’t supposed to do that.”
“It’s the Asian guy. He tampered with the ball. Or he used his nerd powers to move it or something.”
“That’s some straight-up X-Men shit, man!”
“Didja see him touch the ball? I ain’t seen him touch the ball once.”
“But he was staring at the thing like some freak! Nerd powers, I’m telling ya. Just watch—”
Hong Yi clears his throat, and their lowered eyes dart towards him, before the conversation abruptly moves on to an unrelated topic.
He grins. Of course he didn’t tamper with the ball.
It grows clearer and clearer, as the months seep into each other and stretch into year-long streaks, that his interests are beginning to stray—from the definiteness of the path that’s been carved for him in blood and gravel under knees. Till now he’s expected to be a doctor or an engineer, just like he’s been told he will be all his life. Till now he’s had no questions.
But the questions are coming now, all at once, like a flock of attacking gulls. And he thinks it must have to do with the pictorial guide lying open and heavily-tagged on his desk. The gaping hatchet fish and its monstrously pearly eyes. Searching the deeps with lights like a landing strip along its back.
I want to be a marine biologist, his mind whispers suddenly, fear and hope mingling. He doesn’t know how he knows. He only hears the sea.
I want to be a marine biologist, he drags the words bleeding, screaming from his throat, two months later, and he is answered with the most ruthless caning he’s had.
You’re a waste, they say then, yelling at each other without addressing him at all. You were supposed to be something good, you wretched child, is this how you repay everything we’ve spent on your education?
Even though he doesn’t think this is something to feel guilty for, the guilt comes anyway, like a twelve tonne tank, mowing his heart down beneath its treads.
Snap. The sting of the rod makes him bite his tongue and choke back everything he was prepared to say. All the explanations and excuses about wanting something different, something new, something that they—with their pathetically tiny lives and equally tiny minds—were never allowed to imagine.
You’ll either be a doctor or an engineer, they scream even in his dreams. Don’t settle for a lesser vocation. We won’t let you.
They force him through medical dictionaries. Journals. Moralising lectures that make clear that he has been bereft of any choice. Their earnest hope is stained by grudges and frustrations, like seawater by oil slick. They mask their pleading with beatings and emotional blackmail.
He gasps for air without letting fall a single tear, it’s not that hard when you’ve spent a decade learning how not to cry. Nothing is wrong, he thinks; his parents only want to send him to the sky because he was made, they say, to soar.
But somehow he only feels like a fish out of water.
Chen Hong Yi thinks he’s doing a good job of making American culture a part of him.
It’s all for the better, he thinks, particularly when he’s going to be living here for an indefinite time to come. And it helps that he quite loves it—all the uninhibited luxuriation, as if he could rule the world if he so much as asked for it.
And it’s easy. Except, maybe, where his race is concerned, and everyone decides they know him before they’ve met him. But hey, he knows how to take a joke. All the same, he does his best to bury his accent under borrowed vocabulary and intonation. Within a year he speaks like a real Bostonian, keeping his memory of his homeland where no one will ever find it and use it to their advantage.
The bustle peaks at around nine-thirty. They’ve made two-thirds of the frats’ cups, and the frats have taken out half of their own, but Hong Yi hasn’t had a drop and it’s his turn to throw.
Everyone’s a little addled by now, so they invite him forward with rowdy chants. With a smirk Hong Yi tests the weight of the ball, syrupy with beer both dried and not.
He throws. The speakers are booming and the lights are getting lower. The table legs echo the strain they feel.
In one continuous and mesmerising motion, the rubbery red projectile skims the surface of one cup and lands in the adjacent one, making two cups in a toss. A guy on Harold’s side—Hong Yi thinks he recognises the pitcher at the last game—curses and lifts both, tipping them in his mouth simultaneously.
The accusations of cheating and tampering from the other end have become audible now—but he knows they don’t believe their own calls. The entire throw was out in the open, viewed from all sides. No tricks. Nothing makes a ball bounce like that but skill.
And gravity powers, of course. But he’s not about to tell them.
Fist-bumps around the table have become roughish hugs, the beer is getting to everyone’s brains. Before he can return their sentiments though, his eye is drawn by a flash of red and he turns in time to see the pitcher make a cup on their end. “Hey, Chinaman,” snaps a voice. “Drink up.”
Hong Yi blinks. Looks like he forgot to mess with this guy’s attempt. The glistening ball bobs in a cup in the front row. Well, rules are rules. Picking the ball out of the red plastic cup, Hong Yi tosses it to Jacob. “Sorry, liver,” he whispers, and tips the fizzing beer into his mouth.
There is this one advantage Hong Yi has over conceivably every other person he will ever meet. Quite a meaningless advantage, though, which he finds to be useful in activities as specific as shifting heavy luggage and as frivolous as winning beer pong.
As a child, he observed that things around him had a habit of either collapsing on their joints or toppling inexplicably. It was at least three years after the realisation that he was the cause of these events that the boy, now ten, learnt to control the timing and severity of these accidents.
He decided to hide the fact from others, and it was the one rule he never broke, strain as the secret did against his prudence. People would never be ready to accept something as absurd as that.
Whenever he is at the clinic, Hong Yi likes to huddle in a corner of the couch and watch the ornamental fish dart about the tank on the shelf. When no one is looking, he places a hand on the shelf’s underside and makes fish sink to the stones, grinning when their bulbous eyes dart to the face in the glass.
Bright, beautiful things. He wonders, as he is watching them gleam, how it must be to be trapped in a tiny artificial tank, so very far from the lakes where their forefathers were caught. But he does.
“I’ll go again,” he holds out an arm to stop his half-inebriated friend from taking the ball, and feels an elbow collide with his chest. He’s only had one cup, Jacob’s had five and it’s obviously not doing him any good. His eyes narrow. They’re gonna win this.
Hong Yi barely has to interfere. The little white ball bounces once off the rim of the only remaining cup, then falls right in
“You cheating–” yells the pitcher; there’s beer all over the front of his shirt. He makes a vulgar jibe about his mother, and all at once Hong Yi feels his insides turn to ice.
“Shut the fuck up,” he says.
Heloses footing for a second. “Mummy’s boy, eh?” he shouts in answer.
“Yeah,” he replies with a smirk calculated to annoy. “You say it like it’s a bad thing.”
Look at these scars, look what you did so I’d follow the path you wanted to follow, but couldn’t follow.
He has shed tears in front of his parents before—but this is the first time the tears have been for anger.
Look at all my awards, isn’t that enough for you? Aren’t you proud?
This time the slap stings deeper than the skin, and he is sent to kneel beneath the shelf of his trophies, each one an accusation.
We punish you for love, love, always love, and fear. It’s the reason your subpar grades aren’t worse, you ungrateful child.
I earned those scores myself, he thinks without any tears, I earned them because I loved to read and to learn and to know. I want to know more. More about biochemistry and invertebrates and evolution and abiogenesis and being and lightning and freedom.
I didn’t learn for you.
He says none of this. It is basic respect. Respect founded not upon the perceived infallibility of his parents, but upon his love for them.
He watches their opponents down their last cup, finally conceding that they’ve lost and their opponents are now officially members, even laughing and congratulating them, too drunk to be ashamed of defeat.
Not a second’s staring longer, Hong Yi dashes off to the toilet, two fresh cups of beer sloshing in his stomach.
“Killing me,” he gasps, slamming the door shut. Better get it out.
He reaches to touch the wall, not to steady himself but for quite the opposite. He feels himself grow weightless, lets the sickening weakness of gravity wash over him while he loses his balance. Then he flings himself forward and vomits.
The lights brighten unbearably while the gravity in his vicinity returns to normalcy and Hong Yi, slumped against the corner of the room, attempts to flush the toilet. Should have kept the puke for some future prank, he weakly thinks for a moment, before deciding no one deserves something that sick.
When he leaves the toilet, the drunkards have managed to drag each other into chairs, and a very sober Pete is waiting to take them home.
“That thing the guy said. It really grabbed your goat, didn’t it.”
It is half past eleven, and the bare streets are hauntingly pale, streetlight glowing off the tarmac. The carpark is near full end to end, from what he can see from the backseat of Pete’s car.
“How did you know? That was the calmest I was the whole night.” He tilts his head on the cushioning, trying to see through the darkness and the pressing silence, but the far-off streetlights prove insufficient.
The dashboard clock glows a quiet green, 11:00. He hears the traffic light turn green; the cars have started zipping by again.
“Yeah,” Pete says, turning his head halfway to catch a glimpse of his friend. “It’s scary when you’re calm.”
Yes, I am calm.
Chen Hong Yi knows the difference between what he wants and what he’s meant to have.
He, like the ocean, has seen and known too much. Too much dark treasure, too much spilt blood, for him to be calm knowing it.
Through a public WiFi connection, he secretly applies for a transfer to a high school in Boston, Massachusetts, and writes to his high school in interest of the same. Then, every night after, he grits his teeth and broaches the topic with his parents.
Somehow he is never met with corporal punishment, so weary of fighting have his parents grown. They hold their ground, but he advances. He digs towards the underpinnings of his parents’ beliefs.
Then he begins picking away at them, risking what he fears—like a bitter tinge at the back of his tongue—will be disownment.
He asks why some professions are preferred, why they are glorified.
Because they pay well, of course. And because it will make us proud.
Do we really need a so much money?
We need as much as we can get.
And I can get that money anywhere. I promise I can.
Promises don’t make up for lost opportunities.
I’m losing an opportunity. I’m intelligent, I’m a genius, it’s on my testimonials, it’s on all those trophies, it’s printed in my tests reports and on certificates and imprinted in the scars on my legs. I don’t care, you can’t lie to me about that. I could be good at anything.
This, he sees then, in their eyes, is the truth they were afraid he’d someday learn. That his intelligence surpasses their own. That it surpasses anything this society could device for it.
That he could, indeed, do anything, and excel in it.
He sees right through their game now, of course—they thought the fear kept him on his feet—but no, it was never fear, it was never pain, it was the eddying of froth on the edges of waves, telling a chemical story, a luminescent story, whispering a rumour, of the life beneath and how it began.
Yes, you are, they finally concede.
His eyes well up when at the listlessness on their faces, he doesn’t want them to know it hurts to watch but the hurt makes itself seen.
I promise they will want me wherever I go.
You’re not thinking this through. You could be so much more.
I could be so much—more.
Late one night in the humid, blooming, blustery red depths of summer, his parents relent, just in time for the transfer forms to be signed.
The silhouettes of the fuzzy dice intercept the faraway lights. Beneath the musk of beer and vomit the perfume of the car is still faintly perceptible. A scent like jasmine.
“I guess he did sort of piss me off,” murmurs Hong Yi, studying the unremarkable screen of his phone, as if waiting for a call that won’t arrive. “Like, he was boozed and all, but…”
“Don’t let them get to ya,” answers his friend after a pause. “I’m surprised you haven’t gotten that sort of thing before. You’ve been here for four years, right?”
“Yeah. But tonight—”
He scrolls through his message history with his mother. Nothing too personal. Mostly her asking after his health and him promising he’s fine. Even when he’s not. She’s too far now to send him to the doctor or boil him tea, and worrying her over his health will only wake livid fears she can’t soothe away–
—tonight I wish I’d never left.
Rising from his slump, he yawns and throws the car door open. “Thanks for the ride. See you.”
Pete grins in answer. “Go get some sleep, nerd,” he says.
Chen Hong Yi is a veritable genius, though no one likes to admit it.
“The goddamn nerd. Don’t know how he does it. I mean, he’s got the vocabulary of a fucking five year old. Does he sleep in the aquarium?”
“The real question is, does he sleep with the professor?”
Apparently someone has made the top of the list again. People are already joking about hammering a plaque with his name to the top of the notice board.
He decides he will take part in this self-glorifying exercise, and suggests the plaque be made of gold. Then he asks a classmate if she’d like to borrow his pen for that form she needs to fill, extending the item in her direction.
Hilarity ensues as she stiffens and shrieks, letting go.
“Shocking, eh?” he chortles. “Sorry, do you actually need a pen? ‘Cause you can have this one.” He flings her the one in his pocket. This one is not rigged with an electrical circuit. He’ll keep the special one for himself, in case someone needs it in future.
Today is a good day. Five great (and totally unnecessary) Facebook posts, and one-third of Homestuck under his belt. Crazy stuff, that. He dearly hopes there’s no weird time/space shit going on in his vicinity—the world’s complicated enough as it is.
Flicking at the curtain, Hong Yi is met by dull grey sky, thick as pudding. He groans and thrusts a hand under his desk to snatch a book off the top of the stack. Summer is on the brink of beginning. He’s got the air tickets. His luggage is packed under the bed.