By Zi Ning Lau
There is distance. Not the kind that is measured in meters or inches. Not the type that can be dictated by typed out numbers or the lines on a chart. This distance is greater than the space between planets, but yet, goes more unnoticed than the gradual setting of the sun. This type of distance holds weight that cannot be felt. This distance never stops increasing, until it is seen. Unlike the space between Earth and Mars, or the miles between New York and California, this distance, this space, fills everything. It is ubiquitous.
It is present in the uneasiness that settles into the pit of my stomach as my grandma’s voice crackles through the speakers of my phone. It is unacknowledged, but observed, separating us when the phrases she had just recited in fluent Cantonese stumble uncomfortably off my tongue. It takes the form of my stutters, awkward pauses, and the words that slip my mind while I speak to my grandpa, telling him about my day. It intoxicates the stale classroom air during third period, as I sit in Chinese class, learning what is my “native language.” This distance is found between my sister and I, as I chastise her for responding to a question I’ve asked through Chinese, in English. It is evident in the way she mispronounces the simplest of Chinese phrases. Using the wrong tones, her speech sounds similar to one of a caucasian beginner— tinged with her American accent and riddled with uncertainty. During her monthly phone calls with our grandparents, I watch in the corner as she fails to find the correct translations that fit the narratives she had initially formulated in English.
This distance snickers in the back of my mind as I converse with my mom, substituting English for the words I can’t seem to recall in Chinese. It laughs at the ways in which I can understand the dialects often spoken by my elders, but always fail to speak them myself. It inflicts guilt within me as I whisper to my mom in Chinese, partly because I don’t want my non-Chinese-speaking white friends to hear. It rolls its eyes as I forget the proper way to greet my parents on the morning of Chinese New Year. This distance contradicts itself. It makes me ashamed of my ignorance regarding my culture, as it simultaneously makes me feel shameful of my culture itself. It is the voice that reminds me: “Don’t forget where you’ve come from.” It is also the whisper that suggests, “Don’t you think they’d rather hear English instead?”
This distance doesn’t only sit on my shoulders alone. It introduces itself when the lady who sits next to me on the train frowns, her eyes alternating glances from my very Asian face to the “American” embroidered into the school logo of my sweatshirt. This space enlarges every time a taxi driver fails to hide their surprise when an American-accented English reads out my desired destination. It deepens when they nonchalantly ask intrusive questions regarding my family’s wealth status, our lineage, my childhood, and other personal topics.
Part of me acknowledges that the space between these two worlds will never be closed. Maybe this distance will forever be meant to instill feelings of uneasiness and disappointment. However, with time, I’ve come to realize that even if this distance cannot be erased, it can be made smaller. It can be made so minuscule that it cannot be measured by rulers or written out in numbers. It can become so infinitesimally little that it is more unnoticed than the same waning and waxing of the moon. Despite its presence, it can be overlooked.
There is distance.
Zi Ning (Zi) Lau is currently a sophomore attending Singapore American School. If she’s not writing, she can be found running around on a basketball court, playing the guitar in the band room, or composing songs in her bedroom. She loves hugs, fuzzy socks, blue dinosaurs, dad jokes, and mashed potatoes.