2009 Short Story Winners
FIRST PRIZE: [Girl Undefined] by Bettina
SECOND PRIZE: Perspective by Stephanie
THIRD PRIZE: Korean School by Kayoung
First Prize 2009 Short Story Contest
[Girl Undefined] by Bettina, Taiwan/Germany/America, Age 17
It definitely wasn’t a night you wanted to be taking a driving lesson. Though still relatively early, the winter-induced darkness already lay thickly over Worcester, and a heavy, frigid rain hammered down on the windshield of the already roughed up car. Not to mention I had a driving instructor I’d never met before, and I could think of a million places I’d rather be. Shifting into drive with a barely audible sigh, I grudgingly started my ninth lesson.
It’d been a couple of minutes before the instructor struck up a conversation. The guy was talkative, if anything.
“So I heard your dad’s accent earlier…he’s not from around here, is he?”
I shook my head, smiling, perhaps a bit wryly. This is usually how the conversation started. People noticed that my parents were foreign, but more often than not upon first glance most people can usually tell that I’m “mixed”. (Don’t ask me why.)
“No, he’s from Germany”, I replied, flicking on my signal to turn. The instructor nodded. Sensing his next question, I quickly added, “And my mom’s from Taiwan.” I swear I could hear the gears clicking.
“Oh!” he started, “Well that’s certainly an interesting mix. You don’t hear about that every day…”
Focusing my eyes on the slick road, I couldn’t help but think, “Yes. It is. Congratulations, you’re the five-thousandth person to have said that.”
Cruising on the highway into Worcester, he asked yet another question, “So if your dad’s German and your mom’s Taiwanese…where’d they meet then?” Probably the second most-common question I’m asked, my answer was at the ready.
“Oh they met in China…in a university lab. He was visiting from a lab in Germany and she was studying for her degree at the lab in China. They’re both scientists.” And at this point in the conversation most people ask “so…where were you born then?” And as if on cue, that’s exactly what he asked next.
I suppose it’s a logical enough question. Reflexively, I answered with "Here in America. Boston, actually....” And by this point a lot of people are somewhat perplexed. Contemplative, the instructor asked "So...I guess that makes you American, then?"
Aha. The million-dollar question. (No really. If I had a dollar for every time this has come up, I'd be swimming in a fortune far larger than Bill Gates') Was I an American? What exactly defined "American"? Too bad there really aren’t any lifelines to help me pick the right answer, if there even is a right answer.
I generally like to answer that statement with a loose and somewhat noncommital "Sure...I guess you could say that..." so as to leave the question open-ended and not quite defined.
For that is precisely what I am. Undefined.
"We are Siamese...we are Siamese...we are..." So. They were at it again, chanting their little tune and pulling at the outer corners of their beady little eyes taut while singing their irritating jingle.
Of course I recognized the song from the movie The Lady and the Tramp, though, as young as I was, I also realized they were singing it at me, not to mention they were singing it all wrong and, contrary to popular belief, I was not Siamese. Not Japanese. Not Korean. Not Vietnamese. And I wasn't even full Taiwanese.
“I’m half-German and half-Taiwanese,” I thought indignantly to myself, averting my eyes from the offenders, casting them downward. As well, my eyes didn’t have the classic almond-shape that people so often associate with those from the Far East, which is why I couldn't understand why they would be making fun of me.
Looking back I realize it was a miniscule incident, but at that point in my life all I wanted to be was normal. Be like everyone else who went to Girl Scouts or ate pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving. Granted, I wasn’t really interested in selling cookies and I don’t even like pumpkin pie, but nevertheless for some reason I associated those activities with being normal. Alas, I was the kid who went to Chinese school on Sundays, read German children’s books and ate tofu like it was my job. In short, there wasn’t anything particularly “American” about my upbringing. I grew up learning multiple languages. I had a Chinese live-in nanny for a time. I ate peculiar, foreign foods. I went halfway across the world for various family events. There wasn’t any other word for it. Compared with other kids, I was just weird.
It also didn’t help that for the longest time I considered myself “too Asian” to fit in Germany, but “too Western” as they call it, to fit in Taiwan. Yet, obviously I wasn’t “American” (whatever that meant) because people could clearly tell that I was “mixed” when they looked at me (or else I wouldn’t have to go through the same spiel every time I met someone new).
And the question still stands. What exactly am I? Truthfully, I still don’t know. I guess if you want to get into the really fancy terms, according to jus sanguinis, or “right of the blood” citizenship is not determined by place of birth but by the citizenship of the parent(s). That would make me whatever my parents are. On the other hand, jus soli, or “right of the soil” dictates that your citizenship is determined by place of birth. Which I guess would make me American. I have two passports; an American one and a German one. I have two parents; each of foreign birth, whose radically different cultures and languages have shaped me into who I am today. So, tell me, what does that make me?
I guess for now, I’d prefer to stay undefined.
Bettina on Life Between Cultures: What is the hardest thing about balancing two cultures? Hard question. Maybe not fully "fitting in" to either culture. Or maybe the questions about my background that ALWAYS stem from my "mixed" appearance. Though I am happy to have a "unique" look, when I was younger and schoolmates/kids/etc. were more ignorant, there were negative references to my so-called "Asian" eyes (followed by kids tugging at the corners of their eyes to mimic the so-called "almond-eye-shape"), or, as I´ve experienced on a few occasions, someone would throw out a very uncalled-for, hurtful and inappropriate "Nazi" comment, just because they found out my dad is German, and my siblings and I are half-German.
What is the best thing about being an immigrant? I don´t refer to myself as an immigrant, per se; but both of my parents are (Mum from Taiwan, Dad from Germany) and I definitely relate more to the Taiwanese/Chinese and German culture because we´ve maintained traditions from mom and dad´s respective cultures/countries and travel to visit our extended family that still live in Taiwan and Germany. So, the best thing about being raised in a multicultural household/with immigrant parents is that you get to experience things that other people generally don´t: growing up learning multiple languages, having the opportunity to travel alot to visit family all around the world, having two passports/dual citizenship, having people say you look "mixed"...I really do love it.
Second Prize 2009 Short Story Contest
Perspective by Stephanie, China/America, Age 13
It seemed to be such an innocent title… Animal Farm…the very name evoked pleasant memories of third-grade afternoons spent perusing Charlotte’s Web and the smell of hay.
My English teacher had given us the usual introduction. “It’s by George Orwell,” she mentioned. “An eye-opening masterpiece,” she called it. “We’re not reading it, but the movie’s almost as good.”
Thus, we had high expectations, and when the lights were dimmed and the windows were shuttered tight, we all became silent, our breaths taut with anticipation as one… Then the thunderstorm rolled about. The TV was transformed into a scene of utter disarray…and a sign, splattered with white paint, reading “Animal Farm”, falling, falling abruptly from its post. What unfolded in front of us was clearly chaos, and yet we were enraptured. We gasped when the puppies were stolen and turned into Napoleon’s henchmen, were shocked when Snowball was exiled, and ground our teeth with fury when noble Boxer was shipped off and turned into glue.
When the movie was all said and done, I hardly knew what to say. I was stunned speechless, and was bewildered when my teacher asked, “What does Orwell tell society through Animal Farm?”
Deep inside, I knew the answer. Part of me longed to yield and to raise my hand, yet another half of me held back. The reserved side won. I didn’t speak.
They said that communism was a black orchid, sapping all sanity and inducing ruin in countries that would’ve went perfectly otherwise. My peers pointed to Russia on the map on one side of the classroom. “That used to be the Soviet Union!” one of my classmates declared, tall and sure.
Another remarked, “Well, it was Communist, and that’s why it fell.”
Inside, my mind was screaming, And what of China? This contradicts everything my parents say!
China was the home of my parents before they came to America to chase after the American dream and a better future for their children. Currently, my family still feels connected China. We watch Chinese broadcasting, and my sister and I go to Chinese school, learning how to read, write, and appreciate Chinese.
Then, someone asked the very question that I was pondering. My heart dropped when I heard the answer – sinking like a bowling ball in a pool of muddy rainwater. “Well,” someone shrugged, “As you saw in the movie, Communism is very easy for leaders to take advantage of. They have too much access to resources and they thirst for more. Corruption follows swiftly.”
I went home that day, pondering. I had always known that Americans had no love for the Soviet Union (having fought them in the Cold War), but I never realized it was so severe.
And then I remembered how the people in my class had hated Chairman Mao, the leader who founded communist China. My family revered him, as he had let them – simple farmers living in rural villages – become college graduates, company directors, allowed them to hold careers better than they initially hoped.
My father tells me that no government is completely good or entirely bad – I agree. You cannot consider one government “good” and another “evil”, because within a nation there is at least one rebel for every patriot that resides there. It is a matter of perspective.
When I reminded my parents of several Chinese revolutions that went wrong and resulted in the unjust prosecution of hundreds, they merely told me that Chairman Mao had become befuddled in his old age. I didn’t push it further –he is their George Washington.
As with many other things, people are both good and bad. Take myself, for example. For though now I try to be as virtuous as possible, as a toddler, I eagerly told lies to anyone who could listen to me. Because of this, I am morally neutral.
Regarding communism, I believe that it, too, is neither completely honorable nor utterly base. In my opinion, it is both. Chairman Mao may have misused it in the Cultural Revolution, when he encouraged Chinese youth to burn historical records – but in establishing a stable government, he provided equality. As with all things, you have to take both the good and the bad, because, let’s face it; we humans are far from perfect.
And while I’ll never find myself telling this to my English class, I think I’ve found a happy medium between the Chinese and American views.
Today I release myself from this epiphany – the chains fall, letting go – now, finally, there is a sense of understanding, and, beneath it all, the unmistakable hum of my mind as I am finally content.
Stephanie on Life Between Cultures: Something that I find very hard is that I feel as if I am not Chinese, but not quite American either. I am some sort of strange hybrid, something in between - an ABC (American Born Chinese). To my relatives in China, I look Chinese, I can speak Chinese, and yet I do not act Chinese. I don't spend the night studying calculus or memorizing page after page of ancient, haunting, and eloquent poems.
To Americans, I am some exotic amalgam — a nerd who studies and gets A's, wears not-skinny-but-tight jeans, and loves reading — and they don't understand me, even as English rolls off of my tongue when I open my mouth and I pretend to not notice them staring, giggling, from what seems to be so far, far away...
But I still don't resent being American Born Chinese; in fact, most of the time, it instills a fierce sense of pride in me. I am proud of being Chinese- American, and I feel grateful that my parents came to America. It makes me feel that I am part of two worlds, American and Chinese, and I'm glad that I have a little bit of both. I can have a look from both perspectives...I can see the world with different eyes.
Third Prize 2009 Short Story Contest
Korean School by Kayoung, South Korea/America, Age 14
Every Saturday, I would sit in the brightly-lit classroom, staring down at my textbook, the frenzy of black ink strokes colliding into each other in confusion, causing a crazy traffic accident desperately needing some help.
Minutes would go by with me flipping pages, and writing in the margins, “I was here October 23.” As the teacher’s viscous words dribbled out of her mouth, I would slump in my seat and draw caricatures of students in my classroom. Korean school was nothing that could possibly interest me. My friend and I would have heated arguments about how our parents were wasting money sending us off to Korean school every Saturday. It was three hours and ten minutes of our glorious gold-paved Saturdays gone to waste.
My dislike for Korean most likely sputtered from my lack of confidence. In my faint memories exist the times my teacher asked me, “Can you tell the class the story, Kayoung?” I would mutter a couple of words until the conversation transitioned subtly to another classmate.
I remember the Friday nights I moaned and groaned about the Korean school homework that I had in front of me, and how I didn’t want to go to Korean school the next day. Friday nights—nights I could be spending watching a movie or playing with my friends—were filled with the hours I spent dozing off under the watchful gaze of the lamp’s narrow streak of light. Even after having fun at a school dance, I would have to drag myself to the dreaded Korean homework. I recall the moments that I was so unwilling to do the reading comprehension multiple choice questions that I took out the answer key and jotted down a couple of the answers—until my conscience tugged at my hand and told me to reread the passage a few more times. It was frustrating because I couldn’t understand what they were asking me, and the dictionary made even less sense. If I asked my parents, they would refer me to the dictionary, if I searched the dictionary, it would refer me to a string of definition after definition until I forgot the word I was actually finding the definition of. And so many Fridays went.
The last year of Korean school I came to the sudden understanding that this was for the SATs. I brought myself to believe that this was what Korean school was about—the SAT II I would be taking freshman year. I finally began to take to heart the homework, and spent some time memorizing and preparing myself for quizzes, even going out to a speech contest and writing contest. But just as January came into view, Korean school came to an abrupt halt.
When I realized that Korean school was finally over, a part of me was ecstatic, but a part of me figured out that this part of my identity I could find every Saturday. I realized that this whole time I was actually looking forward to those Saturdays. Those Saturdays that I spent with my Korean friends, Saturdays I spent listening to my Korean teacher lecture about Korean history, Saturdays I spent hearing the lively chatter of Korean moms. It was then that I finally comprehended that the link to my culture had been so valuable to me, and I had just let it go by. I finally comprehended that among the densely Asian population at my school, I wasn’t just Asian, and that I was Korean. Although when I reminisce my days at Korean School, I wish I had been a better, more dedicated student, I think more about those delicious rice-cakes we ate on New Year’s and played Yutnolee together in our small, brightly-lit classroom…
Kayoung on Life Between Cultures: I think the hardest thing about balancing two cultures is knowing where your heart truly lies. I sometimes feel out of place, often lost between two worlds. I never feel wholly korean, neither do I ever feel wholly American. Although I often find myself pulled towards the west-end of the magnet, when it comes to feeling at home, I can't help but rest my head near the soft click-clacking of my parents' voices or the reluctance to move on to the next episode of a drama.
But as I've grown up in the United States, I've come to realize the privilege of having a double identity. Maybe I don't show it, but whenever I raise my hand to show that I speak another language from a different country, when I recognize Korean music being played, when I hear people fervently chatting about last night's drama and how the ending brought tears to their eyes, and when I occasionally brush past a parent scolding in Korean to her child, I want to shout, "Hey, I'm Korean too!". That's when I realize the greater reward in being a part of two cultures that can be so different, but so alike.