You cannot have Don McLean without “American Pie,” just as you cannot have my childhood without music from the 1970s. My parents attended a Don McLean concert when they were impossibly young. They said it was just him onstage, singing with his guitar. My parents’ halcyon days were luminous in the era of Joan Baez and ABBA. I was raised on a diet of folk rock, Frank Sinatra, and classical music. My mother would drive me to school and sing along to “Dancing Queen” at each stoplight.
I first heard “American Pie” on my father’s car radio. I did not know that Buddy Holly died in a plane crash, nor that Meredith Hunter was stabbed to death while listening to the Rolling Stones. But something in the music caught me by the hair and dragged me underwater. The lyrics were incomprehensible to me at the time, but I knew even then that I wanted to be Miss American Pie. Miss American Pie could have been one of the delicious French silk concoctions my mother bought for me at the store. She also could have been me. I certainly believed in rock and roll. I read Marx. I slow danced with a girl in college, though we kept our shoes on. I was not in love with her, and she knew. Neither of us cared.
But I am not Miss American Pie, not anymore. You cannot be Miss American Pie if you are not an American, you know.
I have tried, very desperately, to be a second-rate Midwesterner. But I will always be Chinese, even though I am only Chinese in the sense that people will still ask me if I will ever go “home” to see my birth parents. As though I do not murder them in my dreams; as though I could face them, suffused with hatred. It is their fault that I cannot be Miss American Pie. Well, I finished what they began: whatever remains of me as a young girl has been eradicated by obsessive revulsion.
When people ask me if I would like to search for my birth parents, I say that it would be practically impossible. I was not abandoned through legitimate means. I was simply dropped off on the steps of a hospital. Miss American Pie was not even given a proper name.
I will rarely admit it, but I also do not wish to search for them because I am afraid. I am afraid that they had good reasons for leaving me. I am afraid that they do not remember me. But most of all, I am afraid that I have a brother, and thus I must commit the unforgivable crime of fratricide. All the Greek tragedies say it must be so.
Stories never lie, though they are often very cruel. Just like me.
One hot summer in New York City, I bought an American Pie record from a man who asked me where I was from.
I said, Nebraska.
And he said, No, what is your nationality. As though I were not an American but an invasive species, a carrion beetle with ruby-red lipstick and ruby-red wings.
I wanted to say, Well, my family is from Denmark. I used to be white, until a tragic accident—
But instead I said, China, because that is the only thing I know how to say anymore, even though it is the least convincing of my lies.
Thankfully, I am a very good liar. I have a Chinese name, but it is the name from an orphanage with a ninety-percent death rate, so it is not really my name. I could be the Thin White Duchess, for all I know. I have a Chinese face, but it is marred by freckles and an acid expression. Still, I will pretend that these are mine until I can shed them, until I have an exoskeleton as glossy as my tangled hair.
I walked off with my record clenched in one hand. Afterwards, I tried to cry, but found that I could not. It is too late for crying in the shower, tearing out my wet hair. I have not done such a thing since high school; it is, frankly, quite childish of me.
I accumulated many items after I moved to New York, but I sent that vinyl to a friend as a birthday gift. The music has not died in me yet. I have titled essays after the Animals and I can sing arias in Italian. Perhaps these things make me different than the other Asian girls that populate the Midwest. Do we all dance alone in our rooms to the Beach Boys? Are we fated to perish with awkward laughter when a man says we should visit his personal website on Asian issues, simply because we stopped by to buy a vinyl record?
I wanted to be Miss American Pie so deeply. I still have a brutal desire to be an American, to be buried in America. I did my best to fulfill this destiny. I dutifully recited the Pledge of Allegiance every day in school. For years, I set off fireworks and ate barbecued hot dogs on the Fourth of July.
I am old enough now to drink my fill of bitterness. It is a terrible thing, to realize that you must give up a portion of yourself to survive, to willingly feed your history to the vultures because it is all you have to offer. Nothing became of those rituals I conducted dutifully in the backyard, with carnage and gunpowder and indecisive patriotism. I was only as American as the Chinese firecrackers I lit on fire each year. And those, like the rest of me, were gone in a moment. A brief, beautiful spark—and then nothing at all.
I worked at a department store for a few months to pay for college. I was ringing up some overpriced shirts when a blonde woman who looked a bit like my mother asked, I know this is rude, but are you from America? You don’t speak English with an accent.
I’m adopted, I said. From China.
Oh, she said. Well, you’re very beautiful.
I did not feel very beautiful after she said that.
Perhaps she was attempting to apologize, in the way my aunt asks me if I want a Chinese painting she owns and then implies that I am not a real member of the family. My grandmother has Japanese neighbors, and she gives their children little presents when they scoop snow for her. The two little Japanese girls next door tell my grandmother that she must be very rich, because she has given them sixty-five dollars in the last year.
My grandfather still fondly remembers being taught to shoot Japanese people, but of course, what does this matter? When you have an Asian granddaughter, all sins are excused. When you tell an Asian woman she is very beautiful, she must smile and say, Thank you, and act as though she has not been slapped in the face.
There is nothing like being young in New York. Nothing at all.
There is nothing like dying in the Midwest either, I tell people. I could have filled my kimono sleeves with rocks and drowned myself in the Missouri, but my corpse would have still held the water of the Huang He in its mouth. Where do they bury the women who die on two continents? Do they cut our bodies into pieces and throw us into the sea?
I know this is probably a personal thing, my cousin says, but why are you studying Japanese? Shouldn’t it be Chinese?
A great ocean separates me from Asia; it separates me from my cousin’s wide European smile. When I see her and the pretty cheerleaders from my high school, I recognize the real Miss American Pies of the world—I can have “Silver Dagger” for my lonely heartbreak, but I am doomed to be Miss Moon Cake, Miss Pâté Chinois.
My friend jokes that I am Empress Wu reincarnated, with all of her spite intact. Yet I want so very much to be kind. I have set myself on fire too many times to count, in the hopes that I will emerge cloaked in white ash, immortal after all these years of constant burning.
I tried to respond to my cousin sincerely, with the truth: I am running from being Chinese. I still want to be Miss American Pie. But I had nothing to say to her about my failures, except that I was once good until I left Nanning, and now I can never be good again.
Malcolm X was born in Omaha, Nebraska. He left soon after. I read an article about a man only seven years younger than my father, who would wander through downtown Lincoln in Nazi garb. He was nicknamed the “Farm Belt Führer.” I will laugh at these things, but I am no longer shocked. Shock, I decided when I was young, was the mark of lessened sophistication. Who is not kicked around by their family every once in awhile?
There is a certain kind of destiny for people of color in Nebraska. When my Indian doctor tells me that no one knows what to do with nonwhite people here, I know that he is not lying.
The Grand Dragon of Nebraska, Larry Trapp, later converted to Judaism and renounced white supremacy. But racial minorities cannot renounce their bodies, though I have tried many times over. My aunt dislikes the Sudanese refugees who live here, and I can only think of how my great-grandfather left Denmark and came to America only a century ago. Some members of my grandmother’s family lived in Bavaria, and they were annihilated by an art school reject. They did not have the chance to become refugees.
Well, these things are irrelevant now. I have lived for twenty years in the same family, and some of them still mispronounce my name.
My family immigrated here from Denmark almost a century ago. I must immigrate to New York, in search of something better than the land of cheap paperbacks. I barely had to act when I read the part of Lady Macbeth in high school English: my family is from Laertes’ hometown, after all. More importantly, I was already possessed by faultless ambition, the variety that leads to either success or murder.
Joan Didion writes about leaving New York, her home for many years, and claims that it is “a city only for the very young.” A part of me is inclined to agree, simply because I came to New York City at seventeen, and now at twenty-one I find myself too old for New York.
New York is the quintessential American city; Ellis Island is the place where everyone goes to finally become an American. I must kill my younger self and go east to a place that measures time by the pigeons that hatch in Central Park. There is something inside me that has died and I must bury it there, with what remains of my heart.
I do not drink gin and rye, and I have never driven a Chevrolet. Perhaps this is why I cannot be Miss American Pie, and not for all those other reasons I have listed that make me rage endlessly. The beauty pageant contestant Nina Davuluri was crowned Miss New York and then Miss America in 2013. Though she is Indian, she was showered with tweets about Al-Qaeda. What is more Miss American Pie than being called a terrorist on the Internet?
American freedom is a peculiar kind of freedom. When you do not tear off your yellow skin and slanty eyes to worship it, it turns on you like a spurned lover. It throws out your love letters in a foreign language. It will eat you but it will not eat your perfectly American food: bánh mì, lassi, bibimbap.
Who is Miss American Pie, even? Is she the spirit of the 1970s who taught my parents to dance? Why is she leaving, and why do we bid her farewell?
I said a fond goodbye to my parents at the Columbia gates, but even this valediction is not as final as the goodbye to my American-ness. If there is something rotten in the state of Nebraska, it is me, who says goodbye to various parts of herself on a daily basis. I must be Chinese for the man selling me records, and not a woman and not an American; I must be Miss American Pie to please a family that can never be sated.
Disowning myself is second nature. I disinherit myself at Christmastime and during spring break. I disown myself when a college girl I barely know tells me in an elevator that she has “thought about adopting” and as she says this I know she means she wants to rescue those little Chinese babies that she sees in me, in my politely dead smile.
I must finish the story my mother started, but girls in elevators do not want stories that do not have a proper ending. Too bad. I am always burying my own body, in a roadside ditch at the border of Nanning.
There is something wrong with me, something I was born without, and once I realize what it is I can finally be perfect. Tell me how lucky and beautiful I am, girl in the elevator. I sliced off my skin for you. Just for you, my darling. My sweet pea, my American pie.
When my father told me I would no longer be expected to come home for Christmas, I cannot even begin to describe my terrible elation. I say that I do not go home during fall and spring break because plane tickets halfway across the country are expensive. I must pay a very high price to have a photo on my grandmother’s fridge. To eat at the same dinner table with a man who once asked me if there were many “queers” in New York, and if my Muslim friend was a raghead. I pay for these things with resentment that cuts me like the edge of a fine diamond.
In Nanning, my family would be free.
I do not live in Nanning anymore.
We had a nice pride parade this past year. I went down to Christopher Street and took photos, where the spirit of Stonewall breathed heavy on my neck. I am not brave enough to march, though maybe one day I will.
I came to New York planning to become a poet, but when I arrived I was not Miss American Pie, and certainly not Allen Ginsberg. I turned into a nonfiction writer by accident. Gregor Samsa woke up as a beetle. One morning I woke up looking like shit and read some James Baldwin.
In Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin declares that he has “discovered the weight of white people in the world.” I used to believe that this applied to me, that my limbs strained under the pressure to possess a blank face and a blank body, upon which I could inscribe my fantasies: to be have blue eyes like my mother, to never hear the question, “Oh, is that your daughter?” ever again.
But it is not whiteness that weighs me down these days, but the bitterness of a woman who was not allowed to be truly young for very long. I receive obscene propositions from men now with a wide, carnivorous smile, but it was not always this way. Once a boy attempted to apologize for threatening to fuck my wet pussy, and all I could think of in response was the sound a television makes when it cannot find a channel.
I was mistaken for a Chinese exchange student in high school, so now I bury myself under a mountain of Ancient Greek to allay the suspicion that I am not Miss American Pie. There is nothing more American than worshiping the Hellenic philosophers. You can see eight of them emblazoned on the façade of Columbia’s library. I have read all except Herodotus, Aristotle, and Demosthenes in the original language.
If I must be made bitter by a lost adolescence, then let me be bitter with the Greeks, I decided. Let me be bitter with the stabbing and the homosexual subtext and the ferocious wrath of Achilles.
There is no room for the Midwestern Medea at my family’s dinner table, nor a fraudulent Most Likely to Succeed, Class of 2013. Even if I am well-educated and know a bit about football, even if I speak English and sing along to Joan Baez. I must say goodbye to all my hopes of being the prettiest girl in Nebraska, Miss American Pie.
I used to have an entire shelf of trophies in high school, but I recently told my mother to throw them away. If I had a prom queen crown I would have kept it. But I did not.
This is the final, dreadful irony: my aunt brings a pecan pie to our Christmas Eve celebration.
Will you cut it, please? she asks.
I pick up the knife. And I slice. I slice. I slice.