The Decision

There are so many ways that society monitors and controls women’s bodies. PiMam’s family had determined how she could and could not use her body in relationships. Now, economic necessity was undoing my own bid for freedom.

Every morning I woke to the sound of the kitchen hood rumbling to life. My mugs rattled on their shelves. The morning sun slanted through Venetian blinds furred with dust. My room still smelled of pad thai sauce, no matter how many candles I burned.

I had lived above the restaurant for nine months. And I didn’t belong there.

I had to go home.

I could give you a dozen other reasons I had to leave:

I had applied to more than twenty jobs and landed none of them. The thousands I’d had in savings had dwindled to a few hundred dollars. I had bussed tables and, briefly, worked as a receptionist in a dental office, and I had failed miserably at both.

Top had landed me the dental office job and never explained how.  The dentist was a Thai-American man who became enraged when I handed a bottle of water to a grandmother and the grandson she was raising on Medicaid. “That’s for our paying patients,” he said and slammed the mini-fridge. His constant, low-level rage and easy condemnation of others’ hardships reminded me of my father. He was sleeping with the other receptionist, a married Thai woman with whom I would eventually trade shifts. When she introduced me to their filing system, she asked me sweetly, like I was mentally disabled, “You know the English alphabet, na?”

I lasted less than a week.

After nine months, it was clear to me that there was no such thing as unskilled labor. At 22, it was equally clear that I was a failure and an embarrassment. I knew I would never make it as a waitress or a barista or a cashier. My mental math was too slow. I had once memorized every bone in the body for college anatomy, yet I could not retain menus and cash register processes.

And I was still depressed. Still traumatized. None of that had been treated. None of it had improved, and it was disabling.

All of that is true.

But the deepest truth is that I didn’t belong there and never would.

I had learned about the profound loneliness of people cut off from their communities and their culture, the pain of being an immigrant, an outsider, a foreigner. I cannot see an immigrant now without feeling the echo of that old loneliness. For nine months, I experienced a crumb of that hopeless ache for home—hopeless because there was no going back.

I had not even brushed up against racism. But I did know what it was to be seen as Other. As the not-normal one. It was very different from the not-normal I had been in my suburban neighborhood, where I had blasted Indian ragas from my window and danced allegros on the front lawn and brought home a Thai boyfriend. There, I had been eccentric. I had been a curiosity—exciting for my more liberal neighbors, consternating for the conservative ones. But still, I had been white among other white people. American among other Americans. A young person among adults.

At the restaurant, I had been an adult among other adults, and neither my nationality, my race, my native language, nor my skill set were the norm. I wasn’t just fringe or counterculture. I truly did not belong. I made friends, but I knew the friendships mattered more to me than they did to the people I befriended. Everyone else was surrounded by cousins, friends, and significant others. Ashamed of my situation, embarrassed by what I told myself were my profound failures, I distanced myself from old friends who had known me before my father’s sexual assault, before my green card marriage to Top. And, for many years, I continued to distance myself from anyone I feared disappointing or being judged or misunderstood by. I only had a job at all because of nepotism. I had traded the possibility of marrying someone else someday for the chance to move out of my father’s house now. I had given Top a green card, and that counted for a little bit. But not enough to sustain my presence in the Thai community indefinitely.

With poetic justice, I was regarded in exactly the way liberal Americans, including myself up to that point, often view immigrants: as innocent and child-like people who must be indulged and protected. Victims of circumstance who, despite skills and intelligence, are fundamentally lacking, less-than, needy. It was maddening.

This is not to say that was how every Thai person I met viewed me. But it was how the culture, as a whole, viewed me. And I got tired.

This is the real truth, the deepest one:

I got tired of being Othered.

And, as a white American, I could choose to give up that particular type of marrow-sucking tired.

So I did.

I could have gone on accepting handouts, relying on the charity of a few Thai people to keep me safe from my predatory father. Or I could broker a deal with my abuser and use what remained of my race and class privilege to move toward greater financial security in the long-term. Both options were unacceptable. I knew that even then. But only one could offer me a future.

I asked my mother about the possibility. She assured me that my father would resume paying my tuition if I moved home. And I promised myself it would only be seven more months.

I also promised myself that if my father tried anything again, this time I wouldn’t just stand there and take it. This time I would get in a good punch at least. I would show him.

But it was only the fantasy of a frightened, naïve 22-year-old. I still didn’t understand sexual assault. I thought it was something I could reason men out of. I thought, foolishly, that even though men like my father could not be bothered to acknowledge my “no” or notice my startled silences, they would somehow hear my patient explanations and back off. If I used just the right words in the right order, I believed I could cast an enchantment that would keep me safe.

In the nine months since my father’s assault, everything had changed. But the most damaging change, the most lasting one, was my perception of the future. Once, I had drawn a clear line from degree to certificate to teaching position. I had even been able to see myself doing everything my professors suggested—earning a Ph.D. in French, majoring in mathematics, becoming an astronomer, or running a psychology lab. Unlike most of the women I knew, I would have a career.

Now, everything was scaled back. This was a grocery run, in and out. I dropped my minor in education. There would be no teaching certificate, no master’s degree. Even a career was doubtful now. I had only one goal: get out. This time, for good. This time, under my own power. I would pick up my degree, grab some professional references, rebuild my savings, get a paying position at a library or bookstore, and move out on my own. I would not take risks. I would not apply for jobs unless I was sure to get them. I would stop wasting time.

Imagining a future for myself, forging a path to a writing career—these had been a waste of time.

In and out, I told myself.

If PiMam could go back and face her parents, then so could I.

Heaving my last two garbage bags of clothes into the restaurant hallway, I stood in the doorway of that cramped, sauce-stained room. This was it. I searched my body for tight-throated sorrow, or the sudden buoyancy of relief. But I felt nothing. I was leaving, and that was all. Maybe I had absorbed some of PiMam’s pragmatism after all.

I handed Top the key, and we shut the door behind us.

I never expected to return.

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