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 The Distance Between Our Desks
One late-August evening I walked into our dorm bathroom to the cacophony of Gary Chaw’s Bei Pan and Jay Chou’s Fa Ru Xue. Hearing the two pop titans of my childhood clash behind that skin-colored shower curtain, I thought for a second that I was
back in the motherland. Bei Pan was closer to any pop song one might hear on American radio stations, while Fa Ru Xue was distinctly Chinese—the Tang Dynasty sentiments in its lyrics, the implementation of traditional Chinese instruments, and Jay’s opera voice at the song’s climax. I had no idea how the guy managed to mesh the two together, but I was terrified by his voice. If it weren’t for the poetry in the lyrics,
I would’ve thought some guy was trying to imitate a baby’s cry.
I tip-toed to the shower stall next to his and set my towel on the hanger. Apart from his singing, the place was more peaceful than usual on a late Friday eve- ning. The toilets on my way in resembled home toilets for the first time, lacking the usual guys clinging onto their seats and vomiting. The sinks were vacant, without traces of usage except for the dots of blue toothpastes on the faucets and dried prints of water droplets on the mirrors. Gradually a ghost story sur- rounding a college dorm bathroom surfaced in my mind to entertain my back scrubbing and distract my larynx from vibrating in sync with his.
Then came the song’s climax. It came with more adrenaline than any man could ever come. I sprayed shampoo all over my hair, moved like a gorilla, pull- ing my fist towards and away from my lips like a microphone, as I chimed in with my broken falsetto, “Jin jin xiang yi de xin ru he say good bye!” Then he stopped singing, immediately. Silence ensued for
the next minute and a half. The moment his rein- deer slippers emerged from the curtains, I knew he wasn’t a Chinese international student. He was Jason Minjun Kim, the Korean who shared a room with me every night.
I still remember our first encounter by our floor lounge on move-in day. It was a slimy mid-August afternoon in upstate New York. We had shaken hands and introduced ourselves.
“Are you Chinese?” I asked.
I knew I had breached the unspoken rule of Asian
American communities—that it’s rude to assume another Asian’s heritage based on his or her phy- siques. He looked Chinese and Korean. I only called him Chinese because the majority of Asians around me were Chinese, and deep inside, it’s a bias I hoped he would confirm—my new roommate could speak my mother tongue. It was an ignorant and stereo- typical decision I deeply regretted. He had a fringe haircut, the bangs covering half of his forehead. He also had a round jaw, prominent double eyelids, and a large widow’s peak beneath his bangs, which was visible whenever he stretched his lower lip
to blow his hair like some cool middle schooler.
He wore a light pink shirt, tidy white shorts, and a pair of black slip-on sneakers with short socks that exposed his ankles. His fashion resembled that of some of my Korean friends while his facial features were quite ambiguous, almost like a mix of all Asian faces.
“I’m actually Korean,” he said. He had this bewildered look as if I’d accused him of communism by calling him Chinese. He dragged his luggage past me and went in our room.
For our first few days together, I felt that besides our shared room, we had nothing else in common. We hung out with different people and involved our- selves in different academic fields. I understood. We were both freshmen in a prestigious college that’s known for its prowess in depriving children of sleep and encouraging kids to join groups to foster this illusion of family and warmth in preparation for the harsh winters. Whenever I saw him around the clock tower between classes, he’s always with his Korean friends. He called his usual companions, a skinny dude who always wore black baseball hats and a chubby guy who bore nerdy glasses from the ‘90s and dyed blonde hair that covered his head like a mushroom cap, hyung, or “big brother,” in Korean.
After that night in the showers however, I started to notice some peculiar points in Jason’s behavior. For one, though his singing was absolutely horrendous, his Mandarin pronunciation was not bad, the very reason I’d thought he was a Chinese international student. Then one night after Labor Day, I heard Jason speaking on the phone in what appeared to be a tonal language as I was coming home from a late- night study session. I glued my ear to the wooden door and tried to make out the conversation. He did
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