As I drove to school the next Tuesday, I wondered if Khit would be normal or if he would have another mood swing. He was so erratic that I had given up trying to read him.
To my relief, everything was fine. It was so normal that for a moment I could imagine that Khit and I only had a very distant student-professor relationship and nothing more.
It was the first lecture during the entire summer session so far when I could simply concentrate on taking notes and not have to worry about Darryl trying to sneak his arm around my shoulders or Khit calling on me every few seconds to answer some impossibly hard question.
The lecture went by so smoothly that by the time we were let out of class, I could hardly believe that this was real life.
“What are you doing for the rest of the day?” Nia asked me.
“Well,” I said, thinking. “I haven’t actually thanked Professor Inari for that night I got drunk. I wanted to tell him during his office hours, but I feel like I should do something more.”
“You should buy him a present,” Stacy suggested. “Or make him cookies.”
Liana’s eyes twinkled, telling me she was up to something. “Better yet, invite him to a home-cooked meal. He’ll love your cooking…everyone does.”
Actually, that wasn’t a bad idea. “If it’s all right with all of you, I think I’ll do that. Is this Saturday night okay?”
“Of course it’s all right,” Liana replied without waiting for the others. “Right girls?”
I thought I saw her slightly nudge Nia in the side.
“Ow—I wasn’t going to object,” Nia said, glaring at Liana.
“It’s fine with me too,” Stacy said.
So it was set. If Khit agreed, we were all having dinner together.
When Saturday rolled around, I knew something was up when I returned from grocery shopping to find the apartment completely empty. A post-it was stuck on my room door.
“Have fun with Khit tonight,” it read. “All three of us have other plans and won’t be back until late. Love, L.”
I sighed and shook my head at myself for not realizing earlier that Liana had set this all up to pair me up with Khit. She kept telling me that she thought Khit was better for me than Darryl, but I’d never thought she would take it this far.
Khit expected to be eating with our whole apartment, and now we would both be faced with a date-like setting. I could only hope he didn’t think I had planned it.
But there was nothing I could do now except cook.
The menu for the night was a three course meal: a chicken Waldorf salad with a light vinaigrette, grilled pork chops with mashed potatoes and gravy, and for desert, a decadent white chocolate cheesecake. I had even bought wine to accompany the meal. Even though I didn’t personally like the taste of wine, I thought maybe Khit and my apartment mates would appreciate it. But since my meddlesome roommates were not here, Khit would have to enjoy the wine on his own.
He arrived at 5:30, half an hour earlier than expected. I was so busy in the kitchen that I ran to the door, forgetting I still had a whisk in my hand. He was dressed so differently from his professor self and more like the punk rocker I’d seen that first day we met in the library, when his hair had stood out to me. He wore forest green cargo pants and an unbuttoned white shirt layered over another black T-shirt. The T-shirt had a picture of a nasty-looking skull printed across the front.
He saw me eyeing it. “It’s to blend in, so people don’t ask about the hair.”
“I wasn’t about to comment, but you do realize that you dress up like a professor most of the time. That contradicts your image of a punk rocker right there.”
“But that’s my day job,” he protested. “I’m sure the Goths and rockers have day jobs too.”
“Why don’t you just dye it?”
“Believe me, I’ve tried,” he laughed humorlessly. “But like the rest of me, my hair isn’t normal. Any dye I’ve tried has come off every time I get water on my hair. Complete waste of time and money.”
“Oh.” I opened the door wider. “Come in then.”
“Wait, did you tie up your mutt?” He looked past my shoulder warily.
“Faun is not a mutt,” I said indignantly. “And if you’re not nice, I’ll let her out of my room just to see you run away. Or grow that cute tail. Whichever comes first.”
He looked relieved. “I don’t think you’d do that, especially with your roommates all here.”
I sighed regretfully. “Actually, they all left me to attend some party at the last minute.” It was the only excuse I could think of so that Khit wouldn’t think I had planned a date with him or anything.
“Oh, then I’d better be nice to you.” He smirked, staring at the whisk in my hand. “Shouldn’t you get back to the kitchen?”
I gasped, realizing that the gravy was still on the stove. I ran to it just in time. It had already started burning a bit on the bottom.
Khit walked in and closed the door. “Do you need help?”
“Do you know how to cook?” I asked doubtfully. After all, that last time I’d been in his kitchen, there had been no food. It was a likely assumption that he didn’t cook much.
“I know a few things here and there. The problem is that I’m too lazy to cook. But just tell me what you want me to do, and I’ll try it.” He grinned, adding in a flirtatious tone, “Just for you.”
I almost snorted. “See if you can make the vinaigrette for the salad then.” I handed him the cider vinegar as well as a bottle of walnut oil. “The recipe’s on the fridge.”
He picked the oil up to stare at the label. “Ooo…fancy. Walnut oil. But isn’t Waldorf salad supposed to have a mayo based dressing?”
“It can. But I don’t like mayo much. Just trust me…I’ve used this dressing before.”
He grabbed the bowl and measuring spoon I had placed on the counter. “Two parts oil to one part acid, right?”
I was impressed. “You do know something about cooking after all.”
He winked at me. “It proves that I’m not just a man of words, but a man of action.”
I laughed and went on to take the cheesecake out of the oven to cool. It was a bit surprising that I felt so comfortable around Khit every time we were together. I always thought it would get more awkward between us with each new blunder either of us made.
But now that I thought about it, our interactions had been anything but awkward. For some reason, I felt comfortable enough telling him exactly what I felt without mincing words, and he responded in a way that made me feel like his equal.
When dinner was ready, I placed all the food on the table. I handed him a plate and suggested we eat in front of the TV. I thought it would be better that way, to make it less of a date setting and more of a casual dinner between friends.
He didn’t seem to mind either. “What should we watch?”
I flipped through the channels.
“Wait,” he said. “Go back two channels.”
I did as he asked and frowned. It was the Lifetime channel, and although the romantic drama that was playing looked appealing, it wasn’t exactly what I thought to be appropriate during this non-date.
“Are you sure you want to watch this? Don’t you want to watch something a bit more…manly?”
“This is good,” he said. “I’ll make both of us enjoy it, you’ll see.”
And then I discovered what he meant by that.
It turned out that Khit couldn’t sit still during a movie without putting in his own commentary every few seconds. He had me howling with laughter at one very inappropriate scene.
He made a sound of disapproval. “It’s not nice to laugh when that poor lady is heartbroken that her husband might be cheating on her.”
“You’re the one who just said all the actors look like they swallowed chili peppers just to make themselves cry. Besides, it’s so obvious that her husband is only working overtime to make enough money to buy her a diamond necklace for her birthday. He was staring at the jewelry store two scenes ago.”
We finally gave up watching the movie. The acting was horribly wooden, and we could guess the ending anyway. I got up to bring the white chocolate cheesecake to the coffee table and cut two large slices.
He dug into it eagerly. “Mmm…Where’d you learn to cook?”
“Mostly from watching my mom and the Food Network. I actually put together my own recipes for this particular meal.”
“Smart girl.” He sounded extremely impressed, making my heart swell with pride.
I replied with a quick, embarrassed thanks and proceeded to devour my piece of cheesecake. I expected that to be the end of that topic, but Khit had other ideas.
“You really are very talented,” he repeated. “You mimic cooking by watching others, and I can tell you do the same with writing.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m guessing you haven’t taken too many writing classes,” he said. At the shake of my head, he continued. “Even though you haven’t, when I read your white fox story, I knew you had talent. You have original ideas…”
Judging by the hesitant look on his face, I sensed there was an exception clause. “But?” I prodded.
“But…even though you have original ideas, your writing feels a little contrived,” he said. “You imitate all the books you’ve read and incorporate those authors’ styles into your writing. You haven’t developed your own sense of style.”
“Oh.” My delight in his previous compliments deflated into nothingness.
It must have shown in my face because he immediately said, “I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings. Most authors start out by emulating their favorite writers. It doesn’t mean you’re not talented. You should take more writing classes to improve yourself.”
“But I’m a biology major,” I said sadly. “I wish I could take writing classes, but I don’t have time.”
“Which brings up a very good point. Why aren’t you an English major? You definitely have more of a passion for writing than you do for science. I can see it every time I glance in your direction during lecture.”
I honestly thought about it for awhile, realizing that for me, there never had even been an option of majoring in English. My parents had expected both my sister and me to major in some subject of science to become some kind of doctor, engineer, or lab researcher. Since I’d hated both physics and chemistry, I’d gone with biology. If I had ever even brought up the subject of going into English, my parents probably would have kicked me out of the house.
“That’s not a legitimate reason for not following after your passion,” Khit said when I had explained my reasons to him. “You could have at least explained to your parents that you preferred writing.”
“You don’t understand my parents,” I protested. “They would have been so angry.”
“I don’t understand?” He choked out a dry laugh. “I can say with certainty that nobody’s parents could beat my father. I thought he would never speak to me again when I told him I wanted to be an English professor instead of a doctor.”
Since Khit had been in preschool, his father had drilled into his head that he had no other option in his future career path than that of a doctor. Ben Inari had been a strict father, and if Khit had not scored the highest in his class, he was sent to his room without dinner.
“I think it was partly his way of taking out his anger on my mother by being hard on me,” Khit said. “But for the most part, I think he just didn’t want to be reminded of my mother, of who my mother was. He wanted me to become a sensible doctor, obeying the rules of science, instead of running off into the world of stories and fairy tales, which reminded him of my mother. He wanted both of us to forget that I was half fox.”
Khit had been warned to stay away from literature, only reading what was necessary to fulfill the requirements of English class. Other than that, he’d never been encouraged to read fiction for fun.
“But since my dad worked late hours, I stayed in the library after school. And that’s where I would finally get to read for fun. I fell in love with literature despite my father’s orders.”
Khit had gone through with his father’s orders, graduating from college at eighteen, and then from medical school at 22. But he hadn’t been happy. He wanted to study literature, to read up on myths and legends. He loved it, not only because it was his interest, but because he wanted to know more about his mother’s world. Half of his own world.
“Finally, at 22, I couldn’t stand my life anymore. I wanted to fulfill my own dreams, so I told my father that I was going to grad school for a degree in World Literature instead of becoming his partner at the office. And he told me never to come home again, not even to visit.
“But I did what I had to do, and after several months, my dad started talking to me again. Didn’t say much, but I knew he just wanted to see how I was doing. So you see…if my dad can give in, I think your parents will eventually accept your decision too.”
I thought about what he said. Back during freshman year, when I’d been struggling with general chemistry, I had been so frustrated that I’d actually thought about calling my parents and telling them that I wanted to change my major to English.
But the reason that had hindered me from doing so had nothing to do with fearing my parents’ wrath.
“I—I’m not a genius like you,” I told Khit.
His funny look told me he thought I was crazy. “What does that have to do with any of this?”
“I’m afraid that I’m not capable. You’re a genius, so you would never have a problem finding a job since everybody wants to hire the best. But if I were to become a writer, there’s more of a chance that I would be unemployed. At least if I were a doctor, people would need me if they were sick.”
“I can see your point there,” he acknowledged. “But even that shouldn’t stop you. If you love writing enough, I think you can still find a way to live through the difficulties that come with it.
“But let’s say you did decide to become a doctor. It would take hard work and a lot of time management, but you could still take some classes in writing. I know a few doctors who have written books on the side.”
I shook my head, knowing I hadn’t fully communicated my fear correctly. “I think I’m more afraid that people won’t accept me as a writer. I would love to write stories that are enjoyable, but if people don’t like my stories, then my entire soul would be shattered.” It seemed a dramatic thing to say, but it was how I felt.
“You don’t know that until you try. If—”
“No!” I finally blurted out. “I know that as fact. The majority of people in this country want to read about characters who look like them, written by authors who look like them. But I don’t look like them, and I want to write about people who look like me for a change.”
“What are you talking about?” he frowned. “You have eyes, ears, a mouth. Even a nose. You look like a human to me, and last time I checked, the majority of natives in this country are human, not extraterrestrials. Although some might be yaojing.”
I ignored his slight attempt at humor, too distraught by my own feelings. “I’m talking about my ethnicity. I—I’m afraid that people won’t accept me, just like Jared’s parents didn’t accept Liana.”
And then I proceeded to tell Khit how Jared’s parents had ruled out Liana as their son’s girlfriend simply based on the fact that she was half Chinese.
That really was the basis of my fears, the main reason I didn’t think I would ever even attempt to publish my stories. I could work with anything else, but if people hated my stories, my characters, or didn’t even want to pick up my books, I would never be able to live with that. And I felt that it was even more likely they would feel that way about my work because of my ethnicity.
Rejection. Failure. My two worst fears come to life.
Khit listened intently to the story, nodding occasionally to tell me he was listening.
When I had finished, he still sat there silently, thinking. Finally he asked quietly, “Are you or Liana ashamed of your heritage?”
“Of course not!” I exclaimed. “I’m very proud of who I am. Not everyone can say they have two cultures blended within them. And I can’t speak for Liana, but I’m pretty sure she feels the same way. But that’s not the point. I’m just saying that even though people might say they aren’t racist, a part of them might still be biased.”
“That’s an assumption,” he said. “If the story is good, people will read it. And those who reject it already have closed minds, so they aren’t worth your worries.”
“You don’t understand,” I continued to argue, and then I rambled on, unable to stop, but Khit was listening to me, willing to hear everything I said without interruption. So I kept talking, pouring out how I’d felt ever since I was six when my mother’s friend told me I wasn’t American because I looked Chinese. I flat out told her she was wrong, and she told my mom that I was rude. That had been the end of her friendship with my mother, who had defended my side of the argument. There had been another woman too, who occasionally played mahjong with my mother. She just couldn’t understand why I didn’t speak Chinese fluently. Her logic was that because I looked Chinese, I should speak Chinese.
“Sometimes I think it’s just so hard to be two things at once. To have two cultures residing within my identity simultaneously. Sometimes I feel like both cultures are fighting for supremacy within me.”
I looked up to find Khit staring at me, his deep eyes seeming to penetrate into my soul. And then he did something totally unexpected.