Sunflower Skin -- creative nonfiction by Catherine Tang
“A good heart is the sun and the moon; or, rather, the sun and not the moon, for it shines bright and never changes.” ~ William Shakespeare
The computer screen glared back at me with its face littered with tiny black symbols that I could not decipher. My hands floated uselessly over the keyboard, and my head panged with an impending migraine. English was like the moon: no matter how hard I tried to chase it, it always remained out of reach.
I sneakily peered around the room and felt my heart sink when I realized everyone was already done. I turned around gingerly and tried to focus, squinting my eyes into deformed crescents as though I could crush the letters into smithereens and slather them across my brain so they hopefully melt into it like butter. The clock in the corner of my screen was ticking, and I could feel the impatient glares from the test monitor burning into my back. I don’t understand, I wanted to scream, but I gritted my teeth and bit my lips until I could almost taste blood. The numbers finally hit zero, and I breathed out before carefully closing the computer. Without a doubt, I would be placed in the ESL class again.
During art class, the teacher told everyone to sit in groups of three and handed out paper and markers. The theme was simple: self-portraits. I pulled my paper closer and carefully began outlining a face. A strand of honey-blond hair suddenly dangled in front of my eyes, and I looked up to see Kristie holding her hand out. I stared at her in confusion, and she impatiently repeated,
“I said, hand me the skin color marker!” My hands shook as I scrambled to pass her a light gold marker, the color of my mom’s chrysanthemum tea that she drinks every morning. Kristie looked at me for a second too long and then started laughing. “I meant the peach-colored one, dummy!” I felt my voice clam up and my fingers gently let go of the gold marker. In a last-ditch attempt to force her ice-blue gaze off of my body, I slid over the peach marker and in a much louder voice, asked, “Can I use that after you?” I discreetly pushed the gold marker off the table, and all I could think of was how disgustingly sallow it looked as it fell to the ground.
As I made the way through the years, I became a master of staying silent. When my classmates made fun of me for how the way I pronounced my Ss made me sound like a snake, I stopped going to after-school debate practice. When older kids teased me about the contents of my lunch, I started buying food from the cafeteria. When strangers yelled ni hao at me in the grocery store, I sped up and ran to a different aisle. I learned how to avoid verbal interaction and keep my mouth shut, how to duck my head and fade into the crowd, and how to hide my face with my hair and melt into the air. I was wilting under the weight of the moon.
One time, I had just completed a major math test, and I was fairly satisfied with my performance. When the teacher slid my paper over to me, I was excited to see my final grade. I picked it up, flipped it over eagerly, and saw a B glaring back at me. Before I could react, my deskmate piped up. “You got an 85?” he gleefully exclaimed. The way he said it made me feel like I had killed a puppy. “So what?” I muttered. I didn’t think I did anything wrong. The kids around me snickered. “Aren’t your parents going to kill you for this? I mean, you’re Asian and everything, so your parents must be super strict, right? With all your math tournaments, they’re
probably expecting 100s every time!” I felt a rush of blood creeping up my cheeks, but I couldn’t understand what was so funny. I wasn’t even on the math team, and while Asian parents are infamously strict, my parents never criticized me for my flaws and failures. My teacher walked over and sternly asked, “What’s all the noise about?” I opened my mouth to tell her how they were bullying me, but before I could get a word out, a kid sitting behind me interrupted, “Nothing! We’re just comparing test scores and laughing about all the silly mistakes we made.”
My teacher glanced at him before staring straight at me. “Really?” she asked. I looked down at my paper and slowly nodded. She paused for a second longer before walking away, and I had to clench my teeth to stop myself from calling out when the sound of her high heels clicking disappeared. In hindsight, I knew she probably would have believed me or even sided with me. However, I couldn’t hinge anything on a “probably.” I couldn’t risk telling her the truth only to have her say that I was overreacting. So, I chose to remain in my prison of certainty by staying silent. After all, if I didn’t say anything, nothing could go wrong.
High school rolled around and all of sudden, silence became desirable. So many girls shut themselves in bathroom stalls and could only cry to Ana and Mia. So many girls drowned themselves in oversized hoodies but still shivered in the summer. So many girls poured their hearts out to blogs, to weight loss apps, to scales, but never to another living person. I was at once terrified and jealous of them. Terrified, because they seemed so small, because I could flatten them under my pinky, because I feared they could just disappear one day without a sound. Jealous, because I yearned to be like them, because I craved the way they burned with commitment, because I envied how they made pain feel pretty and easy and quiet when I could only try not to scream when my throat burned with acid. They had been so cruel to themselves so many times that they must have already forgotten what cruelty felt like. If death didn’t hurt, I’m sure that so many of them would’ve left this world already. But I didn’t want to die; I just wanted to stop existing for a while.
In history class, we watched a documentary about the Nanjing Massacre. The film was black and white, yet all I could see was red, crimson red. Red flesh, red hearts, red eyes. A girl in the video walked to a grave and knelt down, her torn dress fluttering around her sickly-thin legs. She was facing away from the camera, but I felt like her dark eyes were staring straight at me. She looked so small, so fragile, and so broken that a breath could easily shatter her. All of a sudden, I wondered how much she would give to be whole again. The narrator stopped talking and in the moment of empty silence, I desperately wished for the girl to whisper something to fill it. The scene panned to a burning village with broken screams erupting from splintered pieces of wood scattered everywhere. Amid horrified gasps from my classmates, I saw the rotting and motionless skeletons, the gaunt and haggard faces, the fragile and emaciated bodies, and for the first time in my life, I didn’t want to become one of them. Their stories were written by the victors, by the vanquished, by those who never experienced their pain and horror firsthand. Suddenly, in my head, a small voice whispered, “Don’t you want to write your own story?” Before I could dwell upon it, the documentary ended, and the image of the girl's dark, haunted eyes seared itself into my brain for the rest of class.
That day, I marched into my mom’s room the moment I got home from school. She looked up from her book to greet me, but I only managed a wobbly smile before suddenly bursting into tears. Hot rivulets of watery salt splashed onto the ground, and I could only choke out nonsensical words when she anxiously asked me what was wrong.
Finally, after my seemingly unending pool of tears dried up, I sniffed and muttered, “Would you be mad at me if I didn’t go into STEM?” My mom looked taken aback, but quickly recovered and replied, “Of course not! Why are you suddenly asking this?” My eyes twinged with tears again, but I quickly blinked them back, already ashamed at how I had broken down like a baby. “I don’t know!” I cried. “Don’t you want me to get a job where I wouldn’t be worrying about money?” To my utmost surprise, she burst out laughing.
“Mom, stop!” I complained, feeling how my cheeks were starting to heat up with embarrassment. “Qiqi,” she replied with her eyes still smiling. “When have I ever told you to go into STEM? You hate math! Don’t you remember how you came home crying after your first math club meeting and told me that you wanted to resurrect Newton just so you can kill him again?” I shuffled my feet awkwardly and tried not to think about my less-than-glorified middle school past. She finally stopped making fun of me and with a serious look in her eye, said, “All I want is for you to do something you actually like. Do you know what that is?”
I mulled over her question, and my mind kept flashing back to the girl in the documentary. A minute later, I looked up at her and in the most confident voice I could muster, announced, “I want to be a writer.” My mom’s gaze softened and in a rare display of affection, pulled me into her embrace. I buried my face into her shoulder, and she stroked my hair before chuckling, “I didn’t come all the way from China and spend thirteen years trying to get a passport for you to think you can’t do anything you put your mind to.” I laughed along with her, but all I could concentrate on was how free I finally felt.
One day in science class, my teacher pointed at a picture of the solar system and said, “the Sun is over 400,000 times brighter than the full Moon. Therefore, the moon only shines because it reflects the sun.” She glanced around at the half-asleep rows of students, and I could tell she was starting to get annoyed from the deepening crease between her razor-thin eyebrows. Suddenly, she clicked her tongue and ordered us to repeat what she said three times so we would memorize it. The first time, my mouth molded around the syllables without making a sound, and I let my breath melt into the invisible sighs of the exhausted students around me. The second time, the words came out in a whisper. The third time, my voice rang brighter and louder than anyone else. The moon only shines because it reflects the sun. Without the sun, the moon would never exist. At that moment, I finally understood: I had to chase the warm glow of the sun, not the cold shadow of the moon. Suddenly, the words that had been buried in my throat for years unclogged themselves, and my chest felt lighter than it had ever been. All of a sudden, my world exploded and I no longer wanted to remain silent. I finally realized that I wanted to take up all the air in the room, to unearth my voice, to feel alive, to thrive, to sing…
My skin was not the color of pus, of mustard, of rotten eggs. It was golden, like daffodils, like daisies, like dandelions. It was a warm amber that lit up my eyes, my heart, and my soul. One day, I will find the sun in a patch of cloudless sky and breathe in its warm glow. One day, I will chase the sun to the edge of the sky and dive so deep into the sea that the moonbeams can never touch me again. One day, I will turn my face to the sun and let my voice ring out.
Catherine Tang is an aspiring write based in Chicago, Illinois, who dreams of majoring in comparative literature. Her work has been recognized by the Scholastic Arts & Writing Awards and National History Day. Catherine loves long walks during autumn and is always excited to buy overpriced peach bubble tea with extra tapioca.