Growing Pains: Abroad Entries Pt. 1

May 2, 2023 / Renata Salazar

Once again, I'm looking around and realizing I live in Barcelona. It's Tuesday, but it still feels like the very beginning. The start of something. The sparkle in my eyes is back. I looked in the mirror this morning, and my eyes were shining; I could tell because they weren't just brown. I could see the excitement in them, the life, the love, and the people waiting to meet me. I could see the life in my eyes.

Barcelona, Milan & Lake Como, Paris, Berlin


A part of myself in Austin believed escaping was the answer. I wouldn't get nervous speaking up in class anymore in Barcelona; I would go on dates with foreign men that fell in love with me because I am so approachable and open to love and spending time with someone romantically. There would be a whole new wardrobe waiting for me, untouched, never-before-worn outfits every day that made me feel new. The music I would listen to on the way to class would be in sync with my surroundings, on beat with tourists, travelers, and locals on my street.

It's been a month since I got here, and I still exhaust the same few songs.

I always need something new to feel complete. I need a black ribbon for my outfit and three new T-shirts to pair with my track pants because nothing I have matches. A furry jacket. Long stockings and brown-heeled boots for going out only. And these are just the things I need now!

Then I’ll feel complete. Then I’ll be new.

It feels like every other American is in Europe right now. I forget I’m not the only girl here; it seemed fair that Barcelona would be left for me and only me. All of them clubbing Monday to Saturday, traveling to Monaco this weekend and Budapest the next.

Even though I'm here and my keys are new, my neighbors have accents, and my walk to class faces narrow alleys lined with bakeries with meringues the size of my hand, I still feel the same; I feel like myself.


It’s my third Sunday in Barcelona, and I’m trying to remember what I do on Sundays back in Austin, but I can't seem to remember at all. My mind goes blank. If I went out the night before, that would mean the next morning was meant for sleeping in as long as my body would allow me to. I’d wake up at 10 or 11 a.m., so I would actually get out of bed around 12 p.m., then start my day by going to the gym, and by that I mean hitting the StairMaster for 20 minutes and feeling fulfilled. I would get a coffee and go to Trader Joe’s — actually, no. I would never go to Trader Joe’s on a Sunday. I miss Austin, but only for a few seconds. I’m not done here.

Every day doesn't have to be new.

Every day doesn't have to be exciting, life-changing, or character-building.

Am I wasting my Sunday? Am I meant to be exploring the crevices of this city with any free time I have? Can’t I just let my mind wander? Should everyone see I’m having so much fun?


Sometimes I look around and realize I'm living in Barcelona. I forget I'm living in Barcelona because I’m just living my life, my normal life, so why am I in Barcelona?

My legs were propped up on the couch as I was reading, and it was loud outside. When you live in a city like Barcelona, sometimes everything outside sounds like sex (I just can't describe it; it feels like everyone is having sex in this city). I started to hear rushed footsteps I thought were my roommates’. Usually, I can tell exactly who it is by their footsteps, but this time they were heavier than usual — boyish.

My eyes were still glued to the book.

I heard a deep, very French “hello.” I looked over to see a familiar French boy my roommate has over every now and then, reaching over for the pack of cigarettes on the coffee table. Naturally, I put down my book and asked.

“Where did you come from?”

He responded, “The rooom,” with an emphasis on the o’s.

“When did you get here?” I said.

“When you were in the shower… Good music,” he said while making that noise with his mouth that sounds like a wink.

I'm not sure why, but at that moment, I truly felt like I was living in Europe.

Suddenly everything is new and exciting.


I went on a date. The first one ever in the way that I was asked — naturally, but in a formal way, in a reservation kind of way. It felt like something was really happening. My roommate asked me if I had ever been on a date like that before, and I said no, not like this. We agreed on how adult-ish it was to be asked out on a proper date, with dinner and wine, in a city like Barcelona.

“That's so fun!” she said. “You're dating in Barcelona!”


Walking to school today feels especially wrong. Why am I here? I just want to have fun and it's all I can think about. All I can think about is getting ready and getting weird. Going to bed at six a.m. to wake up three hours later with a fun new story to tell. Today, more than ever, it feels like life is about catching up with friends and grabbing a coffee and a croissant on a Sunday.

It’s Monday, and I woke up at 11 a.m. feeling chaos for the first time in a while. My room was messily scattered with outfits that weren’t good enough to wear, tissues, and wrappers from months prior. In an hour, I needed to get ready, have breakfast, and mentally prepare to sit through class, when the night prior, I was in some beach town up until 2 a.m. kissing Italians with a blue wig on.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about finding purpose here, more than just finding my favorite place in Europe or having my craziest night out. I've realized that throughout my whole life, I've chosen to be cold. I read books and watch movies about people who feel. People who love, cry, kiss, make mistakes, and find themselves through others. The kind that makes you stare into walls and reinvent your life. Yes, I feel too, but I feel cold. I’m too good to make mistakes, nobody should see me like this. Nobody should see me cry, kiss, or love.

But how will I live in the cold forever? How will I ever feel?

I was never too good; I was just afraid, hiding — cold.

I want to live with love on my mind everywhere I go. I’m choosing to smile the second I wake up and walk out of my door. I’m letting go of trying so hard to achieve peace and instead letting it find me. I want warmth. I’m choosing chaos, love, touch, and everything else life should be about.


There are only a few moments where I've truly felt like the air was clean. One I can remember was this camp I went to in high school, only because all of my friends went. I don't know if the air was actually cleaner — it might have been, considering we were in the middle of nowhere — but it smelled so good. I remember just feeling so much love around me because I was with all of my best friends. We had no phones, and everything felt so special. Everything felt so real.

I’m walking down La Rambla, the most popular street in Barcelona, to run on the beach. Tourists, friends, and families walk everywhere just exploring the city, all up so early. I wonder if all of them are in good company.

The air feels really clean today. I wonder what that means for me.

Later that day

The weather is gloomy now, and once again, I'm looking around and realizing that I live in Barcelona.

It's Tuesday, but it still feels like the very beginning. The start of something.

I love seeing people smiling after looking at their phones or running to hug someone they miss. Lately, I look at everyone with love in my eyes. The sparkle in my eyes is back. I looked in the mirror this morning, and my eyes were shining; I could tell because they weren't just brown. I could see the excitement in them, the life, the love, and the people waiting to meet me. I could see the life in my eyes.

It's Tuesday, but now I feel like every day is a beginning. This time, I mean it.


I’ve been to so many places that it's hard to process each one individually.

I’ve realized I think it's impossible to appreciate something for what it is in the moment, to truly understand that this moment is one of a kind, beautiful.

A kiss on your doorstep you weren’t expecting, a walk home so sunny it feels like heaven, the first day you can feel spring on your skin, and you finally get to leave your jacket at home, drinking hot chocolate with your best friend in Paris while she gets hit on by a cute French waiter. Meeting a stranger at a cathedral in Milan with hopes of seeing him again. The Eiffel Tower. The way it sparkles, the way it puts you in a trance. There’s something so special about Paris, I think. Now every time I go, I think of going with my dad before he dropped me off in Barcelona. How all we would do was walk. How he showed me his first apartment when he lived there and his commute to the gym — the small parts of his days, the most special parts. I miss eating duck with him and real French fries, dipping my bread in Dijon mustard so spicy my eyes would water, and ordering dessert with every meal. The people in Paris are so casual and cool; they move so effortlessly. Compared to Texas, the people stand tall and firm, elegant, too. My legs feel like Jell-O in Paris, but I like it. It makes me want to stand taller.

Initially, I had no interest in visiting Berlin. I’m drawn to the beach, the sun, the places filled with romance and languages that blend into melodies, Milan, Paris, red wine, and espressos after dinner.

Berlin didn’t have enough romance for me. It just seemed gray.

On a night out in Barcelona, I met a woman from Germany: Laura. This night was one of the infamous nights where I would run away hoping to find new people and new conversations. We checked our coats together and became best friends. I knew we had become best friends because we looked each other in the eyes. Her eyes were dilated. When I asked her about Berlin, she told me it was a city that would make you uncomfortable if you were in the right places — you would be challenged. She said those not used to seeing things and doing things out of their comfort zone would feel overwhelmed in a place like Berlin.

Berlin is gray, but it is rich. It's full of history, life, and people who want more than just the day, people who rather live through the night too. People who just want to listen to the beat of the music alone.


Growing pains.

Not sure why I’m thinking about these words, but growing pains. I’ve always been secure and confident with where I’m going, career-wise and all. When I was younger, I always thought I would be a star at 20, and settled down. Only half true now. I'm turning 21 in a few weeks, and I finally feel like I’m in my 20s. I’m a bit confused. A bit scared and randomly living abroad to learn something about myself. After a few weeks of living in Europe, I knew I wanted to discover something here, something about myself and the way to live life. A deeper purpose. A new meaning. If living here has taught me anything so far, it’s that sometimes it's okay to just exist. It's okay to go somewhere and just look.

When I travel, I’ve realized I’m there to just look, to stand still, and appreciate the beauty of something new, with no rush. I sat down in Lake Como with a glass in my hand and breathed real air. I thought about how little there is to do compared to back home, how the people who live there must walk so slowly all the time because there’s just no rush. They get to breathe clean air and drink fresh water. They don’t just feed themselves; they nourish and nurture their bodies. They get to live. I think about how I would get bored of this eventually, but how it would feel so good only to need fresh air and feel like enough.

Right now, I’m at Parque de la Ciutadella, and I can hear the pigeons cooing and the kids on their field trips. Two minutes away from the Arc de Triomphe, this is my favorite park.

I know everything will be okay. The sun is shining. This is life.

By: Renata Salazar

Graphics: Angela Mikela

Ballet Mondays

May 2, 2023 / Katlynn Fox  

At the end of the day, we’re just girls.

One day when we are mothers and wives I will remember the way our bodies danced in sync to classical music. Jumping up into sous sou and finishing with a plié.

I will remember the walk home from ballet back to one of our apartments — we took turns hosting every week. We would chat while one cooked dinner. Pasta or Tex-Mex, it didn’t really matter. We were nourished in every way. Our stomachs were full of food, our hearts full of love, and our ears full of gossip.

Sometimes our talks were lewd and crass, sometimes we were divulging secrets, and sometimes we were dreaming of the future. We created lists of things we wanted to do together from swimming in the springs to Pride parades in Paris.

In a perfect world, we would do them all. But the world is not perfect and it seems as though we are all racing against the clock of growing up, graduating, and moving on.

I am too busy soaking up every inch of love that I forget to romanticize our time together. Our conversations are loud, we throw our heads back laughing, we watch Disney movies and singing competition shows. Without shame, we use filler words (like, um, literally) and we let our hick accents run wild.

We yell and say “Write this down! Write this down!” As if to immortalize the thoughts that are only really meant for each other.

We work to heal and grow and flourish. I realize now that I no longer need to cut my body open and bleed for a good story. I can smile widely and immortalize the tender moments for everyone’s delight. We are not tragedies exploited for consumption, we are just girls crowded around a laptop planning trips to Europe and cooking with heart-shaped utensils.

I don’t need things to be perfect or heartbreakingly romantic. At the end of the day, we are just girls.

I know that soon, in a month, Ellen will graduate and she won’t be part of Ballet Mondays anymore. In six months Gracie will follow. Soon I will be alone, quietly swaying in the back of the class, going home to an empty apartment. I will fill my stomach with food, and my mind with the stories they tell me of their travels. Ellen will be somewhere fabulous (New York, London, Paris, Barcelona) and Gracie will be getting engaged and starting her life.

While they are moving, I will be dancing.

I am somewhere behind them both, lost in the years I still have ahead of me. In order to move forward, must we always be looking back? I feel so small and so young. I look up to them in every way. I crane my head to see them reach for the sky and pluck a cloud like it’s a ripe peach.

For me, it’s not about the synchronized rond de jambes; it’s about having a tradition. Something sacred just for the three of us. It preserves family dinners that we once cherished or wished we had. It mends the wounds we endured: the lack of food or love or family. We smoothed it over like butter and laughed in sync the same way we danced (and oh, how we danced).

All the best things come in threes.

Between us there are three shoulder-length bob haircuts, two belly button piercings, and soon-to-be one remaining member of Ballet Mondays.

Mondays have become my favorite. It’s like going to church on a Sunday morning; we kneel at the altar and say our prayers between giggles. We confess our sins with sips of Diet Coke as communion. We pray to the God of femininity and are reborn as three tiny dancers. We spin like figurines trapped in a music box. We stumble and make faces at each other when we mess up. It is raw and real and it makes me feel 8 years old again. It warms my heart. It makes me feel like a woman wearing the shoes of a child. ■

By: Katlynn Fox

Graphics: Binny Bae

A Beastly Craving

May 1, 2023 / Sophia Lowe

I transform into a beast in the eyes of desire.

When we’re told not to do something, human nature drives our curiosity, leading us to want to do that thing even more — even if we never wanted to in the first place.

Temptation. It’s a dangerous thing. And when there’s a craving begging to be satisfied, it’s nearly impossible to ignore. A friend, a boy, a place, a drug — when it’s off limits, it’s all the more inviting.

We want the rush to last forever.

I know inside that I shouldn't be giving in so easily, but this feeling is primal. My moral compass dissipates and I’m an entirely different entity — my fangs grow sharp, my nails turn to claws, my eyes gloss over. I feel the beast returning.

I rip through every bit of my identity until I’m unrecognizable. I race toward temptation like a starved wolf. I don't care who or what I take down en route to fulfilling my needs. This desire is my prey; this hunger must be satisfied.

I run fast, increasing speed till I’m on all fours. Once the transformation is complete, I have shed all innocence, all emotion — everything that made me human is gone.

I clutch my prey, mouth watering with anticipation. In the second before I sink my teeth deep, a moment of clarity ensues.

“What am I doing?”

My prey is frail, undeveloped, and naive to the darkness of the world.

Was I really about to end a life that hasn't yet lived? I fall ill with that thought.

“Who am I?”

This thick skin that I’ve grown is uncomfortable and unfamiliar.

“What was I before? What will become of me now?”

The tips of my fangs reach the very thing I have given up all sensibilities for.

“Is this… it?”

Everything around me ignites in flames.

My eyes reflect orange and golden-yellow hues as the flames roar high, stretching out to me like arms.

The heat, though suffocating, cannot distract me from the sensation that my prey, laid across my arms, awaiting its consumption, has become remarkably lighter.

I peer down and hazily recognize a complexion all too familiar: a girl, young and dainty, with cheeks plump and rosy like they’ve been incessantly pinched.

Her button nose and olive skin radiate nostalgia, like the first flower of spring – new, pure, vibrant with life. She naps peacefully, completely untouched by the hellish reality that I’ve constructed around her. Her short chestnut hair brushes softly against my arm as she nestles herself further into my beastly skin. A feeling of warmth courses through my veins.

I know this girl.

This girl is me.

I carry her in my arms, always. Her weight is ever-present.

She was right here all along — to remind me who I am hurting when I indulge in my cravings, to tamp down the shame that ignites inside me like ravenous flames.

Those flames burned everyone I love.

And there she was, watching me transform into something she could never imagine.

Her innocence is untouched, her ignorance sublime; the fantastical lens through which she sees the world is still intact.

“I can still save her.”

I close my mouth to hide my fangs and draw her closer into my arms to protect her.

Choking on the thick smoke, I struggle to stand on two feet. Though I’m weak, I run with every bit of hope I have left.

The flaming hands grab at my thick, beastly skin and I wince.

I have not lost hope. I can see the other side.

“Almost there,” I assure her. “I promise I won't let this happen again. Please forgive me.”

As I take the final stride out from the flaming hands of hell I stumble, trip, and fall. Everything goes black. 

My eyes peel open and my reflection stares back at me — my small, dainty, buttoned-nosed self with olive skin.

I am her and she is me. 

I will always be her.

I must treat her with love, compassion, respect, and acceptance. I must ferociously guard her with the same hunger that drove me to hunt my prey.

Temptation. It’s a dangerous thing. And when there’s a craving begging to be satisfied, it’s nearly impossible to ignore. But my curiosity didn’t just kill the cat: it killed my identity, my morals, and the purity that glows inside me like gold.

I see now that there must be a balance. Between the beast and the delicate flower I once was.

The beast is a mask I wear to disguise myself from myself. It allows me to be numb, to not accept my behavior as my own.

Her innocence, her ignorance, her delicate little features; though these qualities I admire – and envy, even – they too make her weak, vulnerable.

I have grown strong, adopted a thick, beastly skin. I haven’t had a choice. I am resilient and seasoned. I had lost sight of why I became the beast in the first place, why I moved through life so epically belligerent.

I was prepared to lose everyone and everything, disgusting them with my foul stench, making them scream in terror at the sight of my sharp fangs and bloodthirsty eyes. This was the only way I could feel in control of my ostracization from the world.

But now, as I stare back at the girl in my arms, I remember that it was all for her. ■

Watch the full video here.

By: Sophia Lowe

Videographer: Belton Gaar

Model: Tyler Kubecka

Stylist: Marianna Aguirre

HMUA: Claire Philpot

My Naked Body Means Nothing

April 19, 2023 / Sonia Siddiqui

My nakedness was a mannequin I was forced to care for before her display.

“Your body is a temple.”

This meaningless phrase carries no weight to me now, but in my early childhood, I felt forced to live by it. I believed in it so heavily. The idea that my body is sacred was repeated so often I had no room to forget it.

I felt I could not touch my naked body, or even look at it.

I covered mirrors while I dressed myself, turned away from my reflection in the shower head, and startled myself everytime I accidentally grazed my fingers over my exposed skin. I was not allowed to observe my naked body, or sit with it. I was not allowed to disfigure the bareness of my body that was meant for something else, something greater than myself. I had to treat it as if it were delicate glass, a porcelain doll used strictly for display. I had to save my nakedness for something. I didn’t know what for. Was it for a partner? Was it for God? Was it for death? The soil in the ground was the only thing allowed to hug me, engulf me, touch me without startling the ever so “delicate” skin.

I felt detached from my nakedness. It was an entity outside of myself that I was caring for. My nakedness was a mannequin I was forced to care for before her display. A mannequin I had to carry everywhere with me, one I had to meticulously dress and screw flailing limbs back together that wouldn’t stay put. Patiently waiting as I looked after her. I grew tired of waiting for an imminent performance that never came.

It wasn't until I roamed around the surreal art exhibit inside the Menil in Houston, Texas, that I realized what nakedness meant.

I stumbled upon Hans Bellmer’s photograph from 1935, “The Doll,” also named “La Poupée.”

A monochromatic, contorted mannequin. Her upside-down torso clings to her upright head, desperate to stay intact. Ropes affix themselves to the bottom of her leg. She is missing a leg and an arm while a hand rests on the stair railing. Seeing her naked body parts in a disorganized manner detached them from their sanctity. Her body parts were no longer a part of a cohesive being — they were pieces of disorder and chaos. Holiness, fragility, and grace no longer defined the temple of nakedness.

Image via The Menil Collection

In a sudden moment, I remembered seeing this doll. I recognized her. She looked like my reflection from the glossy eyes of the mannequin I was forced to care for. A torn-apart version of myself. Seeing her body parts in unexpected places gave them more meaning. One would think detaching them from their usual place would detach them from their purpose and make them futile. To me, it gave them a greater meaning — the greatest meaning is none at all. When I was a young girl, I never thought of my body as something more than what it was: a vessel to carry my blood and organs. I used my body for many things: to sit on the kitchen floor as my mother cooked, to dance to songs I heard on TV, to run around my neighborhood and watch the sky without looking at what was in front of me. When I dressed myself, I never closed my eyes or turned away from mirrors. I was too busy thinking of the sky and what it would look like as I chased it. There was not a heavy mannequin in front of me waiting to be cared for. I was free, curious, and had no meaning at all but to live.

Hans Bellmer’s art piece embodied the little girl I was, and art as a whole. Neither have any greater purpose than to live in this world. People choose to observe it, interpret it, study it, and dissect it. However, art is inherently made to live. It is created for the sole purpose of being created.

Nakedness, at its core, is an art form.

I have lived my adult life with the idea that my bareness is meant for a greater purpose. That I am an art piece waiting to be studied and dissected.

I believed nakedness was a state of being, a performance, a container left to fill and showcase.

My nudity is not important. It is not meant for sexual purposes, for divinity, or for science. I am not a creature that lives life for the purpose of a temporary meaning; my nakedness has no greater purpose. There is no performance I need to prepare for or an exhibition that is waiting for me. I am not a creature meant for taxidermy, to be displayed and analyzed.

By seeing nakedness in such a startling, detached setting, to see bare body parts in distorted order, I began to understand the importance, or rather the unimportance, of my nakedness.

My naked body means nothing. ■

By: Sonia Siddiqui

Graphics: Lucy Leydon

The Half & Half Experience, Reviewed

April 17, 2023 / Hayle Chen

After grappling with my Chinese and Vietnamese identities and the feelings of inadequacy in my native languages, I now see what I always have been: two marvelous halves of a whole.

The events at the Tower of Babel have always been akin to a horror story to me.

It’s written in Genesis that God, in response to humans building a tower tall enough to reach the heavens, confounded language so people could no longer communicate with each other. Humanity, duly chastised, was then scattered across the face of the earth, never to speak the same tongue ever again. Though this story — recounted by a Vietnamese nun — was a blip on the radar of my expansive theological education, I was always intensely troubled by the implications of a universal language. That at one point, we could have all understood each other and with a swipe of a hand, that connection vanished. To me, it seemed we’d lost our chance at unity before I was ever born.

Languages have always been deeply personal to me. I pick them up like children do bad habits — enthusiastically, expeditiously, and at first covertly. There’s something intensely satisfying about bridging that linguistic divide, learning the nuances of somebody else’s native tongue and communicating with them in earnest. When the weight of the world feels like a burden upon my shoulders, I impulsively turn to a new language; I find comfort in immersing myself in the unknown, cleaving it open until its secrets are bared.

My life has never been absent of a multitude of languages: I’m a half-Chinese half-Vietnamese American woman. I was born into a heritage embroiled in shifting dialects, distinct accents, and foreign phrases. I’m all the better for it; I’m deeply insecure because of it. Growing up, I was caught between two ethnic worlds where it was paradoxically assumed I’d innately know my native languages and assumed that it was too difficult for me to comprehend them at all. Being two disparate halves of a whole was a fate I didn’t know I’d endure.

These experiences formed me, and though they haven’t yet come to a head — still shaping me as I grow — I do find gratification in reflecting upon them. I’ve too long internalized them.

But no longer —  here’s the half-and-half experience, reviewed.

The Fourth of July

I used to believe that summer trips to Nebraska were trips to Vietnam, because all my Vietnamese family members — the Bui side — lived there.

For most of my childhood, it felt like the entire year culminated during the week of the Fourth of July, when my family would take the 11-hour trek to Lincoln where nine of my mother’s siblings lived.

I’ve always viewed the holiday as particularly resplendent. Upon our arrival, the exclamation by the multitude of Buis that “the Chens are here!” made me feel cherished. There was an easy magic that existed when life’s focus was the events of a singular holiday. I reveled in the annual family talent shows conducted in an aunt’s garage, the buffet tables lined with an exorbitant mix of ethnic foods, and the anticipation of the next explosion of sound as fireworks lit the sky.

As I grew older — when the summer trips became more sporadic — I realized how often I felt more glaringly a Chen than a Bui. In car rides to grab more firecrackers, an older cousin’s head would whip at me in shock when they realized I was laughing because I understood the Vietnamese joke.

Wide smiles and patronizing warm eyes greeted me anytime I spoke the simplest of words: cảm ơn (thank you) or cơm (rice). When I ran into an aunt, I would dutifully greet her with a “chào Bác” and she would still be taken aback that I could properly execute Vietnamese greeting customs. They seemed delighted that a Chinese girl like me could successfully pick up a little Vietnamese.

It feels like a betrayal — an intrusive thought — but for many years when the holiday would roll around, I would think of how different it would be if I was a Bui and not a Chen.

I don’t wish for it, but do wonder if life would be simpler that way.

I give the Fourth of July three and a half stars.

Mandarin Class

At some point in my life, I definitely knew Mandarin. There’s a blurry video of me screaming in Chinese at a toy train as it rounds the plastic tracks that can attest to the fact. It was my grandparents’ doing.

During the long summer months, before I attended school, my Ye Ye and Nai Nai traveled from their home in Australia to stay with my family. I recall the memories hazily: the brightly-colored flimsy plastic poster boards filled with Chinese numbers and common phrases being a constant fixture as I sounded out words to my eager grandparents. I delighted in spitballing numbers up to 100 and singing Chinese nursery rhymes about climbing a mountain and finding squirrels. But as soon as those summers ended, so did my Mandarin education.

Except, when I was 10 years old, my siblings and I started attending Chinese school every weekend. Packed into the family car, I endured the lengthy commute to spend my Sunday afternoon between four walls where I was mind-numbingly incompetent, abysmally inept. Those summers and the knowledge I reaped within them had all but faded with time. Sitting and staring blankly at the combination of pinyin and Chinese characters that scored the pages of my textbooks each class — amongst the Level One 6-year-olds — was my personal hell.

For every pop quiz where I traced a character and secretly felt a proud thrill at my success, I would silently curse my father’s decision not to speak to me in Chinese when I was younger. In defiance to the sudden enrollment, I would refuse to complete my homework and then feign innocent confusion when it came time to turn it in.

When the end-of-course ceremony eventually happened, I received a trophy. To this day, I don’t remember what it says — I’m honestly not sure if I ever read the inscription. I do remember the acrid shame I felt when I realized I received something for doing nothing. That I didn’t even try to learn.

For an incredibly long time after, I pretended the course never existed, and for reasons unbeknownst to me, I was never signed up for the next level. I don’t remember what I learned in that class, but I can still recite those Chinese nursery rhymes.

I give Mandarin class two stars. 

Bac Trang’s House

Sometimes when the blinds are closed and the sunlight streams through the shutters at exactly the right angle, I’m whisked back to my childhood where I couldn’t differentiate Vietnamese from English even if I tried. My godmother and aunt (Bac Trang to me), who more comfortably speaks Vietnamese, raised me for a significant portion of my life while my parents worked. Since my infancy, I was rocked to sleep with the comforting lilt of Vietnamese words, taken on adventures in the park where I was given instructions that were only half English before I could run off, and sat down at the dinner table to eat traditional Vietnamese dishes.

Every “yes, con” further cemented the language into my psyche.

It was within that home that my ability to understand the Vietnamese language was born. It’s why I know more Vietnamese than my siblings, why I’m the translator, why I always admit that yeah, but I know more Vietnamese than I know Chinese.

I give Bac Trang’s house four-and-a-half stars.


On the annual visits I would take to a pediatric orthopedic hospital during my elementary-school years, I was always buzzing with anticipation to leave because I knew Caravelle awaited me after.

The homecoming would always occur around the winter holidays: exhausted from a day of clinical poking and prodding, I would blearily stare out the window as my parents and I arrived at what I classified as the ultimate culinary experience. The restaurant was never bustling on a weekday, and the ballroom layout – fit for the wedding receptions that were hosted there – made the lack of customers seem even more insurmountable. But that never mattered, because I knew that the cod, green beans, steak cubes, and bowls of white rice would arrive on pretty dishes, tantalizing as I scooped a portion from each onto my plate.

For all the merit the restaurant deserves for its food, what was more valuable was the waitress that served our trio each year. A woman who never seemed to age arrived like clockwork as we sat down. She would volley in Mandarin with my dad, asking him about his life and family, and then proceed — to my consistent shock — to dote on my mom, telling her how beautiful she was in English, before fluidly switching to Vietnamese and asking her about her childhood.

Her voice was confident, her questions assured; she was everything I wasn’t, she was everything I could be.

Located amongst an array of nondescript businesses in a suburban strip mall, the Chinese and Vietnamese cuisine-serving restaurant was the clash of two cultural worlds I didn’t even recognize that I craved in my adolescence.

Before that point, I had never met anybody who shared the same ethnic combination as me, save for my siblings. It was enthralling, that annual experience of receiving verbal confirmation that these two languages could coexist harmoniously.

In the interims between those yearly meals and the tumult of daily life, my interest would wane and I’d forget about the magic of this woman’s knowledge. But each year, I was enchanted all over again. There would be a renewed vigor in me to learn Mandarin, to master Vietnamese — except, when the hospital visits ended, so too did the visits to Caravelle.

All over again, I forgot. Time passed, and those meals became a distant memory, a blip in the half-and-half experience I existed in daily.

One day after school, sometime during the unrelenting high school years, my dad, in passing, mentioned that Caravelle had closed (even when we went there already weren’t many patrons — their heyday had long since passed). But it was almost visceral, the searing anguish that sliced across my chest when I heard the news. It felt like I had lost a significant portion of my culture (though I knew that didn’t particularly make sense). I was being stripped of that yearly reminder, the proof that an older version of me existed, and that we made it – that we would make it.

When I think about the singularity of that experience, witnessing the mastery of both my native languages by a single woman, I feel a deep melancholy and an ardent pride. She did it, and so could I. The restaurant might have closed, but the awareness it gave me of coexisting cultures has always remained.

I give Caravelle four stars.

I’ve always grappled with my identity, choosing to lean into it when convenient, distancing myself when beneficial — and for years I questioned why I excelled in Spanish, loved American Sign Language, dedicated myself to German, and took to the Romance languages so enthusiastically. I’m naturally good at languages, I would tell myself. To a certain extent that’s the truth: I love languages a lot. But I also spend so much time learning different ones so I never have to address that I was born directly into two that I’ve yet to master. Languages, though they make up so much of me, have long been my crutch.

When I consider my heritage — how I’ve often rejected it, chafing at every turn — I know I still am navigating what it means to hold the responsibility of knowing and practicing two cultures. On introspective days, I have a renewed desire to learn my native languages that makes me look back constructively on the dread, derision, and insecurity of being deemed not enough.

Half and half? Well, it’s two parts of a whole.

And I give the entire experience — with its intense joy and unrelenting difficulties — five stars. ■

By: Hayle Chen

Photography: Anastasia McCants

Models: Morgan Cheng & Remy Tran

HMUA: Irina Griffin

Stylist: Andre Tran
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