The Unbearable Lightness of (Your) Being

He asks me whether I buy fresh produce from markets. I do, but I suspect we go to different kinds of markets. Mine are the kind where vendors shout in Chinese and Vietnamese, where my grandmother goes to buy spices that remind her of home, and where you can buy two-litre bottles of sugar-sweet soy milk dyed green with pandan leaf. So, I answer no.

All the time, I have the sensation that we are talking about the same things but in different languages — or that we are using the same words to talk about different things. Yet we can talk: he wants to write too, and he worries about the same things (social justice and writing things that no-one will ever read). There are lots of neat coincidences like that.

I have some memory of us laughing at online reviews of the children’s book Rainbow Fish. It’s a moment that makes me marvel at how two people could independently come to know about the real people in this world who believe that Rainbow Fish proliferates Marxist ideology. For a long time, he does not tell me that he has feelings for me — but I sense it on some level, pushed away in the back of my mind.

Another funny confluence — a couple of weeks later, he mentions that he has previously been to the market where my grandmother purchases her spices. Even still, it feels like the same place, worlds apart. There’s a song about the suburb I grew up in — its lyrics go: “We drive to a house in Preston, we see police arresting, a man with his hand in a bag”. For him, Preston is the place best described as “where some of my artist friends now live”.

I joke with my friends that his friends are gentrifying Preston, once a “migrant suburb” where my parents settled after migrating from China. How funny! How random! Seriously, I do laugh for quite a while (the image of my grandmother surrounded by artsy types) before thinking back to an article I read a couple of months ago. It was about how rising prices in traditional “migrant suburbs” are disintegrating the community structures that support migrants as they build new lives. But also, I continue pondering, gentrification is great for me! Rising property prices means great returns for the cheap land my parents mortgaged after opening a series of short-lived Chinese restaurants.

A lot of our friendship passes this way: simple connections make me think at length about class, ethnicity and irreconcilable differences. Who wants a love that melts away time like that? Anyway, I tell myself, he hardly knows me. Surely, he would be terrified if he ever managed to dip into my mind and see how complex everything seems to me. How his most blithe words tumble into layers and layers of thought about systems, and history, and impossibilities. I could never show him the depths of myself (and what a load it would be for him to know).

Conversations that he probably does not remember, I linger upon. Once I have to explain to him what Groupon is and it occurs to me that economising has not been ingrained to him by migrant parents, whose bank accounts are characterised by lack. I cannot explain to him why, despite having consumed a thousand sociological texts about capitalism, part of me still always feels a little peace in the shopping malls that we both abhor (because it is stabilising to be around things you once could not afford).

Collage by Chanel Irvine

I am not sure if I have feelings for him, but, somewhere in between my dissection of all things, I do have thoughts about feelings. Many months ago, I explain to a friend that it is like this: if we lived in another world, I think that I would adore him — but we do not live in a different world. So, for a couple of minutes every now and then, I allow myself to adore him with as much reality that thought can summon — but never enough to seep into the honesty of emotion. There are no possibilities, I know. It would not work out, I know. He will not understand why, I know.

Most of all, I cannot tell him how much I like myself when I picture myself with him —because in my eyes, his world is ultra-vegan and smells like the outdoors. He is so full of optimism and he sees so much good in people. He is so kind to everyone he meets (and he does not have to try really hard like I do). To me, he is as light as air and most of the time I am scared that the heaviness of my world will contaminate and weigh his down. But for a moment now and again, I imagine that I could be light too, if I was a part of his world. The temptation is overwhelming. I feel it is all too good to be true.

So, I find myself with a different boy. I am not at all sure if it has a future, but I do feel I can be all of myself. We do not go anywhere at all, as he does not have much money, but I feel at peace when I sit with him on the street curb. He is very quiet — we don’t share the same mother language, yet somehow this does not seem insurmountable. Yes, I wish we could talk more, but at least I never worry that we are saying different things with the same words. What more could you ask from a relationship? Months pass.

When the first boy tells me how long he has had feelings for me, it is too late. When he tells me that he has a ‘big crush’ on another (pretty, light, white) girl, I can’t stop my face from falling — not because I wish he would love me, but because I wish it was not her. There is nothing bad about her, per se. It’s just that sometimes she tries to write about revolutions and foot-binding and the whiteness of boys, things she knows so little about. I want to tell him that if he wants to, he can feel a spark for anybody at all — just not a girl who writes such bad poetry.

I will never show you the depths of myself, but I will write them anonymously for others in a magazine. I won’t tell you that I probably cannot love you, because the more that I do, the more I think about how different and how irreconcilable we are. That the more I think about loving you, the more I can see only a white boy from not-a-poor family, when I know so tenderly you are a thousand things more: you are complex, and kind, and clever, and gentle.

I cannot tell you how heavy it would feel if I were to tell you all of these things, and in the end you did not understand at all.