Smooth as Honey, Light as Silk

 

When I was younger, my grandmother often sang me to sleep with a song about sparrows, the way their feathers lay, each individual and bold yet simultaneously soft and delicate. The way the birds glide across the sky like a hot knife through butter, not necessarily with aim but carefree, oh-so carefree. I would curl against her, inhale the sweet jasmine scent she wore. And when she sang those words in her native dialect, one that has since become foreign to my ears, they flowed out sweetly — smooth as honey, light as silk.

We moved to the states shortly after I learned the lyrics to that song. Barely speaking in coherent sentences, I sang that song with enough vigor to trump even five-year-olds.

I met the American lifestyle with a frisson of excitement and anticipation. It was a whole new world with endless supplies of sugary cereals, goofy cartoons, unfamiliar words. And it was foreign, intimidating, but the other children hardly seemed to notice the difference in my skin color or my accent, so I didn’t pay it much attention either. I adapted fast and soon fell into the rhythm of carpools to soccer games, weekend barbecues, and over-the-top birthday parties.

My entire social setting had dramatically changed as the result of one fifteen-hour plane ride, but, at home, besides my mother’s new bouts of morning sickness and rapidly growing stomach, everything else remained the same. My parents made the same dishes for dinner that my grandparents used to make, we rarely spoke in English at home, and I was still sung to sleep with the song about sparrows every night.

When my new baby brother finally arrived, I was the one who was given the privilege of singing him to sleep the first night home. Having listened to the sparrow song about a hundred thousand times by then, the lyrics slid off my tongue, smooth as honey, light as silk, almost the way they did when my grandmother sang them.

Whether it was because I had become more sensitive to judgement or because other students had become more aware of my differences, by the time middle school rolled around, I was experiencing a significant increase in derision for my ethnic background. My classmates often commented on my “feline” eyes, my parents’ accented words, my dark, straight hair, my lame, ethnic music.

In my effort to conform to the status quo, I replaced the honey and silk that once lulled me gently to sleep with pop and rap music laden with heavy bass drops and obscenity. I told myself this was the music I enjoyed, this was the culture I belonged to. And before middle school ended, I had transformed from a sweet little girl into a stereotypical teenager — a music-blaring, eye-rolling, scantily-clad teenager.

My abrupt change provoked my parents endlessly.

By freshman year of high school, I was arguing with either or both of my parents practically every day, whether it was about the way I dressed, the way I lashed out, my choice of friends, everything. During these fights, in their emotional state, my parents would let their carefully practiced English slip. My mother’s “r” sound would fade off, my father would mix up his phonemes, and with my raging, uncontrollable hormones, I would pick apart these mistakes, brutally correct their pronunciation.

It was cruel, unreasonable, and never even remotely related to the topic we were arguing about, but I tended to be in the wrong, and this was the one way I could pour salt on their wounds, like I felt they were doing to me. In the aftermath, after my emotional catharsis, I would be wracked with guilt, but this wasn’t something where a simple apology would have sufficed, so I never apologized.

Instead, I blamed my temper on my insecurity. It was times like these, where even more so than usual, I hated my heritage. It was times like these where I became Sophie, stuck at a crossroad, having to make a choice that would drastically change my relationships, the course of my life.

Unlike Sophie, however, I was given opportunity after opportunity to re-choose my route.

These opportunities arose when my parents spoke to me in our native dialect, when my friends asked me about my culture, when social studies teachers asked people to share parts of their heritage they were proud of. Yet every time, I shrank away, sided with the culture I couldn’t fully identify with but the one I had grown accustomed to, the one that felt safe. I responded to my parents in English, told my friends my family observed only American traditions, avoided eye contact with my teachers when such questions came up.

Last summer, for the first time in years, my family and I squeezed in the time to travel and visit my grandparents. My sweet, beautiful grandmother was now stooped with age, but as she embraced me, warm and full, the same familiar sweet jasmine swirled around me.

On the way home, we sat together in the back of the cab. Her wrinkled, calloused hand covered mine as she stared contentedly out the window. And under her breath, out of habit, she absently hummed the sparrow song. The song, the lyrics, all of which I had worked hard to forget, came rushing back.

Sweet as honey, light as silk, the sparrows glide, their feathers bold and strong, soft and delicate.

My grandmother had held on to everything I was so ashamed of, and it was then that I realized I would never fully belong to one culture or another. But that was the best part. I wasn’t like Sophie; I didn’t have to make a choice. And now I believe — I know — your culture, the honey and silk, it’s defined by only you, and it’s something to be proud of. 


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Manya Zhao (17) is a high school junior from Palo Alto, California. Her works have been acknowledged by a variety of literary sources, including Blue Marble Review, Teen Ink, and Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. Besides writing, in her free time, Manya enjoys cooking, hanging out with her friends, and binge-watching Netflix. Although she would love to continue writing and perhaps pursue a minor in creative writing, she hopes to study biology and become a doctor in the future. 

Manya Zhao