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Arrive at the house twenty minutes past the invitation time. Your parents call it being fashionably late, but you knew that before you were about to leave, Ma had misplaced her phone and scrambled around frantically for about fifteen minutes while Ba lazily dialed her number from the driver’s seat. The driveway echoed with staccato Mandarin — and for a moment, you wondered what the neighbors would think.
Getting to the Xie residence on time was an impossibility by this point, but this didn’t stop Ba from snaking through the highway lanes at 20 over the speed limit to try.
Greet the hosts when they answer the door for you; this part was easy, as all you had to do was pitch your voice a little higher, inflect a little softer, and let a polite “hello” ease out of your trachea. The parents took care of all the rest, the how-are-yous and have-you-heards. You stand there, in the corner and out of their way. They’ll mention your name once or twice — Auntie Zhu might look over and tell your parents that you’ve grown much taller since the last time she’s seen you. And you might wonder when the last time she saw you was, because you don’t remember growing any taller.
But at least her comments this time around were only about your height. At least they weren’t yet about your GPA, your violin playing, your extracurricular involvement, or what colleges you’re planning on applying to. You silently thank the stars for postponing that conversation, and as soon as you finish removing your boots, your parents were following Auntie Zhu and Uncle Xie to the kitchen, leaving you to wander the house as you wished.
Mingle with the people you know, and this also isn’t too hard. Normally everyone under eighteen who was too old to be constantly held by mom or dad gets relegated to a designated “kid’s room.” If the host family had children, this would usually be one of their children’s rooms; if they didn’t, it was usually the backyard or basement.
You traipse up the stairs to Ethan Xie’s room, where the birthday boy himself was currently holding court with his Playstation and a few other boys your age. Your little siblings gravitate to the other younger children, who were playing with Ethan’s old Hot Wheels.
“Happy birthday, Ethan,” you say perfunctorily, knowing that he won’t peel his eyes from his game of Super Smash Bros for anything.
“Hey!” he answers. It was kind of hard to tell whether that was directed at you or Kirby.
You find a few friends and sit together on Ethan’s bed talking and laughing about a lot of things, but nothing in particular. And for a while, everything’s going to be okay.
Come quickly when the adults call you for food (it’d be rude to drag your feet on this one, plus the food’s usually the best part of the evening). However, food often comes at a price — the adults, after having left their children to their own devices for hours, are reminded of their children as a potential topic of conversation when calling them for food.
Prepare yourself mentally for this, because the parents (yours and everyone else’s) will have all brought their humblebragging A-game. This was the social equivalent of the Balkans on the eve of World War I; the Hunger Games contestants waiting for the countdown to storm the Cornucopia.
All it would take to trigger the comparing of the children was one tiny thing. And all the adults were waiting for someone, anyone to make that first move.
“Ah, you guys have a nice baby grand, don’t you?” asks Uncle Liu, in Mandarin. “Do Henry and Ethan play at all?”
Henry — Ethan’s older brother — was away at college. But Ethan did, and in that room, we had all known that Ethan did.
“Ah,” says Uncle Xie, with a careless wave of his hand. “Ethan plays, but not very well. He never practices when I tell him to. You know these kids and their video games.”
And then, in English, “Ethan, why don’t you come here and show Uncle Liu what you can do?”
Halfway through loading his plate with roasted duck, Ethan reluctantly put down the serving chopsticks he was using and saunters up to the piano, clearly unhappy to have his dinner delayed. As he rattles off an overly-allegro rendition of Moonlight Sonata from memory (which actually wasn’t bad, at all), the rest of us under-eighteens looked on with a sense of sympathy for him, but also a collective dread. It was impossible to tell which one of our parents would volunteer us next for this impromptu talent show.
“See how well Ethan plays?” says Auntie Chen, gently swatting Angela Deng on the back as Ethan brought his piece to a close. “I would be happy if you had at least half his talent!”
You wince for Angie; you know she’s comparable to Ethan in terms of piano playing, despite starting a year later. And you also let out a small sigh of relief — you were safe from performing as long as they stayed on the topic of the piano. There were no violins in the Xie home.
“Oh, don’t say that about your daughter, Qiuyun,” says Auntie Zhu. “Angie has talent; that’s more than what I can say for this one right here.”
“Don’t be shy, Angie,” says Uncle Liu. “Why not play something for us?”
Of note, Auntie Chen says nothing to save Angie from performing, even though she vehemently believes that Angie only had less than half of Ethan’s ability. Instead, she watches with her hand over her mouth as her daughter shuffles up to the piano that Ethan was at before and obediently picks out a tune from Ethan’s practice books. And so the piano showcase goes on, with each performer touted as worse than the one before them. You watch passively and sympathetically.
But eventually, the parents who have non-pianist children want to get in on the action too. So they switch to a more egalitarian topic: college. You knew it was coming.
“Isabella is a piano genius!” says Uncle Gao. “Say, Liguo, where are you thinking of having her apply to college? I’m sure she can easily make it into any of the Ivies. She’s a smart girl.”
“Ah, no — do you know how selective they are? And expensive too. I’d like it if she got into Yale though. Connecticut is a beautiful place. But we’re also looking at Stanford too — the West Coast is where all the job offers come from, you know?” replies Uncle Liu.
You look over at Isabella and your eyes meet. She rolls her eyes in her dad’s general direction and mouths “sorry.” You nod and smile reassuringly, but you knew Isabella could probably do it. She was super involved and the valedictorian of her class. A couple of years down the line, Uncle Liu will probably have something more substantial to crow about.
“What about Dennis?” asks Uncle Liu of Uncle Gao.
“Oh Dennis — he’s always wanted to be a doctor, y’know? So Johns Hopkins is a must. But honestly, I wouldn’t mind if he went to an Ivy too; connections man, you can’t really go wrong with that, huh?” laughs Uncle Gao. “He’s been doing internships at the hospital in our city, so if anything he’s getting some hands-on experience.”
“That’s important. Colleges love that stuff. Come to think, Ethan’s got to start doing some too. All he does is sit on his butt all day and play — what again? World of Legends? League of StarCraft? These stupid kids,” says Uncle Xie. “Back in our day we used to run around outside, didn’t we?”
“Ahh, but Ethan’s already almost in, isn’t he?” asks your father. “Henry’s at Dartmouth. I’ve read this on the Internet — siblings get legacy treatment at the Ivy League schools. So if you get one of them in, all the rest of them are pretty much in.”
“Ahaha, then that places the brunt of this college thing all on your eldest, doesn’t it?” asks Uncle Xie, turning to look at you. “Better get in somewhere nice for all your siblings, eh?”
You laugh nervously.
“Didn’t she score pretty high on the SAT?” asks Auntie Chen, pointing at you. “My Angie’s still struggling in math. Can’t seem to break seven hundred.”
You try not to look at Angie. Your score in math was barely higher than 700.
“Ah, no — we’re still trying to get her in the 2300s. Still not high enough. She missed it by twenty points last time,” says your mother, but only to keep from appearing too proud. Unlike many of these other parents, yours had not believed in forcibly sending you to SAT cram school or prep programs. Whatever score you got was completely proportional to the effort you and you alone put in, and for the most part, your parents understood.
“I’m sure she can do it — it’s just twenty points,” says Uncle Deng. “That’s what, two more questions next time? She’ll be fine.”
“She doesn’t like math either,” says your father. “I keep telling her it’s easy — like the math drills we used to do back in the Mainland. It’s a coachable skill. If only she’d practice more.”
But you hated math and you hated drills and it wasn’t easy (your father was an engineer) and why can’t they just let you be an architect? You’d rather be assembling a portfolio anyway and honestly, why does it matter to all of these parents what you do? Why can’t they just let you be? Your success or failure won’t affect their children — Ethan will probably end up at Dartmouth, Dennis will go to Johns Hopkins, and Isabella will most likely end up at Yale or Stanford all the same. You could end up a starving artist and nothing would change about their children’s life trajectories. So why do you matter? Why do they care?
You don’t say that though. You say nothing, while everyone’s eyes are on you. And even when they’ve moved away from you, you say nothing as each one of your friends and acquaintances are analyzed and scrutinized and compared against each other. It was a ritual that you all understood only too well, and frankly, it was unavoidable. There’s no easy way out of it either, no instant cure that will keep these parents from showing off their children to each other (that’s one of the ways that they show they care, anyhow). All that’s left to do — the easiest thing to do in this situation, to survive this situation — is probably just to say nothing.
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