I met B on one of my family trips to China. I was 16, she was 17, but B was already so much more mature and sophisticated than me. She was a bit of a socialite, honestly, and handled everything with an easy grace that clung to her like perfume.
Her dad and mine were good friends and, since I was in China by myself, she had been tasked with making sure I didn’t get bored or accidentally sell myself to the Triads. To my surprise, instead of being annoyed or half-assing her guardianship duties, B threw herself into them. I found myself bewildered by the amount of excited attention I was getting from this very wealthy, vividly charming, porcelain doll of a “young woman.” Not “girl,” a distinction that I noticed was made by all of the adults around us.
In case you couldn’t tell, I had a bit of a girl-crush on B. And since I can already hear my friend Alex saying “Lez be honest,” let me clarify what a “girl-crush” actually entails to me. Basically it’s another girl in whom you recognize a bit of yourself, whether it’s her sense of humor or her interests or whatever but she’s somehow managed to amplify herself with some secret quality that you can sense hovering just beyond your grasp. You want her as your best friend because secretly, part of you kinda sorta wants to be her. A little creepy, sure, but in my definition, it’s not a romantic attraction.
Anyway, so I was pretty fascinated by her and when she suggested we jump on a bus tour to one of the neighboring provinces, I was completely on board. I was also completely out of my depth. I’d never really traveled on my own before and, even though I could speak Mandarin fluently, I was going to be facing a bit of a language barrier. All of the rural provinces preferred to use their native dialects (many of which are incomprehensible even to Mandarin speakers) and I was (am) illiterate in Chinese. Thank goodness for B, who obviously had the language proficiency but also proved herself very capable of handling all sorts of scenarios. She knew exactly how to walk the line between demanding and gracious with hotel concierges, how to be just the right amount of stubborn when haggling with artisans from the local tribes, and how to judge whether or not jade was “ripe” enough (don’t ask, I still have no idea what she was talking about.)
While we marveled at the breathtaking sights, B told me about all the places that her eternal wanderlust took her. While she was at it, she’d dump loads of advice and personal research into our conversations. I soaked this up like a sponge, all the while thinking to myself, “I’ve always wanted an older sister.” I cringe a little when I think about it but I took to every one of her ideas like she was handing me a secret guidebook to enlightenment. She just seemed so certain of everything. Every choice was so thoughtfully yet effortlessly made. Next to her, I felt so manic and so restlessly lost inside my own head.
I was hitting that point in life when you first realize that the world is much larger than you could’ve ever imagined and more daunting than you could ever be prepared for. And yes, I was freaking the fuck out, but—in true Tiger Cub fashion—very very quietly. God forbid anyone get the sense that I was actually an adolescent, ya know? Point being, I latched onto B because I thought she could soothe all those worries away and tell me everything would be okay because I very badly wanted to hear that. Like, “Girl, please. This is how you deal.”
Now, of course, I’m aware that this was/is impossible. That, even at 25, I can’t tell my 18-year-old sister what shape her life should take in order for it to be “okay.” In fact, I can’t even say I want her life to be “okay” because there is nothing beautiful or glorious or epic about “okay.” But I can commiserate with what she’s going through and we help each other along—usually pretty gracelessly, but with love and humor. Ironically, I might have had that experience with B back in the day. Except I never once opened up to her. Not really, just gossip about boys and parents, but nothing of true weight. I was always too worried that these burning, wordless questions I had would feel needy. And that my neediness would be repulsive to her. So I clamped my mouth shut and tried to decipher the secrets she seemed to hide in her eyes.
I guess she did the same thing. Looking back, I realize that there was much about her that didn’t feel quite…okay. There were holes and crooked lines that whispered about a deeper, more complex ache within her that I was too young to fully understand. Like when she’d push her bangle down her forearm until it dug angry, red ruts into her skin while she murmured dreamily that she longed to lose enough weight so that the bangle would just slip all the way down to her elbow. Or when she’d idly pull lacy scraps of lingerie out of her suitcase and talk about the things she’d wear for the boyfriend, whose love for her—she was certain—had grown to an obsessive fever pitch despite the fact that she was equally certain she didn’t love him back.
Nothing really alarmed me though until our last night of the trip. She and I were wandering around the (tourist trap of a) rustic town on our own when she pulled me into a bar and immediately ordered two whiskey drinks before sitting us down at a four-top table. I asked her who was joining us and she simply winked and told me to drink up.
This wasn’t my first time drinking alcohol or anything. One time, when I was 11 and we were on our annual family Christmas trip to Vegas (because Christmas in Vegas is as Asian as dumplings), my dad handed me “Sprite”, which was actually gin, and laughed until he was crying after I spat it across the hotel room. I had always hated the taste of alcohol and my dad had enjoyed grossing me out with it since I was about 6. So why did I drink the whiskey? The promise of enlightenment, that’s why.
Our surprise guest soon showed up—our 27-year-old tour guide, who proceeded to get us very wasted very quickly (not difficult with 5’2” Asian girls.) I can’t remember much of the conversation but it definitely included 1) criticism of my lack of Chinese culture and 2) sex talk. To their glee, I was still a virgin and they took this as an opportunity to educate me while trying to one-up each other with…hm…highly detailed stories with a healthy dose of hentai references (look it up. BUT NOT AT WORK.) Our guide then dragged us from the bar to a club and then, around 3 am, to a private karaoke room.
I was fading fast by then and I think I dozed off on the couch because I remembered waking up with the tour guide’s arm around me—petting my hair familiarly—while B was singing her heart out to an early 90’s Andy Lau power ballad. I abruptly stood up and teetered over to B’s side. While the tour guide took his turn on the mic, I asked her if we could go back to the hotel.
I remember her smile, eyes glittering with a strange, innocent mischief as she whispered, “I told him that you like him.” Aghast, I asked her, “Why?” With a shrug, she replied, “I thought it could be fun.”
I just stared at her, under all that neon and shadow, and realized that she wasn’t going to get us home.
I made up some blatant lies about feeling like I was going to throw up, or pass out, or do both simultaneously, and got them both into a cab that took us back to the hotel. When we arrived, B was the first out the door and the tour guide took that opportunity to grab my arm and tell me he wanted to take me to “the most beautiful place in the city.” “Thanks, that’s nice of you, but really. I’m gonna throw up.” I answered as I scrambled backwards out of the cab.
B didn’t talk about it the next day so neither did I. After all, she hadn’t been malicious in any way, just impulsive. The tour guide was really just a harmless dweeb. I wanted to ask what she had been thinking but never quite managed to find the moment. Or the courage, for that matter.
I lost touch with her after I returned to the US but I continued to hear rumors through what I refer to as the “Tiger Mother Grapevine.” At 24, she’d been disowned when she ran away with a married photographer. He was 30 years her senior, unattractive, and had abandoned his two-year-old son for her. When I heard this news, I found myself wishing again—very deeply—I could call her up and ask her what she’d been thinking. No judgment, just an old instinct to ask her what truth she’d thought she’d found.
Sometimes when I think about her, I imagine that I actually do call her up. In this fantasy, she’s still that 17-year-old girl—beautifully and mysteriously sad. But, luckily for both of us, I’m no longer my 17-year-old self. I wouldn’t keep her at a distance. I wouldn’t be afraid that my manic messiness would spill all over her. I’d ask her what’s wrong and maybe she’d tell me and maybe I’d say something that would soothe her. And then maybe I could get her home.
Photo by Sara Slattery