Kiki’s mother warned her to be careful when she was pregnant because the aswang was watching from the trees in the jungle. All Filipinos knew that the scariest creatures lived deep in the jungle where no one ever went, and then they walked out looking like one of us. They were shapeshifters who ate the flesh of fetuses. Kiki rolled her eyes and promised that she would say her prayers, wear black and add more garlic to her chicken adobo to ward off the aswang that wasn’t native to New York City.
Kiki met her husband, Georgi, on a Tuesday night at a Chelsea café. As a professional matchmaker, she saw the irony of needing to go on dating apps for her own dating life. She could help 40-year-old White American divorcees, and the odd 29-year-old with gout find the loves of their lives. Still, there she was on another lonely weeknight at a café instead of a bar because the guy wanted to get coffee instead of an extra dirty martini.
“Here’s your matcha latte.” He handed her a warm, recyclable medium-sized brown cup of foaming green bliss.
“Thanks,” Kiki smiled, “I love matcha.”
“Is it because you’re Asian?”
She sighed. She thought because he was a foreigner that he would understand the subtleties of race in America. She wondered if he got away with being so clueless because he was foreign. She wondered how many people assumed he was actually White American because he was tall, handsome, and pale in that acceptable way.
Kiki knew that she had an easy choice of finding an array of men—some desirable, most were not—on dating apps. She was a hot, young, single Asian woman. Although most decent-looking, youngish, single men in her area called themselves liberal and progressive, they succumbed to everything from cheap pickup lines (can you love me a long time?) to, “but where are you really from?” FROM MY MOTHER’S VAGINA, YOU MILK SOPPING, OVERGROWN BOY.
She was used to years of brushing off casual racism. The comments were subtle. She knew how to wipe off their comments like she was a towel, and their words were only droplets of water. Kiki knew that men like Georgi didn’t mean any harm. They didn’t know any better. She straddled between feelings of an obligation to educate him and to chalk it up to dating as a young Asian-American woman.
Their wedding was on a Saturday afternoon on the elevated High Line, a freight rail line that became a public park. The onlookers gawked at them as Kiki and Georgi huddled in a semi-private corner of the High Line that should have been of no interest to these tourists. The corners were filled with old grass and uninteresting buildings that had changed from a hip restaurant to a clothing boutique to a bodega over the past few years.
Kiki didn’t mind the stares of the 60-year-old Midwestern couple and their detached 14-year-old hobbling along, trying not to walk into other tourists. She didn’t mind the stares until they kept staring, looking her up and down as if she was the tourist attraction. Looking at her against the city backdrop next to her European husband, trying to figure out which of them didn’t belong here. Kiki figured she and Georgi deserved the stares because they chose to have a wedding in a public venue and if they wanted privacy, well, couldn’t they have just had it in the privacy of their one-bedroom 750 square foot apartment?
The Midwestern wife from the crowds holding a DSLR camera piped up, “Are you almost done?”
Kiki and Georgi’s officiant whipped her head back and glared at the stranger, “They’re in the middle of getting married. The one picture you’re going to take of this very NYC bodega and never look at again can wait another ten minutes until we’re done here.” She smiled apologetically at the bride and groom and quietly mouthed, “Sorry.”
Kiki smiled awkwardly because she didn’t know what to say. Was she supposed to get mad? Was she supposed to laugh it off?
She was pregnant a few months after their wedding. It was a Sunday, January morning, before her weekly brunch date with her mother. It was the January, a few months before the pandemic came.
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Her family was sheltered in place for months. They took safe haven in their home partially because they wanted to protect themselves from the virus and because they wanted to protect themselves from the uneasy public’s reaction to the people who embodied the virus. To the average onlooker, people that looked like Kiki looked like they were from Wuhan. Because of that, Kiki and anyone who looked like Kiki were to blame for social distancing, loneliness, and disease.
She was already taking precautions as a woman. She didn’t walk down dark alleyways. She looked behind her periodically when she walked. She carried her car keys wedged in her hand like she was Wolverine to swipe at any grabby man.
As much as Kiki wanted her whole big and loud Filipino family with her in the birthing room, due to COVID-19 restrictions, she had Georgi by her side and napping periodically on a red vinyl sleeper chair. She was one of the lucky ones when some other women had to be completely alone at the beginning of the pandemic. At the very least, she had her husband running on coffee and nerves, pacing back and forth around the room.
He held her hand when she gave birth. She sweated and screamed through her N95 mask. When she pushed, he pushed too. He wanted to commiserate with her. She appreciated his gesture, although he’d never fully understand. He could be an ally, and he could sympathize, but he never really understood.
She still thought about the one bad date she had during her single New Yorker years. She met a guy at a networking event, and he asked for her business card, and since she worked at home and worked for herself, her business phone was just her cell phone. So the guy had her number, and he wanted to meet her on a Friday night after office hours for a pair of old fashioneds.
“Extra ripe cherry.” He winked at her as he handed her a cold glass with one of those abnormally large square ice cubes.
“Thanks,” Kiki smiled, “These abnormally large square ice cubes always wigged me out, but there’s something calming about just looking at the cherry in this brown liquid.”
“I feel like this drink represents you.” He raised his glass. “Cheers, y’know, because you’re like this little cherry in the brown.”
Before she could say another word and before he could explain any further, he leaned in to kiss her. She put up her hand. She blushed, shaking her head, “No, I can’t. We can’t.”
“I…I just started dating someone.” She was three weeks into dating Georgi at the time.
“And who is he?”
“I met him on Bumble. He’s nice.”
“You met him on Bumble? But aren’t you a Matchmaker? Like you can’t find a nice brown guy on your own?”
She furrowed her eyebrows, “What makes you think I’m dating someone brown?”
He rubbed his eyebrows and adjusted his glasses. “Please don’t tell me he’s White.”
“Yeah. He is. Not White American, but yeah, he’s White.”
“Like from Europe? Wow, so he’s REALLY not going to understand you.”
She wanted to throw her drink at this guy. “Why not?”
He put down his glass and started waving at the bartender for the check. “Because he’s not like you and me. You’re an Asian woman. I’m Black. I can understand you in a way that he NEVER will.”
“That’s not true.”
He kept his eyes down on the check as he signed the check. “You’ll see.”
When she laid awake at night with her hand on her pregnant belly, she wondered how she was being a good POC ally to the Black Lives Matter movement. What would happen when the news cycle decided it was no longer important? Were people really going to change?
A few months into motherhood, after her young half-Asian, half-White daughter was brought into the world, #StopAsianHate bubbled to the surface. It was all over Facebook, Instagram, and her family group text messages. She wondered if her daughter was going to have to worry about this a decade from now. She wondered if her daughter would “pass” for White enough in this country or if her almond-shaped eyes were the dead giveaway for being spat at.
Kiki couldn’t be sure which was safer: walking to the pediatrician appointments twenty blocks away from their apartment, taking the subway five stops away, or spending $60 both ways to hop into an Uber/Lyft/Via and hope she didn’t get raped. Or catch COVID. Did she need to invest in getting a car? What was the point of being a city girl if she needed a car?
Whichever option she chose each time, and she switched up her options each time to not leave behind a trail of breadcrumbs for a potential stalker/assailant/Asian hater, she had to be hypervigilant. It wasn’t just herself she was looking after. She was looking after a defenceless child. Then what if she and baby Bisera Del Rosario Dachkov were hurt? Who would cook Georgi’s dinner? And all that hospital and insurance paperwork. He was no good at all of that. Her husband needed her.
But then, even when her family was in a different state and their friends hadn’t seen them in months (last she heard, her best friend from college grew a philosopher’s bread), somehow she found relief in the distance. Having the time apart to drown out the noise from others’ opinions and cautionary tales of danger, real like on the news and imaginary (sorry, Mom) like the aswang, allowed Kiki the space to form her own opinions. She was one person in a city of millions.
If something happened to her, they’d call her the 28-year-old Asian-American mother and professional matchmaker because she wouldn’t just be a 28-year-old American businesswoman and mother. The world, for better or worse, would have needed to know she was an Asian mom.
All Kiki felt was fear. Some days the fear weighed down on her like a brick being thrown into her glass window. She couldn’t replace fear with hope, love, and determination, but she could make room for those sentiments.
She took a breath when she remembered to breathe. She thought that because her parents were the ones who were foreigners and because she was born and bred on US soil that she was one of us. Race in America continued to be a taut, tight rope we walked across.
Kiki wondered if she could get away with being so admittedly sad. Kiki wondered if she could get away with navel-gazing for so long until she had to do something other than feeling so sad, so lonely, so angry all the goddamn time. Kiki had to do something because she was here, and she was alive, and she was just brave enough to do something. Even if that something was small.
Even if she only started expanding her matchmaker business to include other women, other AAPI women on the fringes who didn’t just want to be doctors, lawyers, or engineers. Even if she only started volunteering on boards and asking to be a part of their diversity and inclusion program to see more women who looked like her and more women who didn’t. Kiki had a mouth to speak, and if it were only a few words she would say that would fall upon a few choice ears, it was better said aloud than not said at all.
Kiki dreamed of a world where her daughter wouldn’t become numb to years of remaining unseen. While Kiki’s mother warned her of creatures that didn’t exist, Kiki imagined warning Bisera of the real dangers. Because all minorities in America knew that the scariest creatures were the ones who told them they loved their clothing and their food and their people of caramel persuasion to push a pin into a country they never actually planned to visit. They were coworkers who went to lunch with us at Panda Cottage and asked us if the beef with broccoli or the sweet & sour pork was better. They were friends who showed us off as their token brown friend.
Kiki wasn’t going to keep rolling her eyes and saying her prayers, hoping people would change. She needed to change. She needed to say to whoever was going to listen that she had enough, that it wasn’t enough for people to love her food but hate her. When she still didn’t feel the courage to push through, she looked down at Bisera with her long eyelashes and eager coos, so she could be the Asian mom she always wanted to be. Free to love, laugh, and be angry, taking up space in their corner of our world.
Kelly Ann Gonzales is an Executive Matchmaker and Dating Consultant. Her published works include short fiction publications featured in Penultimate Peanut, Write Launch, Rigorous, Change Seven, and elsewhere.