Gabrielle Rente: Quince in the Metro
It was when I was standing in a station of the Parisian Metro, lost, terrified, and praying that that Johnny Depp would come and save me that I regretted not having a quince.
In Spanish culture, a girl officially becomes a woman when she turns fifteen, particularly during this grand party called la fiesta de quince años or quince. It involves a gigantic creampuff-looking dress, various extravagant dances, and lots of potential blackmail photos while your mother cries about how her baby is now a woman, and your abuela tells that story of how you took all the pots out of the kitchen cabinets and climbed inside them when you were barely two.
I skipped this step in my path to adulthood.
Instead, my mom got me and my friends tickets to Busch Gardens’ Howl-o-Scream. We spent the night screaming in haunted mazes and running from zombie lumberjacks revving their chainsaws. We ate gelado, heard Dr. Frankenstein sing about being an evil-genius, and shared a ton of laughs. The roses had eyeballs in them and my escorts were a couple of good friends. No fuss, just fun.
Part of me wondered what the consequences would be for not following tradition. There was a reason why girls had a quince, right? Would I still be considered a woman even though I never donned a tiara? Was I still Latina?
I was too busy adjusting to the new age of fifteen to give it much thought.
My abuela was not pleased with my choice. She would have liked to dress me up like a child bride and show me off to her church friends. ¡La chica de las cazuelas es una mujer! ¡Ay, que linda! My aunt Bea, or Uncle Bea as we sometimes called her, insisted that I needed something big to commemorate this grand achievement. “You’re only fifteen once,” she argued. About a month after my birthday, she convinced my parents to allow her to take me to Europe for a week.
I didn’t argue with that.
We spent a week in England, hitting up the usual tourist spots, like the Tower of London, Big Ben, and Stratford-upon-Avon. We then then took the “Chunnel” to Paris for a day. I felt way more glamorous sauntering up to the Eiffel Tower than I would have in a glittery ballgown. My fifteen-year-old mind could hardly comprehend all the amazing sights I was seeing, like Notre Dame, the Seine river, even colored toilet paper! Everything was right there! It was real!
My aunt was a professional when it came to public transportation. She had introduced me to the Underground in London, and after four days, I felt I was ready to face the Parisian Metro. Like any crowded city, the stations were packed with people all stuffed onto platforms like cattle. I clutched my aunt’s purse strap while she gracefully mowed her way through the currents of pedestrians. A train had pulled up to the platform, and the current gently shoved us toward the steely tube. With me still attached to her purse, my aunt confidently stepped into the car. I went to follow suite when the doors snapped shut on my arm.
Realizing that something was amiss, my aunt spun around and became a surgical storm of panicked profanity. She screamed at me to stay put, as I yanked my poor arm out of the jaws. I leaped back from the edge of the platform just as the train shot forward, disappearing down a dark tunnel with my only guide.
Then it was just me. A small, fairly attractive, teenager. Alone. In France.
And I just saw the movie “Taken.”
Je ne parle pas français.
Nobody seemed to notice the dumbass American girl who almost had a train take her arm as a quick, on-the-go snack. Strange, as I was certain a giant neon sign hung over me, blinking the words “Kidnap me!” My dad’s voice annoyingly echoed in my ears to stay alert. I scuttled over to an empty bench and plopped down to assess my dismal situation. My aunt would have to get off at the next stop, take the stairs up and over to the opposite side of the platform, and board the train coming back my way. Simple enough. She would be back in no more than ten minutes.
In the meantime, I hated the idea of not knowing where I was. Forget GPS. Now was the time to use that handy-dandy map I snatched up. Too bad mine didn’t have blue eyebrows and screamed “I’m the map!” when I unfolded it to an overwhelming rainbow of routes and symbols. With my eyes darting between the name of the station glistening in bold font across from me and the chaotic mess, I pointed out the station in the heart of colorful lines and dots. My finger grazed the symbol for the Louvre.
Dozens, maybe even hundreds, of people brushed past, all refusing to make eye contact with one another as they zipped off to different places, following their own routes. Some wore elaborate blouses, others were buttoned up in black peacoats. Some carried folded umbrellas while others clutched bags or children’s hands. A man bustled passed with a phone pressed to his ear, murmuring in a tongue I didn’t know. A woman tugged two children along, leaning down to direct them in French. My senses simmered with the novelty of sitting there and watching.
I was alone for the first time in my life, and it was in Paris. There were new places to explore, beautiful artwork to marvel, streets to stroll along. New, new new! Why not lean back and enjoy the moment?
Suddenly an uproar. I looked up to see my aunt not mowing but thrashing her way through the crowd, eyes round and deadlocked on me.
She crashed into me with a huge hug. “Your brother- I mean my brother, who’s your father, and not my father- Ah! He is going to kill me!”
We got on the next train, and I spent the ride trying to convince my aunt that she still had a full life ahead of her and that I was safe and that, yes, I was going to tell my parents what happened because it’s actually a funny story.
My aunt ended up confessing to my parents herself what had happened. To her relief, my parents doubled over, laughing at the two of us. “Oh, but she was so calm when I found her,” she said, wrapping me up in another hug. She went on to say how my parents have raised such a mature, young woman.
A framed photo of four-year-old me, round-faced, missing teeth, and with dark hair wrapped up in a ponytail, smiled out from the corner table. That girl had never stepped out of the country. She believed that stuffed animals had feelings and that angels liked to go bowling during thunderstorms. She had never boarded a plane or even dared to swim alone in the ocean. On the wall hanging over the sofa was a decorative mirror. The reflection that stared out at me was, yes, of a young woman. She had the same dark hair but sharper cheekbones and all of her teeth. She had seen extravagant places, walked along famous streets, and tasted foreign foods. She looked wiser, even stood a little taller with her chin tilted up. A bruise encircled her bicep, a mixture of purples, greens, and blues.
Turns out, I had my quince after all.
Dan Teano: Foreign at Home
I was never nervous about my house. I’ve also never felt nervous in my house. Why would I feel uncomfortable in the place where I spent most of my time wasting my time—eating fried plantains, playing Super Smash Bros at 3am, and reading Captain Underpants instead of Magic Treehouse? Home was safe. Home was where I felt relaxed yet empowered to be me. Home was all that plus the world, until my friend told me otherwise.
“Your house smells Asian.” I didn’t know how to respond.
“So it smells like—”
“—like rice and grandma,” he said.
Immediately, I wondered if I smelled like grandma. I remember asking myself, "what does that even smell like?" Is the smell of rice and grandma offensive?—heck, why didn’t I find any of this offensive?
At that moment, I was unconscious of the fact that I was more concerned about not offending my white friend’s nose than I was defending the foundations of my identity. Owa has been my blood; rice has been my DNA. And yet, somehow, I desired to be detached from all family matters, even as we stood under the comforts of my house’s sun-lit kitchen, the same place I spent countless hours binge eating dried mangos while finishing Algebra homework.
Here’s the thing about being Asian-American: you’re always more Asian than American. So no matter how long my parents have lived here, no matter how many three-plus-syllable words are in my vocabulary, my American nationality will always be seen as apocryphal. But it’s fine, now. I live for being different. After all, I am who I am not only for who I am, but also because of who you are not.
So I don’t need to shape up my hairline or get my ears re-pierced, nor do I need to show you how many B-list rappers are in my current workout playlist. I just need to accept that I’ll never be American-American—and we all just need to understand that anything, and anyone anywhere in America is bound to look and smell different than their neighbor.