WE THE INTERWOVEN
KHRISTINE RIVERA WALKED WITH PURPOSE across the Pentacrest in the central campus of the University of Iowa through a golden whirlwind falling from gingko trees. A senior majoring in international studies and political science, she was, as usual, incredibly busy. The former Fil-Am teen beauty queen and all-state speech and debate champion perused the agenda of her upcoming week. Brushing the fan-shaped leaves from her jacket, she scrolled through her meticulously color-coded academic, family, and social calendars.
In time with the rising sun, a notification chimed. Reading the notice, she gave a sigh and an eye roll of exasperation. In a rare lapse of judgment, she had allowed her roommate to set up a Heart2Heart profile. Pushed by the latest online dating app, the banner cheerfully exclaimed, “Are you ready to meet your match?”, accompanied by a picture of the day’s most eligible 20- to 26-year-old, cisgendered, heterosexual males within a 0- to 25-mile radius of campus.
As an Asian woman dating online, she knew the odds were in her favor. Centuries of Orientalism under the Western gaze had done its damage depicting her sisterhood as subservient flowers. She expected to halfheartedly acquiesce to a slurry of dates of varying quality with an overabundance of otaku white boys who watched too much Naruto.
Based on the lackluster profile descriptions, without even looking through the pictures, she declined most of their invitations to chat. The 22-year-old enabler of science and discovery at an agribusiness conglomerate, resident Instagrammer, and youth translator to his middle-aged colleagues? Swipe left, denied. The 25-year-old MD/MBA candidate who lived and breathed medicine, at least until he cashed out to the most promising Silicon Prairie health-tech startup? Swipe left, denied. The 20-year-old K-pop B-boy wannabe boasting of three nights in the Polk County jail for street performing without a permit? SMH, swipe left!
Khristine always told herself that nothing serious, of course, would detract from her ten-year plan. Intern as a White House Fellow. Gain admittance to a top law school. Become the first Asian American woman from Iowa to serve in the U.S. Senate. Amplify the voices of struggling people from immigrant families like hers. Make a difference in the world. She was a woman with purpose who could not waste a moment on trifling romance.
And then, she met Dean.
Dean Chung was a level-headed ombudsman and agnostic Unitarian Universalist minister-in-training. As a graduate student, his research focused on the sociology of nonreligious second-generation Chinese Americans. They almost never met, save for his invitation to go out for hand-pulled noodles and explore the wonders of the university library’s special collections room. In truth, it was the original Edna Griffin papers in the Iowa Women’s Archives she was longing to meet.
A native of the East Bay, he followed his mother to the University of Iowa, where she was an otolaryngology department chair who valued long-term therapeutic relationships with her patients. Khristine and Dean shared stories about their immigrant families, his Han Chinese and hers Tagalog and Maguindanao Filipino, and the lives of hardship they would never know in the lands their families left behind. Together over a shared bowl of lāmiàn, they lamented not only their inadequate command of their mother tongues but also the fact that asking their parents to teach them would be met with admonition rather than instruction.
Their first date continued to the library special collections, where they pored over aged newspaper clippings describing the 50th anniversary of the successful effort to desegregate Katz Drug Store in 1949 by Edna Griffin, the Rosa Parks of Iowa. As they discussed Edna’s courage, Dean confessed that he always wanted to be in Gryffindor, the Hogwarts House famed for bravery, but was actually a Ravenclaw. Khristine told him that she always wanted to be in Ravenclaw but was actually a Hufflepuff.
Among the stacks, she learned that he majored in philosophy at Stanford and savored the art of conflict mediation. He wanted to know why she felt so uncomfortable being thought of as an authority figure despite her many accomplishments and ambitions. She gave him her often-told reply, “Because of my stature and gender, I am never granted positions of authority without fighting for it.”
Feeling at home among books, she explained how, for the first time, she saw a piece of herself in fiction while reading Celeste Ng novels. Unlike his California upbringing, she identified with being the Only One in a small Midwestern town. Growing up in the Bay Area, he had never experienced microaggressions for speaking unaccented English until he came to the Hawkeye State.
With a knowing look, Dean asked if she was a writer. Khristine thought to herself, “Is it how I talk? Or maybe how I gush over books?” She would be sad the day she would have to call herself a citizen emerita of the City of Literature.
Not long afterward, when midterms were over (hers taking, his grading), they met downtown for dinner. Dean explained how the nonreligious composed over one-fifth of second-generation Chinese Americans, including himself, and his quest to help people like him lead meaningful, ethical lives. Using his generational cohort as a framework to understand cultural duty and deep respect by way of the Confucian tradition, they could find higher meaning through the narrative of the family.
Passing rainbow rolls between chopsticks, dropping only every eighth, Khristine and Dean sketched diagrams of their bookshelves and their personal organizational schema: “You situate Poverty and Inequality Studies next to the Asian American History section?” “I much prefer placing Yang’s graphic novels next to Morrison and Bulosan on the Marginalized Identities shelf.” On the backs of napkins stained by wasabi, they drew maps of California, the Midwest, the Mainland, and the Archipelago connected by a web of arrows to illustrate where their stories came from.
Khristine had never felt so connected to another person so effortlessly; she longed to imbibe further details about his life. After hearing of his aversion to Maid-Rite sandwiches, she learned that he was a pescatarian. He was a photographer for his high school newspaper. He spent a summer after college as a camp counselor for children with autism. In undergrad, they called their tony Palo Alto campus “The Farm,” and it was the most rural place he had ever lived until Iowa.
He asked how she interpreted her identity as a Filipino-American who was culturally Catholic. She told him about her first expressions of gender identity wearing plaid jumpers at the behest of her mother in kindergarten, then wearing only pants in a small act of rebellion until middle school. While she texted a classmate to coordinate a group project, a glance at the Totoro home screen on her cell phone made him smile. He took her out for dessert, both ordering taro boba tea, and eagerly made plans to meet again.
They next came together at the IMU Black Box Theater, to be present and receive the presence of ReOriented Words, the longest-running Asian American open mic tour in the Midwest. She had never heard anything like it before. From the banal to the sublime, it was such a gift to see herself and their collective stories reflected onstage in slam poetry.
The comedic monologue of the Mindy Kaling-wannabe was a bit too saccharine for her palate, but she snapped enthusiastically all the same. Whisky Saigon Girl was a true poet, throwing shade on those who equated Vietnamese cuisine with phở alone. Her identity reduced to a piece of food, she was the resistance to be consumed. Finally, they were wowed by the featured Gao Vang, a sage of the stage who memorialized the tragedy of her little sister via sonnet. She with the courage to call out, “American Family Values? Bullshit. America is a country where children move across the country for college.”
These diasporic performers plucked their heartstrings so deeply, vibrating at the wavelength of the universe. So many sighs and affirmations. So much love and humanity in that sweltering room, emanating into the depths of the night.
As the masses exited the theater onto the street, the crown of their heads touched but for a moment as Khristine and Dean gazed at the stars. They had both seen the Milky Way, but not the Northern Lights. He promised someday they would. As he walked her home, ever so slightly out of step, she noticed him staring longingly at church towers and naves, yearning for community, filling each breath with the weight of forgotten ghosts of the Cultural Revolution.
As she finished editing her latest policy report on the economic feasibility of needle exchanges for harm reduction in the opioid crisis, Khristine was unusually excited to meet Dean for the monthly First Friday reception. At the Museum of Art, they marveled at the multitude of musical instruments from various eras, attempting to divine their function from form. Passing by what could have been his great-great-grandfather’s erhu or her grandmother’s kulintang, they learned that they both competed as defense attorneys at state mock trial tournaments.
Dean smuggled in gỏi cuốn, and they snacked on spring rolls that tasted altogether too healthy. He shared that he was named from a baby book in English, though his name was chosen to be easy for Mandarin speakers to pronounce. She told the tale of how she her name was a portmanteau of her maternal grandparents’ names, Cristosomo and Tinay.
He argued at her dismissal of participatory budgeting anywhere but at the municipal level. Evoking the boondock mountains from the clues of “remote, rural, military,” he divined his first Tagalog word, bundok. She lamented how the phrase seemed to be the only relic from the Philippine–American War to remain in common parlance, or even remembered at all.
They meandered through exhibits of found-plastic palaces that shimmered as the gilded present from a broken past. Dean thought about 义务 as they sat in a velveteen room. He paused, and then blurted, “I’m moving back to California, full disclosure.”
Her heart fell.
She said that she was fine.
She was not fine.
Attempting to regain control of a swell of unnamed emotions, Khristine, as planned, reached into her bag. She wanted to lend him her favorite possession, a neurosurgeon’s memoir on living a virtuous and meaningful life in the face of premature death. Dean was reluctant to accept the dog-eared book. He said that he didn’t want to do any false advertising.
Ignoring his statement marking their limited time, in response she asked him to interview his grandmother, like he had always wanted. Turning toward a celadon basin on a pedestal, she pretended to read the fine print of the label to hide the emerging redness on her face. She stoically told him to record his nǎinai’s wisdom, as she had done with her own lola on her most recent trip to Quezon City.
“You have to,” she said. “Family is so important.”
Reflecting on their time together, Khristine was refreshed by Dean’s lack of imposter syndrome due to self-professed luck, privilege, and hard work. This philosophy was in deep contrast to her own insecurities and incessant need to compare herself to the bevy of exceptional people in her surroundings.
She was studying for the LSAT over Thanksgiving break when he sent her a draft from his manuscript.
I realize a great proportion of our spiritual hurt stems from a misunderstanding of our ethical inheritance. As long as we believe our “Asian values” are a rigid set of codes, we fall into the false trap of choosing between our parents’ values and the values of the society we live in as Americans. But if we reflect and understand the framework that our contemporary inheritance stems from, we realize the East Asian humanist tradition is, in fact, one of the most dynamic and insightful sources of wisdom for living meaningfully in the modern era.
Although he found the perfect blend of what he wanted to do in this world in ministry and mediation, at times the roar of the Tiger Mother echoed throughout his inner monologue. During those moments, he felt the draw to enter the medical space because there was so much good to be done.
On the day classes resumed after Thanksgiving break, Dean told her how he was almost lost to the industrial medical complex. He spent the year before grad school helping his cousins run Crista Galli Care, a preventive medicine startup hoping to topple the colossus. His mother, the surgeon, called preservation of the patient’s story the most important tool in the vast armamentarium for diagnosing and treating disease. They spoke of art and family and duty. He let her know that he was moving back to California in a few short weeks.
“When?” she asked, although she did not want to know the answer.
“Graduating at semester.” He hesitated. “They need me now more than ever.”
Khristine smiled with her face but not with her eyes on the day in December she asked him to a concert at The Mill. Knowing that their paths were now diverging, they entered the bar together to hear Kishi Bashi perform ethereal ballads on looped violins.
Politely pushing through the stream of humanity advancing toward the stage, she enjoyed the rush of sound washing over them. The throng of bodies of the crowd made it difficult for either of them to see, but, oh, could they hear the anguish of this indie multi-instrumentalist. Dean placed a hand on the small of her back to keep balanced. She leaned into him to take in the details of the prismatic light and synesthesia and being so close to the origins of melody.
Walking side by side along the just-salted sidewalk, his phone rang jarringly as he hurried a few steps ahead. She watched from afar as his brow knit together in concern, and as she approached, she heard a ghostly sob. It was the call he had been dreading; his father’s mother was sick in the hospital in Richmond. Throughout the night, his family sent a flurry of texts, his phone a chorus of sorrow as she comforted him with a warm pot of chicken adobo.
Khristine and Dean met for the last time near the boathouse on the winter solstice, although she did not know they had finally reached their apogee. They walked uphill toward campus through twinkle-light trees along manicured paths shortly after a snowfall. She asked him if her loaned book about the terminally ill neurosurgeon was too much, but it was the childhood arrivals in deferred-action limbo for whom he shed tears.
Although meant for children, they climbed playgrounds of modular hexagons and compared their mismatched sizes. Continuing their journey along Riverside Drive, they stood feet to feet on the bridge overlooking the Iowa River and gazed at the moon. Together, they saw the arc of the universe bending toward justice.
They sipped their warm drinks, slurped gummy tapioca pearls, and spoke about the difference between artisanal, artistry, and craft. He smiled as he showed her a photo of his hometown’s páifāng gateway, adorned with four serendipitous characters, draped by American and Chinese flags. She nodded in silent agreement. The perfect book cover.
And thus, the chapter of Dean Chung, humanist extraordinaire, ended. Khristine Rivera thought to herself about the whirlwind of these past few months, “My, how the boy has left a mark on my soul.” He said goodbye with a parting hug and returned her book for good. Afterward, he said that he was glad to have met someone so humanistic in politics. Khristine turned the corner to leave and gulped down the remainder of her boba tea. It tasted bitter and cold.
Melissa Palma is an Iowa-raised daughter of Filipino immigrants. She was privileged to grow up in a multi-generational household with her grandparents, parents, and little sister in Waterloo, Iowa.