What did you think?

Since I’m trying to study for my neurobiology final and most of my real-life conversations for the past few weeks have been irritable outbursts about how much I hate science classes, I thought I’d share a poem I wrote a few years back. It’s a bit different from the last one. This one is something I wrote one night when I was annoyed about being constantly stared at whenever I’m in public, compounded by the misery of studying terrifying academic subjects I didn’t even understand. Oh, and I didn’t feel like working on a comparative literature paper. Yes, procrastination has been my lifelong hobby, what can I say. Anyway, by the time I finished the poem, I was too amused to be bitter anymore, and I remember printing out a stack of copies and gleefully handing it out to all my friends and acquaintances. It still makes me laugh, rereading it. It may have been three years, but this poem’s still very much me, except for the fact that I’m neither pre-med nor an NPB (Neurobiology, Physiology, & Behavior) major anymore. And I’m no longer so sure about that pediatric audiology deal either.

Apologies for all the scrolling. It looks a lot less overwhelming when it’s printed as two columns front-and-back on a Word document.

The poem itself was inspired by a passage from Chang-rae Lee’s novel, A Gesture Life, a brilliantly-composed segment that reminded me of my own insecurities:

What used to concern me greatly about leaving was the awkward impression you can sometimes have, say when you find yourself on an everyday street, or in a store, or in what would otherwise be a shimmering, verdant park, and you think not about the surroundings but about yourself, and how people will stop and think (most times, unnoticeably) about who you may be, how you fit into the picture, what this may say, and so on and so forth. I’ve never really liked this kind of thinking, either theirs or mine, and have always wished to be in a situation like the one I have steadily fashioned for myself in this town, where, if I don’t have many intimates or close friends, I’m at least a quantity known, somebody long ago counted.

What Did You Think?

I’ve seen them all:
The puzzled looks,
The furtive gazes,
The passing end
Of a sweeping glance.
You didn’t think I noticed, did you?
My own face remained
Serene and composed,
Until you had passed.
Want to know a secret?
It’s a mask.
And whenever you pass by me,
As I sit cross-legged on a park bench
Or stroll through the mall
Or let my eyes fall back on
The textbook lying open before me,
My head remains held high with pride,
But inwardly my thoughts are whirling,
Mirroring the myriad questions
Racing through your own head,
Because I know what you were wondering
During the second it took for your eyes
To sweep over me:
Who is that girl?
Where does she come from?
What is she doing here?
How does she fit into this picture?

Striding past me,
You leave in your wake
An unvoiced thought,
The most insulting dismissal of all—
(Did you really think
You kept your own face so very blank
After all?)—
“Why, I bet she doesn’t even speak
A word of English!”

My lips curve in a smile.
Laughter bubbles up in my throat.
I cover my mouth with both hands
In an effort to silence
An outburst of hilarity.

It isn’t your fault, I suppose.
You couldn’t know
That I probably speak
Better English than you do,
That my grammar is more precise,
My sentences (sometimes) more concise,
My sarcasm more biting,
My articulated anger more hurtful
Than you could ever imagine.

It isn’t your fault, I suppose.
You couldn’t know
That I’ve squandered away
Precious minutes spent
Racing against the clock
In an effort to correct the grammatical errors
That my chemistry professor managed to
Pepper his midterm exams with,
Instead of calculating rates of reactions
And industriously bubbling in
Correct answers on my scantron.
(Is the answer really always “C”?)
No wonder I’ve had so much trouble
Trying to remember
What a spectator ion is,
And what a buffer solution does.
And, by the way,
Why exactly do they call it
The “plum pudding theory”
Anyway?

It isn’t your fault, I suppose.
You couldn’t know
That I frantically wave my hand
In biology lecture
To correct the professor as he
Endeavors to scrawl tongue-twisting terms
Across the blackboard.
But please don’t ask me to define
What platyhelminthes are,
Or to explain what good
Comes from possessing
A hollow dorsal nerve cord.

Will it truly surprise you to learn that
Commas are my friends,
And my favorite color is red?
Am I in the wrong major?
Perhaps.
No one seems to understand
What exactly “NPB”
Stands for anyway,
Least of all myself.
Yet I’ve mastered the art
Of rattling it off my tongue with ease,
And learned to accept
The questioning glances that follow,
As a matter of course.

But did you really think
That you skillfully hid
Your complete surprise
At hearing me pronounce
Such words as “neurobiology”
And “otolaryngology”
With remarkable enunciation?
Oh, I’m sorry—
I left my accent at home today.
Is that so very disappointing
For you to hear?
“What? You want to be
A pediatric audiologist
When you grow up?”

It’s sad that I decided on
My career goal when I was eight,
While many of you
Are yet scratching your heads,
Trying to decipher
What the prefix “audio-”
Means.

Is my inherent sarcasm
Starting to shine through?
Let me tell you:
Words, when used wisely,
Can sting far more effectively
Than any concentration of
Hydrochloric acid you spill on yourself
While carrying out
Titration experiments in chemistry lab.

And I may be deaf,
But I can clearly hear
The unsaid thoughts
That flit across your face.
So next time you pass by me
And wonder how I fit
Into the grand scheme of things,
Don’t insult me by labeling
My English skills
As nonexistent.
Call me,
The wannabe English major.
Call me a rebel child.
Call me the girl with the funky,
Original style.
Call me a speed-demon,
Or a bookworm.
Call me by name.
(But whatever you do,
Don’t ever call me “Jasmin”!)
Lean over
And ask me for the time,
Or for my personal thoughts on
The meaning of life
If you wish to hear
My articulate, unaccented
Speech patterns.

If you squirmed with embarrassment
At recognizing yourself here—
Don’t worry,
I don’t hold grudges for very long.
But next time,
Whatever you decide to do,
Don’t walk past me and
Silently dismiss me with,
“Why, I bet she doesn’t even speak
A word of English!”

Because if you were to suddenly turn back,
You would see me shaking
With gleeful, barely suppressed laughter.
It isn’t your fault, I suppose.
You couldn’t know.

- April 2002

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