THE LEAST AMERICAN FACE by M. Y. Li
The event is in thirty minutes. You don’t really know what it is. The leader of your Erasmus group said something in Spanish about a trip to a traditional Moroccan venue. But did he say the place is a restaurant or a themed bar? Your Spanish isn’t great, but it’s good enough to make out the dude’s suave accent, which is so much more intelligible than the Andalusian tongue in Seville, where you’re studying abroad this semester. What happened was earlier on the bus a French girl was chatting with you when the announcement was made. As you guys giggled and touched, you were wondering if she could indeed be into an Asian boy like you. If your appeal was in part indebted to K-pop. If you might have a shot with her tonight. And she’s French. The first French girl you’ve flirted with.
You’re in your hotel room. Your two roommates are nowhere in sight. One of the guys is your best friend here. He’s from Munich. Not a very tall man. You can embrace him from behind and have your chin rest effortlessly on his cap. He always wears a hat for some reason. His hair is not bad. Short and black just like your Chinese hair. He’s easily the nicest dude you’ve met in Erasmus, the group that organized this trip across the Mediterranean for a couple dozen international college students studying abroad in Seville. What makes you appreciate him, though, is that he always fantasizes about getting girls galaxies out of both your leagues. He’s probably in the gym right now, getting that final flex. The other roommate is Swiss. He’s from some French-speaking region whose name you’ve forgotten. He’s also short, and you guys have only talked like twice. You don’t know much about him apart from the fact that he’s boning the hot Peruana who sat behind you on the bus.
There’s a fly the size of a thumb on the skin-colored wallpaper next to your bed. It makes an annoying buzz even when it’s resting. You wonder how many more big bugs are lurking in your hotel room. But still, it’s a nice change of scenery to be here. It feels refreshing to leave Europe after being in Spain for three months. So far, your group has visited the beaches of Tangier, where you played frisbee with the program leader. You two bonded over the backhand toss, which you both agreed was the only proper way to throw a disc. Forehand throws are for noobs. In Asilah, you showed off your music skills on a street piano near a narrow boulevard of markets. One Italian guy, a third-year music major, joined in for a duet of Daddy Yankee’s “Gasolina”. Then came the trip to Chefchaouen, where you snapped pictures of your peers exploring the historical blue stairwells and alleys. In the process, you swapped contact information with several photography enthusiasts from Mexico. Now, it’s day three of your trip, and you guys have just arrived at the city center of Tétouan. You’ve caught everyone’s attention by introducing yourself as an American even though you’re like the most Chinese-looking dude ever. And you just flirted with that French girl on the bus. The last thing you want is to have some big-ass bug in your hotel room to ruin your momentum.
With your friends out of the room, you want to lie back and chill on your bed, which is really just a pull-out couch. Your German friend and the Swiss roommate took the only two legitimate beds while you were trying to pick up a few words of Darija from the sweet hotel receptionist in the front lobby. You didn’t mind though. The couch is near the window and close to the bathroom. It feels tempting now to take out your phone, put on some porn, and wank. Or maybe listen to Jay Chou’s new single and imagine yourself as him, selling out stadiums. Surely at that level, you wouldn’t need to care whether a particular French girl is into you. But at the event, which you think might be at some snooker parlor or sheesha hide-out (after all, the Erasmus leader sounded like he was joking when he said “traditional”), you want to make sure your English comes out properly—as American and normal-sounding as possible. You stare at the flavored tea bags by the microwave. They look enticing in their maroon and shiny packaging, and you want to give them a try. Don’t. At least not now. Tea does something funny to your mouth. You’re not sure how to describe it. It’s like there’s something in it that inhibits saliva and forms a thin layer of tannins over your tongue so your English doesn’t come out right, making your accent all the more obvious. Also, resist the urge to brush your teeth. Toothpaste is like tea. Bad for the tongue. The cheap hotel toothbrush hurts your gums anyway. Don’t find your German friend in the gym. Working out leads to dehydration, which can in turn lead to a dry mouth. Plus, last-minute training won’t get you anywhere. You should’ve gone to the gym ages ago, lazy ass. You reach for the pack of Doublemint in your pocket. There are still twenty-seven minutes till the event. It’s too early to start chewing. Really, you should’ve gotten the hard candies. They keep your mouth watery longer and don’t require you to keep the little wrappers in your pocket like some loser. Whenever you chew gum at a party, you always end up finding a bunch of shiny and sticky clumps in your pockets two weeks later while doing laundry. For now, sip on your ice water and maybe eat a Pop-Tart to get your jaw moving.
As you stare out the window into the busy Tétouan streets, you wonder if drinks will be available at the event. Regardless, you don’t plan on drinking a lot tonight. You wish for something sweet and tame like watermelon juice or pineapple slush. You want to stay sober and get to know the French girl a bit more. Talk to her like you’re in full control. Countless nights out in Seville with your American friends come to mind: at the bars over there, you always go hard for liquor, ordering before anyone else. A rum and coke usually. Sometimes a tinto de verano if you’ve had a long day. The goal is to down the drink as fast as possible without seeming suspicious or like an alcoholic and then blurt out some British English for laughs. You suck at the British accent, really. A Spaniard could probably do it better than you. But that’s beside the point. The point is to hide your real accent altogether. Your American accent sounds weird in a loud venue like a bar. When you raise your voice, you sound like a FOB, an international Chinese student. You never want to sound like that. It’s not that you don’t like international Chinese students or anything. But you’ll always remember the time you first immigrated to the US and a kid in your third-grade social studies class asked you about ration stamps and fake milk powder. This was before either of you knew anything about the world. By the time you went abroad to Spain, you’d already lived in America for twelve years. That’s the only home you know.
Outside the window a group of Asian tourists pass by the street beneath your hotel. They’re carrying bags of souvenirs in their hands, walking in a hurry as they hail a taxi. Due to all the noise on the street, they raise their voices. But the taxi driver seems to be having a hard time understanding them. He shakes his head, drives on. You think back to your professor’s office in the US. A quiet place like that and your bedroom is where your accent sounds nice. There on a good day it’s better than the accent of some Asian Americans born in America, even. It’s soothing and posh, like the voice of a narrator from an audio book. It made you more confident when talking with your professor about his summer trip in Rome. Not that you really cared, of course—you just wanted to pave the way for a letter of rec. It also made you more attractive when talking philosophy to the Asian girl you finally brought home after twenty boba dates. That’s the kind of place you wish the event will take place at tonight. Your professor’s office. Your bedroom. A bar without the music. A place where nobody talks except for you and the French girl.
The Asian tourists try to hail another taxi. They’re now on the street across from your hotel. This time also to no avail. You let out a sigh. You’ve been talking to the French girl in Spanish. Bad Spanish that is, purposely enunciating the er and o endings of words the American way like a sassy bitch. But she’ll want to practice her English with you at the event. After all, you’d told her you’re from California. She’ll want to test you out. To see if you’re a true American. Born and raised.
The door opens with a thud. Your German and Swiss friends come running in with two bottles of Coca-Cola. Listo dude? they say. They grab you by the arms and lead you out the door, into the hallway painted in red, humming “Con Calma.” You check the time on your phone. Still fifteen minutes to go. You pop a slice of Doublemint in your mouth anyway and start chewing.
It turns out the event is a visit to an old Moroccan apothecary. You three and your Erasmus group sit on rows of long benches facing the front of the room, where racks of herbs and cream jars stand by a podium. The Swiss guy is sitting next to you. From the peaceful grin on his face, you know he’s done it. You scan the room to find the Peruana with her friends in the second row. She’s changed into a black sweater and sweatpants. Man, can’t these two just keep their hands to themselves for one damn minute? Then the French girl turns to wink at you from the first row. She’s still in the knotted crop tee and denim shorts from earlier on the bus. You wink back with a nervous smile. Staring at her curvy back, you realize how sleek her auburn hair is. If you guys were together, you could caress it all day.
The shop owner walks up to the podium. The guy looks both Moroccan and Latino and is slightly taller than you. He introduces himself and shares an anecdote about the Seville Erasmus group from last year. You can’t help but stare at the black mole by the corner of his mouth. It’s almost as big as the fly in your room.
His voice sounds strained, like he’s forcing himself to be enthusiastic, as he says, Ahora, dónde están mis italianos? A wave of hands pop up in the back row. Out, he says, pointing a finger at the door. The room bursts into laughter. You turn back to see your Italian friends cracking up, too. You don’t get what’s funny but know that if the same joke were made about los chinos, the room would be dead silent, dry as a winter morning. The French girl turns around and shoots you a glance. You fake a smile. She smiles back.
Affirmed by his audience, the owner starts to speak with more energy, calling out every nationality in your group. Y mis franceses? Oui, your French girl and her friends clap in unison. Bonjour, says the owner, bowing his head like a gentleman. Tenemos alguien de Peru? he goes on. The Peruana raises her hand high up in the air, proudly representing like a Congress woman. Ah, siempre temenos una Peruana, siempre, the owner shakes his head in mock disapproval. People start cracking up. The French girl looks back at you again. She’s mouthing something. Bonjour. Or maybe Bordeaux. But why the hell would she mouth Bordeaux to you? You smile and whisper, Bonjour, under your breath. Alguien de los Estados Unidos? he continues. You raise your hand along with the three other Americans. There’s the Mexican American girl whose last name is Garcia. According to your German and Swiss roommates, she looks more Latina than half the Latinas from Latin America on this trip, though she claims to be only a quarter Mexican. You’d spoken to her once in a restaurant in Chefchaouen. There’s the African American guy. He’s twenty-eight and tall as a superhero. He’s really too old for Erasmus. You wonder if he’s on this trip just to bone, too. And then of course there’s the white guy from the Midwest. He’s half an inch shorter than you but in general not bad looking. The owner scans you guys for a good second and points a finger at you. Pero tú no, he says. The crowd goes wild. The loudest wave of laughter yet. You feel your face grow hot. You wonder if you look as red as when you get Asian glow. Where are you from originally? he asks you. It’s his first full sentence in English, and you hate to admit his accent is decent. Mis padres y yo somos de Beijing, you whisper like a mute. Now that everyone’s attention is on you, you’re too afraid to respond in English. All you really need to say is you were originally from Beijing but grew up in the States. It’s a simple statement, and you could’ve spoken it perfectly with or without your accent. But your confidence has already disintegrated.
Vale. Now let me introduce you guys to the Moroccan mint tea, he says with a huge smile. He pulls out a bag of leaves from the shelf. It’s obvious the dude has achieved his intention of warming up the crowd. Now he can go on advertising his products. You love Moroccan mint tea. You’ve had it for breakfast the past two days. You would love to hear the history behind it and grab some for your host mom in Seville and your real mom in California. But your mind is not here anymore. You keep on telling yourself it’s all right. Imagine if you were actually born in the States, how much more would that innocent joke have hurt? Plus, everyone is paying attention to the dude now. They’ve probably already forgotten about your embarrassment. But the French girl. She’s not turning around anymore. No more winks or smiles. All you can see is her back. Her gorgeous auburn hair.
Almost as an afterthought, you wonder how things would’ve turned out if when the shop owner asked for the Americans, you didn’t raise your hand. The French girl probably wouldn’t’ve even noticed. And if he goes on to ask, Dónde están mis chinos? you could proudly raise your hand and say, Ya sabes donde estoy, soy el único. Maybe the crowd would cheer you on. And you’d be the originator of a joke instead of the butt of one.
There’re still two days left in the Moroccan trip. Tomorrow you guys will be heading to see the beach and golf resort near Martil. You don’t have to sit next to the French girl again. You can sit toward the front of the bus, next to the Erasmus leader. He’s a nice guy who won’t judge you for anything except the wrong way to throw a frisbee. You can still volunteer to be the group’s photographer and relish the beauty of the country that stunned you when you first arrived in Tangier.
The shop owner says something else that cracks up the room. This time you laugh too, even though you have no idea what he said. You think about the minutes you’d just spent in your hotel room preparing the perfect American accent only to speak Spanish. You can’t help but laugh again, for real now. It isn’t the first time you’ve been rejected, and it won’t be the last. Tonight, you’ll go to bed early to prepare for the long day tomorrow. You’ll want to wank, except your roommates will be in the room as well.