To Hear a Chinese Man Play America’s National Anthem

train

“Train Abstracted,” illustrated by Cassandra Hsiao

It is crowded here. You know the feeling better than I do, bodies like swaying grass as the train rolls to a stop. We pass 86th street under cement tunnels of Manhattan. Sweat-soaked business suits and fanny packs press together in a city I consider foreign—I am unused to red brick buildings trapping slivers of the sky, your home a jungle of concrete.

The train is in motion yet you plant your boots and seek friction to hold you steady. Fingers wrapped around a black tuba. Fill your cheeks with air and kiss the tuba’s night lips. Sound waves shake our car. What is the sound of tunnel light?

Ballooning notes. Living instrument. Breath caught behind my teeth. There is a white man with a poorly shaved beard hanging onto the railing, eyes like black seeds. Is it racist to say I had a bad feeling about him the moment he stepped onto the train? He opens his mouth. Is there a sound control on that thing? I want him to feel the weight of a hand clapped over a mouth. What it is to hold silence like a cherry pit at the back of a mouth. 

I wish I could help blow louder your love for this country deemed not yours. End, ending. The song decrescendos into screeching wheels and empty wind. I imagine claps bouncing off the walls. Instead, the man in front of me mouths off again. People should pay you to stop.

You move towards the end of the car, bag open: Xie xie, xie xie, God bless you. And though you say it in Chinese, your God is the same as mine, same as the God we trust on green bills tucked tightly in that man’s wallet.

 

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This experience left a bad taste in my mouth. I said three words to the loud-mouthed man: “Can you not?” He said something snappish to me but was silent after that. When he got off the train the black lady next to me said, “What an a**hole” and the white lady across from me said, “Good riddance.”

After getting off and overcoming the strange unexplainable urge to cry, I wish I had said more. But now, looking back, three words was enough to shut him up and make his girlfriend look reproachfully at him. The smallest things can make a difference.

 

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