Real Americans

Rachel Khong

May 2, 2024 
The following is from Rachel Khong's Real Americans. Khong is the author of Goodbye, Vitamin, winner of the California Book Award for First Fiction, and named a Best Book of the Year by NPR; O, The Oprah Magazine; Vogue; and Esquire. Her work has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Cut, The Guardian, The Paris Review, and Tin House. In 2018, she founded The Ruby, a work and event space for women and nonbinary writers and artists in San Francisco’s Mission District.

My mother and father sat unspeaking at my kitchen table. My father’s hands trembled, and none of us mentioned it. His Parkinson’s was getting worse. I poured hot water over yellow-brown bits of chamomile flowers that danced up when the water hit them. My mother watched with suspicion as I filled a glass of water for myself from the tap.

“It’s safe to drink. New York water is famous.”

“How can water be famous?” my mother asked.

“It makes the pizza good. And the bagels.”

“That’s a nice TV,” my father said.

“You bought that?” my mother asked.

She was always doing this—asking questions about choices that had already been made.

“You’ll find a new roommate?” my mother asked.

I nodded. The apartment was crowded with boxes: Debbie’s things lined the hallway. After graduation, she was moving back to Omaha.

I’d posted an ad on Craigslist, describing the roommate I wanted: a “quiet professional, 20s or 30s,” as though that was what I was.

“A stranger?” my mother asked.

“Everyone starts out strangers. You’ve never had roommates?”

“I’ve had roommates,” she said, matter-of-factly.

When it came to her past, she never elaborated. She gripped her mug and I noticed new spots on the backs of her hands, light brown circles. My immediate thought was a selfish one, that I should wear sunscreen there.


Earlier, that afternoon, the sky had been an ominous silver, threatening to burst into rain. To my left and right were Chinese students I didn’t know: other Chens and Chans and Changs and Chengs. The mortarboard didn’t rest comfortably on my head. I’d pinned it into place but my hair was too slippery. The gown was a bright purple, a coarse material that itched against my chest and calves.

Somewhere in Yankee Stadium, my parents sat among the legions of family in the too-grand arena, waiting to hear my name.

The immense space reminded me that I was one of many—common, unspecial. I wasn’t graduating with any distinctions. It embarrassed me, that my parents had come all this way for this impersonal ritual.

Our commencement speaker was a television news anchor: famous, though not in a meaningful way. I wondered what my parents were thinking as he declared that we could do anything we set our minds to—a bland television sentiment. But the more trite his statements became, the more they elicited cheers and claps and hollers. We were exceptional, he said to the thousands of us. I noticed the students beside me, international students from Asian countries, not cheering along with everyone else.

I heard my name: only a first and last name, no middle—nothing to mispronounce. As I walked to the stage to collect my diploma, my hat slid farther down, looking silly, like I was poking fun at the ritual.

When other students claimed their diplomas, their entourages whistled and shouted out. But when my name was called I heard only the softest polite claps.


After the ceremony, after dinner, we returned to Chinatown, passing produce vendors and wizened Chinese women wearing softly rippled polyester pants, moving their practiced hands, discerning the better fruit from the rest.

My mother plucked out a cluster of brown fruit, stems bundled together with a rubber band. The vendor regarded us kindly, a Chinese mother and her Chinese daughter. When my mother returned her Cantonese with English, the vendor appeared surprised, then disappointed. She took the folded bill silently and handed us the fruit in a pink plastic bag.

“Longans,” my mother said. “I loved these as a girl.”

She demonstrated peeling the skin off, biting carefully to avoid the shiny deep brown pit.

“You were so brilliant,” my mother remembered with fondness. She spoke as though to herself. “All the tests you took. You always did better than the other children.”

I held the fruit, not responding.

I remembered those tests: the smell of pencil, the sequences of squares and circles—choosing what shape did not go with the others. My mother’s praise when I scored highly. She’d decided, back then, that I was remarkable, and I could not persuade her otherwise. I was nothing special, I wanted to protest. I wouldn’t ever be. But I couldn’t say that now, not while she was so happy, eyes closed, savoring the fruit.


I’d made my bed with fresh sheets for them. Before they’d arrived, I’d lugged my only set of bedding to the laundromat.

“You’ll stay in New York?” my mother asked, and I nodded. “You have enough money?”

“Yes,” I lied.

“The website will hire her, May,” my father said to my mother. “No need to interrogate her.”

The dot-com bubble had recently burst. Employees were let go, but I remained. No reason not to keep me, an unpaid intern. My student debt was laughable, not that I could laugh at it. I’d maxed out the $3,000 limit on my credit card.

Every so often I went through past statements as a sort of torturous exercise—to reprimand myself for the things I had spent money on in the past, with the hope that I’d learn from my mistakes and never spend money again. Everything I’d ever purchased seemed to me now objectively foolish: cheap earrings that had infected my ears, the mediocre takeout when I could have just as easily eaten Cup Noodles for one-sixth of the price. And all those lattes—what was I thinking?

On a January statement were the groceries for the dinner I’d cooked for Matthew, wanting to impress him. I’d overspent on the chicken, the arugula. The expensive jars of herbs and spices, the pricey mustard I’d bought because I wanted to follow the recipe exactly. The wine I shouldn’t have splurged on. All of it gone now, less than nothing.


The morning after dinner in my apartment, Matthew had called. He’d left a message on my answering machine. In the days that followed he left another, then another. “Hey, Lily,” each message began. “Could we talk?” He sent Instant Messages. He sent emails that I deleted without reading.

It was terrible of me not to respond—cowardly and childish, I’ll admit—but it was easier that way. We weren’t right together; anyone could see that. What was the point of pursuing what didn’t make sense?

I ignored his communications until, eventually, they stopped.


We said our good nights. My parents were in my bedroom and I lay on the couch. A firecracker rang out like a gunshot. A car alarm went off, repetitive and urgent. Voices floated in, women loudly laughing about the size of a man’s dick. I needed to protect my parents from the reality of how I lived, but was helpless to. When my father passed me on the way to the bathroom, feeling for Debbie’s boxes in the dark, I pretended I was asleep. The volume and brightness of the city—they weren’t used to it in Tampa. My curtains weren’t opaque enough to block out the orange of the streetlights.


It would be easier to take a cab, I said in the morning, but they insisted on taking the subway.

“We’re proud of you,” my father said. “We love you,” my mother said.

She may have meant it, but it was hard to believe it was true. My mother had not grown up saying love to her parents. As a child, she had never heard it said to her. With me, my parents made it a point to speak it frequently. My father was the more convincing. Even with her perfect American accent, my mother said it unnaturally, as though love were a foreign word. For her it was, doubly.

On the street, we said our goodbyes. I watched them wheel their suitcases away until I could no longer make them out, among the other Chinese men and women.

An envelope was on my nightstand. Inside, there were twelve hundred-dollar bills. A note from my father said: Don’t tell your mother.


What I insisted to myself was that I didn’t hope to see him, but the truth was when I walked through the West Village, which I did from time to time, I did so slowly. If I saw a man on the street—tall, blond, with the right width of shoulders—I would forget to exhale. But it was never him.

Not far from Matthew’s was an exercise studio. An introductory deal was painted on its windows: your first class for fifteen dollars.

Inside, the pert woman seated at the front desk informed me that a Pilates class was starting: Would I like to join? She pronounced it puh-LA-tees. Fifteen dollars, she assured me, was a steal. A week of lattes, I thought. More affordable than health insurance.

I knew I shouldn’t be here. Every job application I’d submitted had gone unanswered. I was living off my father’s hundreds. It was dangerous to even leave the apartment because somehow I inevitably returned with twenty to forty fewer dollars than I had started out with, without understanding how. In this city, every encounter was a transaction, requiring money.

The mirrored studio was packed with women, all of them thin, with clean, light hair tied into ponytails and clothing like a uniform: tight pants cut off at the calf, spaghetti-strap tank tops that showed off the definition in their arms. I’d always exercised in downgraded clothes, and here I was in gym shorts and an old T shirt. Each woman seemed to have her own rubber mat and square blue bottle of Fiji water.

In the sea of blondes, to the side were two Asian women. They stood close together, chatting. They wore the same spaghetti-strap tops that everyone else wore, and the same tight pants. Noticing me, my bewilderment, one of them waved me over.

“I think they have mats you can borrow,” the one who waved said.

“I’ll go see,” her friend added, and disappeared.

She returned promptly with a mat, then helped me unfurl it onto the floor beside hers.

“Thank you,” I said. “I’ve never done this before.”

“You’re going to love it. Pablo is the best.”

One of the women rooted around in her purse and pulled out a hair tie for me. I pulled my hair into a ponytail.

When Pablo entered, the room quieted. He was short, tanned, compactly muscled. He wore a headset, like a pop star. The lights then dimmed, and music began to play. It was a song by Britney Spears, about being lucky. Everyone around me dropped down to lie on their back, and I did the same.

My shorts billowed around my thighs and my T-shirt kept riding up. I needed tighter pants for exercising, I thought. A tank top that fit me more snugly. I was thirsty, too, and I wished I had one of those blue plastic bottles of water.

Then the music stopped, harsh lighting flicked on.

“We’re getting some food nearby,” the Asian woman who’d gotten me the mat said. “Want to come? My name’s Hong, by the way.”

“And I’m Theresa,” her friend said.


At the restaurant, Hong ordered in rapid Vietnamese, impressing me. She’d grown up in Northern Virginia, near DC, in a large Vietnamese community. Her parents hadn’t ever had to learn English. When our bowls of pho arrived, I followed their leads, squeezing hoisin and sriracha into a small plastic dish decorated with blue flowers. Hong and Theresa dug into their tangles of noodles with green plastic chopsticks, messily and unselfconsciously, their foreheads growing shiny with steam and sweat.

“Don’t worry, it gets easier,” Hong said.

“I was sore for a week,” Theresa said.

Theresa had grown up in California, in a suburb of Los Angeles with an Asian majority. Her parents called her by her Korean name. I didn’t have a Chinese one.

They marveled at my childhood: shoes in the house, dinners of meat loaf and mac-’n’-cheese. I didn’t try Chinese food until I moved to New York.

My mother and father had spoken English in the house, never Chinese. Every Christmas Eve, a plate of chocolate chip cookies materialized on our mantel, with a glass of milk that neither of my parents could drink, because they were lactose intolerant. They must have poured Santa’s milk down the drain. It was as though they followed a guidebook on how to be American. To the children I went to school with, these efforts didn’t matter. Even if I ate the same bologna-and-white-bread sandwiches the other kids did and spoke perfect English, I had a face that marked me as different.

“And your parents immigrated as adults?” Hong asked, incredulous.

I shrugged. They’d wanted to be American.

Hong and Theresa talked as though they were childhood friends, even though they’d met only a year ago, in class. I felt envious and impatient—a longing to belong with them.

After we parted, I returned to the studio, where the woman at the desk seemed surprised to see me again so soon. It was money I shouldn’t have been spending, but I bought a multiclass pass with one of my father’s crisp hundreds.


From Real Americans by Rachel Khong. Copyright © 2024 by Rachel Khong. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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