A Word Affair

Old piece I did. Never made it to this blog. 

On most nights, there is a moment when I roll over and sneak a peek at the neon green numbers on my alarm clock. It will, as usual, show some ungodly late hour, maybe 2:30, 3:12, 3:40. Most people are already long asleep, having traded the rocky shores of reality for the vast ocean of the subconscious. But while the world slumbers, I will still be wide awake under my pile of blankets, pondering the answer to the clue “ancient Italian coin”.
The only light in the bedroom comes from the Eiffel Tower lamp in the corner, just enough to help me focus on the tiny 4.3 inch screen. Piles of clothes in dire need of folding instead sit ignored, as I continue to stare at the black and white grid in front of me. Blank-I-R-blank…Precious seconds are spent searching through my memory banks, but nothing comes to mind. Sigh. With a swipe of my thumb, the screen flips back to display the list of clues, as I hunt for something – anything – that might help me get closer to finishing the puzzle. Save for the sounds of a heater radiating a constant 68 degrees, and the occasional creak from my tossing and turning, the apartment is dead. Eric went to bed over an hour ago. Another swipe. The list runs from beginning to end again, but none of the clues trigger any recognition.

I’m stuck.

Undaunted – and not nearly tired enough to fall asleep – I decide to begin one of the many other puzzles stockpiled on my phone. As soon as the blank boxes appear onscreen, my fingers snap into action, feverishly working through the clues in the “across” column. A flurry of taps. Taptaptaptaptap. Taptaptaptaptap. “Nonkosher food” – HAM. “Flightless bird common in Australia” – EMU. “Wiseacre” doesn’t trigger any connection or response, and like everything I have no immediate guess for, I ignore it, continuing to taptaptaptap away. “Suffix for bureau and pluto” – CRATS. “Any ABBA member” – SWEDE. Taptaptaptatap. A rhythm triggered by the call of each clue, and the response of my fingers meeting touchscreen, filling each box purely on instinct. Whether they are right or wrong, at this point, it does not matter. Speed first. Precision can wait.

These puzzles should not inspire  such compulsiveness? I’ve heard that from everyone. In fact, judging by the looks on my friends’ faces whenever they see me tapping away furiously at the black and white grid, crosswords may as well be abstract art, written in Swedish. But ever since I can remember, my brain has just always had a connection with words. When other kids were busy playing with LEGOs and Transformers, my idea of fun was curling up with a book and exploring the universes that hid behind each cover. Goosebumps, Harry Potter, Animorphs – I tore through them all at lightning speed, constantly hungering for the next adventure, the next world to disappear into.
As most Asian parents do, my mother claims credit for this, never failing to insinuate that she passed on her love of words to me through the umbilical cord. While that explanation is rather questionable – and almost certain to be scientifically inaccurate – it is true that my mother and my relationship with language have always been connected.
When I was younger, I could always find her watching Wheel of Fortune, despite her knowing only a passable amount of English. Whether or not the show was part of a master scheme to develop me into a word-solving machine, I do not know, but something – the lights, the spinning wheel, the concept itself – seemed to genuinely captivate her. After a while, Pat Sajak and the seemingly ageless Vanna White grew to be familiar sights in my living room, no noteworthier than the pictures of deceased relatives or the Vietnamese magazines always scattered over our coffee table. From time to time, I would sit down and play too, reeling off answer after answer alongside the contestants. Even in those childhood moments, an understanding of how words worked and connected to each other had already been forged. Maybe my mother noticed, because the same question came up at the end of most episodes we watched together. “Why don’t you try out for this show?”
“I’m too young, Ma.” The reply always came in English, just before I got off the couch to go do something else. As I got older and my love for words continued to grow, I always figured that that was a result of those nights with Pat and Vanna and the books that occupied every free moment of childhood.
“Brawny” – MUSCULAR. “Clobbers with snowballs” – PELTS. “Abroad” – OVERSEAS. Taptaptaptap. One by one, the list of answerable clues dwindles, until the flurry of taps slows into a drizzle, and then a drought. Finally, having thoroughly exhausted the Across and Down columns, my eyes once again fall on “wiseacre”. Still nothing. Sigh. Frustrated, I turn away from the screen, and stare off at nothing in particular, lost in my own thoughts.
The assignment I had that night was simple enough. Talk to somebody in my family about their immigration experience. Something for my Asian American Studies class on Gender and Generation. My father would never want to talk about that, so there was only one real option. After a long day spent tutoring little children, I settled in next to her on the queen-sized bed, ready to hear her story. My father sat on the floor of the bedroom, quiet as always, his hands occupied with an X-Acto knife and some cardboard. What he was doing, I do not know. No one ever knows.
When she finally began, the words started uneasily, as if rusted from years of silence. Yet, in between bites of her chow mein, her reticence slowly faded away, the stutters and pauses slowly replaced by a fluidity and poetry that doesn’t quite translate to English, an effortlessness and grace that would be lost in anything besides her mother tongue For an hour and a half she spoke, a free flowing narrative that touched on every topic that was required, and more – gender, generation, identity, family, love, duty. The only interruptions came from my occasional comment and need to have a word or two translated.
In truth, I already knew most of the details, even before that interview. Being born two months after my family reached America meant that the story of our immigration would always be linked to me. Hearing it again at age 20, though, gave me a much deeper understanding and appreciation for the heritage I was born into.
But there was something else I took away from that interview, something that I only realized later when listening to the staticky recording I took that night. At one point, her soft lilt, tinged with sadness asks, “Who knew that the son who carried a family’s hopes of reunion could turn his back on those who raised him? To this day, I still don’t understand.” Again and again, I found myself rewinding this sentence of hers. It wasn’t because of the story she was telling about her now-estranged brother – I was listening and re-listening to the purity and honesty in each syllable she spoke. And somewhere between the 8th and 12th times, it finally hit me. I had been imitating that voice my whole life. The tender emotion I work neurotically to capture, the meaningful simplicity I try to write with…she inspired those things. For all her claims that my love for words was genetic, that night was the first time I ever believed it.
But whether that love of language is due to Pat Sajak or parental influence, there are still moments when I tire of it, usually after yet another intellectual wrestling match with the likes of T.S. Eliot or Edmund Spencer. Yet, late at night, when I tap the “Download” button to receive the next day’s puzzles, that weariness inevitably disappears, melting away in the sound of tapping. Suddenly, words feel just like they did on the couch back at home all those years ago. Easy. Fun…
…except at times like these. I look back down at the screen again, but the string of answers in my head has gone mute. Sigh. Realizing that my first class is in a few hours, I roll back over to peek at the alarm clock, calculating the amount of sleep still available to me. An alarmingly inadequate amount. As usual. Another sigh. That realization does not drive me to bed, even though it should.
Somehow, I do not think that that love of mine – genetically predetermined or not – completely explains my attraction to crosswords. After all, when most people finish their crossword puzzles, they throw them away, thinking nothing of it. For them, the puzzle has entertained, done its job. Me? I like to stop and admire the finished product, always amazed by how perfectly everything fits together, how all the clues add up to something, regardless of which way they are read. In some weird way, they just make sense. The kind of sense that I can never quite seem to find in myself.
Depending on the day, and sometimes even the hour, my comfort with my identity fluctuates wildly. After all, my love of words is not all that defines me – other interests, labels, traits all combine to make up who I am. But figuring out which part is dominant, and how much each part of me is…that’s always been a huge struggle, the delicate juggling act between brother, son, student, teacher, writer, nerd, Asian, American. I’ve never really been able to find a balance, never been able to get the pieces of my identity to “fit” together. Not the way that I can with words and syllables, at least.
The questions never end. Though I’ve come to understand my mother’s influence over my love for words, how much of me – and my voice – is actually my own? Am I the product of my Vietnamese heritage and Buddhist upbringing, or the result of years of word games, hip-hop music, sports and kung fu movies? The kid who closes himself off in every new social situation, or the one that eventually emerges from his shell full of confidence and laughter? How much right to my own identity and individuality do I actually have? Where am I headed? Who am I really?
Despite years of trying, none of them are ever fully answered – the answers simply keep changing as I get older. Even when I think I’ve come to understand myself, even when I think I’ve placed the facets of my identity into the right boxes, in the right order, the events of the next day can erase that progress rather quickly. Only late at night, when I am engrossed with a 12 by 12 grid of black and white do I find any real reprieve from the tangled mess that is my self. The endless tug of war between my Vietnamese heritage and my American upbringing ceases momentarily; even the constant insecurity about my future comes to a halt. As crazy as it sounds, that inner peace, no matter how temporary it may be, might be the real draw behind crosswords for me – I obsess over them not for the words themselves, but because when completed, they resemble what I keep hoping I find in the mirror someday. A cohesive image, in perfect balance.
Without warning, the answer appears in a flash, a lightning bolt of thoughts and letters that soars through my brain. SMARTALECK. A smirk appears on my face for the briefest of moments, satisfied at figuring out the clue, but I still cannot finish the puzzle. Another couple minutes of silent frustration pass before I decide to call it a night. My thumb slides over to hit the always-tempting “hint” button, a final marker of my defeat. Immediately, a rash of pink squares appears on the grid, blemishes that ruin the pristine balance between black and white, indicating where my instincts inserted the wrong letter. Another window reads out my final results (16:50, 32 hints, 84% completed). Not one of my better nights.
I take a last glance at the completed puzzle, trying to learn a couple new vocabulary words, before shutting the phone off and placing it on the ground next to my bed, alarm set for a few hours from now. Nights like tonight happen sometimes. I don’t solve every puzzle I attempt, of course. But tomorrow, though, there’ll be a new set of them. Another chance for harmony, for balance, for perfection. Another chance to make all the words fit together.
If only I could solve myself that easily.