Fire Escape's 2008 Short Fiction Third Prize Winner

While I'm away on a short holiday, I'm pleased to present the winners of the Fire Escape's sixth annual teen poetry and short fiction contests. Today we'll begin with one of the third prize winners in the short fiction category (two entries came so close I had to award a tie.)

Third Prize 2008 Short Story Contest
A Cultural Chasm by Kenneth, China/America, Age 17


To Lee, culture entailed addition, not subtraction.
Yet, he could never seem to maximize his equation --
the world would forbid it. Living in America, he
inadvertently formed a cultural chasm with his Chinese
relatives. However, the same would happen no matter
where he lived.

His Chinese grandmother would call -- her broken
English wishing him well and urging him to succeed.
When Lee passed the phone to his mother, he could
faintly hear that broken English morphing into a
stream of fluid Mandarin, expressing untold,
unnumbered ideas and beautiful, complex emotions. He
just couldn't understand.

This fact was clarified many years ago, when he had
visited his grandmother with his Pennsylvanian father
and Chinese mother. Looking back, Lee realized that
every facet of him, from his clothes to his lack of a
skill with a bike, screamed "tourist." Visiting the
Forbidden City and the Summer Palace, he had not
understood their true significance ­ only their
beauty. Of all the words he had learned, one stood out
in his mind. It meant "American person." He had heard
it often.

Yet, in the United States, many people did the same
thing. Most quickly labeled him as "Asian." and some
even told him that it was in his face. It was in his
birth -- something he could never change. No matter
which country he chose, Lee could never completely
identify with it.

Many of his friends knew Lee's pain. They held the
same problem. Thus, they increasingly leaned on each
other for guidance ­ widening the chasm, leaving a
beautiful and stunning culture on the far ledge. Lee
could stand on one side or the other, but not both.
This was a rule forged by geography, by style, by
language, and by time. Choosing a side was like
choosing between the Grand Canyon and the Great Wall,
like choosing between forks and chopsticks, like
choosing between everything. No one pressured him to
decide; rather, he pressured himself.

As Lee passed through high school, meeting new friends
and growing into a man, a small, nagging part of him
knew that his Chinese family would not realize how he
had changed.

Taking standardized tests, one section always stood
out: a block in the introduction asking him to
identify his race. There was a circle for "Asian" and
a circle for "Caucasian." Lee could mark neither: he
quietly shaded the circle for "Other."

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