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Sins of Omission

Sins of Omission

Christine Ma-Kellams

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¿Como te llamas? they ask you in Puerto Rico.

Xiao Ma is a problematic answer that doesn’t translate properly.

They call you “La Chinita” instead. It means “little Chinaman.” So does “chink,” you will discover elsewhere, but for some reason “chink” does not sound as nice, even though technically it means the same thing.

You say nothing. You are too busy holding your pee because you do not know where the bathroom is and you have no idea how to ask.

On sábados you go to the playa in San Juan wearing only your underwear.

You are a girl, but one with closely cropped short hair, and your chest has not yet discovered puberty, so going topless still proves to be socially acceptable. Or so you and your immigrant parents think.

You run away from the current each time, refusing to get wetter than necessary. To this day you don’t know how to swim properly, which proves to be immensely problematic in difficult situations.

On lunes you spend your day sitting on the mortar steps of El Colegio de la Sagrada Corazón de Jesús, waiting for your father’s lime green Chevy to come back. It turns out that the island has many holidays. In the Americas, schools close on special occasions. After New Year’s comes Dia de los Tres Reyes Magos, Eugenio Maria de Hostos Day, MLK Jr. Day. Four national holidays in one month! This is news to you and your father, although only you end up paying for it with a sunburn and legs that smell of brine and concrete.

One day, your father acquires a string of initials behind his last name, a magical configuration of the alphabet so powerful that it propels you and your parents off the island forever. It is the real-world equivalent of Harry Potter’s broom or Ron Jeremy’s penis. It can take ordinary men with ordinary lives and change them forever, or at least under the right circumstances.

Your father soon discovers that he lacks the “right circumstances.”

(A PhD from the Caribbean is useless in America when accompanied by a Chinese accent.)

(Enigmas are fundamentally threatening, as are violations of expectancy.)

These days you have a degree in Spanish and are a practicing psychologist to solve precisely this kind of childhood mystery.

Once on the mainland, your father picks Ames, Iowa, to replace San Juan’s beaches with cornfields of the endless kind.

If you squint hard enough, cornfields look blonde and parched enough to pass for sand.

If you are forced to open your eyes, you will discover that vision can be a bitch.

Your neighbor is a hillbilly with missing front teeth and a mullet. She is the most beautiful thing you have ever seen. You never see her parents, only her dog, who is black and reckless. He chases you constantly and ignores your screams in your native tongue, which sound just like his master’s screams in English when she watches you almost get eaten by a domesticated wild animal that she likes to call Munchie.

For some reason your neighbor never goes to school, but will play with you after you come home from yours and are too afraid to go inside your own house, which, like hers, is empty and parent-free. She offers her dog, the only prize she knows, and you run away for dear life, never learning the difference between a bark and a bite.

When you leave Ames for Texas, you do not say goodbye. You do not know her name because people without parents and futures do not have them anyway, do not offer them up eagerly, because they know names are useless without connections and are easily forgotten. You only keep a photo of her and her dog in your Rolodex of memories for safekeeping, where moths and vermin cannot reach.

In Texas you discover that you are Chinese.

Before your arrival in College Station, there were only two kinds of people in town.

Light people and dark people.

You are in between, which is the worst place to be.

There is only one dark person at your school.

She is tall and a fifth grader and has hair that resembles immaculate rows of corn.

Her skin is ashen and her arms, they are thin. She doesn’t look capable of immense violence.

But then again, neither did Napoleon, who also resembled a fifth grader.

She is best friends with your best friend, Cassie, who is blonde but utterly plain.

“Plain” supplants the need for more truthful, devastating words.

The two of them sit next to you on the school bus.

Together, the three of you would make a model UN.

Like the real UN, yours is tenuous and prone to treachery.

This is when you find out that you are not in the “friend” category after all.

Cassie scoots up one row and looks out the window when it becomes apparent what will happen next.

The rearview mirror on the bus only shows so much.

If you sit in the last row, you will be invisible to the bus driver.

So will the the person sitting next to you.

Screaming is futile when there is so much (or little) at stake.

Anything can be a weapon.

School supplies, a carefully sharpened pencil.

The cracked cap of a glue stick is a good alternative to kiddie scissors, which can’t slice worth damn shit.

When the bus driver offers you a miniature Snickers on your way out, you wonder if he feels guilty for his sin of omission.

Only when he sees your crimson hands do you realize that the answer is yes.

Years later you will learn all about the history of light people and dark people in this country and silently thank the girl on the school bus for taking it easy on you. You would like to call her up and compare the trees she engraved on your palms, and see if they match the inevitably identical ones on hers.


When she isn't writing, Christine Ma-Kellams teaches psychology to undergraduates in Southern California. Her recent work has appeared in Zyzzyva, the Kenyon Review, and elsewhere.

Illustration By Ben Currie.

This story can also be found in Paper Darts Volume Seven.


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