I woke up one morning and the comprehension washed over me: I’m an alien in this world. Homesickness clutched at my heart, leaving me breathless.
Suddenly, a burst of fear seized me. What if I am given the chance to go back?
No, I must never go back. Those were the bloody days, clouded by fear of weapons of mass destruction. Those were the dark days, manifested with structural violence and sweet, bitter riots for equality. Destructive days pounded by ceaseless mechanical mutilations of the beautiful Earth.
Why did I miss those days?
Sighing, I rolled out of bed and drowsily pulled on a red summer dress. Squinting at myself in the mirror, I scrutinized the familiar hue of my skin and my straight black hair, but the face that stared back at me was alien.
I’m not a 17-year-old Asian American girl anymore, I mused. No prejudices here.
Like a sleepwalker, I exited my room and went down the ebony hallways. Why did I feel like a sleepwalker today? Had I always been a sleepwalker and never noticed until now?
Turning the corner, I arrived in an elegant breakfast hall. The hum of student voices and bustling footsteps roused me a bit. After picking up a bread-tray, I dropped into a seat next to Misty and Day. As usual, Misty smiled at me without really focusing her gaze. Yawning, she muttered, “I’m so tired. I wish today was Saturday.”
At least you’re just sleepy; I’m a sleepwalker.
I looked past Misty at Day, who was lost in thought. Ze slowly bit into zir breakfast vegetable. Awe welled up in me, tinged with bittersweet memories. Even though I had been in this world for two years now, I couldn’t help being amazed just as I couldn’t help being a sleepwalker.
In this world, people like Day were comfortable being who they were without any dread of judgment from family and friends. They were referred to with gender-neutral pronouns – ze, zir, and so on – without anyone giving it a thought. They could be who they were without the condemnation of “You’re damned to Hell!”
Day glanced up and saw me staring. I felt my lips drop from the smile that had subconsciously formed.
“What?” ze said.
“I was just remembering … I’m sorry,” I stammered. “I’m happy here. So happy, for myself and for you. For all these people, they can be who they are. It’s amazing.”
A look passed over zir face. Ze felt sorry for me. And uncomfortable.
“Yeah,” Day muttered. “We’ve had this conversation before. I mean, yeah … I don’t have to worry about that. This is the future, remember?”
I looked down at my light green vegetable, poisonous-looking to me because I had never seen anything like it until two years ago, when I arrived here, in the future. Some days I would see the color and give a start. However, those moments of bewilderment were a small price to pay for being here.
Why it happened is a long story for another day, but here is what happened: Two years ago, I was magically whisked from the time period I was born in and dropped eight thousand years into the future. A utopia. Lack of discrimination, eradication of poverty … Yeah, poverty had been eradicated. Eliminated. And they had recyclable trays made out of bread. I was filled with awe. How had humanity come this far? Human nature must be better than I had believed.
I wanted to glance over at Day again but was afraid of making zir uncomfortable. If only ze knew what it was like in the past, then ze would understand why I stared.
If only Jack had been whisked into the future with me.
Jack was my younger brother. He had been 13 when he came out as gay. He had joined LGBTQ marches, but my parents had never let me go with him. I remembered late one night, Jack had come to my room crying.
“I’m so sorry,” he whispered as he sat on my bed. “I’m sorry our parents are angry all the time. They don’t know how they gave birth to me, to someone … who is gay.”
“It doesn’t matter what they think,” I replied. “You’re perfectly normal. Mrs. Kelly says so, and she’s a health teacher.”
Jack shook his head. “But Ma and Ba can’t accept that. Do you think it’s because they were born and raised in rural China?”
“Nah,” I said quietly. “Some Americans are conservative too. Sometimes it’s because of religious beliefs. But things are getting better.”
“Same-sex marriage ruling.” He spoke the words cautiously, as if trying them out. “Thank God the laws are changing, even if our culture hasn’t.”
I couldn’t help it. I glanced at Day again. Ze quickly looked away, as if sorry for me.
You idiot, I told myself. This is the future, and here you are, making a stigma out of queerness just because you’re from the stupid past.
Once again, I became a sleepwalker. I was alienated from this world, alienated from these people. I couldn’t help it; I couldn’t help feeling awed at how perfect the world had become. I couldn’t help staring.
In the afternoon, we had Ancient History, and Mr. Joy lectured on the foundation of the 23rd century, the Age of Change. This should have been the most important class to me – my chance to learn how the world got this way. But I had just recognized that I was a sleepwalker, so I stared mindlessly at Mr. Joy instead, watching the way his gold-rimmed glasses glinted. In this world, everyone wore glasses.
In my time, people used to wear contacts. I had been one of them and got an infection twice. The girls I knew doused their cheeks in red and drew black over their lashes. I had liked wearing tank tops in the summer and tight jeans.
Subconsciously, I rubbed the hem of my red dress, feeling how loose it was. I glanced at everyone around me. No one wore makeup, and everyone wore glasses. A tugging slowly appeared over my heart, a tugging from my past.
But, I mused, the future makes more sense.
Contacts and makeup drove people crazy – made them feel dissatisfied with bodies. Some starved themselves to fit society’s expectations. Everyone, from the rich to poor, spent billions on the same thing: accessories to alter their appearance.
The media warped our minds. Why try to meet the media’s standards? It just perpetuated the concept that “white is right.” How come the white guy in movies never ended up with a black girl? How come the Asian guy never got any attention from girls?
I couldn’t help but feel like I had lost something, despite the flaws of the past. Without stereotypes surrounding me, I had become naked, formless, lost. The walls of society had molded me into what they wanted, and now that I was liberated from those walls, I floated shapelessly. All the while, the past tugged at my heart.
I missed the $50 two-piece blue bathing suit that I bought with money I earned sweating in the summer heat at the ice cream shop. I missed the faces carefully done up with silver glitter on Broadway.
There was something contradictory about the past – both artificial and beautiful – and yet I loved the contradiction. I loved the apple-red lipsticks, the slightly painful sting of contacts, the tight jeans I slipped over my legs. I loved doing my friend’s makeup before a party. I loved the idea that we could create beauty out of colors and silk, even if it was artificial, wasteful, and perpetuated by the media. The same media that told Jack that being gay was a problem.
I was a sleepwalker in this future world. I couldn’t let go of the glitter, the dream of artificial beauty that was also a stain on our integrity.
• • •
I awoke to a shadow hovering above me. It was the kind of shadow that would disappear the second I focused on it.
It told me, “It’s time to choose: Remain in the future or go back to the past?”
In my half-dreaming state, all I could remember was the night I spent with my family in New York City – the flashing lights, the glittery eyeliner, the smell of exhaust mixed with sweet smoke from popcorn vendors. I opened my lips to mutter, “Yes, I would go back to polluted skies if only I could eat a greasy hamburger from McDonald’s. I want to go back to dirty, wasteful factories if only I can buy my best friend a grapefruit-flavored Chapstick for her birthday. I long for the artificial beauty of the past because I love it. I love it even though it was killing the environment and society oppressed women and people of color and queers ….”
I stopped, remembering Jack crying in my room. I remembered stories of hate crimes against Asian Americans. I remembered black citizens shot in the street. I remembered statistics that depicted the steadily climbing concentration of CO2. Tears welled up in my eyes.
“No,” I said. “I can’t go back. The past symbolizes the evils in this world: income inequality, global warming, discrimination, and countless nameless injustices. The future is the definition of progress. I have to stay to prove that the future is right, even though I don’t want to. The past has shaped my identity; I don’t want to let go. But I must. For the sake of progress.”
And so the shadow disappeared, and I was left staring at my ceiling, feeling lost and alone.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.