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My name is Anna. Hear me roar.
From the moment I was placed in my grandfather's careworn hands, his leathery fingers held the keys to a wisdom unfamiliar yet ancient. As a toddler, he lifted me gently from my crib and nestled me in his makeshift classroom—an old wooden bed framed by walls of yellowed pages covered in faded black poems he penned by lamplight. The musky scent of aging paper filled my nose as I settled into this cocoon filled with his words.
At six, I sat cross-legged beside him inhaling the smells of dust and old books as he pulled volumes hidden beneath his worn pillow. Each fragile book, printed on thin rice paper that felt like a whisper against my small fingers, spoke of faraway Eastern sages uttering truths still unclear to my young mind. I listened intently as he translated their foreign tongues, his voice weary yet lilting like a half-forgotten song from childhood.
He gifted me the Buddhacarita a few weeks after I entered middle school —a time of confusion and struggle to find myself. Its poetic words mirrored my own anguish as my American teachers saw my introspection as incompetence and lack of participation. My peers' raucous laughter felt like pinpricks on skin as I stumbled to grasp their slang-filled jokes and games riddled with cultural references I could not unpack. I felt lost in a sea of unfamiliar words, worlds, and customs.
As my grandfather watched me flounder, adrift and misunderstood, he pointed with gnarled hands to the Buddhacarita's message with a weary smile: the notions of 'self' and 'other' bred suffering and prevented enlightenment. Yet how could I unravel my own deep sense of 'otherness' when it felt etched into my bones?
Desperate to fit in, I distanced myself from my Asian identity like shedding an ill-fitting coat.
The clamor in the cafeteria was deafening, a cacophony of adolescent cries vying for attention. Yet as I opened my lunchbox, a solitary note sounded in my ears - the delicate hiss of steam rising from my Chinese noodles. The fragrance recalled afternoons with my grandfather, grounding me in familiarity and comfort. My mouth watered as I lifted the chopsticks, eager to taste.
But then a voice pierced my solitude. "What's that smell?" one asked, wrinkling her nose. Disapproving gazes fell upon me like icy rain, dousing the warmth from my noodles. My cheeks flushed red with shame.
Feeling exposed and out of place, I quietly moved to the far end of the table, avoiding their curious eyes. I couldn't bring myself to eat, leaving the lunch untouched as my peers resumed their chatter without me. Their words became a foreign tongue, alien and unintelligible.
Eventually, I surrendered to peer pressure and swapped my noodles for a slice of pizza. The taste was joyless and dull. I quickly shoved the dry dough down my throat, despite my lactose intolerance. But at least it was safe, anonymous.
As we discussed school and a new episode of a TV show, my thoughts returned to my noodles. I longed for the savory soy sauce and tender texture. "I preferred my grandpa’s cooking.”
I tuned to Nickelodeon's garish cartoons every night, mouth agape as I strained to decipher the jokes flying rapid-fire. When my grandfather invited me to read Confucius with him in hushed tones, I asked brightly if he'd ever heard of Plato instead, my words laced with feigned ignorance. With each failed attempt to win America's love, to blend into its melting pot, my grandfather caught me in his thin but sturdy arms, his eyes filled with unfathomable grief and empathy.
Years later, the Buddhacarita's enigmatic words came alive once more as I read them for the thousandth time since his passing. Poring over the text through tear-filled eyes, I'd finally accepted the Buddha was right: one must discard notions of identity and ego to achieve true enlightenment. I poured myself into my studies, certain my worth was measured only by what I produced, not who I was inside.
After the funeral, his physical form reduced to ashes in a carved urn, I trembled as I opened his worn journals, their leather covers cracked with age, still wearing the suffocating black clothing that reeked of incense. Each night as I lay sleepless in bed, I turned the fragile, yellowed pages illuminated by moonlight. And I learned of his imprisonment and forced silence as an intellectual condemned during China's Cultural Revolution, suffering untold hardships.
Then in a moment of bittersweet clarity, I saw: the unbreakable bond between us rested on our shared experience of rejection and erasure. For my grandfather, philosophy and poetry were ways to explicate life's pains and traumas; he strove to cure my sense of 'otherness' using the Buddhacarita’s words as salve for my wounds.
I now see the Buddha was wrong: completely erasing distinctions between people denies the legitimacy of difference. For too long, I failed to grasp the true root of my inner conflict —the accumulation of thoughtless strangers' careless microaggressions that quietly yet inexorably cracked my fragile sense of self. I don’t need to contort myself to become more American or abandon my heritage completely. I inhabit the liminal space between cultures, languages, and worlds. And there I found peace.
As I think of my grandfather, his serene face appears before me once more. I recall his proud smile when as a teen I challenged his theological arguments, no longer the mute and obedient child. He did not merely teach me to blindly accept dogma, but to quest for my own truth interrogating everything. The seeds of wisdom already dwelling within me needed only his patient nurturing and space to bloom, like the first unfurling of a lotus. His wrinkled hands, now only a memory, held treasures that sprouted within my heart, watered by his unconditional love.
My name is 马安娜. Hear me roar.