On my first day of junior year, my mother tells me that this is the year that I become the main character. It’s time for me to prove my worth, to embark on the hero’s journey through Advanced Chemistry Lab and Honors Precalculus and AP U.S. History. And I try—I slog through homework, fall asleep on the subway each morning, cradle plastic cups of iced coffee like precious rubies—but then the setting changes suddenly; I think the showrunner has stepped down and been replaced.
In March of my junior year, I am demoted to a secondary character. I imagine watching my televised self, lost and unaware. My mother, my father, and I glue our eyes to the television screen as death tolls tick higher and higher. Each day we sit on the same couch while cameras sweep the globe. We stare straight ahead, seeing everything and processing nothing. I am beginning to think that we aren’t even secondary characters anymore; we are viewers. Fear takes the center stage.
Prior to becoming a main character and then losing it, I spent the entirety of eighth grade watching Chinese television shows with my mother. At dinnertime, we did not speak, instead watching scenes unfold on television across our dishes of bok choy and chicken. During car chases and commercial breaks, I focused my attention towards my rice. It was so much more than a method to improve my language skills, but I phrased it that way anyway, perhaps because secondary characters are rarely nuanced. It was just a funny quirk, how I watched 如果蜗牛有爱情 instead of Law and Order: SVU.
And so we move into a new season. I download Zoom and frown at myself through my webcam, covertly switching to Gallery View. I learn that I crinkle my eyebrows while talking, that I have a tendency to clasp my hands as though in prayer when I’m trying to think of the right word, that my hair falls in curtains when I’m not looking. I am entranced by myself through the screen, this familiar and foreign girl.
I wait for the plot twist, the revelation of a parallel universe or amnesia or a bad dream, but instead I am left wringing my hands and staring at the screen until my eyes burn, until my lips are raw from biting. I wonder if this is character development, if my unyielding yearning for normalcy says something about me. My laptop screen becomes my second home; each night, I FaceTime my friends and smile at their pixelated faces. Still, I keep reaching for the TV remote, but I can never find it. This channel refuses to change.
Most Chinese dramas are about forty episodes per season. I am an expert in patience; my mother and I have waited for hours just to see our favorite couples finally get together, to see our heroes reach their climactic triumphs. This is how we have survived till now. We have waited, we are waiting, and we will continue to wait. No plot twist is coming but we’ll keep watching anyway. We’ve come this far.