Kuan-lin arrived in New York to the absence of Mars. After graduating from his doctoral program, he had spent a few months waffling over whether to move to America, as so many had suggested to him. At a party with other researchers, his favorite professor, who’d taught him the fundamentals of language and neurobiology, pushed his decades-old, wire-framed glasses up his nose and reaffirmed Kuan-lin’s talent in front of everyone. Then several of the guests joined in, pointing out the possibilities that his research could have abroad, with all the resources and funding and labs. And they reminded him of the absence of all of this in Taiwan.
Kuan-lin sold his motorbike to one of his friends, a transaction finalized through a handshake in front of their favorite haunt of a corner convenience store. But really, it was his wife who affirmed the move. In his last moment with her, he could only feel, rather than hear, her words to him dusted across his neck, something generic about goodbyes that made his stomach swoop low and heavy. A loss of clarity in the senses at the very moment when he was trying his best not to break. Only when she lifted her head away from his did he catch a remainder of what she was saying, something like say hello to your sister for me. She was the one who pushed him toward the gate with jars of citron yuzu tea that she’d snuck into his luggage — a surprise that later got him held-up at security.
He hadn’t been much of a sweets person until he met his wife halfway through his doctoral program, when he’d stress-walked into her just as she was about to cross the street. One of the first things he learned about her was that she could drink entire pitchers of black tea stirred in with honey citron; yuzu peel and sugar gelatinized like marmalade or jam.
While flying across the ocean to New York, the plane’s loud engine had initially made it impossible to sleep. Doubly so, to the detriment of his rest, Mars was supposed to shine visibly that night, a dark red spot in the sky. It was scheduled to orbit particularly close to Earth’s path around the sun, and some eager amateur stargazers were travelling hours far out to empty meadows in order to watch. He read about it in the Times before leaving home, the English headline painstaking to translate. Had he decided to remain at home, he, too, would be joining the curious masses, lugging a small, prized telescope that he had left behind with his best friend. Perhaps now, in the humid summer night, the brilliant charge of fireflies would be gathering below the deep swing of the moon, waiting for Mars to solidify.
The horoscope section of the paper, hidden innocuously near the Sunday crossword, also discussed Mars as its headline, declaring ominous retrograde prophecies as true, or at the very least, as highly probable. He hadn’t known what retrograde meant, sounding out its syllables slowly under his tongue. Odd, stilted. Too many r’s. But in translation, he read the name fluidly, understanding its meaning as the planet’s flip in the direction from traveling eastward to traveling westward. Yes, it seemed to be forecasting. You are going backward. Or forward, he thought to himself, daring himself to believe in his own progress. There was nothing to do but decide to be positive. That was something his wife might say; how everything in this life was all about reframing direction, about orienting himself in the position of the right planetary light.
When the flight attendant walked by, she stopped at his row. Sir, she requested, please close your window shades. But in the buzz of the plane, Kuan-lin had not heard her clearly, his mind scrambled in another language. Only when she sternly gestured toward his window did he realize her instruction, embarrassed now that he looked around the cabin and saw that everyone else had closed their windows to the night. He sealed his window too, shutting away the hope of seeing Mars, despite his full knowledge that he could never have seen Mars from the airplane window.
He sipped his flat Diet Coke. On the TV screen above rows of cramped seats, an American sitcom burned into his eyes, 3 am local time. It did not matter what time zone they were in, only that the plane seemed suspended, still, in the air, moving so quickly he could not tell where and when they were. The wings of the plane were gliding. He stared ahead blindly, thinking of Taiwan and firefly-lit Mars, his vision tunneling and receding so that everything in the airless, unopened cabin seemed like it was falling into either a continual darkening, or a continual dawn.
When he disembarked the plane, he chose to be hopeful, adopting an English name that he first used to order cheap coffee in the airport. It was a discordant shock of people. The barista misheard his name and his order, but it was okay. JFK was but a temporary stop; a transient space in which he’d briefly brush past people he’d never see again. As he passed by families reuniting, men called out taxi services to him, and he blindly stepped into one, heart unsteady as he fumbled with unfamiliar cash.
His sister, nine years his elder and always seemingly so big and brash at home, was just as big and brash in Chinatown, where she resided and worked. They didn’t hug much in Taiwan, and here they didn’t either, but she grasped his shoulder tightly and ushered him without fuss into the restaurant where she worked.
I’m very happy you’re here, but you know I have a rule — we’re not keeping birds in the house.”
Kuan-lin remembered how as a child, he’d dive into a particular pet store by the bus stop with the full intention of making it his own personal zoo. He’d like the zebra finches the best; the easy beginner’s birds that apparently required no time commitment and were overly gregarious even in their small, pet store cages. Their wings were clipped but their beaks were not, and so their noisy calls constantly rattled around the store as if they never had enough time to talk to each other. He wanted to know what they said, wanted to know if they noticed him as much as he noticed them. But his parents never let him bring one home, and his sister, who he'd dragged along with him, was not enamored with their noise. She preferred the sleeping, cuddly rabbits.
Much later on, he learned in grad school that these domesticated, often lab-housed finches were valued for their sociability and their car-horn-like vocalizations. Also valued was their propensity to breed at exponential rates while the researchers weren’t looking, making it conducive for studying their cognitive evolution. Every two or three years, the entire herd of finches would be replaced, new songs iterated upon and evolved. He did find it a tragedy to be the one to take them apart in the lab, seeing their beauty rapidly extinguished in artificially-induced death; all dove-gray and feathered black-and-white at the neck and tail.
One thing he quickly learned in New York was that the Taiwanese were often an unexceptional, unnoticed presence. He learned to feel the un-exceptionality of his country keenly, especially when he would see the images of how large America was: its far-away heartland cornfields and its other gleaming cities, its propagation of war and repetitive gun-violence, its unfathomable, inexplicable existence as a divided, heterogeneous grouping of people. In Taiwan, the news would spend days focusing on a café’s rodent infestation.
Once, he asked his sister to translate the 7 pm nightly news, but she brushed him off, saying that she didn’t know English well either. “You’re the smart one,” she said. “And aren’t you the linguist? What can I do if you didn’t learn English well enough in school?”
“I’m not a linguist, I’m studying the neurological basis of language — and okay, it’s not my fault if the English teacher was bad.”
“Well, I’d suggest you study up. And there’s lots of Asian immigrants you can talk to here, that’s what I do. That’s why we’re in Chinatown.”
They lived together but called the arrangement temporary, living above a Cantonese bakery that sold soft pineapple buns and egg tarts by the dozen. A part of him wanted to be able to avoid Chinatown; wanted to distinguish himself from its masses. He’d see Asian American kids rush by, their English slick with a surety he could only recognize and not understand. He missed racing down his street on a motorbike, going to a convenience store and not rehearsing his language beforehand. He hadn’t expected moving to be so painful, hadn’t anticipated the full reality of immigration and its loneliness, and how difficult it was for one to climb the delicate, tiered and particularly American webbing of race and language.
As the moons waxed and waned in the starless skies of his new city, he found himself night after night still washing off the restaurant scent of peppercorn fish and stir-fried string beans. After work, he was continually sending out emails and filling out empty job application forms. His sister, in her blunt manner, promised that he had not moved in vain, that he’d find the post-grad opportunities he’d come looking for. Look at your degrees! she said. And he believed her, even as the streets below the apartment swarmed with Chinese fruit sellers who looked exactly like him, but 20 years older. Always present by the F train station, they had become aged with wind and cut with the cyclical rising of people passing by, in and out of the train. He had left his country in haste and hope and didn’t want to taste the regret that he did as he walked by street-stacked piles of snow-skinned mooncakes, relics of his distant home.
On the morning of his first informal interview with the principal investigator of the finch lab, he stirred honey citron into his tea to soothe his dry throat. It had taken more than a few months, but he had finally refined his emails and his resume to the point that his grad school name and research were beginning to catch attention. His wife, 14 hours away in a different time zone, was now sleeping, but as he imagined, had probably left the hot water kettle on by accident. He thought of her, and he suddenly thought of the birds that flew into the sanctuary of Da’an Forest Park. They would land in the little island at the middle of a lake, where dense bamboo and brush grew, and old birdwatchers and retirees gathered around the periphery with their long-lenses in the early morning, watching egrets and Japanese waxwings and black bitterns dive to catch insects and fish. Kuan-lin had taken his wife to Da’an’s old stone gazebos before they were married, escaping the summer rain pelting at the lake. Years later, he thought of the birdwatchers in an endearing, sort of trivializing way, one that made them seem far younger to him than they were. But in the interview, he still carried the birdwatchers’ naivete with him when speaking about thesis, about his days at grad school studying neurobiology and vocalization; days in which he dreamed of venturing into the field and finally piecing together their birdsong.
The zebra finches were, as the principal investigator stated, the first step to understanding vocal learning. Vocal learning as a process began with one finch interpreting the vocalizations of another. The finch would then superimpose the interpreted meaning onto mimicked sound; song production as a feedback loop. The male zebra finches would copy and edit, modifying and clipping acoustics into their own mating calls. Kuan-lin read about all this in his sister’s Chinatown apartment as he pored over research papers published by different cognitive linguistics labs. As many before him had hoped, he would quit his temp job busboying at the restaurant and save up for his wife to come over, and in a more distant wish, be able to rise up through a lab and work solely on his own research.
When he learned he got the postdoc position, his sister clapped him so hard on the back that he almost choked.
They studied the evolution of songbirds, connecting the formation of their language and its semantics to their cognitive evolution. In the lab, the postdocs’ and researchers’ functions were varied among the birds they studied, little cogs sharing the same pool of funding. A few lab techs were in charge of slicing the brain samples. They analyzed the paper-thin cross sections under microscopes, watching fluorescent dye flood through the ridges. Other postdocs were in charge of whirling proteins from zebra finch brains. From there, they’d put in a request for gene sequencing, waiting to see how zebra finch singing was mapped into small nodules of the brain.
Kuan-lin started off the first month of lab work sequestered in the corner, inputting numbers into Excel spreadsheets. The research project he was going to conduct was about to start its data collection phase, and the lab desperately needed someone to do some secretarial work while everything else was still getting off the ground. The other postdoc he was working with apologized for the cranky, bulky computer. Terrence promised that it would be temporary, and that soon they’d switch out the old desktop for a new machine that could actually handle all the data they were gathering. Kuan-lin found it irritating to still have to be at the stage where he was inputting data, next to the other students and research associates and lab techs who came in and out of the lab at all hours. The computer couldn’t even handle two workbooks at a time, and his wrists and back ached. He calmed his irritation down with tea. He told himself this was a chance to learn how to be grateful; how to be grateful with white Americans as his coworkers.
He’d read the published papers of a couple who’d made it their life’s work to follow Darwin’s finches of the Galapagos. For 26 years, they had made annual journeys from Princeton to that archipelago, making themselves at home in one of the most inhospitable islands in the world. Craggy and steep, with the sun burning straight down at them from the vantage point of the equator, the island of Daphne Major was the grounds for which they replicated and expanded Darwin’s study of finch natural selection. There they caught and tagged generations of finches, taking blood samples back to their lab in New Jersey where they could trace the evolutionary patterns of the finches by comparing genomic patterns over generations. They analyzed how the ebb and flow of trait prevalence correlated with El Niño’s temperamental storms. Under fluctuations of food scarcities, the finches’ beaks would evolve and widen, then depress into narrow points for the next few generations, expanding and shrinking so that over years and years, their natural selection would sometimes not lead in a certain direction, but rather stay at an equilibrium dictated by the number of berries and insects on Daphne Major.
In the three months since he started working at the lab, all Kuan-lin wanted was to be able to shape his mouth into an approximation of the sharp, accentless American of the PI, Ryan. He needed to make himself polite, but gregarious enough, so that he seemed like the kind of guy who’d blend in at the bar, but Chinese. Vocal learning. He knew all about the zebra finches he studied, had gotten to know the pattern of how they were surgically sliced open, heads examined. Neurons framed on plates. He knew their songs when they were alive, knew the subtle minutiae in the way they inflected their calls ever so slightly. He could feel himself becoming the birdwatchers in Da’an, but this time without the same peace of mind. He’d observe everyone else in the lab out of the corner of his eye, find a way to pick up the slang and the catchphrases they used. But somehow his interpretations always seemed to go awry, so he was never fully able to tell what Ryan thought of him. Kuan-lin would present periodically on his research project, and they knew how the other took his coffee. Yet there was a polite, detached distance that Ryan maintained, even as Terrence found ways to joke with him about football.
He met his wife at JFK as the dawn was just a shallow streak at the edge of the tarmac, 5:30 am and all the stars squandered away by artificial light. For 16 months he had not been able to press his cheek to hers, had not been able to hold her hand or feel her vocal cords vibrate as she laughed. It felt like déjà vu to take a taxi out of JFK, but in this moment he lived not in the melancholy of that memory, instead wanting nothing more than to be here with her, in the now.
They spent hours learning how to buy a sofa together and how to negotiate the move of a secondhand drop-leaf table for their apartment on the edge of Chinatown. But in those slow, last dregs of Saturday afternoons, he never told his wife how he sometimes felt acutely like a dog begging for scraps, especially when he was around the other postdocs. He preferred the hours spent sequestered with the MRI machines, quietly scanning the zebra finches under the hum of magnetic coils.
The Monday after his wife had arrived, he was back at the scanner in the basement. From the cage he took one zebra finch, cupping its sedated body carefully in his gloved hands and resting it in the scanner. He put padding around its prostrate body, so that the magnetic resonance fields would not burn it.
In the observation room, the brain scan lit up. He dragged the mouse around the 3D images of the finch brain. A screen next to the scan showed the finch laying perfectly still. But he still hadn’t gotten used to seeing the finches grow quiet. It was so still that he suddenly craved its cacophony of chirping. In the noisy, rhythmic vibration of the magnetic coils in the scanner, he began to think of the news story he’d just read, about a fire in Brazil’s Museu Nacional that had caused the loss of a multitude of documented indigenous languages. Consumed and incinerated into ash. Kuan-lin felt the tragedy keenly. Losing a library collection, losing stories, losing languages. It was not until much later that he thought about the uneven equation of trading his own language for another, not an eye for an eye, but rather for something more that resembled a glass prosthetic.
Meetings were like quizzes. “Talk me through this,” Ryan would say during their weekly catch-ups. Kuan-lin missed the easy banter he could conjure in Mandarin, the kind that would grease the wheels of his former labmates in Taiwan. I guess I’m just not a funny person anymore, he thought to himself after Ryan continued to only nod curtly to his answers. It used to be enjoyable to work with other people in the lab, and now there was a shame that had voided his former confidence.
In the early fall, Ryan brought Kuan-lin and a few other postdocs on a small field ecology trip, to record songbirds that migrated in the night in upstate New York. The audio equipment took up most of the backseat in the van, so Terrence and Kuan-lin and the other most senior lab researchers squeezed together, listening to some kind of alt-rock that Kuan-lin couldn’t make out the lyrics to. As they trekked through forests of brittle fall foliage, he felt a sudden pang of loss, thinking of what kind of a tradition he’d chosen to enter into: white people in the research labs at CUNY or Rockefeller; white people who talked about their tiny rural liberal arts colleges; white people whose kids played lacrosse and went to summer art camp; white people, who he knew, through watching them walk by in Chinatown, were either initially fascinated or disgusted by the way his part of New York swelled angrily en masse by the subway stops; who were either fascinated or disgusted by the way it teemed with unsophisticated squabbling and dead fish out in the open; who might’ve been shocked by the way he used to smell of that decay in the months he spent looking for this lab position, working at a restaurant. He had been prepared for the difference between himself and them, but still, it ached to look, to feel, so foreign. It ached to have this resentment.
When he saw the initial first draft of a paper they were looking to publish — one in which he’d synthesized the premise and spent so many hours toiling over, dissecting bird brains and computing finch genome differences — he immediately felt the sting of seeing his name. Second author after Terrence, a major blow when he thought he was meant to be the lead author. Granted, he had not been the main one doing the writing, given his English. But even so, it felt cruel to be relegated to the role of less important, foreign and disposable. He thought about quitting, and then he thought about his wife, and how happy she was to live in a Chinese neighborhood in America, how thrilled she had been to hear that he was working in a lab related so directly to his thesis.
What did it mean to truly understand the neurobiological pathways of language? To understand its evolution through time and space? He just wanted to be able to think in English.
To dream it, to breathe it. But he knew that semantic connections were difficult to rewire. Knew that thinking in a different language was proving impossible. The difficulty had begun in the plane, and he knew now, would never end. Now his own scope had shrunken into limited view, so that all he seemed to be living for were the brain tissue sections of dead, long gone zebra finches, their song dissipated into thin air.
A year after his wife arrived in New York, they made the trek to Ikea. They ate Swedish meatballs and talked shop about crib dimensions and assembly. “Americans drink Diet Coke all the time,” he told her, smiling, telling her about the cans scattered on Ryan’s desks. He wondered, privately, how much she loved him now, now that she saw him every day after work, no professorship in sight and on the verge of searching for another postdoc after so many years in grad school. Two people, dividing themselves. Embryo-like, he thought. Blastocysts. And in that hollow ball of cells, someone’s digestive system would emerge.
At least it was still possible for him to provoke laughter in someone else, in his wife. Unlike them, he didn’t think the finches could laugh. In the lab, the birds were immersed in each other, trying to form their own social networks, their mating calls as cacophonous as the car horns outside his apartment.
When they brought their daughter home for the first time, he wondered what language she would think in. English, perhaps. An Asian American. His wife was exhausted, but still, they took their first family photo, self-timed in the waning afternoon light. The dusk uncapturable by camera. But they took the picture anyway, preserving their daughter’s sleeping form like amber. She was more real than anything he had ever had. Perhaps she’d be the one participating in the dominant discourse, making her voice heard. He imagined the things he could teach her when her cognitive ability had developed, when she could understand him: stories about starlings and larks and the egrets wading their long legs through the water of Da’an. Stories about finches and swallows by day, invisible Mars by night.
He didn’t know if it was wrong to decide to live vicariously through someone else. Through his family. Through his own daughter. But then they all did, he supposed. Even the zebra finches, editing each other’s work, taking upon themselves the song of generations.