King for a Summer
By Wesley Yang
I attended the second and third sessions of the Summer Institute for the Gifted at Blair Academy in Blairstown, New Jersey. There we were encouraged to think of ourselves as we already did: as people set apart from the ordinary school population by the curiosity and talents that our peers (the prematurely mustachioed boys and the girls with the big hair) were intent on snuffing out. By now we know that all of the children of college-educated parents in America are above average, but back in the summer of 1987, the idea of running a camp consecrated to this proposition still seemed obnoxious. Of course I wanted to go.
There I would learn my first significant lesson in love, which was also a lesson in society. The camp was an artificial setting that reversed the hierarchies of the American public school, giving the assorted nerds, drudges, grinds, closet homosexuals, and Asians who attended a taste of social preeminence they might not otherwise experience. As was usually the case in such instances, the popular people turned out to be the ones who still had it going on in the conventional sense. A clique of wealthy, attractive, and stylish—according to the curious standards of 1987—Asian people turned their ethnic solidarity into an instrument of domination over others. I was happy to discover that I was not excluded from this solidarity, though I was not myself wealthy, attractive, or stylish. The Asian kids came from Bergen County suburbs like Tenafly and Alpine, and they had discovered music—New Order, Erasure, and Depeche Mode—that felt more interesting and subversive than alternative music has the capacity to feel anymore. We looked down on white people and coined a derisive term, “meegs” (short for a Korean term for “white person” — itself derisive), to refer to them.
It was my first exposure to true self-entitlement (that there were people far more self-entitled, and for better reasons, did not change the effect it had on me), and I did what I could to adopt it. With surprising success. Because by the end of the first weekend, when everyone had begun to pair off, I found that my ruminative nature had somehow earned me the affection of the bubbly center of our little clique—adorable, sparkly eyed, baby-fat Carissa—with whom, by the end of the camp, I would finally reach a milestone I would not reach again before college: first base.
While all of this was going on, a pale and solitary white girl with a drawn expression and long butterscotch blonde hair had conceived of a crush on me. I recall her sad eyes regarding me as I engaged in the antics that the camp setting had empowered me to unleash. The look in her eyes is one I will never forget, though of course I affected not to notice it. It was pure ardor. And so the little tableau I want to paint for you here is just this—sitting in the front seat of the short bus with Carissa’s head against my shoulder, and the pale blonde girl—I never did learn her name—in tears in the back seat. I knew back then that I was gaining a privileged glimpse into what genuinely rich and popular boys would experience all the time, as often as the world would allow—the exquisite pain, and pleasure of breaking a young girl’s heart. What I experienced at that moment was a premonition of what I knew I was going to see more of throughout my life: women preferring to be used and discarded by worthless men who cared nothing for them. It made me sad for two reasons: because it was sad in itself, but also because I knew then that my glimpse into an experience outside of my own allotted portion—the experience of being among the popular, rich, and stylish people that others would look upon with longing—was an accident that fate was quickly going to correct.
Wesley Yang is a frequent contributor to n+1.