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Biking Home

Photo of Catherine Elison | 12th Grade<br>Santa Barbara, CA & Kanagawa, Japan

Catherine Elison | 12th Grade
Santa Barbara, CA & Kanagawa, Japan

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The first-place winner of our Summer 2023 National Teen Storyteller Contest. We invited young writers to share a story responding to the theme of Stereotypes. This contest is part of our 2023 NEA Big Read initiative, made possible through a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, in celebration of Charles Yu's novel, Interior Chinatown.

One evening, a teenage girl was biking home on the streets of Tokyo. The sun had gone down an hour earlier. The air was cool. It was a nice night.

She was biking on gear six, pedaling down the street. It was just like mountain biking, but the mountains were buildings and the trees walked around since they were people.

The meter-wide crowded streets weren’t a challenge for her. She was born in this city and raised on these streets for the entirety of her 16 years, after all.

Even being born and raised in Tokyo, she was ¾ Japanese and ¼ American-Lithuanian. Maybe with her bleached hair and earrings, she was a little less Japanese.

She was often asked 「ハーフですか?」

Translation: ha-fu desuka? (are you half?)

And she would respond 「クォーターです。」

Translation: kuwo-ta- desu. (I am a quarter)

And whoever asking would go 「おおおおお。」

Translation: I am going to make an oh noise because I am surprised and definitely not categorizing you as an outcast in our Japanese society. You are now automatically more desirable because you are not fully Japanese.

She didn’t mind being asked if she was half.

She kept pedalling.

But, she did mind when people didn’t sit next to her on the train.

When salary men with no personalities pretended the seat wasn’t open. When the schoolgirls with bangs 1cm too long and skirts 1cm too short stared at her from across the train. When the cute schoolboys looked at each other, then at her, and then back at each other.

Translation: We would rather stand than sit next to you.

At least the extra space was nice.

Now that she thought about it, the worst was when someone sat next to her and wrote a message on their phone.


Translation: Go back to where you came from.

That was kinda scary. But, maybe it was her fault for looking over at the phone in the first place.

The girl pressed her brakes as she reached a red light.

As she waited for the light to turn green, she pulled out her phone to cue a song.

She cued some K-Pop, one of her favourite BTS songs.

Translation: She promises she’s not a Koreaboo! The music hypes her up, that’s all. (Even if she can’t sing along.) And, you gotta admit: the guys are good-looking.

As she waited for the light, she listened to the song and was reminded of her cousin. Her cousin was full Japanese. Once, in New York City, he was asked by a group of girls:

“Are you BTS?”

Translation: Are you a part of the South Korean Boy Idol Group Bangtan Sonyeondan?

He didn’t say no.

Translation: He took a selfie with the girls that asked even though he is not a part of the South Korean Boy Idol Group Bangtan Sonyeondan.

It’s not the end of the world being mistaken for a K-Pop idol, she supposed.

The light turned green. She crossed the street.

After crossing, the road went downhill. She slowly took her hands off of the handles and let them hang by her side.

Her brother taught her how to do that. He was two years older than her.

Translation: Being an older male figure in her life, he greatly influenced the way she had grown up. He taught her to be “tougher” and to take more risks. He would try stupid things and she would follow. She thought she would be more likeable the more she acted like him.

As she went down the hill, she remembered what he said.

“It’s easier to take your hands off going downhill than it is going uphill.”

Translation: Just because he was her dumb older brother didn’t mean he couldn’t make valid points every once in a while.

She thought about her brother and how, as much as she hated to admit it, she looked like him.

But he just looked slightly more Asian.

Translation: His complexion was just a little darker, and his eyes were just a little smaller.

This was deceiving as his behaviour was definitely more American than his sister’s.

Translation: He was more opinionated, spoke up for himself, and was unapologetic about the space he took up – whether it be his big personality or his manspreading on the train. To the girl, he had the traits she wanted.

The girl was stuck in paler skin with a paler personality.

At least, (according to a friend) both she and her brother were both bananas.

Yellow on the outside, white on the inside.

The girl thought about how both of them had gotten their “white” genes from her grandfather, who was very Lithuanian.

She recalled how her grandfather once forgot his glasses case at a bakery. His son (the girl’s father) went to go get them for him.

When we retrieved the glasses case, it had a sticky note saying “Older, larger, European gentleman.”

Translation: Old, big, slightly strange dude.

He got his glasses back, put them on, and could suddenly see a lot more clearly.

The same grandfather also spoke perfect Japanese.

Translation: He learnt Japanese from Kabuki and was a professor of Japanese history, PhD.

In fact, he met his wife at the Kabuki theatre.

Translation: He met a woman who was a third of his size who cooked and cleaned for him, even as they turned 90 years old.

The girl reached the bottom of the hill. It started to incline a bit. She let inertia take her forward.

As the hill got a bit steeper, the girl was overtaken by a woman on her electric ママチャリ.

Translation: Mama-chari. Mom-bike.

Real translation: A woman who is not only balancing groceries plus one child on the front of her bike and another in the back but is also balancing being the perfect housewife and mother whilst working a nine-to-five.

The girl wished she had an electric bike.

She thought started thinking “If I had an electric bike…” And thought about the time it would save her and what she would do with the extra time.

How if she got home earlier she could use the time to study for the upcoming math tests.

Translation: Though she was Asian, her math grades were not perfect. ¾ Asian is just not quite enough to be good at math.

But as long as she tried her best, her parents wouldn’t get mad.

Translation: Not all Asian parents didn’t force their children to get straight As.

It’s just that she wouldn’t be happy with herself. She couldn’t be happy with herself if she got less than what she expected.

But who is she kidding, even with the extra time an electric bike would give her, she would probably procrastinate. She would watch YouTube, or scroll through Instagram.

Translation: Instagram, YouTube, but not TikTok (she refused to get TikTok, she just wasn’t that kind of person).

She realized that her life was actually perfectly fine with just a normal bike.

The road flattened out. She was just a little out of breath from the uphill.

But, she thought she had taken her last breath as a car sped beside her sofastandsoclose. And it was SOLOUD.

Translation: Everyone who drives a loud car is an asshole.

But, it didn’t hit her. She was alive. The driver was probably just in a hurry. I mean, she’s ran a few red lights before. She couldn’t say anything.

She turned left.

She arrived home.