I was driving down I-94W with my brother in the passenger seat. Trees that lined the streets flew by, as Maroon 5 quietly played from the radio. It had been a couple minutes in the car, just the two of us, when my brother suddenly asked me if I noticed anything different about him. I took a second to look at him — straight black hair, long face, dark framed glasses, light acne common at his age of 15. “What? No, not really,” I replied, quickly returning my eyes to the road. “New glasses?” After a moment of silence, he spoke. “Don’t I seem more happy?” I pretended to concentrate on the road, but I was taken aback by his statement. I had never realized that he had been unhappy before. I asked him what made him more happy now, and he began talking about feeling more confident and comfortable in his own skin. “I guess I don’t care what other people think about me anymore. Not in a bad way, but just that I do my own thing.” He went on to talk about how he felt more normal after realizing that others were insecure just like him. “I talk more to my lesson teachers now, too,” he added proudly, as we were nearing home. I remembered seeing him with his lips quietly pursed year after year as his cello teacher tried her best to get a smile out of him during their sessions. “I guess I thought they liked me to be quiet and a good listener. But one day when I was feeling more loose — you know, I just have those kind of days sometimes — I talked more, and it was way more fun.” I smiled, noticing his dynamic hand gestures out of the corner of my eye. “That’s good.” He continued on, “Mom always said something like that, but I didn’t actually realize it till now. I think listening and understanding it for yourself are different things.” As we pull into the driveway, I began to realize how much he had grown intellectually and emotionally since I had left. I wondered what else I had missed out on.
I bend over to look at the books stacked on my brother’s desk. Precalculus. Return of the Soldier. AP U.S. History. And a library book laying flipped open face down: Why Good Kids Act Cruel: The Hidden Truth about the Pre-Teen Years. My heart ached a bit, looking at the book borrowed to understand his own adolescent experience. Because his mother did not go through the U.S. education system. Because both his older siblings are out of the house and “being successful.” “I don’t have any close friends,” he once told me — so offhandedly, as if he was telling me that his favorite color was blue. I stopped but didn’t ask him any more questions, and instead offered that “maybe high school will be better.” But I did wonder if he would be reading this book had I been more present for him.
When my family came for graduation, my friend R jokingly asked my brother to tell him my most embarrassing moment. He told R that he didn’t have any real memories of me. I remember silently blinking when R told me that and feeling a swirling queasiness in my stomach. I had realized how many years it had been since I had lived with my brother. How he had been just ten years old when I left. How I talk about him more than I ever really talk with him anymore. And it broke my heart just a little bit to hear him say that, that what he remembered about me was pretty much an empty void.
With every trip back home, I wonder where I am supposed to be. I don’t understand why fighting Oppression takes me away from developing a relationship with my brother, a lanky Asian kid trapped in lily-white Minnesota suburbia. I don’t understand why my work means that I cannot be here to watch and contribute to his growth. Why does success lie outside of our families and away from our homes? Maybe I’m doing it all wrong.