the westminster news
Published by the students of Westminster School
By Sung M. Cho ’22
I was more nervous than my chapel talk. Really! I had prepared less, practiced less recitations, and had been spending more time worried about L’Hopital’s Rule and related rates than polishing Dragon Palace Express and Class, the two pieces I read at the Friday Night Reading on Oct. 8, 2021.
I found time here and there though — five minutes at the trainer with Alex Shao ’22 where I recomposed a word, from “laminate” to “laminated,” and twiddled around spare commas.
I arrived — or was told to arrive — at the WCC by 6:30, and I picked an outfit which James Beit ’22, my roommate, and I thought emulated the quintessence of English teachers as a whole. Think faded blue cashmere sweater over a coral pink Turnbull & Asser checked poplin shirt with solid blue seersucker pants. Pretty literary if you ask me.
Kicking the door open with my left monkstrap, Mr. Cervas introduced me to Brian Ford, the namesake of the Brian Ford Writing Prize, and keep in mind, I had convinced myself I had written a thousand words of crap, so when he sounded excited to hear my work, I promptly escaped to the lavatory and scrolled through Instagram for another four or five minutes.
I returned from my convalescence, and before I could escape again, three Fourth Formers and Mr. Tawney had boxed me in to my right and to my left, so there was no point in attempting to flee. Regardless, Mr. Cervas had begun his introduction, so I grabbed my papers, which, by the edges, ran two parallel gashes (bad stapling). The details meld together at this point, but I was up at the podium, and all I could notice were the faces. So many faces — thanks for all the support!
Now the literary part.
Dragon Palace Express was inspired by a dinner I had at Oriential Taste, a Chinese restaurant in Northampton, Massachusetts. The short story is focused on the nature of language and how it affects the decisions and lives of people, especially immigrants, but it is interesting that I picked Chinese rather than, say, Korean, which is more in line with my ethnic background. Read into that what you want. Is the focus on China a result of the rising tension between the United States and China? Is it that I have several Chinese friends as a result of my boarding school heritage and it happened to be the first language in mind? The narrator of Dragon Palace Express is diffident at times, unsure of his own intentions, maybe even averse to his possibly immigrant background. I left that purposely vague so the reader can employ multiple Interpretations — is he struggling to find confidence in his otherness, does he just not care, or is he actively snobbish? Maybe the greatest point I was trying to tackle in the piece was that regardless of who is prejudiced, language can be used as a tool of division not only in the hands of the hater, but also by the hated. Remember! Think about who left the conversation first! I guess the message would be to consider making the effort to communicate regardless of that fundamental barrier, but I suppose that in the reverse, maybe that barrier is too difficult to traverse.
Class was a short story significantly more focused on life at Westminster; it was a reflection of seeing Third Formers this fall greet and meet new friends. As a Sixth Former, my friends and my group are rather set in stone — not that I am not seeking new connections but nothing at Westminster is very new for me anymore; people settle for what they have because searching is exhausting and draining. Regardless, I picked a Latin classroom as the setting, because personally, that was a class where I met and made the people and the friendships that would come to most surprise me in my later years. Again, this piece, like the last one, focuses on words — how those first words are the seeds which later become a story. The sun and the horizon are motifs here, growing stronger and weaker, emerging over or under, to emphasize the nascent growth of a relationship. I was asked by a friend who Keaton (from the story) was, if it referred to a real person at all. Maybe!
Dragon Palace Express
The water tastes funny.
Or I might just be crazy.
A mausoleum of fleas melt at the cushioning at the far end of the aisle. Polyester, I imagine. Near the joint, patterns of rusty roses reduce to rot. I should frown, I suppose, but I start smiling instead. I hope it goes away.
I wonder. Where is Uncle? Dinner was his idea.
My eyes roll in boundless circles through each cavity and every cranny of Dragon Palace Express. Where the steam leaks from the kitchen door in fat globules, a boy sits, scrunched over some second-generation tablet. I imagine he should see a chiropractor. Old oil from the floor blurs the ink scrawled on the papers he previously dropped to the ground. I squint, inspect the curl of a letter, follow its descending swell. Y. I think I know what this is. Actually, I might know it well. This is math.
The front windows are rendered impenetrable by the coat of fog that came from the remnants of some storm system out East. I listen instead, wait for the shriek of hot rubber on asphalt, though it never arrives. The patient hum of the gas station next door continues without interruption. I think to text Uncle soon.
The light from a paper lantern illuminating the glass shifts faster than I can look away. Soft silhouettes sharpen to full forms. I suppose I should greet my reflection. I linger on the glass against my best judgment. Then I stare down the Lasko fan responsible.
The waitress snaps, and the reverie breaks. An order. She needs an order, and that, I suppose, is fair enough. The laminated covers part to reveal a foreign kingdom — a land of lo mein and baos crossed by rivers of yellowtail rolls. The menu reminds me of an old memory. Maybe not even mine. I look again, breathe the chill of clinical Arial, release my breath as I reach the part I struggle to decipher, the half of the menu streaked with the strokes of characters. Here, the font is small and cramped. Every word, single-spaced. Each line squished and strangled by the next. Here, there is so little room for breath, but enough room for my distant thoughts. The menu is like the arrivals board at J.F.K.
I hesitate. The waitress furrows her brows, but I think I should take the time to weigh my options. Maybe it would be easier not to think at all.
“Can I get back to you on my order? Someone else is coming.”
The pen between her teeth shakes in approval. I turn a little to check the clock. Soon the harsh tones begin, a slow drip out from her lips transformed to a deluge as I turn back to greet her longing eyes.
“Sorry. I don’t —”
I know what I see. There it is, the same old. The drag of gravity on the lips, the droop of a frown. It matters little what I do next, really. The footsteps are sluggish but surgical. She has already left.
Every September, when the leaves turn crisp and apples begin to dot the edges of golden farmland, the horizon in New England is treated with a fresh coat of paint. The new horizon is sharp in resolution but boundless in possibility, and I figure the job could only be done on a divine easel.
Wondering where such a master board might be, I fancy that maybe it was the first settlers of Simsbury that had lost this providential tool.
Regardless, some deity or sky minister must have personally presided over the project, because right beyond the maze of oversized windows that distinguish Armour is the unmistakable portrait of autumn. The skyline continues to punch through the windows and pour onto the walls, and I suppose this had made me a little anxious, seeing in definition the half a dozen faces, all blank, all without lanyard and complement name tag.
To my luck though, the intruding light is soon subdued by a stray cumulus cloud and I finally think to breathe again.
I swerve in the opposite direction before self-correcting to my left.
“Just a little embarrassing for you.”
A small smile lingers at the corners of her lips.
“So tell me. What are you looking at?”
I gesture at the bold streaks of marker poured across an otherwise sterile whiteboard.
Her eyes flicker between the thin pencil suspended between her thumb and index finger and the remnants of Latin declensions on a far corner of the board.
“I hate liars, but sure. You any good at Latin?”
“Yeah, I think I’m fine at this. What about you?”
“I’m good at grammar, but I hate memorizing words. I think it’s a waste of time.”
“I don’t know about that. Ever think vocab quizzes are good for your grade?”
The horizon is back and I wince again at the stark light that drapes across the room. I feel words swamp together at the back of my tongue but their elocution is arrested by the flare of the late summer sun which is unsurprisingly caught in the rim of my iris.
I look into that glare a moment longer. I figure that ray must be from the start of the sky.
“Anyways, I’m Keaton.”