Our Reading Lives

To the Little Asian Girl Reading Poetry On the Subway

Rebecca Wei Hsieh

Staff Writer

Rebecca Wei Hsieh (she/her) is an NYC-based actor and writer with a BA in Theatre and Italian Studies from Wesleyan University. She doesn't enjoy talking about herself in the third person, but tries because she's a Hufflepuff. A proudly awkward queer Taiwanese American from three continents, she fancies herself a connoisseur of bad puns.

To the little Asian girl reading poetry on the subway:

The trains in New York are a bit scary, aren’t they? You and your mother even had the misfortune of getting on one of the older trains with navy blue benches and harsh fluorescent lighting yellowed with age. One of the lights was out, so the car was darker than usual. Your mum tried to get you to sit beside her, but you clambered onto her lap. I would’ve done the same if I were in your sparkly pink shoes.

Then the doors closed and the train started to move, wheels screeching against the rails. You immediately covered your ears and nestled yourself closer to your mother, squirming as the cacophony continued. The noise bothers me so much that I wear earplugs as soon as I get to the station. I can only imagine how horrid the sound must’ve been to your ears. But then you turned around to face the wall, and saw the lemon yellow poster with a poem and a picture of an owl. Your mother started whispering in your ear and pointing to the poster, and you smiled.

Lots of cities have begun to incorporate poetry on their public transit. I’d never given it much thought beyond, ‘Okay, that’s nice’. I would read it to enliven my commute, and then will myself to focus on whatever work I needed to get done, keeping my fingers crossed for a delay-free ride.

But you reminded me of why I read.

In a way, seeing you read poetry made me feel less lonely. I don’t know what ethnicity you are, and it’s frankly none of my business. But one day you’ll read about your ancestors and your forebears, and know that generations of resilience has led to you. Maybe you’ll even learn to read the languages of your source lands.

Perhaps you’ll turn to research about what lies beyond the broken atmosphere you have inherited, fix the mistakes we’ve made and forced you to pay for. Turn to dystopian fiction to endure the dystopian reality in which you’re growing up.

The backs of shampoo bottles, when you take extra time in the toilet to avoid work. Road signs, to capitalise on every opportunity to quote Vines. The same few posts on Instagram as you refresh and refresh and refresh, waiting for your chronically late friend. Hellishly long URLs that you have the misfortune of typing manually.

You’ll develop your pet peeves: dog-earring, annotations in borrowed books, agonisingly long waits for that one copy at the library. You’ll find your favourite reading nooks. Maybe you’ll develop the envy-inducing ability to read in cars.

Some books will help you find your chosen family, and you’ll swap fanfics and headcanons back and forth. Others may make you finally realise just how lonely you’ve been.

I hope you read. Everything from novels and instruction manuals to audiobooks and whatever futuristic medium awaits you. I hope you read things that excite you, that enrage you, that bore you out of your mind and  bring you to tears. I hope you finish giant volumes in one sitting and decide to toss out a book after two chapters the next day.

I hope you feign sleep, only to turn on your bedside lamp and sneak a few more pages, the black ink on white paper brighter than any star in our polluted skies.

More than anything, I hope you read and realise that you are not alone in your loneliness.

I read to know I’ll be okay. And as you hop off the train at your stop, your purple tutu dancing despite the stuffy underground air, I know you will be, too.