by Thanh Bui
Born in Saigon & raised in Dorchester & Alief, Thanh Bui is a writer & actor currently based out of gentrified Austin, Texas. Her written work has appeared in The Offing, Lammergeier, Cosmonauts Avenue, diaCRITICS, mutiny!, & other places accessible to her mom. She loves constantly.
In Houston, no one lets you over. If you’re driving at the speed limit, you’re slowing everyone down. The city’s so large that zigzagging past other cars makes a big enough difference in minutes to keep doing it. Between the hustle and this many people of color trying to get places on time, everyone’s always in a rush.
Austin’s always in a rush, too—don’t get me wrong. There’s just nowhere to go. The people who speed are either new to the city, have small dick energy, or should probably dive deeper in therapy. Small, packed, and slow-moving, there’s no cheating traffic here if there is such a thing anywhere. But this is Texas; someone’s always trying to play God.
The most infuriating thing about driving in Austin is the policing. I don’t mean the literal abundance of pigs eager to ruin or take Black and Brown lives, I mean everyone’s an honorary cop. In lieu of adequate infrastructure, everyday people have taken it upon themselves to correct and control. As an anxious driver, I hear anywhere from three to five honks on an average day. It makes me want to die. I mean it—I’ve sat in my big red car fantasizing about running me and Clifford off the road but never do it. It’d be too expensive if I don’t succeed. No one would donate to a gofundme like that. Too condemnable a cause.
I want to die in Austin, but I want to be buried in Houston. Or have my ashes split between select parts of the world I associate less with white supremacy. I want to die when I’m in Austin, but I don’t want to die in Austin. Dead or alive, my soul could never rest there.
Once, I left a lover’s apartment to find big, white words markered on Clifford’s driver seat window. “NOT A BIKE LANE???” it read. Not after 6 p.m., no. Maybe I parked thirty minutes too early. Maybe the rules changed. In any case, I never parked in front of that place again.
The first ticket I ever got was in Austin, too. I was driving back to my apartment at 3 a.m. during finals week in college and zoned out when I should’ve stopped at a blinking stoplight. No one else was on the streets except for that cop. I have no charm for people like him, no shared skin tone, no sense of self-preservation as a depressed millennial. I took the L and learned about wind draft around big trucks in defensive driving after finals. I find it a little thrilling now whenever I pass an 18-wheeler traveling between cities. The man who issued me the ticket said, “I hope you have a better night” as his final words before driving off.
I think I prefer the time I almost got mugged waiting for the school bus in high school. At least those guys had a purpose. At least they looked familiar.
Whether it’s on Yelp, community forums, local-serving Instagram accounts, or in the flesh, Austinites always have an opinion and they want you to know it. Punitive & politically active, they truly believe every thought should be voiced & heard. I don’t know if this is a small-town thing or a white-people thing; I wasn’t raised near either.
I watch a lot of plays and films in Austin and it’s always the white folks who love to participate in post-show talkbacks. Old white people, young white people—it doesn’t matter. What does matter is when the moderators at these events call on them first and pick their hands over darker ones. This can happen when the host of an Austin Asian American Film Festival event is white. It can also happen when creatives of color “don’t see color.”
Once, the year I earned an entry badge by acting in a public script reading, a Filipina writer and director spoke about her film, Yellow Rose, at the Austin Film Festival. She said to a room of mostly white filmmakers, “This is not a political film.”
In one scene, the protagonist, an undocumented musician, is found by an official during an ICE raid. He decides to spare her. Good white people are scattered throughout the film. Perhaps this is good for funding. Good white people are scattered throughout our psyches. Perhaps this is good for survival.
When a driver is mad at you in Houston, there’s a moment where they pull up to look you in the eye before speeding off.
One time, a man angrily passed me on an empty road late at night in Austin and we ended up walking into the same neighborhood H-E-B within seconds of each other. He doesn’t know this because people don’t look back in that city after they’ve been cruel.
Austinites gawk but hate eye contact. Look but never see. They like to skip me in line or reach over me when grabbing produce and pretend they had no idea. That’s what I’ve learned about white people after living amongst them. Feigning ignorance & actual ignorance are pretty good ways to shirk accountability.
With the way they like to look through me, you’d almost think we aren’t neighbors. Who could be neighbors with people you can’t see?
During the pandemic, I moved to a more Black and Latinx neighborhood in Austin. I don’t like going to this H-E-B either because I get stares. But it’s not the stares that bother me, it’s the reminder that Asian Americans, especially in Austin, are shit allies. We don’t live near Black and Latinx people here, we work for Indeed. We get along with white people or we look out for just our own because of white people. When the city’s this racist, you get selfish.
In the last apartment, I had a little Peeping Tom situation. I had suspected it for months because my bed is close to the window and I could hear faint noises secrets tend to sound like. I caught him one morning while sitting on the floor of my room. My blinds were pulled down save for the five inches where my cats would hang out—the way it’s been since my suspicions began, and at the cost of my seasonal affective disorder—which meant that he had to have bent down in order to press his little face against my window within those margins. I’d never been so terrified at the sight of a white child in my life. He waved to me when caught. My body went into fight or flight mode. I froze. I waved back out of panic. I wanted to puke.
You see, the adults in that household are doing their best. They take turns coming out onto the balcony to smoke every day and they don’t notice their son once peed off of that balcony onto the first floor. They take that kid to the playground nearby when they have the time & energy and they let him play soccer up & down our second-floor balcony hallway when that isn’t enough. I considered leaving them a note when I moved out, but I was still too traumatized from the ordeal and decided as a woman of color I would not partake in any raising of white children.
The blonde boy wasn’t the only voyeur in the complex. Once, when chasing down my cat who had joyfully escaped our apartment, this old white lady yelled at me from the first floor. I held my squirming companion with his claws deep in my skin while she told me: “You wanna know why your cats don’t like to use your cat tree?” Our cat tree, I then recalled, stood directly in front of a window on the other side of our apartment. Evidently, she likes to walk around. Evidently, she looks up. “It’s because it’s wobbly,” she continued. “You need to tighten the screws or else they won’t use it.” Unable to process the horror in front of me, once again, I remained polite by default. The cats love that tree. Surveillance loves policing.
A few months ago, my roommate and I were hanging out in the living room of our new apartment when the kid who lives next door, Latinx this time, looks in. Our windows are big and the blinds are always pulled up to let light in so it’s easy to look in or out of the apartment. He is curious, but cautious when looking. A bit ashamed when we meet eyes. My roommate waves this time, indicating it’s okay; nice to meet you.
My current neighbors in Houston are South Asian. The dad really likes to play some type of ball with his kids in the driveway during quarantine. Across from us are a Viet family my mom is friends with, and there are a couple of Latinx families on this street too. The Viet family we know got their Christmas lights stolen one year, but they still put them up and elaborately so. This is the street I almost got mugged on, and our house has been broken into. My mom was sad about her wedding jewelry and I was sad about the bracelets handmade for me from my family abroad. The lost items carried memories for us. But what’s a bunch of stuff compared to human life? What things could ever be worth taking away someone else’s future? What are concepts like “possession” and “object permanence” to a bunch of refugees anyway?
Two years ago, Quang picked me up so we could see Won’t You Be My Neighbor together while I was in town. We got to the end of my street and found a kid, Black this time, sitting on the curb by himself, crying. He was locked out and afraid. He splits his time between this house and another, but for reasons different from mine. Quang and I walked him back to my house, pointed out extremely identifiable features of it along the way, and introduced him as well as the situation to my mom. We then walked him back because he wanted to wait a bit longer, and Quang and I reluctantly left for the movie. My mind wouldn’t stop thinking about him throughout the film. Did I do right by my real-life neighbor just then, off-screen? When the pathways ahead are all dangerous for kids of color, how do we take real care of each other? My mom said our young neighbor returned to my house shortly after Quang and I left, and somehow things got resolved because he was home by the time I was.
I think my mom gave him snacks.
I am currently waiting out the pandemic in Houston, but had to make a trip to Austin recently to retrieve something. You would think that because there are fewer cars on the road, there’d be less aggression. But old hatreds die hard, and I received a honk that wanted to teach me a lesson the moment I was back within city limits. No eye contact as they sped off.