CreAARCtivity Series #1: Ethan and the Fragility of Potted Plants

Ethan and the Fragility of Potted Plants

by Zichen Liu 



Half satire, half non-fiction.  This trio of short vignettes is just my way of telling my story of growth and growing.  Character actions and thoughts are not necessarily condoned by me.  Content warnings: swearing, self-harm, homophobia, racism.


1. Tomato (Ethan)

With my chin rested on my elbow rested on the desk before me, I was hidden from view of the vast array of arrays on the ugly classroom whiteboard by none other than my laptop, my sturdy shield.  

“Ethan, would you like to explain to the class what you’re smiling about?  I’m sure it’s about matrix multiplication.”

Obviously not, you mean mathematical matriarch, I thought to myself.  I was pretty pissed off.  This happened a lot to me for some reason.  That reason?  I had a super smart older sister who had set impossible standards for me by so thoroughly impressing every single teacher that I eventually would have to suffer through “how the hell is this kid related to Ivy League-bound Sarah?”  and “is that dumbass even Asian?”  I was a disgrace to her, and everyone knew it.

“I-I don’t know,” I said, being awkward and submissive and fulfilling several Asian stereotypes.

I felt the stares of my classmates on me.  “The Dumb Asian is so dumb,” they were probably thinking.  There were only two Asian kids in our class—me and Leon Dang, who was obviously the Smart Asian.

Leon moved from Vietnam when we were eight years old.  My parents excitedly befriended his family since there weren’t many Asians in this white town.  But, I always wanted to play tag with the other healthy and normal kids in the neighborhood while he just quietly read and studied English in his room all day and only came out to water some tomato plants that he grew so we never actually talked to each other.  This was fine with me, until suddenly grades mattered and my parents started saying shit like “You got a C on your test?  How come Leon did so well?  Leon is volunteering for this children’s hospital!  Why are you so lazy?  Leon is so poor but hardworking!  Why are you so spoiled and ungrateful?”

“Well, would you rather have a stupid son or a gay son?” I wanted to shout, even if I knew that was probably really horrible.  But I honestly knew it wasn’t because I was stupid since I was genetically smart—my Chinese last name and my genius sister were proof of that.  I had already accepted that I was just a super big failure to the entire Asian race.

As soon as the bell rang, I threw everything into my backpack and dashed out into the wild.  Unfortunately, I still had to drive the smart and gay Leon home, so I waited around for a bit until I finally saw that scrawny stick figure apologetically squeeze past some sweaty jocks and head towards me.  I usually tried to not hang out with other Asians or else people would think I was a F.O.B., even though I was basically a banana (white on the inside but yellow on the outside).  Unfortunately, F.O.B.’s and bananas phenotypically looked the same so it was really annoying when I was categorized incorrectly.

Leon and I walked towards the parking lot without really talking to each other.  He walked with a girlish gait and had a slight Vietnamese accent.  He was so obviously different from everyone and didn’t fit in at all.  It annoyed the hell out of me to look at him or to be associated with him, so I walked a little bit in front of him to spare myself the discomfort.

We were approaching the parking lot where my Mini Cooper was when someone shouted a very prolonged and sneering, “Hah, gay!  Gay chinks!”

Leon ignored it but I stopped in my tracks and spun around.  It was a nondescript white sweaty jock—one of those whose high school careers would probably be their lifetime peak.  He and his other sweaty friends were getting into his car, a BMW, probably given to him by his rich-ass bougie parents.  Then again, my own car had the same bougie backstory, but I conveniently ignored it because only white men like him had true privilege.

“What’d you say, you asshole?” I yelled.  He was obviously far away enough to where I wasn’t scared of him, because although I wasn’t very tall or buff, I was pretty fast, because Asians are scientifically proven to be ninjas, at least according to the movies.

“Ethan,” Leon said softly.  “Let’s just go.”  

I refused.  If Leon didn’t want to stand up for us Asian men, then he was part of the problem.  Pussies like him were the reason why everyone thought Asian men were weak, sexless, nerdy, awkward, and a fucking joke.

“I said you’re gay!” the sweaty jock shouted, and laughed with his friends.

You’re fucking gay, you asshole,” I shouted back.  “You cock-sucking, sissy fag—!”  

Leon grabbed me by my arm and pulled me towards my car.  

“Hey, hey!” I hissed at Leon, who immediately looked like a small, hurt puppy but refused to let go.  “What are you doing?”

“They’re holding hands!” the sweaty asshole taunted.  

My face turned bright red as my blood boiled.  But Leon kept dragging me towards my car.  I couldn’t do anything.  I felt alone.  I felt weak.  Everyone was my enemy.  Everyone was out to get me.  I got in the driver’s seat and zoomed off out of the parking space without buckling my seatbelt.  I broke the speed limit until I was finally at the street where Leon lived.

“Get out of the car,” I said, after parking in front of his apartment suite.  “Please.”

Leon didn’t budge.  Instead, slowly, he turned his large, doe-like eyes to face me.  His pupils were trembling like a disturbed puddle of water, as if I were really intimidating or something, but he didn’t break his gaze.  Soon, Leon was staring into me.  Leon, who refused to make eye contact with anyone.  It was like he had gathered up a lot of strength just to face…me.  

“You are the worst,” he said.  He grabbed his backpack, got out, and closed the door as hard as his skinny arm could.  Almost like a small slam.

As he swiftly walked up through the front yard to the door of his apartment, he accidentally knocked over a small tomato plant in a tiny brass-colored pot.  I had seen him carefully water his tomato plants since childhood, and this one seemed like a baby one.  But now it was knocked over, with the soil spilling out like guts after a murder.  How fragile, how sad.

I wasn’t angry anymore.  Seeing the small tomato plant’s demise had woken me up out of my angry trance.  I was the worst.  What I had said was horrible.  Leon shouldn’t have to deal with someone like me.  And the poor little plant, too.  That was my fault.  I leaned my forehead on the wheel.  A tear leaked out of my eye and made a small streak on the leather.  

“I’m the worst,” I said.  “The fucking worst.”


2. Bonsai (Sarah)

My friend Amy was popular with the heterosexual boys; I was not.  (But, did I want to be?)  She had pretty, long hair, and dressed all vintage like the art student she was.  I always wore my hair in a ponytail, wore jeans and t-shirts, and was into hardcore STEM.

It was 3:30 PM when I got to the library.  I was on time, but Amy was always early to everything, so compared to her, I was late.  I rushed to the quiet room that we had booked.  As expected, Amy was there already, with her homework out and reading glasses on.

“Hi Sarah!” she exclaimed as I walked in.  “I’m so glad you’re here, babe!  This homework is impossible!”  She reached over and gave me a warm hug and rubbed my back gently.  (Sometimes I wondered if the things that people shared could mean completely different things to each person.)

“But now that Miss Valedictorian is here, this dummy doesn’t have to fail!”

We studied for a few hours.  The chemistry homework was indeed very hard.  (What extent of affection does the kindness of another indicate?)  Unfortunately, I had to get through it since I want to be a chemist when I grow up, and I wanted to go to Stanford University.  (How do you measure if there’s chemistry between two people, though?)  I wanted to help the dying environment.  (But I can’t even help myself get rid of these thoughts!)  

Do you know what calling someone “babe” means?  Do know what hugging someone so warmly means?  How can you be so nice to me, when I have intentions you don’t know about?  How can you be so sweet to me, when I’m so impure?  

I’ve always been the “normal” child, and my brother Ethan has always been the “problem” child.  I have good grades, I have close friends, I love my parents.  I do everything everyone ever wants of me.  So, where did I go wrong?  I knew I had liked boys before, and I knew I would never marry a woman, since my parents would lose face.  There was no statistical probability of me being with Amy, but it didn’t stop my heart from aching.

When I got home after trying to act as natural as I could while thoughts were rushing uncontrollably in my mind, my parents were eating dinner with my brother.

“Hi Sarah,” my mom said.  “Did you hear back from Stanford yet?”

“Mom!” I said, laughing.  “Don’t stress me out.  I’ll hear from them tomorrow.”

Ethan rolled his eyes at me, but didn’t say anything.  He knew that my parents would never expect something like that of him.  Our parents were tiger parents with me but they were relaxed with him.  I always wondered why, since we were just one year apart.    

“Mom, Dad,” I said, taking a big breath.  “Can I invite Amy over for dinner tomorrow?”

“Who’s Amy?” Ethan said.  “Is she part of your Asian clique?”  

“My friend from school,” I said, calmly.  “We study together at the library all the time and she’s really smart and polite.”

My parents looked at each other.  “Well, we don’t know her well enough yet.  Don’t you think inviting someone for dinner is for close friends?”

“Well,” I said.  “What if I want to become close friends with her?”

“That sounded so lesbian, Sarah,” Ethan said.

“Young man,” my dad said sternly.  “Watch your language!”

“If you want to be annoying, just go to your room,” I said.

After Ethan left, there was an awkward silence.  My parents didn’t say anything about his remark, so maybe they were more accepting than I thought.  Plus, they treated our family friend, Leon, kindly, even though he was gay.  Maybe I could come out to them?  Maybe my parents were one of those miraculously accepting parents despite being both immigrants and Christians?

“There’s an LGBTQ Club fundraiser at school tomorrow,” I said carefully, making up a harmless backstory.  “I was wondering if I could stay and help out, since I’m the senior class secretary and we want to show support—”

“Sarah,” my mom said.  “I know you want to be kind, but there are other fundraisers out there you can also help.  You don’t have to help everybody.”

“Mom, you know a lot of my friends are LGBTQ, right?” I said, hiding my gradually sinking heart with a smile.

My dad sighed.  “You can show your support in other ways.  We are kind to Leon, but we don’t have to encourage his behavior.”

I bit my tongue before I said anything reckless.  “But I want my friends to be appreciated for who they are, even if I disagree with it!”

My dad got a bit more impatient.  “Sarah, why are you so stubborn?  We said you can help with other clubs, and you can still be friends with them.  But showing support for this kind of event indicates that you’re one of them!”

My heart skipped a beat, but in a horrible way, like it tripped over something.  My own beloved parents were saying these things.  Didn’t this only happen in those movies about problem kids?  Why was it happening to me?

“If you ever turn into one of them,” my mother said, now suddenly very solemn.  I got very scared.  But I am one of them, mom!  “I don’t know what I would do.  I would be so…disappointed.  I would kill myself.”  And she burst into tears.

I couldn’t take it anymore.  Seeing her cry broke my floodgates.  But I was crying for a different reason.  My parents hated the real me.  They would rather kill themselves than face the monster that I really was.

“Mom,” I said through my tears, straining myself because I just wanted to run away but I had to be the good daughter and comfort my mother who had cut me so deeply.  “You know I’m not like that!  Mom!”

My father put his hand on my shoulder firmly.  “We know, Sarah.  You’re a good girl.  Let’s not talk about this subject any further.  It’s very emotional for your mother.”

I ran up the stairs and by the time I got to my room, I was crying like a child.  I buried my face into my pillows.  If I got into Stanford, everything would be better.  I would be the normal valedictorian again.  My feelings for Amy wouldn’t matter.  My parents would be proud.  I would be happy.  I cried and cried myself to sleep.

The next morning, I sat up with a startle.  Stanford decisions come out today!  I was choking with anxiety.  I ran to my computer, my hands shakily typing “”  My email inbox started to load, every second feeling slower than the last.

Inbox (1): Email from Stanford University Office of Admissions.

My hand shook as I struggled to click on the email.  When I finally managed to open it, I couldn’t read it.  Everything was so blurry, and I was in a daze.  But the only word that wasn’t a blur pierced me like a root canal.


Maybe my floodgates weren’t fully recovered from last night, because I burst out uncontrollably crying again.  I would have rather been straight-out rejected than to be given the painful sliver of hope…

I slammed my laptop shut.  I wanted to break.  Everyone was expecting me to get in.  I wanted a break.  Getting into Stanford was supposed to fix me.  I wanted to break something.  

Unfortunately, I only had books on my desk because I was a piece of shit goody two shoes with no fucking personality.  More unfortunately, the only thing I could break was the ceramic pot holding my bonsai tree, which my delusional eighth grade teacher had given me because she had believed that I could achieve whatever I wanted.  It was a lie.  I was never good enough.

“Why did you have to believe in me,” I barely choked out a whisper.  I picked the little bonsai tree up by its pot, and dropped it on the floor.  It shattered like an earthly crystal.  Some ceramic pieces dug into my bare legs, and some soil stained my clothes.

I was dirty now, very dirty.  Just like the dirty girl I was.


3. Succulent (Ethan)

It was winter break now.  My poor sister got waitlisted by Stanford University, her dream school since she was little, which was weird because everyone assumed that if anyone was admitted, it would be the valedictorian.  Sarah had basically stopped speaking to anybody in the family and would only obsess over her college applications, only leaving the house to grab Starbucks.  She never even cleaned up the mess the bonsai tree left in her room.  Although I thought it was a major overreaction, I felt bad for her, so I drove around downtown to find a florist.

The downtown was really old and white, so there were many old and white people there.  I felt out of place wandering around to the quaint floral shop, being neither old nor white.

“Hello, are you really going to buy something?”  Was that a microaggression because I was a cheap window-shopping Asian?  Or because I was a troublemaking teen?  Or both?

I spun around to face the florist standing behind me, who was definitely white (like literally ghostly pale) but not old at all.  In fact, she looked only slightly older than me.  She had dark hair, dark eyeshadow, dark red lipstick and wore a black dress with a black apron.

“Uh,” I said, stammering slightly since her darkly attractive appearance had taken me aback more than I would like to admit.

“Y-yeah, my sister smashed her bonsai tree.  It was crazy.  It woke me up at like, seven in the morning,” I said, nervous, like I always got around white girls.  I vaguely thought about how if I got with the florist it could be a win for the whole race since it was rare for Asian guys to score, but I quickly realized how much of a sad and desperate fuck I was.  “I was thinking of just replacing it.”

The florist smiled.  “It’s really so thoughtful of you.”  It warmed my heart to hear an attractive stranger call me thoughtful, for some reason.  “I didn’t mean to assume earlier.  Most people your age don’t come here to actually buy anything.  They just come here to bother me.”  

“Yeah, most other guys my age are little shits.”
“Anyway, our bonsais are in the back.  Follow me?”

I trailed behind this mysterious florist deeper into the tiny shop.  Eventually, we reached the aisle with the bonsais, but unfortunately they all were all big and fancy, and hundreds of dollars.

“Oh, uh,” I said, embarrassed.  “These might be out of my price range, sorry.”  I casually played with a dried up poppy plant on the shelf adjacent to the bonsais.  Looking at the poppy made me feel happy.  Hopeful.  High.  “I guess I’ll look elsewhere then.  Thank—”

“Cacti!” the florist exclaimed.  “They’re tiny and affordable.  You seem like a cactus sort of guy.”

“I’m tiny and affordable?” I said, wondering if this was about Asian guys and penis size.

“You just seem like the type of guy who acts all cool, but actually is just as insecure and needy of love as everyone else.”  I found myself turning very red, contrasting all the green around me.  In fact, there was so much green around me that the floor of the shop had become a grassy field.  

“What the fuck does that mean?” I said, finding myself suddenly very angry.  “You might wanna work on your PR skills, lady.”

Instead of apologizing, the florist laughed wryly.  “There’s no need to be ashamed,” she said, marching over to the shelf with a bunch of spiky looking things which did somewhat resemble my untamed bed hair.  I guess she was right.  She took down two tiny pots, one in each hand, and handed them to me.  Each contained a small green sphere encased entirely of needles.  “We all hurt the ones closest to us.”

All the elderly customers in the shop had suddenly vanished, so there was no one else in the shop besides us two and the great forests of plants, but I felt so humiliated.  Because it was true.

“Are you insane, bitch?” I said.  “I’m outta here.”  I spun towards the entrance of the store and started to bolt out of the store.  I threw a bill on the counter and I was out the door.

I jumped in my Mini Cooper.  I zoomed off, making many old people gasp then cough from gasping in the exhaust.  I didn’t stop zooming until I was out of gas and I realized I had forgotten how to get home and was lost in some white neighborhood of white houses and white fences.

I looked at the cacti I had placed in the cupholders.  The florist was right.  They were me.  I hurt everybody close to me.  I failed my parents.  I hurt Leon.  I didn’t support Sarah.  I had always been like this, projecting my insecurity, my need for dominance, my delusions of a world where I was a hero for facing my own demons and could never be an abuser myself.

I pinched a cactus spine between my thumb and forefinger and tore it off one of the poor little plants.  Then slowly, I pressed the tip of the spine into the soft flesh of my other index finger.

“Fuck,” I winced as I bled.  “I’m so stupid.”  The spine was coated with many hair-like needles.  And now they were in me.  I pulled the bloody spine out, knowing that the majority of the damage was still left inside.  I would need a lot of time and tweezers to remove them.

With my head on the steering wheel, I wept.  I was the worst.  The fucking worst.  My finger wouldn’t stop bleeding.  My eyes wouldn’t stop crying.  Eventually, all the liquid coming out of me filled up the inside of my car, and I drowned.


I woke up from a cold sweat.  I was back in the florist shop.  I was sitting on one of the bottom rungs of a ladder, staring at some sort of dried up flower pod with a long stalk.

“Hello?  You’ve been sitting in front of that poppy for a while now.  Are you alright?”  It was the florist.  Why was I here again?

“Hello?  We’re about to close soon.”

“Uh.” I was so disoriented and my head felt fuzzy. “What am I doing?”

“Well,” the florist said.  “I just showed you the bonsais and then you zoned out.  It happens to some people when they hang out around dried poppies for too long.  They’re the same thing as opium, I suppose.”

I realized that it had all been a dream—well, mostly.  I was still a below average person.  I also still needed to do what I had come here for, so I picked out two tiny pots with fresh succulents, each looking like a small green flower of thick leaf-like petals.  These were much nicer-looking than cacti.  I paid the florist, and drove home carefully so that I wouldn’t spill the tiny plants resting gently in my cup holders.  

When I got home, Sarah was making dinner, since our parents weren’t home.  She didn’t speak to me as I walked into the kitchen, but I could tell she’d had a long day.

“Um,” I began. “I couldn’t afford another bonsai tree, but I could afford these.”

Sarah turned around with the spatula in her hand and eyed me nonchalantly.

“I don’t really need two,” she said.  “You can have the other one, I guess.”

“Well,” I said.  “I heard your conversation with Mom and Dad a week ago.  I figured it out.  I was being immature about it, but I promise I support you.”

Sarah tilted her head to the side a bit inquisitively.

“I was thinking it could be a nice present for you to ask Amy out on a date.”

At this, Sarah put down her spatula.  She turned down the stove because she was a goody two shoes smart girl.  As she walked towards me, a small smile crept upon her face.

“You dummy,” she said, bursting into tears as she embraced me, her forehead knocking into my chin forcefully.  I hadn’t really hugged my sister in a long time. We stayed like that for a bit.  It was nice.  “You’ll never know how much this means to me, little bro.”

I started to tear up too.  “I know.  I’ll never really know what it means to you.  But it doesn’t matter, since it’s not really about me.”

I wanted to make things okay again.  For Sarah, for Leon, and for myself.  Plucking out one tiny hair-like needle at a time.  



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