Belting by Noah Grabeel

We were never briefed for the incident. No one prepared the interns; in all the hours of mind-numbing professional development about sexual harassment and Lyme disease and “best practices” at the boarding school, there was nothing on Chinese and Vietnamese relations. After all, we were essentially glorified nannies in a high school setting, occasionally subbing for classes but mostly expected to keep the boarding houses clean and happy places. There was nothing about the controversy over China’s claims and Vietnamese autonomy, and there was certainly no acknowledgement that these things could trickle down into student life, a boiling pot that my peers may have noticed in passing, but a conflict that ultimately was eclipsed by our collective scrutiny of the Middle East. Either way, none of the interns could seem to offer any definitive course of action or any comments that could make sense of the situation. But that’s how it happens in cases such as this: two students, one Chinese, the other Vietnamese, an exchange in the lunch line. They somehow end up behind the cafeteria, one kneeling, the other standing, then off comes the Louis Vuitton belt, whipping around and beating the other, breaking the bridge of his nose with the silver metal buckle.

A week later, I picked up this student from the nurse’s office, a vestige dispensing Claritin and Ibuprofen for minor ailments, while sending the child to the walk-in clinic or, in more dire cases, a specialist. Any other menial tasks I would have been roped into—watching the baseball team, addressing envelopes for the fundraising gala, watching the front desk—I would be immune to for the afternoon. Jeffrey would be immune to the common drudgery of class, but I had noticed that he, and most of his peers, already circumvented the daily annoyance of school by playing League of Legends during lecture.

I knew very little about this student, as I had my own house of boarding students to deal with. Retrieving him from the nurse’s office consisted of the questions, “Are you on doctor duty?” and, “You’re taking him to the ear, nose, and throat doctor. You know how to get there?” The nurses would either forget to say a student’s name, or butcher their birth name completely with thick Long Island accents. It was natural to maintain a certain level of indifference, at best only superficial caring for the students. But even though I was still having trouble remembering names, I knew about Jeffrey. The whole school knew why his face was bruised and swollen.

We were very different—or rather, it was easier to assume we were very different—but we had at least one thing in common: we were transplants. He was from Vietnam, I was from Lynchburg, Virginia. I couldn’t begin to fully understand his experience at the school, but we were both out of our element. I was not, however, ignorant to his experience in America. Before working at the boarding school, I had lived in and attended one as a faculty student, a child of one of the faculty members living on campus. At boarding school, everyone is a transplant, whether for being unruly, or declining the offer to go to military school, or because they needed to improve their English to get into the best American colleges. From Raleigh, Korea, Richmond, Germany, New York, El Salvador, China—no matter where the boarding students came from, they were all coping with being away from home for high school, figuring out how to meld all of their cultures together and survive the next four years.

When I was in high school, amidst a mixed crowd of locals and transplants, I gravitated toward the boarding students, recognizing their foreignness, and their feeling of displacement. I needed to understand how it could illuminate something within my own experience, why I couldn’t just feel comfortable in my own hometown. Their lives also seemed more interesting, their paths leading to some small town in Virginia fascinating to me: “So, how did you end up in Lynchburg?” It’s as if there had to be some karmic justice or punishment, never a matter of choice. All the same, we got along well, I have to imagine because our sights were set farther off on the horizon. We made our own culture, all worlds blending into one.

Which has always been the interesting thing about boarding schools: they try to cultivate an alumni base, create camaraderie, community, but the fact is, no one belongs. It’s delusional to belong to a boarding school. Especially as an intern in one.

Regardless of my move from Virginia to New York, I was an intern with no real place, somehow at the sway of the students, faculty, and parents all at once, with no way to manage the three. Forget the totem pole; we were weeds. I knew little else about this student, who had to navigate billing at the doctor’s office in a language foreign to him, a kid who understandably did not want some intern supervising the visit instead of his parents, a student whose gaze afterward remained downcast as the doctor explained to me all the activities he needed to avoid to protect his face. The doctor, with his penny loafers adorned with dimes, could not know that I would lose track of him the minute he was back at the school. No longer in my care, he would be watched over at the dorm by a different intern who knew little more than I did about the whole situation.

But I knew a lot about the wheezing, the all-too-familiar softly squealing rattle, a sound that instinctively told the listener that something wasn’t right.

My life as a transplant started early. It was practically biological. I was in and out of hospitals often for nebulizer treatments and asthma. The air in southwest Virginia was suffocating me, as it still does, and I have a sense that from those first gasping breaths into the world, when the mere act of breathing was an anxiety-ridden chore, my body might have been preparing me to leave. Any time I go back down there, my body revolts. The maple pollen causes my airways to constrict, slowly threatening my supply of oxygen.

There are medications for that, but all those years wheezing were brought to mind by the student sitting in the back seat of the black SUV. His nose was red and blue, but even after the examination, I wasn’t sure if I should bring up the injury. I knew nothing about him personally, except the pain of labored breathing coming from his bruised nose.

By no large coincidence, the belting happened around a time of heightened tension in 2015, when Vietnam and China were disputing claims over the Paracel Islands. These lands were claimed by China back in 1974, but it seemed the construction of the Chinese oil rig so close to the decided boundary threatened to inspire a new wave of contention between the two countries. My search brought up articles, rising tension, violent protests. It took me some time to finally look into the China/Vietnam conflict, longer than it should have. The school told us not to make a fuss over the incident. The students, their actions and positions, would be considered carefully and given strict punishment, but there was no need to overemphasize the importance of the event—for the good of the students and the school, of course. I had heard about the incident at the lunch table. It had become a bit of chitchat, defanged, not because it was just a bit of roughhousing, but because we hoped for the best. Even as we heard the details, we were placated by the administration telling us not to worry, not to take on any extra responsibility, and in many ways, unfortunately, I was happy to. I wanted to believe hurt parties would be protected, especially at a boarding school with students so far from home. I wanted to believe that there were systems in place that would work to serve those students, not only to spout off about building community and global stewardship, but to act on it as well. At a school, a charged beating like this should be treated with extreme care and all necessary information disseminated respectfully and clearly, but instead, we were all told to walk it off.

Lee, the one wielding the belt, was not to be expelled, for the all-the-usual reasons: Money. Influence. Politics. Too much paperwork.

On our way back, Jeffrey had asked for McDonald’s, a secret truce between the two of us that was implied by the outing. We could extend our absence just a little longer for a rare reward. It was always McDonald’s. Every student was obsessed, but the closest one was still thirty minutes out of our way. The school would account for a slight detour, traffic could be blamed for coming back fifteen minutes later, but a full hour was pushing it. Besides, it was nearing three, and Jeffrey admitted he hadn’t eaten all day. I pointed out a deli off the road, and he shrugged in agreement.

I desperately needed coffee, so I poured myself a cup and swiped my card. Jeffrey wandered the aisles checking flavors, looking for food that wasn’t in line with the school’s kale-wrapped tofu blocks and chickpea salads. I watched him snub roasted ham, fried chicken, green beans, macaroni and cheese. I was reminded, almost transported directly to family meals, a Southern reunion, holidays surrounded with steaming comfort food. The hot plates were hearty, heart-clogging, heart-warming deliciousness, inspiring a full body sensation, starting with your nose and expanding with warmth on its way to your stomach. The scents filled me with delight, to the point of considering a second lunch, which was when I realized Jeffrey was staring intently at the food.

The doctor had instructed not to sniff too aggressively.

Allowing the steam off a fried chicken to expand and fill your nose, that beautiful sensation, was impaired for Jeffrey because of international politics. While he played video games online and struggled with oral presentations in English and tried not to look afraid in the face of his attacker as he kneeled behind the cafeteria, as he walked down the halls, as he unbuckled his belt for gym, he had to be stoic, and he had to protect his belief, because those very people asserting their nationalism halfway around the world had decided to send their children to America.

There are no safe havens. There’s no surety. This student doesn’t represent the tenacity of an oppressed people, or a stance against China, or an indictment against boarding schools. In some ways, boarding schools do a great deal of good, because they teach students earlier rather than later that they don’t belong anywhere. No amount of alumni support, teacher interactions, boundary disputes, proximity to family, or even nebulizer treatments can fix that. No place will keep out the chaos. It’s persistent, like the maple pollen clogging your infant lungs, to the point where your birthplace seems to be killing you. The chaos is sudden, like watching a silver buckle land on your face just in time to read “Made in France.”

Jeffery offered, in the deli, to pay for my coffee. I knew, through a friend in high school and anecdotes from other interns, that this was customary for him, a small glimpse into his home life, and that to deny this offer would be seen as rude. As I realized that I had a chance to respond by his standards of courtesy, which would have given him some small thing in this day about recovery from the unexpected, one interaction that might seem normal, might make sense—but then I realized that I had already paid for my coffee.

He paid for his food, I can’t remember what, I only remember that I was glad he found something. I tried to talk with him to make up for it, engage him about his studies, pretend to invest my time with him, but we both knew that this outing was irregular, that he’d barely have to see me for the rest of the year, and that I would eventually stop noticing him once his nose was healed. I’d have my dorm, he’d have his class, and our paths would become separate again. We would leave the school, find other homes, feel a certain belonging to other places just as quickly as we shed the last.

The belting incident would fall into a folder: An Outburst. The pain would subside. Breathing, at least, would return to normal.