“Does It Smell Like a School Gymnasium in Here?” by Bri Ng Schwartz

I used to sing.

Alone, at family gatherings, singing lessons, block parties, talent shows in theatres and school gyms. My idols were Disney Stars like The Cheetah Girls, who my childhood friends and I would imitate at said block parties.

At my first talent show, I sang “I Learned From You” by Miley Cyrus. I was accused of lip syncing and cried for the rest of elementary school. I then learned some basic chords on the guitar so no one could accuse me of lip syncing again.

Puberty hit.

I didn’t lose my love for singing, but I gained a hatred for my boobs and stomach. The guitar was perfect because I could sing, lose my karaoke track and hide my body behind this instrument.

Miley Cyrus was everything I wanted to be, but she didn’t look like me. The Cheetah Girls were 3/4 fierce woman of color, but they also didn’t look like me.

Having no role models like me was partly why I became self conscious about my face and voice.

I began taking on roles behind the scenes in arts spaces rather than performing.

“I guess I’m a coward. I just want to feel alright.”

When I was 19, my first love told me that we couldn’t be together. He left my place that day for a Mitski concert.

How dare he leave me, an Asian girl, for another Asian girl?

I opened Spotify to see who I was ditched for.

The first Mitski song to I downloaded was “First Love/Late Spring.”

“And I was so young when I behaved 25.”

This lyric stood out to me due to my self perceived emotional intelligence and the fact that my first love was 26. I downloaded her album Bury Me At Makeout Creek, and then her entire discography.

I saw Mitski live on April 2nd.

This wasn’t a concert. This was performance art.

Her lyrics communicated love, heartbreak and infatuation. Her eyes and choreography communicated uneasiness and paranoia. Her words said one thing while her nonverbal cues said another.

Picking up on the presentation a few songs in, I lost my mind when Mitski’s band began playing the intro to “First Love/Late Spring.”

Mitski eyes became frantic, looking around the stage as if she’d lost something. The frantic eyes were paired with Mitski placing her hand in front of her like a mirror, as if she was looking for someone else within her own reflection. During an instrumental break, Mitski began to stack invisible boxes, an action that frustrated her.

“First Love/Late Spring” was not about fierce and risky love, but about one half of that love attempting to build something that isn’t there.

That’s when I realized, these songs aren’t about other people.

They are about Mitski. Her “then and now”.

This self reflective style stayed the same until Mitski went acoustic. She was now alone with a microphone.

“Does it smell like a school gymnasium in here?”

These lyrics transported me to my school gymnasium talent show. Mitski was 4th grade me.

I saw me, a little Asian girl in all of her glory quietly singing a song and standing still.

I graduated college days before this concert.

To hear this person who looks like me repeat “To think that we could stay the same” made me think of all the ways in which I am not that fourth grader anymore. Never in a million years did I think i’d be singing along to songs by another Asian girl. Never did that heartbroken 19 year old think she’d find a role model in an equally emotionally complex Asian girl.

I want to sing again. Maybe at family gatherings. Maybe at singing lessons. Maybe school talent shows that took place in theatres but also sometimes school gyms.

But not block parties though. Do people even still have those?

Bri Ng Schwartz is a recent graduate of DePaul University with a double major in Dramaturgy/Dramatic Criticism and Women’s and Gender Studies. As a mixed race and female identifying person, she is interested in staring dialogues around topics, current events and plays that intersect with her identities. She is pursuing career opportunities in community outreach, public programming as well as criticism and creating devised, ensemble driven theatre. She has worked in multiple capacities at Free Street Theatre and has recently been published through the HowlRound commons.

Photo by the author