During my first semester of college, I played what I thought was a “fun icebreaker” — a game I called Guess My Race! I didn’t know how to start conversations with other people — the “where are you from/what dorm do you live in/what is your major” routine got old quickly — and other students asked me about my identity anyway, so I turned it into a comedic bit.
The contestants studied my brown skin, dark eyes, and almost-black hair. I could see them trying to work out how my smattering of freckles fit in, or what to make of my full lips and almond-shaped eyes. Each one gave a wince of uncertainty before blurting out their guesses.
“Some kind of Latina?”
Hearing the varying responses was fun. Friends I’d already made laughed as the newcomers got farther from the answer.
“Half-White, half-Chinese,” I’d finally say.
“Really?” they’d ask. Some would laugh. “I could have sworn you were Filipina/Mexican/Peruvian!”
This was a fun game until I realized people would ask me about being Chinese. “Do you speak Chinese? What part of China is your family from?”
It was even less fun when I realized people wouldn’t ask me about being Chinese. They would just assume that I didn’t have much to say about the experience — especially the Real Chinese students: the ones who spoke Mandarin, ate mooncakes, had actually been to China, and had other Chinese friends.
“Oh, you know what I’m saying,” they’d say. “Doesn’t your mom do this? Didn’t you hate Chinese school? Can you believe what they’re trying to serve as Peking Duck?”
But I didn’t know. I had no idea. I wished I’d never told anyone I was Chinese at all. Why did I say that? Why did I think I was Chinese? I didn’t know the first thing about being Chinese. I had never celebrated Mid-Autumn Festival; I made dim sum selections with more trepidation than my cosmopolitan White friends. I could never remember the name of the town where my father lived — and if I tried to pronounce it, I’d fail miserably. The extent of my Cantonese was counting to ten, saying “Happy New Year,” and telling people to eat rice.
What was I supposed to do? Jump into the conversation only when numbers came up? Why did no one teach me how to be Chinese? Why did they let me go through my life believing this lie?
“Hi, my name’s Christie. My Chinese name is Mei Li, but it’s not even my legal middle name or anything. No one really calls me that. My grandparents don’t even really call me that. Sometimes I get money in red envelopes and eat bean paste in Chinatown, so, you know, I’m as Chinese as they come.”
I started drawing away from the Real Chinese people I knew. I stopped playing Guess My Race. When someone asked “what are you?” — and they always, unfailingly did — I’d haltingly reply, “I’m half-White and half-Chinese, but-I’m-not-actually-culturally-Chinese-my-dad-is-really-Americanized-so-it’s-just-more-of-a-biology-kind-of-thing.”
Race wasn’t biological, I knew that. Race was constructed. But why did I have to be part of that construct? I wanted to be unraced. I wanted to stop having to define myself to other people, just because of the way I looked.
Growing up, my favorite Disney princess was Pocahontas. I saw the movie when I was four years old and was immediately obsessed with its heroine. I dressed up as her for Halloween and I’d walk around the house singing “Colors of the Wind” in my squeaky, whiny, little-girl voice.
Pocahontas was fun. She jumped off cliffs and fell in love with handsome men and taught people about peace and acceptance. She didn’t listen to her father and she saved a man’s life because of it.
And she had brown skin.
Pocahontas was my favorite because she looked like me. She had dark skin, long dark hair, brown eyes, and thick, red lips. I imagined I would grow up to look like Pocahontas — I would have long legs and a full bust and I would prance around in an off-the-shoulder deerskin dress. I wasn’t sure why Pocahontas and I looked alike — was I Native American, too? — but I felt like we were sisters.
Three years later, I gained a new favorite princess. My aunt and I were wandering around the dim halls of the Museum of Natural History. She held my hand as we walked into the Hall of Asian Peoples. “Look,” she whispered. “That’s just like what your grandmother wore when she got married. She rode on a chair just like that all through her village. Did you know she didn’t know Papa until the wedding?”
I stared at the deep red and gold of the mannequin’s dress. I imagined my grandparents, in this village, in this place where they lived their entire lives before they packed up my father and flew to New York, and I looked up to my aunt to hear more.
It was the first time I could understand China as a concept other than my grandparents’ “old country.” It was the first time I could visualize China beyond that one picture I’d seen of my family lined up at the airport, moments before they shed their native lives for their new immigrant roles.
Most importantly, it was the first time China was presented as a place that was related to me — as a place that belonged to my history in some way. My aunt told me stories about her life there; she told me about different historical periods and recited stories from the folklore. At each diorama she had something to share — something she knew because she was Chinese; something she was passing on to me because I was Chinese, too.
When Mulan made her debut as a Disney princess, I no longer needed the princess who looked like me because I had a princess who shared a culture with me. I was delighted to discover that I already knew the story of Mulan; it had been whispered to me in my aunt’s reverent voice months before it was packaged into a cartoon and thrown up on the big screen. The movie was an unexpected scavenger hunt where I could find pieces of my own life nestled in the animation. I recognized the inky Chinese characters and strings of delicate flowers from the paintings on my grandparents’ walls. I could hear my Papa’s voice and cadence when I listened to Mulan’s father speak. I could smell the incense the characters lit because those same incense sticks were burning in my house every day, in a red holder my grandmother kept in her apartment downstairs. As I watched the movie I made a mental collection of these wonderful things, things that my friends recognized as “Chinese” but I simply recognized as “me.”
When I was younger, I remember being proud of my Chinese heritage. I was the only Chinese girl in my school. I would tell my friends about the Chinatown banquet dinners we had on birthdays, the oranges and candies we ate on Chinese New Year, the temple my grandmother brought me to after tea and dim sum, the smell of the “ting ting” incense she burned every time the moon changed.
My grandmother would cook fried rice and broccoli for my classmates and I would teach them to say “gung hay fat choy!” I would tell them how my aunts called me by my Chinese name, Mei Li.
But I would brace myself for the moments, incidental and inevitable, when “Chinese” came up in some sort of playground joke. When my classmates would pull at the corners of their eyes and sing, “Me Chinese. Me play joke. Me go pee-pee in your coke.” I would cry. I thought that by insulting “Chinese” they were insulting me; I thought my hurt feelings were nothing but justified.
“We forgot,” they’d say when I cried. “We always forget you’re Chinese.”
But I didn’t understand their doubt. Of course I was Chinese.
Of course I was Chinese…but was I also White?
I wasn’t White in the shoe store that day, when the cashier looked at my sister and me, and then asked my mom, “Where did you get your kids from?”
I wasn’t White every time someone looked at me and asked where my “exotic skin” came from.
I wasn’t White when I was put into photos for “diversity,” when I was sent with the three White girls and the token Black student to a school conference.
But I was White when my best friend was Black. I was White when her aunt said she didn’t want “those little White friends sleeping at the house.”
And I was White when my cousins refused to play with me at banquets. When they snickered and called me American Born Chinese. When they joked in Cantonese because they knew I couldn’t understand.
And I was White every time a real non-White person talked to me, when I had to reveal that I grew up middle class and Christian, with no ties to any culture, with no knowledge of any language other than English, any place other than New York.
And I was White any time I met a real person from the Bronx, and I had to admit that I was privileged, and I lived in the “good section,” and I went to private school, and I only worried about money when I wanted something extra — not when I wanted something that was needed.
But as “White” as I was — as privileged and disconnected from Chinese culture as I was — I would never truly be White. Not when everyone was so interested in what I was — in what made my brown skin and made me “other.”
Sometimes I appreciate my ambiguous brown skin. A small, secret part of me likes that I can pass as Latina. I like that when I say I’m from the Bronx, people see my brown skin and I think I’m a real person of color. They think that I know a world exists outside the bubble of White privilege. They think I know what it’s like to be deemed not good enough, not smart enough, not classy enough — just because of the color of my skin. They think I fit in.
It’s like a camouflage, sometimes. When I walk into an urban classroom in Providence, ready to lead a class, there’s brown skin all around me. The students see me. They think I’m one of them. They think I understand.
I try to keep up the charade for as long as I can. I let them assume I’m like almost every other person with brown skin — that is, until the inevitable “what are you?” question comes up. I let them think I know what it’s like to be marginalized, what it’s like to grow up without White privilege. But eventually, inevitably, it comes up. I try to mumble it. “HalfwhitehalfChinese,” I say. I don’t want to admit to either. I know what they think. White is privileged and evil. Chinese is smart and foreign.
I mumble what I used to shout out loud, back when I was a child and didn’t understand what my race meant to anyone other than me. Back when I didn’t know that having a Chinese parent didn’t automatically make me Chinese, and that having a White parent couldn’t make me White if my skin was brown. Back before I understood I couldn’t truly call my skin brown — not in the way it’s used in popular racial discourse — if my complexion was the sum of White and Asian. Back before I understood that those two components negate one another in the elusive equation that solves my identity.
Even if I could explain that to my students, all they would hear is I’m not like them. My skin deceived them and and betrayed them by making them think I was. I hope they still see me as part of them. I hope I haven’t lost their respect. I hope they know that I still hear them, that I still want to understand. I hope they know.
“What are you?”
This is what people always ask me. Teachers, cab drivers, friends’ parents, dates. They all ask the same thing.
“No, I mean, where are you from?”
“No, I mean, where is your family from?”
“No, but, what’s your heritage?”
“What are you?”
It’s a Thursday night in 2010. I’m in the College Hill section of Providence — the rich place where Brown and RISD students and their professors live. Huddled in Blue State Coffee Shop, I sit typing a paper that’s due the next day. Occasionally, I look out the window as a car rolls by or a couple saunters past, navigating the dusky streets hand-in-hand.
I glance up as a small sedan filled with four girls drives by. They’re playing loud music, which is why I turn my head in the first place. Suddenly — strangely — the car is backing up. A girl runs out.
I turn back to my essay, vaguely wondering what those girls are doing, but primarily focusing on how I can stretch my last two sentences into a full paragraph. Then, there’s a loud knock on the window. I look out, and a girl from the car is there, right next to me, right on the other side of the glass. She’s staring at me like I am in a fishbowl, in an exhibit at the zoo.
She pulls at the corners of her eyes.
She runs back to the car and drives away.
I feel frozen. I feel heat in my face. My brain feels foggy.
I look around and I see everyone else looking at me. Everyone else wondering what I’m going to do. There is no pity, no affinity, no compassion in their eyes. Just…wondering.
I feel the tears coming, water hot as my burning cheeks — tears of confusion, of embarrassment, of feeling alone — and I wipe them away hoping the other cafe-goers have stopped staring. Why are they staring? Why is this happening? Why does everything seem like it’s in slow-motion? Why does my body suddenly feel so heavy and so cold?
I keep thinking, “What just happened?” I try to rationalize it to myself. She must have been on some kind of scavenger hunt. It must have been one of those crazy things people do with their friends — drive around town and finish the following tasks: 1. Kiss a college student, 2. Hump an inanimate object, 3. Take a shot with a nun, 4. Steal gum from a convenience store, 5. Do something racist to the first vaguely Asian person you see.
Racist. Was it racist? Was it just a joke? At most I am embarrassed, shaken, a little teary. There is no physical harm to my body. My civil liberties are still intact. Can I use the term “racist” for something so small? Can I use the term “racist” if I’m hesitant to claim that race in the first place — if that race that doesn’t always claim me?
Except… maybe “Asian” and I don’t even have the option of claiming one another. This girl from the car skipped all the What are you? and But do you speak the language and exactly how many times have you been to China? questions and put the two of us together, whether we wanted to be or not.
And that’s the most confusing thing to me — that underneath it all, suddenly, I feel like I belong. Someone recognized that I was Asian! They recognized it from far away — from a car — in the middle of the night — and they came back to tell me just that!
I feel… validated. I feel like I have a tiny experience, a tiny event in my life that affirms my Asian-ness, that puts me more on-par with the other people of color I know. Even if this isn’t an institution. Even if this is the briefest of brief emotional harms. Even if I feel horribly guilty for feeling this way. I have this experience now.
One year later, I am still in College Hill. My night is going to considerably better than that night in the cafe — for one thing, I’ve traded in my coffee for gin, and for another thing, no one has forced me to confront my still-unresolved identity issues — at least not yet.
Here’s how it goes down this time:
Twelve of us college kids are standing at the bar. One Asian kid says to another, “What kind of Asian are you?”
Everyone else laughs uncomfortably. I breathe out slowly, watching this unfold before me, wondering what kind of question is that?
Asian Kid 2 says to Asian Kid 1, “I’m half Japanese. But I’m more Japanese when I’m with my White friends. And I’m more White when I’m with my Japanese friends.”
He says more than that, but I get it then. I get that I’m not the only one who feels that switching.
I’m not the only one.
“Sometimes I bubble in White on forms,” he says.
I do, too. I think. I want to say it.
“I do, too,” I say.
And then the rest comes tumbling out, before I even have a chance to admire the puzzle piece-shaped package it comes wrapped in.
“Or ‘other,’” I say. “‘Other’ is a good option, too.”