When writing about identity, the obvious choice is to take the first person point of view: I am. I remember. I come from. I will be. This is my voice, my story.
But there’s nothing obvious about identity, she thinks. And points of view, viewpoints, are richer when they can embrace many perspectives.
And so you begin.
I. Definition of Terms
Growing up, your town is small enough that people just know. They don’t need to ask. You are half. Half Chinese. There are others, too, who are half: the Tans, the Lubecks, the Hues, the Dicks, the McNaughtons, the Mahs.
There are kids who have one Chinese parent. There are kids who have two. And there are kids who have neither.
The term Asian American first falls at your feet during high school, brought in by the tides of political correctness. You meet it with relief; you won’t have to distinguish between Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese. Asian American is an umbrella you all can shelter under. Even so, you remain at the edges. Does it count if only one of your parents is Asian? Does it count if you can’t speak that parent’s language? Does it count if you don’t look the part? You don’t know. You claim the label, anyway. It seems to serve your purposes.
When you move to the United Kingdom, you go into a local Asian grocery, looking for sticky rice and bean thread noodles. Instead, you find basmati rice and sacks of lentils. The shelves are stocked with chutney and pickles where you would have looked for soy sauce and dried mushrooms. You ask the shopkeeper if they have short grain rice. He looks at you and says, ‘Oh, are you looking for Chinese ingredients? Try Seoul Plaza,’ gesturing across the street. You know your accent has given you away and you know Americans (even Asian Americans) aren’t renowned for their sense of geography, but you’re pretty sure Seoul is the capital of South Korea. Nevertheless, you leave his shop and cross the road. Turns out Seoul Plaza carries Korean, Japanese, Thai, and Chinese groceries.
So much for labels.
II. Language Lessons
When they were kids, she and her brothers used to go to Chinese lessons on Sunday afternoons at the library. At first, the classes were fun. They learned the words that told them their places in the family: big brother, little brother, little sister, mother, father, father’s mother. They learned to count to 100 and beyond. They learned characters for things they could point to: mountain, tree, temple. Things to hold: book, chopstick, ball. Things everyone wanted: horse, dog, candy.
All their papers came back with ‘Great job!’ written in green pen with pink coupons for ice cream stapled to the top. Perfection not required, enthusiasm richly rewarded. The person who earned the best marks was a girl called Denise. She was not Chinese. Not even half. But she was the best at learning the brushstrokes and reading the character flashcards.
After a few months, though, dark looks started to gather as parents came to collect their kids and scanned the classroom. Quick Chinese spoken in low voices. Why were there mixed children in the class? Why was there a white girl? Why wasn’t there more Chinese spoken, more homework assigned? This was supposed to be about respect, rigour, tradition.This was not supposed to be about ice cream.
She and her brothers stopped going. They were not sure if this was because they weren’t Chinese enough or if it was because their non-Chinese mom wanted to show solidarity with those who thought all children should be welcome, even if they weren’t Chinese. Or maybe they stopped because Jonathan Tse, the teacher’s son, bullied one of her brothers in the canyon, punching him in the face and breaking his glasses.
The only Chinese words she knows by heart any more are her name, the numbers from one to ten, and little sister.
III. Filial Piety
I have never been tempted to resurrect what I once knew of the Chinese language. When we quit going to the classes, my Dad said, ‘It’s better if you don’t speak it. That way, people can’t ask you questions or tell you things you don’t want to know.’ From his tone, I understood that I could demonstrate more filial piety through unquestioning obedience than in learning his language. I have dabbled in French, Spanish, and German. I even know a handful of Croatian and Japanese words. But I don’t speak Chinese.
My middle brother does not speak Chinese. He is just not that interested. However, he does know the best Chinese restaurants in the city where he and my parents live. He demonstrates filial piety by visiting often, meeting them for dim sum, fixing their printer when it jams, and updating their operating systems.
My eldest brother speaks Chinese. Not the one who was beat-up by Jonathan Tse, but the other one, the older one. The one who was bigger than Jonathan, who always defeated Jonathan at chess and won all the piano competitions. The one Jonathan wouldn’t dare to mock. That brother speaks Chinese.
He learned it as an adult. He has shown his filial piety by getting up early and learning five characters a day for five years, or something equally poetic and mathematically pleasing. When he comes to visit me in England, he’s more interested in eavesdropping on the Chinese tourists than in appreciating the architecture of King’s College Chapel. Occasionally he sends me letters written in Chinese. I don’t answer them. I don’t speak Chinese.
All his kids speak Chinese. He speaks Chinese to his dog. My eldest brother is very proud to have a dog that understands Chinese.
Sometimes I wonder if he is ashamed to have a sister that doesn’t.
Being half means you have a pretty good chance at passing. People might give you a hard stare every now and then, but since they don’t know for sure, they’re likely to look away if you catch them gawking. People see you’re different, but since it’s not an easily identifiable different, often they’ll just let it go. You have been asked if you are Peruvian, Hawaiian, Mexican, Native American, or ‘Chinese or something’. You like causing ambiguity. It’s nice not fitting in someone else’s pigeon hole.
When you are ten years old, a few girls in Massachusetts tell you that you shouldn’t touch water lilies because they are very poisonous to people who aren’t from America. When you say that you are from America, one of them says that your English is very good. The other agrees that you hardly have an accent at all.
Sometimes after you explain to someone that you are half-Chinese, the person peers at you, specimen-like, and declares ‘Only half? I think you look full. Yes, definitely full.’ Then, pleased with the adjustment, they step back to admire their edict. Yes. All is right with the world, things are in their proper places. You stand corrected.
Just as often, though, you meet someone who, after being told that you are half-Chinese, will furrow their brows, ‘Are you sure?’ Pretty sure, you assure them. ‘I don’t see it. Not at all.’ This disbelief seems to come most frequently from waiters in Chinese restaurants. The waiter then leans forward and looks at your son who is one quarter Chinese, approves of the way he wields chopsticks, eats spicy food, and tries every kind of delicacy. ‘Now, he, he looks more Chinese than you do.’ The waiter hands him a lolly and you the bill.
In New York City, you have several conversations about being mixed. It could happen with anyone, anywhere. For example, at the corner of 72nd and Amsterdam while waiting for the light to change. A guy is looking at you with a puzzled expression.
‘What are you?’ he asks.
You know what he’s talking about. You can see that he, too, is mixed.
‘A human being.’
‘Nah, I mean, like where do you come from?’
His eyes narrow.
‘You Mexican, then?’
‘Nope. Half Chinese.’
‘Ah,’ he relaxes now that he has placed your ethnicity in his spectrum of city faces. He volunteers, ‘Me, I’m half Filipino, half Dominican.’ Holds up his chin, presenting his profile for proof and inspection.
The light changes, traffic blares, you cross the street and go separate ways.
Another time, in Central Park, at a Nathan’s Hot Dog stand. The vendor looks at you while pulling a hot dog out of the stainless steel bucket with tongs.
‘You some kinda mix?’
‘Yeah, half Chinese, half White.’
‘Me, I’m part Puerto-Rican, part West Indian, part Italian’
‘Onions on your dog?’
He dishes out a generous dose.
You hand him your money. He hands you the dog.
You smile and help yourself to big squirts of ketchup, mustard and relish.
V. Twenty Questions
She’s never sure which box to tick on equal opportunities forms. ‘Mixed’ might be okay. But it’s complicated. Certainty splinters into questions.
- Where do mixed voices come in when discussing matters of nationality, identity and belonging?
- How does she stand up and contribute to the conversation?
- How could she presume to have something to say?
- Who gets to speak about identity, belonging, nationality?
- Well, doesn’t everybody have or long for at least one of these?
- What to say, then?
- Something heartfelt?
- Something that will make people laugh in the moment and think soberly later?
- Something that matters?
- What if she’s the wrong kind of Asian?
- What if she’s speaking the wrong language?
- What if she’s not the right colour?
- What if her blood is too thin?
- If she doesn’t see anyone who looks like her, does that mean she’s in the wrong place?
- If she cannot find herself in the book, does it mean this is not her book?
- Is this her story to tell?
- What if she is taking something that is not hers?
- What if she is denying something that is part of herself?
- What if she gets it wrong?
- What if she gets it wrong?
She doesn’t know what the answers are. She’s not sure that there are any. These aren’t exactly ‘look in the back of the book’ or ‘consult the teacher’s guide’ kind of questions. There are so many ways the conversation could go wrong.
But none of those are enough reason to stay silent. Because not saying anything is worse than saying the wrong thing. Because she has to start somewhere. Because maybe getting it wrong is the inevitable first step towards getting it right.
VI. Hard Sums
I’m half Chinese, but what about the other half? White, of German-ancestry. I was brought up in America, I live in the UK. I straddle the Atlantic ocean with one foot in the Fens and the other in the Rockies. I contain multitudes.
Okay, so which half is Chinese? Right ear, left foot, arch of eyebrow, curve of cheekbone, every other vertebra. Cartilage, marrow and kidneys. Heart or brain, it cannot be both and still be half. There must be a balance.
Or maybe it’s more straightforward: Like King Solomon, draw a line of symmetry down the middle. Choose your half.
Is a person’s Chinese-quotient measured like flood waters: up to the ankles, as high the kneecaps, waist deep, chest high, in over your head?
Could it be like borders on a map? North by Northwest, I tend towards a Germanic sensibility. But in the Eastern regions, I am Chinese. The South is solidly American. And the West? Well, that’s still an undiscovered country.
This might be a quantum mechanical conundrum: There is a finite probability that I am any of these backgrounds at any time. It is only when a measurement is made by walking into a classroom, speaking to a relative, or celebrating a holiday that the wave function collapses and I become, in that instance, Chinese. Or White. Or Mixed.
On the way to the airport to fly home and visit family in the States, my daughter sits back and exclaims, ‘I am half-Chinese and half-German and half-American and half-English and half-Welsh. Right?’ She happily claims halves of all the ethnic and cultural heritages that we can trace in our families. I quite like her maths. Adding up to more than one seems to me like a sensible approach. Living with a mix, I know, is more complicated than simply embracing and celebrating all. But it’s a good place to start.
Melissa Fu grew up in Northern New Mexico and currently lives in Cambridgeshire, UK. Her work appears in many journals including The Lonely Crowd, International Literature Showcase, Bare Fiction, and The Nottingham Review. In 2017, she was the regional winner of Words and Women’s Prose Competition and one of four Apprentices with the London-based Word Factory. ‘Mixed Blessings’ was shortlisted for the Wasafiri New Writing Prize 2017. A revised and extended version of ‘Mixed Blessings’ appeared on the International Literature Showcase.