When writing about the relationship between identity, self, and community, 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, my people, my family.
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. No need to ask. You are half. Half Chinese. There are others, too, who are half: the Chans, the Adams, the McNabbs, the Mahs.
The term Asian American falls at your feet during high school, brought in by tides of political correctness. You meet it with some relief; it gives you a kind of identity, a starting point when trying to explain yourself to yourself, or others. It’s a little like being part of a club. You can join forces with friends who are Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese. Asian American is an umbrella you all shelter under.
Even so, you remain at the edge. Does it count if only one of your parents is Asian? What if you don’t speak that parent’s language? What if you don’t look the part? You don't know. You claim the label, anyway. No one says you can’t.
When you move to the United Kingdom, you visit an Asian grocery to look 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 expected soy sauce and dried mushrooms. You ask the shopkeeper if they have short grain rice. He puts down the clipboard he is holding and gives you a once over. “You want 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. It 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 Saturday mornings. At first, it was 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.
Their quizzes came back with “Great job!” written in green pen with pink coupons for ice cream. Perfection not required, enthusiasm richly rewarded. The person with the best marks was a girl called Danielle. She was not Chinese. Not even half. But she was the best at learning brushstrokes and remembering characters.
After a few months, though, dark looks began to gather as parents came to collect their kids and scanned the classroom. Quick whispers in low voices. Were those mixed children in the class? Was that a white girl? Why wasn’t there more Chinese spoken, more homework assigned? This was supposed to be about rigour and tradition. This was not supposed to be about ice cream.
She and her brothers stopped going. She was not sure if this was because they weren’t Chinese enough or if it was because their mom wanted to show solidarity with those who thought all children should be welcome. Or maybe they stopped because Jonathan Tse, the teacher’s son, bullied one of her brothers, punching him in the face and breaking his glasses.
The only Chinese words she knows these days 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’s not that interested. However, he does know the best Chinese restaurants in the city where he and my parents live. His filial piety takes the form of meeting them for dim sum, fixing their printer, 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 one who was bigger than Jonathan, who always defeated Jonathan at chess. The one Jonathan wouldn’t dare to mock. The one who won all the piano competitions. That brother speaks Chinese.
He learned it as an adult. He has shown his filial piety by rising early and learning five characters a day for five years, or something equally poetic and mathematically pleasing. When he visits me in England, he’s more interested in eavesdropping on 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 who 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 it’s not an easily identifiable different. 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, a few girls in Massachusetts tell you not to 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 and declares “Only half? I think you look full. Yes, definitely full.” Pleased with the adjustment, they step back to admire their edict. Yes. All is right with the world. You stand corrected. Just as often, though, you meet someone who, when told that you are half-Chinese, furrows their brows, “Are you sure?” Pretty sure, you say. “I don’t see it. Not at all.” They squint in disbelief. You shrug. You’ve learned that the eye of each beholder sees something different in the same face.
In New York City, you frequently have 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 looks at you with a puzzled expression.
“What are you?”
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 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 keeps his eyes on you while pulling a hot dog out of the stainless steel bucket with tongs.
“You some kinda mix?”
“Yeah, half Chinese, half White.”
“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 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.
- When discussing nationality, identity and belonging, where do mixed voices come in?
- Can she 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, these?
- What to say, then?
- Something to make people laugh in the moment and think later?
- Something that matters?
- If she doesn’t see anyone who looks like her, does that mean she’s in the wrong place?
- What if words about nationality twist into rhetoric about nationalism?
- What if everyone starts shouting and no one listens?
- Whose story is this?
- If this is her story, is it her story to tell?
- What if she’s the wrong kind of Asian?
- What if she’s speaking the wrong language?
- What if her blood is too thin?
- What if she is taking something that is not hers?
- What if she is denying something that is a part of her?
- What if she gets it wrong?
- What if she gets it wrong?
She doesn’t know what the answers are. There may not be any. These aren’t exactly “consult the teacher’s guide” kinds of questions. There are so many ways the conversation could be misunderstood, misconstrued. But none are reason to stay silent. Because people assign their own assumptions to silence. She has to begin somewhere. And maybe getting it wrong is the inevitable first step towards getting it right.
Civics - the study of the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.
Citizenship. Initially, it is a result of the birth lottery. Determined by where on this spinning globe we take our first breaths. It starts as a bond between a person and landscape. The land shapes us: inside our mothers’ rounding bellies, our bones are knit from its milk and grains, its fruit and fresh air. We learn to walk, speak, love in a mother tongue, in a first landscape. We all have this connection to the place where we were born.
But to leave that land, whether by choice, necessity, or a combination of both, is to create a fissure. When you leave, you take a part of the land away from itself. To be mixed is to have, somewhere in your ancestry, a severing of the bond with a birth country. You learn early what it is to have a fractured allegiance. To see a here as well as a there. To feel like home is simultaneously in more than one place and in no place at all.
To be mixed is to carry that fracture but also a kind of hope. It keeps her open in ways that make her vulnerable, but also accessible. Because she has a face that invites questions, people ask. She has found that people are eager to tell her how they, too, can hold more than one concept of identity and country in their hands at once.
In my family, a mixed heritage has meant different things for each of us. My eldest brother has reached back towards our Chinese roots, not only learning the language, but also adopting a child from China and visiting the country. My middle brother has a capacity for friendship that crosses borders of class, race, education and social status. I wonder if his largesse of heart comes from a conviction that he can find friends and make a home wherever he goes. As for me, I am the only one of my siblings who, like my father, has lived much of my adult life outside my homeland.
After eleven years of living in the UK, we became citizens this October. Why did it take us so long? First there was a five year work permit visa, then applying for settled status and passing the Life in the UK test, then a period of having the option but not applying. Why? There was a lot of paperwork. The fees were non-trivial. But, mostly, we needed to be sure. We needed to reach a point where we no longer wanted to be guests. Having ‘indefinite leave to remain’ is different from being in your own home.
For you, it came down to an agreement with the landscape. It wasn’t until you had grown and taken care of a tiny garden, a plot of land 1.5 x 1.5 meters, for two years that you knew you were ready. When you could say to the land, Yes, I will take care of you. Yes, weed and water, plant and tend. Sow, reap, harvest, rest. I am here for more than just a visit to admire your borders, you knew you were here to stay. It is a relief to put solid ground under your wandering feet.
It occurs to me that citizen shares etymological roots with city. As much as they are centres of commerce and concrete, cities were first a collection of people who agreed to live in community. Cities are built on the acknowledgment that there is more to be gained from sharing common ground than keeping separate. To be a citizen is to give. It is to give value to the existence and influence of others. It is to give more than just lip-service to the idea that we are better together. Not simply better off or more accomplished, but that we are better people - more compassionate, with larger hearts. It is to give a hard stare at beliefs that have shaped our world views and ask whether they still serve us. It is to give up assumptions about the lives of others and find out their realities by speaking with them. It is to give time and attention to something beyond the individual.
Perhaps what those of us with mixed heritages bring to the discussion of citizenship is an embodiment of the possibility for a stronger, richer collective. And who among us doesn’t have in some way or another a mixed background, whether in our ethnicity, religion, nationality, or class? Difference and otherness are not threats, but profound reminders that there is always more than one way to see the world and we are enriched by bringing those perspectives together.
VII. Hard Sums
I’m half Chinese, but what about the other half? White, of German-ancestry. I grew up in America, I live in the UK. I straddle the Atlantic with one foot in the Fens and the other in the Rockies. I contain multitudes. We all do.
Okay, so which half is Chinese? Right ear, left foot, curve of cheekbone, every other vertebra? Heart or brain? It cannot be both and still be half. There must be a balance.
Perhaps it’s more straightforward: Like King Solomon, draw a line of symmetry. Choose.
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. In the East, I am Chinese. The South is solidly American. And the West? An undiscovered country.
This might be a quantum mechanical conundrum: There is a finite probability that I am any of these 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.
Maybe I’m overthinking this. When asked about her heritage, my daughter says, “I am half-Chinese and half-German and half-American and half-English and half-Welsh and half-Vegetarian.” I quite like her maths. Adding up to more than one seems to me like a good approach. Living with a mix, I know, is more complicated than simply embracing and celebrating all. But it’s a start.
An earlier version of this piece was shortlisted for the Wasafiri New Writing Prize 2017 - Life Writing Category.
Melissa Fu grew up in Northern New Mexico and lives in Cambridgeshire, UK. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in many journals including The Lonely Crowd, Bare Fiction, The Nottingham Review, and Words and Women. With backgrounds in physics and English, she has worked in education. Melissa combines her loves of writing and teaching at Spilling the Ink Creative Writing, offering courses and coaching for writers.
The ILS has teamed up with Word Factory's Citizen Festival (10-12 November) to commission four writers to explore what being a citizen means to them. What are the responsibilities and rights of the writer? Do they differ from those of the citizen? And how can we use the power of words to change the world?
Citizen Festival takes place at University of Liverpool in London (33 Finsbury Square, London, EC2A 1AG) from 10-12 November 2017. For more information, and to buy your tickets to the festival, visit: www.thewordfactory.tv/site/citizen-festival
Top image: Mixed Blessings by Alexa Meade [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons