By Jadeyn Dahang-Young
Your mother, Charlotte, I admit, cornered me. She lured me out of the house with promises of afternoon shopping and overpriced coffee. But, between the stories of her travels with her husband and examining the sale rack she pushed me into a fitting room. Your mother is a force to be reckoned with, like a hurricane. She was always on a path and no one could stop her once she had an idea in her head. In fact, that’s how you came along.
Charlotte and your father, after months of waiting, had finally gotten you. They received the phone call and set the date to go to China and meet you. They couldn’t have their own children, but they promised to love you like their own. But, somewhere deep inside she felt like there was a part of you that she would never understand. She’d been around me long enough to know that things were always different for girls like us.
With you in mind, the hurricane that was your mother turned into something softer. Her eyes weren’t as fierce; they were deeper, more vulnerable. Her hands clasped over mine, voice teetering between firm and unsure. I expected a different request, certainly not a request about you.
I was nervous, at first. What could I give you that you wouldn’t learn by yourself? What sage advice could I give you?
It wasn’t until weeks later that I met you, with a face so soft and round, topped with tufts of raven hair. Your little hands were wrapped around a silver rattle, looking up at me while we sat at a restaurant. Charlotte was glowing, her fingers brushing against your cheek at every free moment.
I clutched the letter I had written to you in my lap, something inside of me was unable to give it to your mother yet. What could I show you more than her?
“Meet Emma Li Na Carter.” She blossomed with pride, “We wanted to keep the name they gave her, you know, so she can keep hold of her culture.”
Before I could reply our waitress came, taking our orders gracefully. Charlotte touched Emma’s cheek again and the waitress smiled, “Oh she’s beautiful. Is she yours?”
I hadn’t looked up but there was only silence. When I did look up, Charlotte looked confused, lips puckered. The waitress was smiling…looking at me.
“Mine?” She nodded, “No, she’s the mother.”
The waitress swallowed, apologized, and all but sprinted back into the kitchen. Charlotte looked like she was battling with something and you kept clutching your rattle, completely unaware that your mother experienced something that you would experience for the rest of your life.
I looked around the restaurant; the people seated around us were white. Different hair colors, eye colors, but all were white. You and I were the only Asians in the place and suddenly it occurred to me that I had forgotten that feeling. It was almost like you walked into a room where everyone was talking about you, maybe they were and maybe they weren’t, but you couldn’t shake the feeling.
My letter, now, seemed superficial. I told you that you were beautiful, no matter what. I told you that people could be mean but you could live above it just like I did. I gave you advice that suddenly seemed like I was just trying to get your mom off my back. It was sugar coated and wasn’t genuine.
Your mother wanted to change the subject, completely ignoring our waitress for the rest of the meal. I apologized to her. The letter wasn’t ready and I don’t think she minded at that moment.
That night I stayed up for hours, just staring at a blank computer screen. I’d written God knows how many letters and nothing seemed right. How could I tell you that you could never fit in fully? How could I tell that sweet, round cheeked face that one day people will judge you by the slant of your eye before anything else? How could I begin to tell you that you’ll become the token Asian in your predominantly white school? Or that you’ll become a man’s fetishized fantasy? Or when you’re talking about race issues suddenly you are attacked from all sides because you aren’t this or that?
I can’t promise you that I have all the answers. Nor can I promise you’ll find anything I say more helpful than what your parents tell you. All I can hope is that you find comfort in words written to you by someone who knows what it feels like to be different. I hope you know that there is nothing wrong with who you are.
You friends will turn you into their token “Asian” friend. They will say it with soft smiles, enjoying you like a novelty to fill their quirky friendship quota. You’ll laugh along, though, because if you don’t their soft smiles turn into deep frowns and you’ll be accused of being too sensitive. You’ll grit your teeth every time someone strings together words and sounds to mock your language. You learn to be a comedian and make the slanted eye jokes so you’re not someone else’s punch line, but every joke is another stab at your heart.
When you get pictures taken all you’ll only be able to focus on is the way your eyes crinkle at the sides and the way they narrow so much you can barely see your irises. You’ll find yourself changing the way you smile. You’ll spend the rest of your youth practicing tight-lipped smiles while keeping your eyes open wide. You’ll notice the fullness to your cheeks and the height of your cheekbones. These things that make you who you are will bother you because you don’t look like the pictures of gorgeous girls plastered on magazines and billboards. Almost every girl is bright and doe eyed, perfect smiles framed by golden locks of hair.
Soon, though, it won’t just be girls that you see that make you feel less about yourself. It will start with the boy you fall for. He’ll be gorgeous in an All-American kind of way. He’ll love baseball and the most exotic thing he’s ever experienced was the Japanese steakhouse across town, but you’ll adore him anyway for his boyish charm. Then, as if a bomb was dropped in the pit of your stomach, he’ll look uncomfortable and tell you that “you’re great, but I’m not into Asians.” You’ll laugh it off like the comedian you’ve become and keep your crushes quiet. You’ll stare at your pictures and wish so hard for anything except your raven hair. You will curse every bleaching kit you buy for never managing to get all of the darkness out.
But don’t worry about that boy, because men will come along who lick their lips at your cream-colored skin and hope that you will submit to them. They see you in schoolgirl uniforms with a soft voice. They’ll beg, plead, and flatter. They love Asian girls. They’ve always wanted to be with an Asian girl. Asian girls are always “the freakiest.” They’ll think cute nicknames for you are foods they find on the menu and hope they’ll be the next to take a bite. When you decline their requests, their sweetness disappears and nicknames turn into slurs. Gook. Chink. Jap. Whatever the hell you are. They don’t care. They never cared.
You’ll try to find solace in your friends and they’ll just never understand. They won’t know what it’s like to be savoring your native land’s food in a restaurant and have a middle-aged woman peer over to your plate and almost spit everywhere, nearly screaming questions at you. “How can you eat that? That’s so strange! I could never eat something like that.” Her kids will snicker and her husband will agree. Your mother will be ready to jump over the table and strangle her but your father’s firm hand will rest at her back and urge her to calm down. They won’t know what it’s like to be in a shopping mall and have an elderly couple tell you that you should “just get back on a boat and go back to your country.” They won’t know and you can’t expect that they will. They’ll say your exaggerating but you can tell them it’s the truth. You know it is, I know it is, and every other Asian American to walk before you has experienced it.
Although, I can’t promise you that it’ll be easy to fit in with the people that look like you. Sometimes they know more than you do and their nose will be turned down because you lack “culture.” You’re too white for them but too yellow for your friends. They’ll call you a banana, white on the inside and yellow on the outside. If the language doesn’t roll of your tongue like theirs they’ll lose interest in you. But, if you’re into Chinese drama, K-Pop, or anime it’ll be “so Asian of you.” You’ll be too much and not enough for all the wrong people.
Don’t be scared, though. I survived it and so will you. You will realize that all the years of people dragging you down for being too much or not enough has made you more than enough. Your voice will rise high and you’ll push harder to make a name for yourself. You will allow yourself the luxury of smiling, wide and toothy, and let your eyes crinkle at the sides because you’ll finally understand that other people just didn’t want you to be so happy. You will feel inclined to learn the language of your native land. It will not be your first language, but it tastes so good in your mouth. You will be able to shut down hate in perfect English and turn heads in Chinese. You will take the cruelty and misconceptions and educate with a kind hand.
You are more than a face hidden behind a paper fan. You are worthy of love. You are more than just a token friend. You are a woman, not a fetish. You will not get on a boat and go back to your country. This is your country. This is your home. This is just as much yours as it is theirs. You are relevant. You are beautiful. You are silk and steel. You are Chinese and American.