By: Anni Ball
The streets of Beijing felt foreign to me. Their loud neon lights mirrored the indecipherable, relentless Mandarin bartering, and gazes would stalk our mixed family until the onlookers were close enough to extend their hands to stroke my parents’ tall, narrow noses. As strange as this all was, there was nothing stranger than the midwestern drawl which meandered through the crowd of The Forbidden City and crept over my shoulder.
“You…speak…English…very…well.” He smiled, then nodded to make sure I understood.
The words hung lopsidedly in the growing space between us, which was a result of both his quick escape into the crowd and the compounding realization that we were much more of the same likeness than not. How dare he? Could he not see the way I too was caught in the stares and murmurs of the citizens?
I know that this would not be a satisfactory answer anymore; the “American” has no implication of race or ethnicity. However, at that point in my life, I had never seen an example of “American” that wasn’t white. My life up to that point had been lived white. The census, my birth certificate, my parents, they could say what they want. But I woke up, moved about my day, and fell asleep white. This wasn’t so much birthed from a desire to become a cookie cutter caucasian, or to melt into the suffocating whiteness of my tiny Maine town, but rather a function of, in my eyes, not being Chinese enough.
Of course, I won’t deny the fact that I appear Chinese—I look in the mirror and see fine, inky strands which brush my shoulders, a small flat nose, full cheeks, and hooded round eyes. Throughout my childhood, people walking past on the sidewalk would run their fingers through my hair and marvel at its corn-silk texture, and tell me they would kill for a head like that. The other students would always find amusement in my mathematical ineptness, and became bewildered when I ran to greet my parents, who just as easily could have been those of my classmates based on looks alone. They could not believe I couldn’t speak Mandarin (or as one boy repeatedly called it, “China”), or that my lunchbox did not reveal a single grain of rice. As is said with beauty, my Chinese identity was only skin-deep.
Although I compile these childhood experiences now, they never resonated enough to make any distinctions. My parents would tell me that yes, I was different, but everyone else has differences in various forms. And I truly did see it that way—I was born in China, but Dana Bonoff was the first to get braces. I was born in China, but Joe Carignan limped slightly after breaking his leg. I was born in China, but this didn’t negate the fact that my life existed within the town of Cape Elizabeth. It was this ignorance, in the truest sense of the word, that created the dichotomy between who I am and who they see, which I acknowledged within the walls of The Forbidden City. Regardless of how I foreign I felt and of my white American parents’ presence, I looked the same as the Chinese citizens, and that was enough proof for this white American man.
I see my parents’ efforts reflected in those of Obama’s grandparents, Gramps and Tutu. My parents never tried to hide from the fact I wasn’t white like them, and they never shied away from talking about culture, and the myriad of forms it can take. Yet, echoing Gramps and Tutu, these conversations would also culminate in statements that race ultimately had no role in the humanity of a person or family. This accepting environment that I was raised in meant I connected deeply with the struggle in describing Tutu’s robber and the similarities to my interaction in The Forbidden City. I am extremely fortunate that I find no crisis or grief in what the man said, but I am still able to acknowledge the feeling of loss which follows a glance beyond the security of a family. Obama encapsulates this notion in stating, “Even within families with the best intentions, race can intrude in ugly ways.”
The actual feeling of being out of place which permeated my time in Beijing has parallels to James Baldwin’s writings of Leukerbad—the isolated Swiss village which he describes. He characterizes the feeling of being a stranger, not a foreigner, on account of being the first Black man the villagers have ever seen. Walking the streets of Beijing, I cannot reiterate Baldwin’s feelings of being physically displaced. I can, however, still empathize with being a stranger, to be some new iteration of a person and novel to the environment. I was isolated on every level except physical, and acutely aware of the space I occupied, and how it felt stolen from those who might be considered more deserving of its occupation.
Despite speaking to the same idea of reconciling internal and external identities, I almost feel guilty that I find the man’s comment comical, because I realize that for the authors we’ve read and will read, there is deep and permanent pain in each story. The Asian-American, or more specifically, the Chinese experience in America is not as deeply woven into the cultural and historical fabric of America as that of African-Americans. My story has no ugly intrusion of racism or antiquated beliefs, and I have never felt slurs being branded into my being, but I understand what it means to be left with pieces of an identity, and the process of not restoring a form, but redefining it.