Growing up, I felt an eternal difference from my surroundings. I am a sensitive type; it was easy for my suspicions to crawl under my thin developing skin and intrude my young beliefs. I was convinced of my hypothesis that the clear distinction between my physical body—my rounded nose, thin and piercing eyes, and my plump lips—and the traits on my blonde and brunette friends meant that their phenotypes were a goal to strive for. There were two solutions that could make me feel acceptable: 1) I could ignore those differences, or 2) I could try to improve myself as much as possible to approach something better. How could I improve? Perhaps I could diet? That’s an option particularly appealing to young women. Maybe I could beg my mother to let me shop at the name-brand stores my friends could afford? Assimilation, accomplished through either insensitivity or embodiment, is both unfair and impossible to achieve. As long as I feel shame in my heritage, I cannot reconcile my difference. That is how my life has gone: my upbringing was different and so I am different.
Since arriving in South Africa, I’ve relived some of the insecurities and feelings of exclusion that plagued my younger years. First was Johannesburg. There were several occasions when a young child would run past me, shouting “China! China!”. The child was having fun, bursting with endless energy after school let out. I laughed off the situation with people from our group who had overheard. But then we went to Cape Town and my first week in the city was miserable. People on the street yelled “Chinese girl!” every day as I walked to work. In the workspace, three floors above and away from the heckling streets, there was no respite to be found there either; someone I work with feels compelled to explain many of my actions with my heritage as if everything I do is because I’m Chinese. When it comes down to it, after my tired attempts to diffuse each scenario with uncomfortable laughter, it is frightening when a stranger walks past you and delicately yet accusingly says China into one of your ears—it’s almost a whisper. You can feel the language, its rhythm, in that one ear, a lasting physical pulse that evolves into an emotional one, which echoes for longer still.
Those few days were the worst. I called my mother and cried. I felt unsafe walking down the street inviting constant stares and I felt unacceptable whenever someone remarked on my heritage.
Here’s the history of my heritage. At least, what I know of it. I’ve never heard much about my parents lives, nor have I ever met my relatives who all reside across the Pacific, but there were some details my parents told me that were sharp as glass, forever cut into my understanding of the people I see as my mother and father.
My parents moved from China to the United States in the nineties. It was the post-communist era and Chinese immigrants were only allotted $30 to start their lives in America. My parents worked on a raspberry farm for some time—it was thorny work that demanded a sharp dexterity—they earned four dollars per twelve-pint case; the most they could earn together in a day was $100. My father eventually pursued a PhD in physics, while my mother settled for a masters in economics to become an accountant, a stable career for starting a family. This is what I knew. The rest, to my young eyes, was just how regular life conducted itself: My grandmother raised my two siblings and me because Mom and Dad had to work. We lived a pleasant and secluded life.
I am more grown now. I do not attempt to conceal the estranging customs I’ve adopted from my parents: I see food waste as sinful and nights spent out as a nuisance. And I regret that I was once ashamed of my parents in a way that was much more hurtful than a regular teenager who didn’t want their friends to see them dropped off. I am grown now. You can exoticize me—represent me as a sultry Japanese geisha with westernized features on a Vietnamese dinner menu—or you can ignore my existence. But the battles I already fight on an internal level—to remain proud and hopeful, to feel joy in spite of everything—are tiring enough already. I don’t know classic American movies or songs, and I don’t know how to order breakfast eggs, but after close to two decades of living behind a psychological and cultural barrier, I’m starting to feel like I actually might be normal. I might be okay.
After the unfortunate incidents of the first week in Cape Town, during our weekly reflection session, I brought up the issue. I was hesitant at first, but under the pressure of silence, our site coordinator unintentionally prompted me to speak. I expressed my concern. The other interns at District Six, DJ and Nate, were supportive.
It is not enough to rebuke people for harming others in ways they don’t realize. People need spaces to feel safe despite the unique social standings they occupy. That space, at least a part of it, exists within us. In a world where there is no sanctuary from where we can derive power (yet), and nowhere to reenergize ourselves from the forces trying to drain us of our strength, we must create our own safety. It is power to not cry at the end of the day. It is also power to brave the fullness of your emotions. If we can harness a bit of the magic that exists within us, if we can walk with pride and not shroud at figures on the street, we have achieved some sort of power.
Following our reflection session, the next day was a blessing. Emboldened with my mother’s mantra, “walk tall and hold your head up high”, I refused to stare at the ground. That day, it was a lucky coincidence that no one made a rude comment toward me, but I like to think that something had changed. I like to think that as I am becoming more used to being in this place that it, this breathtaking town by the sea—with a history that’s painful and poignant, a life that’s tender and dynamic—is starting to get used to me, too.