THE THINGS WE WERE TOLD
lived vignettes and polyptych poem in four parts
A response to RELATIONS: Diaspora and Painting
[At a private, all-girls’ school in Cambridge: It’s September, and an autumn chill is in the air. I’m thirteen years old, and this is my first week in school in this strange new country. We are dressed in navy blazers and navy sweaters, black tights and black shoes. My acrylic sweater scratches my skin, which is still acclimating to the dryness and cold. My wool blazer is embroidered with the school emblem – a white pelican gouging its feathered breast; three blood-red drops trickling down to succor its chicks. My blazer stands stiffly above my shoulders – it is three sizes too big, in the hopes that I would grow into it for years to come.
Lessons are held ensconced within thick, limestone brick walls, topped with iron-wrought barbs. There are a hundred students in my year, but only one girl who looks a little like me. Anna is half-Asian, and speaks with a posh British accent, like everyone else. Her hair is long and black, and her eyes look like mine. I feel a disjointed sense of familiarity; I am inexplicably drawn to her. I am confused, at first, when she assiduously avoids me.
They laugh at my accent. I feel my tongue betraying me with its involuntary spasms as I try, in vain, to mimic their small mouths and rounded words. They don’t know where Singapore is – “it’s somewhere in China, isn’t it?” My curly, unruly hair is held down with a wide headband, hidden in a tight bun all day. It gives me a headache, but maybe, I hope, I look closer to fitting in.
My cultural naïveté and awkward accent betray my very unbelonging. It is easier to be silent – unseen and unheard, but safe.
“…and it was the Asian women who didn’t talk, who sat there meekly like mice with nice hair,
making me want to urge: You need to talk! Or they’ll walk all over you!”
– Cathy Park Hong, “Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning.”1
| and the unbridled joy of becoming
We will swing and dance to our heart’s content,
lovers’ faces flush with sacred colour!
And no one shall tell us no.
We will laugh and cry in raucous delight,
as you frown, disapproving, tut-tutting!
And no one shall tell us no.
We will stand up, and speak till we are heard –
held hostage to safe silence no longer!
And no one shall tell us no.
[At a train station in Singapore: It’s off-peak, and not too busy. I tap my EZ-Link transit pass against the shiny platform gates, which open automatically before me. I hear a loud slap! A black, bulging wallet rests on the grey tiles in front of me. Ahead, I see a portly man, dressed in a shirt and dark, pleated slacks. There’s no one else around. He’s an ang moh, the colloquial term for white people, translated from ‘red hair’ in the Hokkien dialect.
He’s walking away. I pick up the wallet, open my mouth to call out, but my voice strangles in my throat. Growing up, I was taught to call anyone older than me ‘auntie’ or ‘uncle’ – from a plethora of distant relatives I saw once a year during Lunar New Year, to everyday strangers – the hawkers from my favourite street stalls, the taxi drivers in their baby blue Comfort cars. We share the warm, raucous phonetics of our colloquial Singlish, and an intangible familiarity across faces from our local Chinese, Malay, and Indian ethnicities. But this man? In Singapore’s colonial history, he has more in common with the white-washed statues of our British founder, frowning down from their pedestals, than anyone I grew up with. I couldn’t place this man; I didn’t know how to address him.
He’s walking away. I look down and see the wallet in my hand. I rush forwards and call out, unthinking, “Sir, Sir!”
I’ve never called anyone ‘Sir’ before.
He stops, turns, and sees a young woman in shorts, worn Teva sandals and a frayed, yellow knapsack. My hand is outstretched, holding out his wallet. His cheeks sag downwards. His eyes are blank and expressionless, as if he doesn’t see me. He takes the wallet, turns around and leaves, all without a word. I freeze, and feel a flush of shame warming my cheeks. My anger rises, at him – who does he think he is? – but soon finds a more familiar, ready target – what a fool I am!]
“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”
– W. E. B. Du Bois, “The Souls of Black Folk; Essays and Sketches.”2
| and everywhere all at once
Pressed into dichotomous binaries
this / that | him / her | then / now | yes / no | in / out
that never quite fit; still I bend and fold
like the wings of an origami crane
trying futilely to fly, to comply.
What, or where, is home, when to survive means:
Navigating the many shades of grey;
struggling with contradictory truths –
each and all perfectly valid and real.
Trespassing boundaries (un)wittingly
…a future that is never guaranteed.
Never knowing the surety of place,
always and anxiously searching for the
ties that bind, our roots and relations,
caught in those liminal slivers of life –
that confusing yet convincing feeling
of family, but in a stranger’s face,
of finally coming home, but to a
place never-before-seen, yet always known.
Inexorably unfolding our
opposing yet juxtaposed selves as we
flit through the ways of ‘being-in-the-world’3
– elusive ‘existential insideness’4
along the paths of place and placelessness.5
Neither inside nor out, here nor there, we
might yet be all the places in-between.
[I’m ten years old. Someone hands me a photo – it’s me, grinning mischievously. One of the girls in my Catholic convent school is celebrating her birthday. We’re in the open-air canteen, revelling in recess. Girls dressed in green pleated skirts and sleeveless white shirts are gathered in excitement around a long, metal table. There were snacks, and it was fun, I remember. Yet, in the photo, all I can see is my nose – my upturned, button nose, with its non-existent bridge.
My aunties admonish me to grow it straight, instructing – “Pinch it hard, everyday, like this!” I suspected, even then, that this is not how noses grow, but I diligently, dutifully try anyway.]
“You can see new anxieties about personal hygiene, personal care, personal beauty, all getting tangled up with ideas about whiteness and race more broadly. How is whiteness going to be defined? Who is going to get the privileges associated with it? It’s important to understand that it’s part of a white supremacist system…that there’s whole legal, economic and social structures supporting that psychological harm.”
– Rebecca Herzig, Professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies, Bates College6
During the Korean War, American military surgeon Ralph Millard, stationed in South Korea, pioneered ‘deorientalizing’ surgeries, where he identified “the flat nose and the oriental eye”7 as features that could be easily surgically altered to reflect occidental – or Western – faces, with striking results. In 1964, he went on to note that the ‘oriental eye’ “produces a passive expression which seems to epitomize the stoical and unemotional manner of the Oriental.”8 Thirty years on, this racial prejudice endures. Research finds that Asian American women undergo the knife to alter “stereotyped genetic physical features (“small, slanty” eyes and a “flat” nose)” that is associated, under a global hegemonic norm of white beauty, with negative character traits such as “passivity, dullness, and a lack of sociability.”9
| and the many gazes upon them
It’s called the epicanthic fold, or the
mongoloid fold – try blepharoplasty,
for bigger, brighter, (Western) eyes. Flat nose?
Asian rhinoplasty should do the trick!
Light skin, straight hair, slim build – all you need are
bleaching lotions, ammonia perms, “fat” pills.
Brown bodies, black bodies, yellow bodies
contorted under the white gaze, male gaze,
imperial gaze; not forgetting our
own inward gaze, mirrored, redolent with
internalized racism, or maybe
internalized colonialism? Those
sneaky, systemic sonofabitches.
Turned inward, twisted every which way,
we baulk at the very idea that we –
we! – could be beautiful and powerful.
We reject the gifts that we were given;
dull our incandescence to better
perform for those bestowed with privilege
for whom equality means oppression.
Imposed imaginaries of what they
want to see and hear and touch, constructed
from the corporeal flesh of our
bodies, repackaged as commodity –
objectified, fetishized, exploited.
Imaginaries implanted so deftly,
we mistake – embrace! – them as our own.
‘Not good enough’, ‘not trying hard enough’
– knowing all the while that, deep down, it means,
We will never, ever, be white enough.
Unlearning the many things I was told;
dismantling the many scaffolds of self –
no less a feat than learning up is down
is excruciating, existential.
Lifting my head high feels impossible –
the weight of education around my neck.
Tendons straining, veins bulging, eyes popping!
We bow in abject obeisance no more.
Now, I return the gaze with mine third eye –
glittering, glaring through the half-drawn veil.
Sweat beads my brow, worldviews shatter, collide.
Finally, the scales tumble from my eyes.
For the first time in many years, I see
the brute ugliness I saw reflected
was never of my own making, but yours.
[Yellowknife: The World Health Organization has just declared a pandemic. I halt my fieldwork in Nunavut immediately to return to Calgary, but flight connections are sparse in the remote North, which means an overnight layover. I’m walking on the snowy pavement in the gentrifying Old Town, minutes from my Airbnb. On one side, two young children are happily building what seems to be the first vestiges of a snowman (currently a large, misshapen mound). A brown sedan drives by.
“Go home!” – I turn around, aghast. There’s grey in her hair; her face is contorted with rage. I don’t dare stare. She pulls over and starts to get out.
“I’m going to kill you!” – I walk faster. I don’t look back. She never catches up to me. I’m worried they know where I’m staying. I close the curtains and bolt the door. I stay, safely sequestered, in my bedroom until my flight the next day. It feels like hours before the frantic thump-thump-thump of my heart, reverberating through my chest, starts to fade.]
Across Canada, incidents of anti-Asian racism exceed those in the United States on a per Asian capita basis. Most of these attacks are against Asian women. 30% of racist encounters are violent.10
| and rebirth
In apologetic11, apoplectic
spaces, still I grow, awkwardly, feeling
my way through imaginary landscapes
strewn with splinters and gum wrappers and dirt,
rusted nails and fallen detritus, all
mired into flesh – self-inflicted wounds
or rather, systemic-inflicted wounds.
Brothers gasp for breath with each brutal blow;
sisters, unresisting, slammed to the ground;
grandmothers, grandfathers, viciously beaten;
mothers and daughters, gunned down just for the
sheer effrontery of simply being.
So this is progress; so this is justice –
infernal rationality driven
by settler colonial logics, racial
capitalism, violent oppression.
This is what it means to be civilized.
Tell me one more time – who’s the savage now?
I bleed with each cut and slash and gouge, yet
I will not falter, nor fall on my knees.
This too, shall pass, in the cycle of dark
descent and scintillating transcendence.
My story is not yours to write, nor tell –
it began long before you ever were.
I remember my grandmother, her hands
gnarled and twisted, clasped tightly over mine.
I remember my father, rasping the
words ‘I love you’, for the very last time.
Your stories are mine; my story is yours –
they will not be taken from us again.
Through the ages, we will once more endure.
Lend me your constant strength when I falter;
whisper to me wise words when I am weak;
be with me, so that I am not alone,
and when the time comes, walk me home to you.12
- Cathy Park Hong, Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning (New York, NY: One World, 2021).
- William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk; Essays and Sketches (Chicago: A. G. McClurg, 1903), 38.
- Michael Wheeler, “Martin Heidegger’s Being-in-the-World,” ed. Edward N. Zalta, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2020, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/heidegger/#BeiWor.
- Edward C. Relph, Place and Placelessness (London: Pion, 1976). Relph coins the term ‘existential insideness’ to connote the feeling of home and dwelling.
- Relph, Place and Placelessness.
- As quoted in: Sakshi Venkatraman, “Shamed for Body Hair Growing up, Desi Women Now Challenging Racist Standards,” NBC News, March 4, 2021, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/shamed-body-hair-growing-desi-women-now-challenging-racist-standards-n1259157.
- Ralph Jr. Millard, “Oriental Peregrinations,” Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery 16, no. 5 (1955): 319–36. Page 331.
- Ralph Jr. Millard, “The Oriental Eyelid and Its Surgical Revision,” American Journal of Ophthalmology 57 (1964): 646–49. Page 647.
- Eugenia Kaw, “Medicalization of Racial Features: Asian American Women and Cosmetic Surgery,” Medical Anthropology Quarterly 7, no. 1 (1993): 74–89, https://doi.org/10.1525/maq.1993.7.1.02a00050. Page 75.
- Project 1907, “National Collaboration of Data Collection on Anti-Asian Racism,” September 2020, https://www.project1907.org/reportingcentre.
- Cathy Park Hong, “An Asian American Poet on Refusing to Take Up ‘Apologetic Space’,” The New York Times, April 1, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/01/opinion/sway-kara-swisher-cathy-park-hong.html?
- Richard Van Camp described our ancestors “walking us home” to them, in reference to the ethics of care and connection that still bind the living and the dead, at the online event “Indigenous Authors Panel: Literature on Intergenerational Trauma and Healing”, organized by ii’ taa’poh’to’p, UCalgary’s Indigenous Strategy, and the Calgary Public Library, on the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation in Canada, 30th September 2021.