Judy Garland’s ruby slippers as Dorothy Gale in the 1939 Wizard of Oz. Photographed by Kevin Burkett.
When my niece was eight, I took her shopping to buy new shoes. I must have thought she was at the age where going to a department store would be fun. I remember we were at the local Foley’s sifting through boxes of glitter Mary Janes and Hello Kitty embossed oxfords. The selection was thrilling and she tried on pair after pair before deciding on the ruby red slippers. “Just like Dorothy’s,” she said, clicking her heels together in front of the mirror.
But when I brought them to the clerk to purchase, the woman behind the register was not feeling our joy. She stared at us rudely, first me, then my niece. Then squinting, she demanded, “What relationship do you have to this child?”
Startled, I said, “She’s my niece!”
The woman pressed her lips together as though sucking on something sour. “Oh,” she said, like I’d made her stub her toe. “Oh.” She proceeded to ring up the shoes.
Did I look like a kidnapper? If so, why trust me at my word that I was an aunt? But finally, I decided that No, I hadn’t seemed like some kind of abductor, but the woman had merely been startled because my niece and I look like different races.
We are in fact both mixed—Chinese and white—but my niece is blonde like her Danish mother with green eyes from my brother, and I am dark-haired and dark-eyed like my Chinese father. I had thought that differences like this would no longer throw people; I’d been living in multi-ethnic San Francisco, and I was no longer accustomed to being racially othered. But immediately I was transported back to my own childhood growing up in a small town in the Midwest.
I’d seen this look before. When I was growing up, white people often failed to understand the relationship between me and my own mother. My mother was of Irish-Anglo heritage and blonde, and my father Chinese, but to most people I encountered of any race—particularly to the white women in our new small town—I looked completely “Asian” to them, even if they couldn’t identify which country I might be from.
I have no idea why I passed for “Asian” in the eyes of others; I do share certain phenotypes common to many people from East Asia: a low nose bridge, high cheekbones, a round face (especially when I was young), dark eyes, straight dark hair. I suspect, however, it was the lack of images of mixed-race Asian Americans in the media that caused me to pass whereas, for example, my green-eyed, wavy-haired younger brother always got the “What are you?” questions from strangers. The active social construction of race was paramount in these encounters. After all, my brother and I shared the same parents, the same source of our DNA—and people from East Asia can have wavy hair and even green eyes—yet we were perceived to be different races
Although I was born in a diverse community in California, my family moved first to the East Coast when I was six and then to a rural area in the Midwest when I was twelve. Many white women in our new small town wanted to know if I was adopted. They wanted to share stories with me about their relatives’ adopted Korean babies or the Vietnamese girl who was sponsored by someone’s church. They could imagine very complicated scenarios for my arrival into this country and into this family, but they could not imagine that a white woman had given birth to a mixed-race child after having had sex with her Chinese husband.
The first time it happened—the first time I was made to feel that I was not my mother’s daughter—my mother and I had gone to a potluck at a local church miles away from our town. The directions had been to drive to Four Corners, an abandoned township at the crossroads of two dirt roads, past a blackened tree stump, to turn at such-and-such’s farm, and to keep until we saw the balloons tied along the rural mailboxes pointing out the way.
Our elderly farmer neighbors had invited us, and my mother wanted to be neighborly, and so while my father and brother waited at home, the two of us drove alone, past the endless fields of waving corn.
The church potluck was nearly over by the time we found it. A table of congealing Swedish meatballs and melting Jell-O salads, colored streamers flapping in the wind as the sun sank westward. My mother headed over to say hello to the neighbors, and I was left alone with a paper plate of leftovers.
A smiling middle-aged woman with cropped, gray hair approached me. “Hallooo,” she greeted me. “You’re new here.”
“The Johnsons invited us. They’re our neighbors.”
She nodded. “I’ve heard.” Then she leaned closer. “You know, my cousins adopted a Korean baby.”
“Oh, really?” I said, startled by the sudden introduction of so many people into the conversation, cousins, babies.
“We all think that’s just a fine thing they did,” she said.
I nodded, wondering why she was telling me this. I looked around me, wondering if the cousins with the Korean baby were in fact nearby and this was going to be our introduction, but there were only the elderly volunteers at the food table, chatting amongst themselves.
“So, where are you from?” she asked.
“New Jersey,” I said.
“Well, nice to meet you,” the woman said, with the same tooth-baring smile, and she walked away.
I squinted after her, the sun in my eyes, wondering what I should have said. The woman had seemed disappointed at my response, but though I replayed our conversation over and over in my head, I couldn’t think of anything I should have added.
I pushed the remaining meatballs around on my plate. There was a hard knot in my stomach now. Because I had been made to feel odd, something other than myself, I could not eat. After a quick glance at the servers to make sure they were not looking at me, I quickly folded the paper plate in half and threw it away into one of the garbage cans.
The first time someone asked my mother outright if I was adopted, we were in town shopping for sundries, cough syrup or Epsom salts in the drug store. Mama reacted with fury. “I went through twenty hours of labor!” she exclaimed, fist on hip, elbow out, and I felt my chest fill with pride. Yes, that was me, twenty-hours-of-labor.
But later, Mama stopped responding, as though she could not hear them, the women in the grocery store or at the church picnics or the weddings or any of the small town functions we attended over the years, as though their voices floated into the air like little cartoon thought bubbles, light as balloons. My mother would drift away from the conversation, moving on. Only I was left to stand alone and hear these women with sharp little teeth yapping about the lovely Vietnamese baby their cousin adopted, the Korean baby, the Oriental child, the one they all loved oh-so-much.
When I was growing up, white women in the Midwest were always the self-appointed racial gatekeepers to my mother’s vagina, ever vigilant that no Chinese penis should ever be imagined to have entered there, even as I, the evidence to the contrary, stood in full view.
My mother, as a white woman born in the 1930s, had not learned to talk about race. She had come to believe that the most appropriate way to live in a multiracial society was to pretend that she was color blind, that race did not matter, that race could and should be ignored, and only by ignoring race could racism be overcome. Later when I tried to talk to her about racism, she deflected the conversations. The white people in our town were motivated by “ignorance” or “jealousy” never by “racism.”
But colorblindness is the vault from which no light emerges, where allies are sent to slowly suffocate and die. Colorblindness did not stop the racism. Instead it stopped my mother from bringing up the R-word when our family was confronted; it prevented our family from having the tools to understand the larger forces in our society that were manipulating our white neighbors and classmates into questioning our right to exist.
The microaggressions directed at me, questioning my status within the family, were bad enough, but later when my brother was physically attacked in school by white boys who called him racial slurs, my mother did not respond either. He was attacked with fists and two-by-fours and once by white boys wielding baseball bats. He was attacked on school property and off, during school hours and after school, during sports events and other extra-curricular activities. After he was attacked during wrestling practice, the school called my mother to pick him up and take him to the hospital for tests that would show his diaphragm had been torn when three white boys jumped upon him. Yet my mother did not complain to the teachers or the principal, she did not try to explain to us why this had happened, that it was not my brother’s fault. Instead she said absolutely nothing.
I can only imagine the pain my mother felt inside, her inability to protect her children. I have to imagine it because she never expressed it overtly in words. Because she lacked the vocabulary to talk about race, we could not share our feelings. There was nothing to mitigate the pain and my brother and I were left to internalize our othering as shame.
My father, being of the same generation, responded to these events by saying that any so-called prejudice that my brother and I perceived was entirely our own imagination and due to our own inability to “get along with people.” He insisted that we just needed to be stronger. His was the religion of self-reliance and undoubtedly shaped by the fact he attended college in the 1950s and early ’60s when talk of racial hierarchies privileged the powerful. While studying political science, he had learned to write with sophistication about the power dynamics between nations, but he had not learned anything about describing the racial dynamics within American society. As a refugee who’d come to America after the Chinese Civil War, he chose to believe in an unfettered, meritocratic American Dream. Why else was he working so hard? Why else put in those 100-hour weeks? For him, talking about racism would be like looking down while he walked across a tightrope.
As a child, I learned to blame myself. I wondered what I was doing wrong. Why did people dislike me? Even though it wasn’t people in general, but the white people of this particular town, they made up the “people” of my immediate world and thus, for all I knew, the entire world. They looked like the people on TV and movies, for the most part. American families on TV in the ’80s were always white, except for Bill Cosby, and his show wasn’t broadcast in our small town after the first year. Instead, the station showed high school basketball games from Iowa, more people who looked like the white people in my town. I vaguely remembered the more diverse populations of my early childhood, the small town in California where I was born, the suburbs in New Jersey of my elementary school years. But they seemed like mirages or hallucinations. Those places might as well have been Oz and me Dorothy waking from a long technicolor dream. My reality was a small town in the Midwest without any color.
After I left that small town to go to college, I began to process my experiences. Although there weren’t any Asian American studies or ethnic studies classes at my Midwestern school, I joined an Asian American student group. We discussed our experiences. We shared our stories. We recommended books to each other. Over time I was able to develop a new literacy to read the world, a vocabulary that created a space for me to exist.
I learned to describe acts of hostility that our family faced as motivated by racism, by the education system and media and power structures in our country that had led these white families to believe that families that looked like ours were dangerous, deviant, against God’s will, and something they should destroy with both big actions–like violence–and smaller ones–like questions about our family status. I learned the language of critical race studies, of microaggressions and institutional racism, of the Oriental Exclusion Act, of Manifest Destiny and which groups of people got to be considered citizens and which were eternal foreigners or aliens.
From a distance, I could finally see that the dysfunction belonged not to my family but to the strangers who found us threatening because we were mixed-race, What’s shocking to realize is that nearly thirty years later, there are still so few images of mixed-race families in the American media in the twentieth-first century that a department store clerk could not identify my niece and myself as members of a family.
Mixed-race families have been excluded from the American narrative for too long, literally banned in many states until Loving v. Virginia struck down the so-called “anti-miscegenation” laws in 1967. And this absence is one reason that I have learned to speak up, to speak out, to share my experiences. I write so that I can show the world what my family looks like.
However, I did not learn in school how to speak to my parents about race without causing them pain, without seeming as though I were blaming them for the unhappiness of my childhood. My mother, in particular, resisted these conversations about race and racism unto her death when I was twenty-eight and she sixty-one. Thus, I discovered the limits of academic literacy. For this reason, too, I am writing this essay. I am writing so that some other family, perhaps one that looks like mine or perhaps one that looks completely different, might have words to put to their own pain and learn to speak across the silence that I know can grow inside our wounds.
May-lee Chai was born in California, but lived from that ages of 12 to 18 on a farm in South Dakota. She is the author of seven books and one book-length translation from Chinese to English. Her memoir, Hapa Girl, was named a Kiriyama Prize Notable Book.
If writing defies “common sense,” if it seems to go against traditional modes of thought, norms, and histories, the idea of that common sense no longer makes sense, or might make sense if we’re allowed to reinvent ourselves. That’s what I’m looking at with the literacy narrative, the coming-into-language story. I want to hear yours: when you first “clicked” with a language, whatever it is; why you questioned the modes of your Englishes; how you wrote “poetry,” but looked at it again and called it “lyric essay.” I want to see your literacy narrative in its scholarly, creative, and hybrid forms. Send your literacy narratives to Sylvia Chan at email@example.com. Stay tuned for more literacy narratives from yours truly and others.