Borrowed Language; Borrowed Land

Once upon a time, I read a fairy-tale about a woman who looked in a mirror for the first time since she was a girl. She stared and stared. She couldn’t believe it was her beautiful reflection in that bottle-green cracked glass.

Sometimes when I look in the mirror, I stare. But I’m in the wrong fairy-tale: I look the same as I did when I was 16. Everyone tells me so. I’m 16: I’m ugly; I’ve sold my feminine soul to try and become the most brilliant and witty and successful and interesting person I know. Now I look in the mirror and wonder that even if I failed at half my 16-year-old dreams, how could I not see I was beautiful? And why should I still care?

***

My brother has a simple explanation for why we undervalue our looks, like he does for everything: “racist white people in high school who weren’t attracted to Asians.” He’s probably right. He moved to California and he left his half-ness and never looked back. He sends me photos all the time of dumplings or hot pot or his APIA mentoring job or his Asian church friends or his Taiwanese girlfriend and I think – or maybe hope – he’s finally found somewhere to belong.

I’m different from him. The classics are my problematic faves. I’m obsessed with Kant and Eliot and Yeats and lots of dead white guys who would’ve thought me inferior by half. I was a high school libertarian, drink my tea with milk and sugar. I can quote Milton in my sleep and Pascal in French. I like cafes and Switzerland except that time I was harassed by the police because they thought I was a Tibetan asylum seeker.

“Where are you from?” “Boston,” “No, really from?” “Scotland,” “No, really from?” “Ireland.” I grin my whitest grin. White teeth, white eyes, white face. They don’t believe I know the old songs, that the first things I fell in love with were the hills and roses and rolling sea. They don’t believe in my blond cousins who grew up on soda bread and calzones, raised also to long for some mythical home where the sidhe walked the land and the English never colonized anyone.

Once I met someone who played the pennywhistle better than I do, but he was actually from Britain and Shanghai. Nothing to make you feel more like a fraud, I guess. Some sort of bizarre American hybrid who pretends to be from everywhere but is really from nowhere.

I learned Irish and Arabic because I was sick of white people thinking I could speak Chinese. “I can speak five languages; Chinese isn’t one”. Besides, Mandarin wasn’t my ancestors’ language anyway. But now I meet people and their faces light up when they see mine and they start asking for directions or where to find food or something else I can’t understand, and every time I say “sorry, only English,” I deflate a little more.

“Why are you so obsessed with identity? Are you an SJW?” Well, sometimes; I want to be a warrior for justice. But the identity stuff, that’s more selfish. I can weep over Scotland, and still, if I show up there and think I’m going home, I’ll be a stranger. And my brother can join all the Asian groups he wants, and he still can’t talk to his girlfriend’s parents because, well, we’re fourth gen. We can’t even pronounce our middle names.

***

My brother and I are more similar than I think. I haven’t identified as white since I was five and living in the South Pacific, because the world makes you define yourself as what you’re not. Some of my Asian friends say I look white, flippantly say I’m lucky I don’t get microaggressions. They’ve never been me on the street: I’m Asian there, not even Chinese, because on the street “ni hao” and “konnichiwa” and “annyeonghaseo” aren’t greetings, just ways of saying “you’re different from us. We know where you’re really from.”

When I walk into unfamiliar places, I find the faces that look like mine and I sit with them, and for a moment, I feel at home. And then they ask something, vulnerable, like how well can I read Chinese because they can’t and sometimes that makes them feel disconnected, you know, and I say, loud and white, “I can’t even speak it. In Hawai’i, it’s different. That’s where we’re from.” Sometimes I speak pidgin, and sometimes with a Scottish accent. They look uncomfortable. I want to say I understand, maybe, but instead blurt, “My Popo is trying to learn Mandarin.”

My favourite books as a kid and teenager were by Bette Bao Lord and Gene Luen Yang and Maxine Hong Kingston; my favourite movies Miyazaki. After I watched Chungking Express I thought, I never have to watch another movie again, even though I didn’t speak the language. I read Zen Cho and Sarah Kuhn and Courtney Milan and Stan Sakai and Justina Chen, and sure, they might not be as profound as The Woman Warrior, but they’re great within their genres and I wonder if they’re like me, walking the razor’s edge. The book that changed my life was Shusaku Endo’s Silence. Some white guy asked me, “does he even count as an author of colour? He’s a French Catholic.” I simmered.

(My Murakami- and Melville-reading cousin thinks my interpretation of Endo is wrong, and that agreement or disagreement with a character in a story is no reason to wholly reject faith. She, like Endo, is more comfortable with ambiguity. My mother, when I was seven, told her friends that I saw everything in moral absolutes. Things like “I reject Calvinism, and therefore Christianity. And if I perish, I perish.” But now I’ve been talked back onto that razor’s edge of little faith – make my heart restless until it rests in thee even when it means rejecting St. Augustine. My cousins are better at balancing.)

I’ve always disappointed everyone in my Chinese-ness (and my faith). But I am Asian American through and through: my skin, my blood run with butter mochi, my voice telling my brothers to close the lights, my memories…

***

In Hawai’i, I don’t look in the mirror and wonder that I’m beautiful. I look in the mirror and wonder that I’m normal.

I lived in Hawai’i only three months. If you count all the time I’ve spent there, it’s a year. I don’t tell people this at first. I don’t want to explain, Hawai’i is the only place I can dress colorfully and walk down the street, and no one will look at me. I don’t want to explain, how in Hawai’i, cousins kind of appear out of the woodwork. Last week, I discovered dozens more. They have a fleet of canoes and teach surfing. “No, I’m not actually Hawaiian,” I make sure to tell people. But apparently my cousins are. Do they support sovereignty?

We settled in Hawai’i, we Asians, because we could not survive in our homelands and we were chased out of the US. These stories weigh on us still. My cousins are Chinese and Japanese, Chinese and Hawaiian, Chinese and some other white race, except, like me, they might get annoyed if they called them white. I’m not white, I’m Irish. And maybe I’m not Chinese, but Asian. Is that reductionistic? The cousin I’m closest to is Korean. We’re not actually related, but in Hawai’i we can be, and everywhere else, people think we are: I’ve borrowed her ID because her name looks more like my face than mine.

When I speak in favour of land reform in South Africa, I wonder if I remain a hypocrite because what of us, what do we do, we who cannot speak our ancestral languages, whose blood relatives are now part of the land and sea? We didn’t colonize; we made our cake noodle and spam musubi and manapua to survive. We are mixed.

But even there, I can never understand. I can sing only two songs in an Austronesian language. My cousins from the sea, unlike me, have a home. Our presence on the island is fraught as our presence on the mainland: borrowed legends, borrowed language, borrowed land.

Even there, the one place they have a name for my race, they call it half. Half one thing, half the other, like we can be so easily cleaved in two.


Created by:  Siobhan McDonough

About the author: Siobhan was born in Scotland. She lives in Zambia and works in international development. She loves her dog.