Beacon Street Prize Winner, Nonfiction, 2021
The last passenger towed his suitcase out of the airport, the wheels scraping the island’s midnight quiet. As the door sighed shut behind him, I caught a taste of the air, thick with humidity, from the acres of volcanic mountains and merciless jungles just beyond the city. The arrival hall, drab and lemon-colored, sat uncannily silent, deserted. My backpack lay on the rubber belt, alone, the machine long turned off.
I was stuck two, maybe three, feet behind a line I couldn’t see, on Indonesian land but not officially in Indonesia yet. Before me, a barrel-chested immigration officer was perched high in a wooden box, flipping through my passport. I had run out of pages for a visa. I rubbed my palms against my pants. I was sure he would let me in because I was American. But, I thought, maybe not—because I was Asian too.
By the fifteenth cenutry, Chinese merchants and sailors had settled in Borneo, Cambodia, Java, and Champa (southern and central coast of modern Vietnam). Because of friendly diplomatic relations, the Chinese—if we were to think of Chinese as a monolithic ethnic group, of course, which it is not—also immigrated to the Malacca Sultanate, as well as the Ryuku Kingdom (present-day Japan). Two hundred years before the Europeans took to the seas, the Ming Dynasty’s maritime expeditions reached as far as Africa. DNA tests confirmed in 2002 that a woman on Lamu Island, off the coast of Kenya, was of Chinese descent. Some tribes north of Cape Town claimed to be progenies of Chinese sailors as well; their physical appearance is similar to Chinese, with pale skin and a Mandarin-sounding tonal language. These people call themselves Awatwa, or “abandoned people.”
I knew nothing about Singapore when I arrived at twenty-two, just two weeks out of college; I knew even less about who I was. Along with fifteen young Americans—all of them white, or passable for white—I was contracted as an international fellow to teach in Singapore’s neighborhood schools. Young and new to a fast-paced, dazzling city, the fellows and I spent our nights in open-air hawker centers, a raucous affair of knives chopping the bones of Hainanese chickens, lips suckling the juicy meat of roasted ducks, and char kway teow sizzling in ancient woks. Once, centuries ago, Singapore had been a swamp-filled jungle with a few hundred tribesmen in the backwaters of the Malacca Sultanate, then the Johor Sultanate. But when Sir Stamford Raffles established the isle as a free trading port for the British Empire, the Bugis, Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Arab traders came to settle. Even today, among Singapore’s credit- card-thin skyscrapers and world-class malls, the city-state, situated at the tail of the Malaysian peninsula, tasted of distant homes.
At dinner, we traded stories of our adventures in the classroom. My Maryland friend said that a student had asked him whether he had to shoot his way out of his apartment each morning in the United States. My New Jersey friend laughed at how a boy had asked to trade his brown eyes for her blue ones. “An eye for an eye!” She slapped her thigh, cracking up.
That was, at any rate, the story I brought home at the end of the year, the one I knew how to talk about. For a long time, I did not admit that, at first, I could not understand my students’ fitful accents, nor did I know what to do when the boys broke out in a fight. I did not mention the Malay-Chinese race riots I learned about, nor the dead-eyed Indonesian, Filipino, and Burmese women I saw sitting on display in maid agencies. Or that, on my first day in the classroom, a Malay boy with a wild overbite ran up to me, his spit spraying: “Cher! If you’re American, why your eye not blue?”
I tried to explain that I was born in Taiwan and raised in the United States. But the forty-some-odd children in gray uniforms persisted: Why your hair not gold? They wanted to know. Why your skin not white? Miss! They were screaming. You American or not lah?
For years, I hardly understood what to make of it. But the deep cut of disappointment in the children’s eyes stuck to me long after I left: The American teacher they had been promised did not turn out to be quite American enough.
It is said that the Chinese coolie emigration began after slavery was abolished throughout the British colonies. Facing a shortage of manpower, European merchants replaced African slaves with indentured laborers from China and India. The British Empire was responsible for much of the diaspora, sending them to Fiji, Australia, Malaysia, Burma, and Singapore.
In the New World, Asian coolies worked in the plantations, under similar substandard conditions. Under their contracts, the coolies were to become free men after six to eight years of labor, but often their servitude was extended for years. It should be noted that the Asian human cargo was brought to American shores in the exact same slave ships that had once chained and shipped Africans across the Atlantic Passage.
I came, at one time, from a small place in the mountains on the Pacific island Portuguese explorers had called Ilha Formosa. My father’s father could trace our lineage on the island to his great-grandparents, but he could not be sure when we migrated, exactly, from mainland China. My mother’s father, on the other hand, had arrived at the tail end of the Chinese Civil War in the 1950s along with two million Nationalist soldiers feeling Mao Zedong’s bloody Communist revolution. As a child in Taiwan, I didn’t care; I ran up beside the trickling waterfall across the street from our house and scooped up cups full of tadpoles from the pond. “Make sure you let them go back,” my mother always said.
The first time I was made to think about the color of my skin was within two months of our moving to the United States for my father’s job. I was ten. We lived, back then, in a cul-de-sac in the dry desert of southern California. I had dialed onto the Internet and was talking to a stranger in an AOL chat room when he asked, “What color are you?”
I ran downstairs, my bare feet on the carpet, and asked my mother. “Uh,” she hesitated. She was stirring hot-and-sour soup in a pot. “Yellow,” she said. I remember looking at my skin. It didn’t look yellow.
The stranger in the chat room replied, “What’s that? Are you Black or white?”
During the first modern contact in Asia, Western explorers and missionaries almost always regarded East Asians as white. On a number of occasions, they even recorded that East Asians were “as white as we were.” However, as the Chinese and the Japanese, in particular, resisted participation in European systems, their skin color began to “darken” in published texts. In the tenth edition of Carl Linnaeus’ taxonomy, published in 1758, the Swedish botanist and physician, in separating homo sapiens into four continental classifications, described East Asians as luridus, meaning “lurid,” “sallow,” or “pale yellow.” By the nineteenth century, the term “yellow” had taken hold of Western imagination and all the peoples of the East had been lumped together into an explicit racial category. Later that century, this classification would give rise to the term, “Yellow Peril,” a racist ideology that people of East Asian descent were an existential threat to the Western world.
My father’s new job moved us out of the relative diversity of Los Angeles County to a quaint New Jersey suburb with pastoral roads curving through rolling hills and wooded parks. On the first day of high school, my mother and I stood at the bus stop, on a bed of brown and red fallen leaves, with a hazel-eyed, pimpled boy. He was thoroughly ironed for the first day of school, dressed in khaki pants and a checkered button-down. Beside his nearly six-foot frame and broad, ice-hockey shoulders, my mother was petite. She greeted him, tilting her head up. “How are you doing this morning?”
I thought I saw him wince at each of her faintly mispronounced words. His eyes moved slowly toward me, like summer clouds against the marble sky, and came to a stop at my mother. Politely, he tried to grin. But, just then, two girls—one with blonde hair and another with brunette curls—started toward us, laughing. All of a sudden, the boy drew back and fixed his glance elsewhere. As the girls hopped right past me and my mother, giggling and wrapping their arms around the boy, something in their whiteness and self-assurance made me feel as if everything about me was terribly wrong, undeniably out of place: my mother, my black hair, my flip-flops.
I couldn’t have told you back then where my paranoia had come from, and I am not certain that I know for sure now either. As a child, I must have picked up on the patronizing tone with which Americans said, Taiwan? You mean Thailand? Many times, friends and strangers alike had, with laughter, asked: Do you eat pigeon meat? What about monkey brains? Do you bind your feet? Most of the time, it had seemed mundane, a shared wisecrack, perhaps. Yet, over time, the small slights and the mocking tone must have accumulated without my knowing, taught me shame—racism, even—against my own people. By the time I parachuted into a white high school in New Jersey, it fed a constant panic that I would always be exotic and strange and backward, and that I would never truly belong.
Back then, before social media, all I knew about the wider world came from my textbooks, the evening news, and Hollywood films. At the same time that I was detecting societal cues that I was different, I was being taught that racism did not exist in the United States, not anymore, and certainly not against Asians. Instead, along with my white classmates, I learned about the immigrants that came in through Ellis Island, about the beauty of the American melting pot, and the eventual triumph of our civil rights battle. So I drew my own conclusions: If what I was experiencing was not racial bias, then there must be something inherently flawed, second-class, with who I was.
My decision to turn my back on my heritage, therefore, was a calculated choice. In the school cafeteria, I started to sit far from the handful of Asians in our town. I stopped telling people my birth name. I made excuses for not visiting Taiwan, and I spent six of my formative years between high school and college cut off from contact with my grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins. I became a shrewd observer of what was acceptable to bring to school for lunch (sandwiches and chips) and how to bring it (brown paper bags). I taped and rewatched hours of Friends episodes to imitate the drawl of Chandler’s sarcastic jokes. I learned to speak up, loudly, even if I had nothing to say, and I found myself gaining traction in the white world. I was the starting point guard on our state-ranked basketball team by my sophomore season, and I had a wonderful group of honor student friends cheering me on from the bleachers. I had erased myself and built it again, stick by stick, from scratch.
The Chinese Exclusion Act, passed by the Congress in 1882, prohibited any further immigration from China and forbade the Chinese already residing in the United States from becoming citizens. It was the first American federal legislation that targeted a group of people based on race, banning them from entering the home of the free. “If we continue to permit the introduction of this strange people,” Senator John Franklin Miller, a Republican from California, said, “with their peculiar civilization. . . , what is to be the effect upon the American people and the Anglo-Saxon civilization?” It was government-mandated racism, and it was the foundation for the racialization of Asian immigrants as inassimilable “aliens.” The act was not repealed until 1943.
“It’s funny, isn’t it?” My Singaporean friend said, her voice braided with a British cadence from her time in England, as gentle as the warm, lapping waves before us. We were on a resort isle off the main island, one degree north of the equator. I was lying on my towel in the sun, while she, my advisor from the Ministry of Education, sat under the shade of her umbrella. “Westerners want to be dark. Asians want to be white.”
I asked, “What am I?”
“Right now,” she said, eyeing my bikini in the blazing light, “you’re a Westerner.”
My body felt like it was broiling in an oven, my skin minutes away from being blackened and crispy like my mother’s pork belly. I was eyeing my friend’s umbrella like a salvation, but something tied to my identity as an American woman, a Jersey girl, didn’t let me move. Instead, I said, “I think it’s hilarious that they sell whitening cream here.”
My friend retorted, “Ha, they sell tanning oil in the United States, don’t they?” She turned to look at me and, smiling, said, “People always want what they don’t have.”
I think I came to Singapore at a time when I really needed to be here. I didn’t expect it, but right away, Singapore embraced me with its orderly and multi-cultured heart. Here was an immaculate city with an urban core of sleek, elegant skyscrapers and designer hotels and a durian-shaped opera house, headed unabashedly for the future; yet, it remained an island of migrants and émigrés, built to be a little piece of everyone’s home. Here was my Taiwanese childhood of bubble teas and pork chop rice, and here was my young adulthood of Beatle cover bands and fast cash and Western bars. In Singapore, I heard traces of my grandmother’s Hokkien dialect. I found the Creole language of my father’s speech, that verbal salad of Mandarin and English tossed into something wholly different, strange and beautiful. Here was a city where the majority of the population looked like me, where everyone came from somewhere else, and my race was no longer noticed. In Singapore, I recognized that everyday actions like going to the grocery store and waiting for the bus were easier, more comfortable than they had ever been in the United States. Here, I was relieved from the decade-long effort of trying to blend in with white America. At last, I felt like I could be me, whoever that was.
In addition to my newfound freedom, that whole year, I enjoyed a blind, giddy happiness in large part because I found a community to which I belonged in an integral and essential way. I spent long, exhausting hours at school alongside ardent and hilarious teachers, and we went out for dinner in Kampong Glam, Little India, or Chinatown. Afterward, I met up with my advisor and her friends—all of us of Han Chinese descent—for drinks under the filtered lights at Clarke Quay. We would always hover, at least for a little while, on Elgin Bridge, staring at the river where Malaya’s tin and rubber were once processed and shipped out by the British East India Company. I leaned my head on my advisor’s shoulder as constellations of city lights sparkled on the water, rolling with the tides, dragon-dancing, it seemed, with old-world wealth and the newly rich, a spectacular proof that Asia could be dignified and deserving of respect from the West.
“Where have you been?” The West Virginia fellow with narrow eyes and wire frame glasses asked in the hawker center as I sat down. In those days, my American friends rarely saw me. “You know, they say you’ve found a group of friends here because you’re Asian.”
“Well, I hope it’s more than that,” I muttered, offended. I nodded at his sweat-stained shirt and basketball shorts, asking, “Did you guys play squash today?”
“Yep. And worked out a bit. You ever run on the track?”
Lightly, I scoffed. I had just gotten off the bus after a twelve-hour day at school. Returning to his original comment, I said, “But you guys have it much easier at school. I swear the teachers forget I’m American.”
He held his chopsticks in midair, his index finger and thumb crisscrossed awkwardly. The sweet aroma of coconut milk curled from his nasi lemak. He asked, “You think you having more work has anything to do with race?”
The West Virginia fellow hesitated. He had a reticence about him; a quiet, modest man who, back home, would have been considered average. But in Singapore, he held himself with a princely disposition. He shrugged, saying he didn’t know. But I suspected that, in some ways, he did. In the decade or so since our time in Singapore, he never made it home for good. He dated Asian women and picked up the kind of odd jobs expatriates could find with ease in Southeast Asia: writer, teacher, journalist, and translator. It wasn’t that he liked Asia per se, I thought, it was because he liked who he was in Asia.
“It’s complicated,” he replied.
One night, our New York fellow with ice blue eyes exclaimed, “Everyone knew I was still drunk, you know, the students, the teachers, even the principal. But no one said anything.” We were sitting by the window in our three-bedroom apartment. Far below, vehicles swished by on the Anak Bukit Flyover, their amber taillights receding into the horizon. He continued, with a big belly laugh, “I felt like how the white men must have felt when we first came to Asia and the natives thought they were Gods.”
In the mid-1800s, white gold diggers seized Chinese miners’ stakes by beating, burning, and shooting the Chinese. The Shasta Republic reported, “The murder of Chinamen is almost of daily occurrence.”
Expelled from the prospect of gold, Chinese miners found work with the Central Pacific Railroad, contracted to build the difficult half of the railway from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific. In the 1860s, Chinese coolies made up about 90 percent of the company’s workforce, for backbreaking work and harsh mountain winters. However, the Chinese were paid sixty cents for every dollar paid to white workers, and when the workers went on strike, the superintendent cut off their food supply. After the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, Chinese workers were barred from the celebrations. The speeches congratulated European immigrant workers for their labor and never mentioned the Chinese. Instead, the Chinese men were summarily fired and forced to walk the long distance back to San Francisco—forbidden to ride on the railroad they’d built.
Across the bridge, over Johor Strait, the shift from Singapore to Malaysia was sudden and intense. Hawkers milled around us on the broken pavement, offering platters of gum, cigarettes, and toothbrushes. “Money change?” A man asked, a wad of US dollars in one hand and Malaysian ringgits in the other. Across the road, a lone man carried a plastic bag, his head down, walking along the barren shoulders of the highway.
Two white fellows and I rode the four-hour bus from the border city of Johor Bahru to the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur. As we shuffled into a yellow cab to head to our hostel, pedestrians in business suits and headscarves dashed through the squeak and sigh of traffic. Smoke rose from roadside grills, climbing the walls of half-finished high-rises. The city pulsed with grit and ambition; it knew it was at the cusp of a huge commercial change. In the distance, the Petronas Towers stood, their glass-and-steel exterior sparkling, their spires piercing the polluted, papery sky.
Our driver was a middle-aged Indian-Malaysian man with a mustache and a kind grin. Beside him, a beaded necklace hung from the rearview mirror, swinging. He asked, “Where are you from?”
“America,” my New York friend answered.
My New Jersey friend added, “But we’re working in Singapore.”
“Ah, yes, Obama, isn’t it?” Someone honked; he blared his horn in response. “Incredible, isn’t it? A Black president in the United States. You know our government here is running by Malays, no? All Malays, everyone Malay. But now I think maybe, one day, we will be having an Indian prime minister too.” In a honeyed voice, he breathed out: “Ah, America.”
Before we could respond, he slammed on the brakes at a red light. I pushed against the back of the passenger seat. That was when he lifted his eyes in the rearview mirror, right at me.
“And you?” He asked. “Where are you from?”
“America,” I said.
I watched his eyes widen, the light in his walnut irises slip. He hesitated, staring with the smug, banal look of a man who held forth an authority over me. “No, really,” he said. “Where are you really from?”
The taxi spit and took off again. On either side of me, my friends inched away, sliding toward the windows. I had almost forgotten, as I did from time to time, that I didn’t look quite like them. As both of them fixed their stares outside, I was trying to remember if I knew whether their ancestors had come from Ireland or Germany or Poland, or if it mattered at all. “United States,” I said again.
“Japan? Hong Kong?” He glanced up again, “Vietnam?”
I knew, of course, what he wanted to hear, but to say that I came from Taiwan felt like a lie. “No,” I replied. I could hear the resentment rising in my throat, desperate to be heard. These days, I see my refusal to dignify this line of questioning as a small crusade, however ill-informed, to break down stereotypes of what an Asian woman can be and what an American can look like. But back then, I think it was a much simpler thing: It was an instinct. My defiance felt like the only thing that kept me intact, wholly myself, from others telling me who I was allowed to be. “I’m American,” I said again—mostly because it was true, but also because I felt entitled to the same adulation and underserved respect as my white friends. Because it gave me privilege and power.
All of a sudden, pulled to a stop in front of our hostel, he whipped himself around and brought his face two inches from mine. “So, Japan, right?” He smiled, and satisfied, he bowed, grinning, “Konichiwa.”
On November 3, 1885, on a cold Northwest morning, several hundred men congregated in Tacoma, Washington, and marched along the waterfront to Chinese houses and storefronts, smashing doors and breaking windows. The mobs forced the Chinese residents to pack up their goods and head to the train station. Those who refused were threatened to be killed. The Sheriff’s deputies observed the proceedings but did not intervene. After the Chinese were expelled from the city, the men set the neighborhood aflame.
Weeks earlier, a rally in town had declared the Chinese as a menace to the community and a danger to the United States. Its keynote speaker was the mayor, Jacob Weisbach, himself an immigrant from Germany.
After my fellowship in Singapore ended, I wound up traveling all over Asia for the better part of a year. By then, I was moving around enough to realize that I could not outrun my race. Out in the Continent’s backwaters, I began to learn who I was; or, at the very least, who the world thought I was. In that gap between one and the other, I learned to negotiate my existence.
In South Korea, I fended off the hard glares of Korean women who remembered Americans soldiers during the war when I drank with my white male friend. At a bus stop, a Dutch traveler asked whether I was on the peninsula looking for my birth parents. In Ulaabaantar, Mongolia, I endured the scowl of Mongol men who, I heard, beat up ethnic Han Chinese in the darkness of night, each punch echoing with ancient tribal brutality. At a night market in Laos, I haggled over twenty-five cents with a woman not much older than I was, her baby wrapped in a sarong at her chest; I could see my own reflection in her brown eyes, her face almost the same as mine, brimming with a stricken curiosity: Why you? Why not me? In hostels all over, I started to recognize that white backpackers could not tell whether or not I spoke English, and so I became practiced in icebreakers and formulated a courage to sit down with men and women I didn’t know.
By the time I made it to China, I knew how to use my race to my own benefit. I skated past the park entrance and avoided ferry fees by claiming that I was a tour guide taking two Belgian backpackers on a hike along the storied Li River. I started to value my limited Mandarin as I was invited into a Naxi woman’s home, and, in exchange for translating signs for a hostel, I was allowed to stay in a private room for free. Among the white travelers I met, it was hilarious, and I was saving handfuls of cash each day. You’re so lucky, they claimed, and I laughed, remembering what my advisor had said: We all want what we cannot have.
When I came back to Singapore for a few months, most of my new friends were expatriates from the United States, Germany, and Australia. They introduced me to a Singapore I had not known before, one of overprized Singapore Slings and outdoor concerts and American clubs. From them, I learned that I could negotiate higher salaries on account of my citizenship. For a number of odd jobs, I was paid nearly double what my Singaporean colleagues made. Most of the time, I felt ill at ease, unsettled with my unearned American status. But I knew now that the Chinese, too, have imprisoned a million ethnic Uighurs and Turkish minorities into concentration camps. The Japanese have ravaged and raped and massacred. Han Chinese have emigrated to the island of Taiwan and built factories and cities on aboriginal land, from which my family and I have reaped our privilege.
I was walking along Orchard Road one afternoon when a joyful Malay, who had started a tutor agency, called me. I could hear the singsong in her voice as she offered me a gig to tutor two Thai girls. “They have a lot of money,” she said, giggling. “I think they’re related to the King of Thailand.”
“Why don’t you want it?” I asked.
“You can make more money than me. You’re American!” She continued, “What a shame lah, you could charge even more if you were white. What a shame.”
I laughed. For a moment, both of us held our phones to our ears and we didn’t speak. I listened to her breath, this gentle woman in a hijab who had told me on multiple occasions that she was too scared to visit the United States. I knew she was right. But I wondered: Who, exactly, was supposed to feel that shame?
In 1982, Detroit was a city in crisis, with long lines snaking around unemployment offices, union halls, welfare offices, and soup kitchens. Twenty-seven-year-old Vincent Chin was having his all-American bachelor party at Fancy Pants, a raunchy striptease bar in Highland Park, when two white men became aggressive, calling him, “Chink,” “Nip,” “Fucker.” Outside, one man held Vincent down while the other swung a slugger baseball bat into Vincent’s skull. At the height of the Japanese motor innovation, the two men blamed Vincent, a Chinese American, for stealing their jobs, thinking he was Japanese. Two off-duty cops witnessed the attack. Four days later, Vincent died.
The two men pleaded guilty to manslaughter. Each received three years’ probation and $3,780 in fines to be paid over three years. The presiding judge, Judge Charles Kaufman, explained: “These aren’t the kind of men you send to jail.” They never served any time.
Vincent’s four hundred family and friends came for his wedding and went to his funeral.
I was still young when I left Asia for good, but I wasn’t the same. I went out to Seattle to pursue a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. Throughout my two-year residency, my professors persisted in asking me, “Why are your characters white? Where are all the Asian characters?” I was frustrated that I was singled out by the color of my skin, and that my colleagues did not have to contend with issues of race. But I recognize now that in the heart of those questions rang a truth about myself and my country: I knew how to be white in America, but because we didn’t talk about Asians in this nation, I had never figured out how to be Asian-American.
Not long ago, in line at SeaTac Airport, a white man in a business suit stepped in front of me and slapped his briefcase on the security belt. “Sir,” a Latino TSA agent said, nodding at me. “She was ahead of you.”
The white man turned to look at me and flicked his wrist. “It’s fine,” he said, peeling off his shoes and tossing them into the plastic bin. Since I came back to the United States, I have started to recognize these slights as the hundreds of times that I have been made to feel invisible in my country. I could not know for certain, of course, that his dismissal was an act of bias, but that was part of the problem with being a marginalized citizen: It could be discrimination, conscious or not. Once you learn how white Americans view you, you can’t unlearn it. You can’t stop seeing it, not in the waiters who serve you after white guests, not in the security guard who didn’t think you could be the school’s basketball coach. Growing up in white suburbia, it felt as if the United States wanted me to assimilate, to become white; to a certain extent, I did, but I realize now that America has never stopped treating me as “yellow.”
I didn’t go looking for my roots in Asia; I didn’t know I had to. I went to Singapore, like most American graduates, to put off the real world. By cosmic chance, I ended up on an island at the edge of the Continent that was, like me, a merging place of the East and the West. I discovered in Asia that I enjoyed great privileges in life, and vast opportunities. I found out overseas that my past, who I am, was infinitely more complicated than I had ever considered it to be. I recognized that there was nothing straightforward about the question, “Where are you from?” Each time, I felt the forces of our human histories of migration, imperialism, and power collide. Yet, out of that mayhem, I was allowed to come into my own.
It has taken me nearly two decades to make sense of the dissonance I feel in the United States, and even longer to embrace both of my cultures and to appreciate that I am immeasurably richer for them. I rarely feel the need to hide half of myself anymore. These days, I talk to strangers and friends alike about the vibrant tapestry of Taiwanese foods and the rainbow-colored sea of my childhood. I took unabashed pride when Din Tai Fung and bubble tea shops swept through the nation and the world. Slowly, I am relearning the language of my birthplace, and, as such, have reignited a lasting relationship with my family in Taiwan. My ability to speak Mandarin helped me land a job at the University of Washington; and, after I quit, I stumbled upon a part-time gig to lead Taiwanese tour groups on hikes through America’s natural treasures. My clients became the first people outside of my family to call me—this adult version of me—by my birth name, and I let them. Every time “小悅” breathes through their lips, I feel as if a part of me is being resurrected. I feel a little more whole.
The world has not changed much in the decade or so since I went to Singapore. Still, in Guatemala, when I stepped off the boat in a remote village, a boy asked if I was looking for a sushi restaurant. Our Ecuadorian guide in the Galapagos pestered me for eight straight days with questions about China, even though I insisted that I lived in California. Under the art nouveau architecture of Old Town Riga, a man spotted me from yards away and marched toward me, his finger pointing, shouting, “India! India!” Just this month, a white man in his twenties in a suburb of our liberal Seattle enclave voiced his astonishment that I spoke English so well. It does not enrage me any less than it did before. It terrifies me still that behind these seemingly innocuous jabs simmer a white superiority, a tribal rage that people who look like me are “inassimilable aliens,” that any day, it can erupt into violence against my body. It is devastating, of course, but at the very least I know now that there is nothing wrong with me, that bias against Asians dates back centuries, and I feel less alone.
I have gone back to Singapore three or four times since I left, and I always spend an evening alone walking the bank of the Singapore River. These days, I still think about catching the last train back to my friend’s flat. It was the month of Ramadan, and she was a Chinese-Singaporean who had married into the Muslim faith, so we sat on her couch, high above her city, and ate into the wee hours of the night. Out of the window, in the blue-lit skies, the city had a stagnant, restful quality. This was the Singapore I had always loved with my imperfect and hesitant lust, my city of midnight conversations and young love affairs, a homesick town full of Arab streets, Malay stalls, and Chinese settlements. Singapore was a sweep of lights miles above the island, a phosphorescent city of silver office towers rising majestically over the dark swallow of the Pacific Ocean. Here, in a city they had built out of a swamp, there was always a feeling of genuine possibility.
In Nadi, Fiji, my taxi driver had a different face, a different skin tone than I’d expected of people of Polynesian descent. I, too, couldn’t restrain myself from asking where he had come from and how. “India,” he said, smiling politely. “With the British Empire, centuries ago.” He glanced at me in the rearview mirror and asked, “You? Where you from?”
“United States,” I answered. I braced myself for an interrogation. But he nodded and didn’t press on. So I rolled down the windows and squinted into the wind. As we skirted the coast of his island, the deep blue of the Pacific Ocean roaring and churning against its shores, I imagined his ancestors on a British merchant ship drifting away from their subcontinent. I thought about him, about my Singaporean friends, about my parents—all the people in the world who would never be home again. And I thought about a child in those distant mountains, running along a trickling waterfall and catching tadpoles in paper cups and letting them go, their obsidian bodies squirming—plop-plop-plop—splashing back into their pond.