When the rain finally subsided, a wave of panic pressed a pillow up to my face and attempted to smother me. The past 24 hours had occurred in a bizarre dream-like sequence. I was a feather—floating through airport security, then over an ocean, and then through unfamiliar roads. But I had finally hit the ground. It was sinking in. I was here.
I was awake.
A car zipped past me through the narrow street, eager to join its school of other run-down automobiles. Its tires left a spray of a million water droplets, scattered and then gone, their cold bodies already evaporating as they pressed their souls against my skin.
I started to drag my beat-up, burnt orange suitcase across the rocky pavement so that I would have something to do. It was heavier than I expected it to be, and it was missing a wheel. I continued to pull it down the busy street, hoping that the vibrations from the uneven ground and the lack of control I had over the suitcase’s one wheel would distract me from facing the trails of whispered thoughts sauntering in and out of my mind.
I spent too much of my childhood pretending to be white in Texas. It was exhausting. It didn’t always used to be this way.
It started with Claire P, who was new to town, and nice, and pretty, and smelled good, and everyone loved– even though she was Asian too. When I was 10 years old, Claire P invited me to her birthday party. My family didn’t have enough money to get her a birthday present, so I spent all week knitting her a pair of socks– while impractically thick for Texas, were still sparkly and purple, her favorite color. What I didn’t know was that Claire P. had given me the wrong invitation.
You see, Claire P used to segregate her birthday parties by race. Friday for her white friends, Saturday for her Asian friends: a reminder that I was
1. Not white
2. Less than
3. Only worthy of leftover cake
Claire P only had friends that were white or Asian, but she preferred white, even though her skin was yellow. That’s just what Texas did to people. Turned lemons into Twinkies, hoping that even though they saw yellow, that they knew when they bit into your flesh, you were just as white as them.
When I walked to Claire P’s home on Friday, she pretended not to know me. She shut the door in my face. As I peered in through the window, I watched her throw my socks into the trash as her white friends looked on.
Lunchables were not anywhere as good as dumplings but from then on, I ate them all the same. I highlighted my hair blonde in the summer like the white girls, even though in my pitch black hair, it looked ridiculously close to the pelt of a zebra.
By the time I lost my stripes, it was too late. I was 18 years old, and I couldn’t speak a lick of Mandarin Chinese. When my cousin died in China unexpectedly, I did not feel a thing for someone who I had purposefully turned into a stranger.
After Mei died, I realized how stupid I had been. At her funeral, I couldn’t convey to my Aunt and Uncle how sorry I was for their loss.
“Sorry for cousin death.” Four words of broken Mandarin hanging in the air.
I realized that I couldn’t even communicate with my own parents fully. How painful must it have been for them to watch me deny to the world who I was, deny who they were, when everyone could so clearly see it? And for what? So I could be invited to sit with a few girls during lunch. So I could belong.
I did my best to fit into the crowd; it was only basic human nature to adapt. I definitely looked like the people here. That was a start. I had the same dark black hair, the same upward pointing almond eyes, the same small lips and lemony complexion. Yet, somehow I felt like the people here—the natives—knew that I was not one of them. It was the same way that New Yorkers could tell when someone from outside of Manhattan was moving in on their turf. They smiled too much. Acknowledged the homeless. Made direct eye contact with other pedestrians. While I wasn’t making such dumb, rookie mistakes, I could still feel it in each step that I took.
The sound of traffic was ubiquitous; everywhere I turned, a tire screeched against the pavement. Eventually, I plugged my ears, trying to keep the noise out. This, I quickly learned, would do basically nothing. The loud chatters of strangers circumvented my fingers easily and found their way into my eardrums. It was funny that I heard speaking, because I could not see anyone in the throngs of people actually having a conversation. This city was oddly impersonal in that way.
The unfamiliar scent of car exhaust, fish, live chickens, spices and waste invaded my nostrils and throat all at once. I coughed uncontrollably; I no longer owned my body—this city did, and it did not like the soft Asian-American it had been gifted. I looked around desperately, my eyes trying to settle on something—anything—familiar. Instead, my vision was flooded by colorful crowds of people and the glare of millions of bright lights; I was drowning in their sights as people shoved past me in fast blurs, their feet splashing loudly in the puddles left by the rainstorm; tears involuntarily sprung from my deep brown eyes; I squeezed them shut in defeated retreat…
I stood in the middle of the street like that for several minutes—with my eyes tightly closed and my fingers jammed into my ears. I suddenly understood why babies cried when they were born. The womb was a much more pleasant place than the strange and threatening world.
There was nothing safe, familiar, or nurturing about this place. Only I wasn’t a baby. I had chosen to come here. I should not have been crying.
I had been doing a lot of that lately—crying.
My first grade teacher used to tell me that crying was a sign of strength. I, a girl with unusually large tear ducts, foolishly believed her at the time. In retrospect, Mrs. Violet probably just said this so that she could have an excuse to cry in front of us in class. That year, Mr. Violet had found a newer, younger Mrs. Violet.
Only, Mrs. Violet was lying.
Crying wasn’t a sign of strength; it was simply your body’s reaction to an emotion. I just didn’t know what emotion I was feeling. I didn’t know how to put into words the mind-numbing wailing that occurred inside of my 5 ft. 6″ frame. I didn’t know what emotion I should have been feeling … I didn’t even know who I was…
The sudden sensation of my purse becoming inexplicably lighter yanked me out of my disparaging thoughts. I gasped, and my eyes flung open. I caught the blurry outline of a man disappearing into the sea of people. He was no longer a single droplet of water but a wave in a much larger ocean. The wave left the shore, and with it, so did my wallet.
Welcome to Hong Kong.
Photo: Alan W via Unsplash