This is the first part to a personal take I wished to write after reading this article by Jason Cushman. Being biracial in South Texas, I’ve had a share of interesting experiences that amused, annoyed, and appalled. It’s not my intention to offend, and I hope these bits of flash writing don’t trigger unpalatable memories, if anyone has them. Of course, there are issues here that some may want to discuss further, like English as an official language, immigration, and affirmative action. I only welcome civil discussion on these topics (even if we disagree).
Jason shares a list of ten items: Things not to say to an Asian. Here, I provide five 250-word recollections sparked by items 1 through 5, respectively. I’ll eventually write a second installment. Thank you, Jason, for letting me add my personal spin.
She Called You Sir and Me a He. So She Gets a Fine?
Another cocktail of medications, curbing my tears and protestations when all my sister tried to do was hug me in my angst. My mother, she wished to hear none of it. Pharmaceuticals were Lysol wipes in plastic containers wide enough to securely roll our quarters. Not that we needed them, as the last we saw of a Laundromat was when I turned twelve. The stickiness of condensed milk attracting needy ants. This, my mother begrudgingly called the attack of teenage hormones.
“Do not take when pregnant.”
“Do not take with grapefruit.”
“Avoid driving upon ingestion.”
“DO NOT stay in contact with the sun.”
The first three labels, easy to abide by. Boyfriend was studying five hours away, I approached the fruit like a newborn to apple juice, and I was too anxious to hit the freeway.
But on my third mile, the whites on the track converged. I felt as if edges of paper just cut slid across eyes now shut in fright.
“If you can learn Spanish, you can learn Braille.”
The trainer retrieved an orange Powerade, placed it on my lap, and told me to drink. She snapped her fingers, yelling “Can you see?” The grayscale relented, but really, I would fail tomorrow’s biology test.
“Your mom. She’s here to pick you up.”
I gave my neck a stretch, and lumbered off the patients’ table where my shoes muddied the paper draped.
“You know, it’s the law to speak English.”
My forehead creased. “Okay.”
“Mom could use improvement.”
Nori-less Rice Balls and Spicy Hot Tacos
Miss Kimmy was a frightening pole of a doll. Her nails, the plum of extroversion, tips the length my mother told me indicated one was a stripper.
She shifted through our rice cooker, filled the bowl with silken grains, and turned on the tap. Out came the cane sugar.
“Kim, what are you doing?” In the middle of the stove sat a sky blue plate. A boat filled with fish dried and flat.
“You’ve never heard of rice balls? This is how you make them.”
“Ah, I always have fish with my rice.”
“But it makes good breakfast. Want to try?”
Unashamedly, I grabbed a freshly kneaded ball, admiring its resemblance to a baby seal’s head.
“Jesus is crying. Don’t play with your food.” Mom’s glare pricks though I continue to admire.
“I eat this everyday. It’s cheap, and the kids like it. It’s really good breakfast, and healthier than cereal.”
“But Kim, only rice? And water?”
“You add sugar.”
“This, this is not food. You live on candy. That’s why you’re skinny. You hear that, anak? Stop eating candy. On the news the other day, this girl your age died in her sleep. Too much Chips Ahoy.”
“Kris, take a bite. Tell us what you think.”
Without a stripe of nori, it was the same as most I enjoyed when living in Japan.
A week later, Kim went away. To spend a week with a blind date.
My mother set tacos on my plate.
“Let’s try something new. Mexican.”
Pouring Margaritas at a Mexican Restaurant
“Where are you from?”
“Excuse me?” Given responses to which I had grown accustomed, I was ready to say, “My mother.” But Miguel? He’s a nice guy.
“I apologize. I’m just curious is all. You don’t seem like you’re from here. And you speak in an awkward accent. Not that it’s bad. Again, I’m wondering.”
“My mother’s Filipino. My dad’s just white. But all my Spanish teachers told me to mention he’s an Anglo-Saxon, with proper enunciation.”
“Ah, I see. But you’re not from here.”
“Not exactly. I was born in my mother’s country, traveled to San Francisco when I was around three, and remember wrinkling my nose as I peed in a stroller. I watched my parents get married in a helicopter. I can’t remember the details.”
“Wow. So, your dad, was he away a lot when you were young?”
“Yeah. My mom would read me stories, and that’s how I say things awkwardly. I can’t be exact and say a bed is comfy. It’s com-four-ta-bull, but I know that’s wrong. It took a while for me to learn that ‘bullshit’ isn’t pronounced ‘boyshit.’ Same difference, right?”
“Nah, I’m no feminist.”
A customer approaches, requests four margaritas. A slushy filler to staring in awkwardness, or listening to minors sing “Gangnam Style” in feigned slurs. Friday Night Karaoke.
“I hope you’re not offended. It’s just that I’ve noticed people here think you’re Hispanic. But something told me you weren’t.”
“So what did you think I was?”
“My guess? Possibly Indian.”
Sophomore Year I Learned Why Asians Hate Harvard
“So, I got your email.”
“Yes, it’s good to see you. So you switched your major?”
“No, I just added one. Had enough hours to do it, so I’m taking your class this semester.”
“I see. Well, if you didn’t know already, I’m the director of the McNair Program.”
“Okay. The research program, right?”
“Correct. I thought you’d be a great candidate for this program. You see, academia needs minorities, and there aren’t enough in doctoral programs. Your other professors speak highly of you, so I think this would be great. I do have some questions to ask you.”
“Parents’ highest level of education?”
“Mother? Sixth grade. Dad majored in history.”
“Well, most Mexican students have fairly uneducated parents.”
“You are Mexican.”
“…I’m Filipino. Now, I was told by a Taiwanese a while back that we aren’t Asian, but I’d rather not go into that–”
“You know, I hate to say it, but there is such a thing as things being unfair. And you? You’re overrepresented. This program helps Hispanics.”
“I didn’t know, ma’am. I just answered your email.” A year ago, my father embarrassingly argued with the financial aid officer as to why I wasn’t a minority. I wasn’t too phased. If you work hard, don’t you reap rewards?
“Well, it’s not exactly fair. And I’m sorry to have wasted your time. And mine.”
I picked up a folder I dropped as I rose to leave.
“Your mom cooks pad thai?”
My first job in khakis and an oversized polo gave me confidence to save and time to talk. But while I refined my Spanish to where enunciation was mastered, I couldn’t reply fluently to the pleas, scolds, and barks of “Bakit?” when asked if I spoke Tagalog.
“In your father’s country, we speak English.” My feet left the ground as my mother pulled the elastics of my pants as high as she could. I was five, after vacation, during which my opal-ringed grandmother told my mom she was ruining me. “No one will take her seriously if she can’t speak English! And even still, she’s gonna have an accent. No one takes you seriously. You babble like an idiot.”
Since then, the words of my mother’s tongue echoed in familiarity. After telling me what I could and couldn’t say in Dad’s country (addressing issues like shouting “Fire!” and “Green Light!” in the beam of a halting red light), she loosened her grip on cultural conscience. All I could dance was tinikling, and while I knew of duendes and ladies cloaked in white, she’d sigh at my fascination. She napped in complacence, and I sought to learn about history, culture, language. Maybe, if I could have cooked, she would have nurtured more.
In summer, I stood, baked. Bangs curled. And if not asked if I was black, guests would inquire whence smirking,
“Your dad. Was he in the military?”
I’d nod, and they’d muse.
“Of course her dad’s the white one.”