Reflection

The day after the election, I posted this on my blog:

My first instinct, when I woke up and could see through my window this city and county that voted Blue but surrounded by districts that were deep, evangelical Red, was to get in the car and drive. To see those places. To look those people in the eye. For them to see me. For them to know that I will not be intimidated, that I will not go away.

I told Kyle, "We're going for a drive."

But then, as I looked at my reflection while I was brushing my teeth, I lost my nerve.

 

But it was more than just “losing my nerve.”

I’ve always had a complication relationship with my reflection.

When I was a teenager, I thought I was ugly. I didn’t like how my face was round without more pronounced attributes of looking Chinese—full lips or glowing skin. I was embarrassed by the freckles that gave away my Irish ancestry. To me, my reflection looked like a cubism painting of mashed Asian and white attributes, each feature distinct from the rest of my face. When I looked at my reflection, I wished that I could be one side of my heritage, or the other, not both.

My classmates scrutinized my appearance, asking me—What are you? They told me I had a flat face. They told me that I wasn’t as attractive as other mixed-race students at our school—and I agreed with them.

There weren’t any half-Asian models on the covers of the magazines or featured in ads on TV. They weren’t in the books I read or the movies I watched. Not seeing my reflection in public figures led me to believe that the way I looked wasn’t considered beautiful. In a society that places a girl’s worth on her looks, I learned that I was not good.

There were days when I would look at my face and cry.

There were times when I’d catch a glimpse of my reflection in a storefront window and I would recoil with disgust.

My frustration wasn’t limited to whether or not I could be considered attractive. My ambiguous features left me vulnerable to people’s interpretation. Strangers, friends, classmates, and later, co-workers, offered unsolicited opinions on my identity: telling me I wasn’t “really Asian” or that I was “basically white.” I didn’t know how to defend myself, not when I was unsure of where I stood in the world.

If I tried to claim I was Asian-American—resentful as I practiced calligraphy on weekend mornings or celebrating Chinese New Year with red envelopes and fresh oranges—I knew that I weakened my own argument, because my culture was also white—Boston Irish—with fish for dinner on Fridays and Lipton onion dip at holidays.

There were times when I could see my reflection and my multi-racial attributes were obvious, and other times I was “basically white.”

I wanted to be able to freeze my face, keep my identity static, but instead it seemed to shift with the lighting, and I had to confront my identity differently depending on where I was or who I was with. I was reminded of this dilemma every time I looked in the mirror.

It has taken me twenty years to accept my reflection.

There was no way to bypass my insecurities, no single conversation that would wash away my feelings of being inadequate and unwanted. The only way for me to overcome my internalized racism was through living: making mistakes in my relationships, learning how to be self-aware, connecting with other mixed race people (including my husband), and even seeking therapy.

I developed a vocabulary to be able to talk about my shifting identity, and tacked Maria Root’s “Bill of Rights For People of Mixed Heritage” on my wall.

mariaroot.jpg

Every time I look in the mirror, I have to remind myself that I am good enough, that I am beautiful, even though Hollywood continues to whitewash Asian-American faces and stories. I remind myself that, even if people try to inventory the parts of my mixed identity, I am still whole. I have to remind myself that my heritage is something to be proud of, that even though my family history isn’t common, it is still an American story. Even if I don’t always feel like I fit in, I remind myself that I belong.

All of this work unravelled on the morning of November 9.

It only took a second.

I put a dab of toothpaste on my toothbrush then looked up at the mirror—and stopped.

I saw past my tired eyes, dulled by staying up too late and watching in horror as our electoral map turned Red, and could see my halfness. The slant of my eyes and the snub of my nose.

In that moment, I stopped regarding myself as a case study for post-racial America: with the hot pot at Christmas dinner and the white mother who played mah jong and the Chinese father who yelled at the TV every Sunday the Patriots played.

It didn’t matter that their love defied the odds; that by sheer strength and courage and luck, my father ended up on the other side of the globe, where he met my mother. It didn’t matter that, together, they pursued the American dream: running their own business and working to make lives better for the people around them. It didn’t matter that I hoped to carry that legacy, that I believed in the universal power of love and did my best to express it in my writing.

That morning, love didn’t win.

I stopped being the girl with the mixed-race identity crisis. With Donald Trump as President, giving power to racism and xenophobia and hatred, I went back to being on the outside. I was not accepted. I looked at my reflection with the sick feeling that all that time I spent hating myself for my appearance had just been validated by the electorate.

I never felt so unwanted.

I returned to the bedroom. Kyle was standing at the dresser, already wearing jeans and rifling through his drawer for a shirt. I saw his tawny brown skin and long dreadlocks, and I knew that it would be reckless for us to drive into the rural Midwest, looking to confront conservative strangers.

I told him, “Nevermind, we aren’t going anywhere.”

I went into my office and the exhaustion—from the night, from the year—hit me. I sat on the floor, leaning up against the brick wall. The sky was a mocking shade of blue. I looked out the window and wondered if this was what my life would look like for the next four years—like living in a bunker.

That was when my choices became obvious: I could sit, alone and afraid, or I could fight back.

I wasn’t sure of what action to take or what would come next. I didn’t have a strategy. But I had my stories and I had my voice, and I had my experiences living in between places. And I had--on both sides of my family tree--a history of resilience.

I didn’t know what my life would look like in the near future, but I knew the kind of woman I wanted to become.

Someone resourceful and strong. Someone determined to speak up--even if it scared her, even if her voice was small. Someone who rejected the notion that she was less than because of the way she looked--even if the world around her tried to tell her otherwise. Someone who understood the value of her love and who understood that she deserved love, too.

I wanted to be able to look at my reflection and know that I never once stopped fighting for love.