The Same and Different, Together

Life in a new city starts with questions.

Chores that used to be common become projects—Where is the pharmacy? How do I get there? Which is the best grocery store? Things that have always been simple, like taking the bus or using a bike share program, become complicated—Do I need a pass? Where do I get it? Is it okay to ride your bike on the sidewalk?

Some of the questions are more existential—Do I fit in here? How do people from this place see me? How would people from other places regard me, now that I live here?

Finding the unfamiliar in things that I used to do without a second thought, like ride the bus, has been uncomfortable. I’ve lived in the same city my whole life. I’ve never needed to adapt to a new way of doing things. I just needed to learn the shortcuts and secrets to make our convoluted systems in Boston work on my behalf. When we first arrived in Kansas City, I found myself better equipped to deal with the second group of questions.

Being mixed race, there is rarely a time when I don’t have ticker tape running at the back of my mind, assessing—How do they see me? Do I fit in here? Are they going to ask me ‘What are you’? How can I respond in a way that is witty and charming, that shows them how silly of a question that is, without making them feel bad? These questions have traveled with me to every city I have visited, every party I’ve attended, in conversations with friends of friends, at networking events with other writers.

I met the man who would someday become my husband when we were still teenagers in high school. That was when I was asked the question—What are you?—the most, but had the least words at my disposal to answer. Instead, I volleyed back, What do you think I am? People thought I was Hawaiian or Alaskan, “some kind of Oriental,” or Mexican. Their responses amused me, and it became my own game—Where will someone think I am from next? I didn’t realize that with every external appraisal, I was giving away my voice, allowing others to shape me, when I should have been using my own words to carve out a place for myself.  

Kyle never asked me that question. Back then, we didn’t talk much, but when we passed each other in the hall at school, I felt like he could see me—really see me—in a way that no one had before, or since. It took me nearly ten years to realize that the feeling I had when I was with him, how I could be myself, was unique to Kyle, and it didn’t come along every day.

Both of us being mixed race has been a special part of our relationship. It is not what brought us together, but being able to talk about our identities without needing to educate each other about the “mixed race experience” has been a comforting and empowering perk. When the questions are too much, or if someone dishes an ignorant microaggressor—“You’re not REALLY Asian.” “Oh, I thought you were just some sort of exotic white girl.”—Kyle is my confidant. He has dealt with the What Are You? question; he knows how words can flay. When I return home, feeling belittled, he becomes the coach in my corner, patching me up and telling me I can go another ten rounds.

There have been times in our relationship when we felt like we were our own race. We would walk hand-in-hand along the curving, tree-lined streets in Jamaica Plain, the same streets where Kyle grew up, and were more conscious of the things that we had in common, the ways that we were both different from everyone else. We both knew what it is like to be “ethnically ambiguous,” to have questions about our race be ice breakers, how our features combining the distinct parts of our genealogy become the subject of scrutiny.

One night, as we stood together in the bathroom, sharing the sink as we brushed our teeth, Kyle gazed at our reflection and told me that he didn’t feel self-conscious the same way he did with his past girlfriends, who were monoracial and white. He told me that we belonged together. 

It’s not like we stopped seeing race, but it became easy to forget. I’d notice it when I was cleaning our apartment. When I swept the hardwood floor, I could see the difference in the stray hairs we left behind—mine were straight and long, his were tight curls that formed perfect rings. These observations were discarded before moving on to more important topics like figuring out dinner or what our plans are for tomorrow.  

We’ve learned there are aspects of multi-racial identity that we do not have in common. I had a lot more difficulty walking the tight-rope between my two cultures, in part because I am the daughter of an immigrant. There are ways that my half first-generation experience is different from his as the son of a Black man and a white woman who were both born in America. I struggled more with my own feelings of authenticity and fitting in with other Asian-Americans, whereas Kyle would be asked by his Black friends—What are you? Oh, that’s cool, you’re still a nigga.

These differences are still within the context of us both being multi-racial, so we have only been vaguely aware of how we are an interracial couple. It always felt like a theory, easy to dismiss, because wasn’t it our parents who stepped outside the status quo? Didn’t they have to deal with more discrimination than we do? Aren’t we just the multi-racial by-products of progress? And if we have kids, wouldn’t they just be another step forward and removed from the problems of our country’s past?  

It wasn’t until we moved to Missouri that the interracial aspect of our relationship came more into focus. There have been times as we walked around the city that I felt more self-conscious. I wouldn’t be able to tell if my feelings were justified or if I was being a paranoid New England elitist, casting my own set of judgments. No one here was calling us names or giving us funny looks. But there would be subtle things, like when a waiter at a restaurant removed our plates and asked us, “Do you want separate checks?” Kyle and I raised an eyebrow at each other, and wondered—Is this something that they do here, or is it just us?

Context can make a difference when tangling through these multiple identities. The way I see myself when I am sitting among an entirely white group of writers at a workshop is different from when I sit down at a Chinese restaurant for dim sum and the waitresses speak to me in English. I've learned that multi-racial identity can be like a kaleidoscope: the way I view myself can change from situation to situation, the words I use to define myself have changed over the years. I've watched as Kyle has evolved, too. But I didn't realize that the way we regarded our relationship was just as malleable until we were sweating through our first July heat wave in Kansas City and heard the news about Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.

Maybe it was because we were 1,000 miles away from home. Maybe it was because we were living in a red state. Maybe because we were in the same state as Ferguson. Maybe it was because, this time, it was more than just a headline, but live video footage. But this summer, the floor came out from under us.

Even without watching the recordings, I felt the aftershocks of these injustices—I couldn’t focus on work, I wasn’t sleeping at night. I started writing drafts of this very essay you are reading now, but I couldn’t get the words right. And when I tried to return to my fiction, the themes felt trite. Kyle would leave the apartment in the morning to go to work, and I would be listless and sad until he returned.

It wasn’t until I saw someone post on Instagram that she never once questioned that her loved ones would come home safe, that I realized the tension in my muscles, my sleepless nights, my neediness was more than just sadness or disgust over another national tragedy.

I was scared for my husband.

But then, with my faulty thinking, my questions of authenticity, all those times I retorted, What do you think I am?—left me doubting myself. Maybe my concerns were unfounded. Maybe Kyle wasn’t as vulnerable as I thought. If he is as ambiguous as I am, then maybe he would be safe if a police officer pulled him over. So I asked Kyle, “Do you think this applies to you?”

He answered, without hesitation, “Yes.”

I started to cry.

He asked, “Why are you crying?”

I told him, “I was hoping that you were going to tell me I was wrong.”

Kyle invited me to look at him. He stood up, pointing at different parts of himself, and I had to refocus my vision so I didn’t see him from my perspective as his partner, his longtime friend, his confidant, but from someone else’s point of view. Someone with unbridled authority, someone who felt justified in serving as judge, jury, and executioner. Someone who had the system on their side, someone who our countrymen will blindly defend and feel is entitled to due process without giving the slain victims of police brutality that same justice.

I’m a writer. I explore point of view every day. But this exercise was ugly.

Would that person be able to see past their own prejudices to see how truly harmless Kyle is? Kyle gently rescues snails out of raked piles of leaves. He sits in front of the oven to watch cookies bake. He faithfully chooses comfort over style. He has a penchant for sweets and loses himself in books like no one else I know. Kyle uses his hands to heal people—there is nothing in him that could be perceived as a threat.

But then again, how much of a threat was Alton Sterling when he was selling CDs in front of a convenience store? How much of a threat was Philando Castile when he was reaching for his wallet? How much of a threat was Sandra Bland's forgotten left turn signal? How lethal was Tamir Rice's toy gun?

These “threats” have nothing to do with action or behavior and everything to do with the fear of our differences that has been passed down from generation to generation since our country was founded. This fear has been a tool from the very beginning: divide and conquer has been an unspoken force in our national heritage—and just as powerful as we the people.

This fear is as pervasive as it is erosive: it trickles through our international policy. It bleeds into our justice system. It whitewashes our media consumption—from the books we read to the movies we watch to the ads on billboards that we drive past on the highway.

It is a fear that I internalized; so much that growing up, I felt that dividing line within myself. I hated that I came from two different cultures, that the evidence was in my skin. I would look at my face, wishing that I could be one race or the other—all Chinese or all white—and living with the constant frustration that I was neither and both at the same time.

As I grew up, I learned to love the different parts of myself and that it was okay for me to be different from everyone else. Every day with Kyle, being the same and different together, felt like I was putting distance between myself and my past. I never expected to see that self-hatred again.

This summer, it came back, except this time I saw it in Kyle.

I watched as he would get ready to leave our apartment--slipping on his shoes, gathering his keys. Putting on his sunglasses. I would watch him and wish that he passed for white just a little bit more. I would have an urge to wrap him in my own skin. Even though we are both half-white, I have privilege that he does not, and I would want to be his shield as he walked out the door.

But I couldn't.

And even if I could, I knew that is not a solution.

That is not justice.

The only way we as a country will be able to evolve beyond the fear that divides us is to really look at each other—to see each other for who we are and what we have to offer, to honor our differences as effortlessly as the way we accept our similarities. To judge each other by the content of our character, whether we are at writing workshops or convenience stores or eating at Chinese restaurants or watching a police officer approach in the rearview mirror.

Summer is over. The city is more familiar now than it was when we first arrived in June, and the heat waves have subsided. The names Alton Sterling and Philando Castile—names that were repeated countless times during the week of the 4th of July—almost feel forgotten. But I haven't forgotten. I think about them, every day, as I watch Kyle Myrick walk out of our apartment and get in our car and drive away, joining the flow of traffic--cars driven by people with names I don't know but whose lives matter just the same.