By Emilia Ong
I jumped. He’d popped out from behind a tree. The tree was the thick-trunked oak which stood in a shadowy region at the very edge of the park – gatekeeper both to civilization, and to my mother’s house. Each day, as I came home from school, I passed this sentry, and each day, as I picked my way over the bumpy, broken pavement which skirted its roots, I knew that I had reached safer ground. The oak meant I’d made it through the park’s ill-lit inner-city wilderness, site of sporadic stabbings, and had merely to take a sharp right, walk a hundred meters or so, and I’d be home.
Except so much can happen in those few meters. So much can be lost in that gap. So much can fall, and so much can maul; so much can steal; so much can claw into you; so much can sear hotly into unsuspecting mind, into unwary flesh.
In this case, it was a penis. A man, with his penis out, hands around it, coat hanging open. It was 1995, and I was twelve.
Perhaps this kind of thing happens differently today. Perhaps the equivalent for a teen of today is not a man in the flesh but a man on a screen in the palm of their hand. And perhaps that is worse – it must feel invasive to encounter sexuality for the first time on the screen of one’s phone, must feel startling to be sent the infamous and unsolicited dick pic. Yes, it must be bad for young people now. But it was startling to me then too, it was startling and invasive and simply confusing, for what did I know then of the appetites of man before that, of his eagerness for exposure; what did I know about my own status as an audience? When that man appeared to me he was not an image but a shadowy, physical presence, a blur of beige and pink; he arrived shrouded in the secrecy of the thick, loamy winter dusk.
Hey, he said. Hey Chinky.
I looked towards him. To my shame, my look replied to that address: Chinky.
Chinky was what he called me and flashed was what I got.
I ran. I think I ran. Or maybe I wanted to play it cool, to display my hardened metropolitan unshockable self, and maybe therefore I simply walked, heart thumping, by. And as I passed, thrown after me, his voice –
Ching chang wallah! Heeeeyah!
Pounding feet along the street. Reaching the gate, the door, shaking as I tried to fit the key into the lock. Metal slipping on metal. Did I think he was following me? I don’t think so. But the vision of him, the sound of his words, etched into my –
but into my what, exactly? My brain? I was not traumatized. I did not think that I was. In my room I felt shocked, but as potential ordeals go, this – as compared to the great cacophony of nightmare situations into which skirted schoolgirls on winter nights in parks in pre-gentrified east London might have found themselves plunged – this, I knew, was minor. Small fry. Nothing had happened, really. A flasher in the park: big deal. I can’t even recall whether I told anyone. Certainly I did not tell my mother. There’d been no touch. No physicality. What’s to tell?
When I recall this episode now, it comes to me bearing greater significance. Chinky. The name got me. It got me right here, where it hurts. It got me right where I didn’t even know, at the time, that I would or could hurt. But, as the years have unfolded and I have learned what it means, the hurt has blossomed and bloomed and I realize now that it, that word, that word paired with that – penis – must have lodged some tenacious and time-delayed pain-grenade in my body.
These days, it is detonating.
To be honest I am unsure of what my experience was back then. Have I created this hurt retrospectively, I wonder, and projected a narrative backwards, or have I given voice to something which I buried, lacking language for it at the time? What I either way sense is that this flashing man set the ball rolling, a ball rolling, which ball, I don’t know, I do, I don’t, anyway it’s a painful ball, a hurting one, it’s a ball spliced with pins nails daggers. His leap onto my path precipitated this miasmic ache, what ache, this one. His crude call of Chink opened the chapter to a rawness which has not stopped smarting.
What a long chapter it would turn out to be! It would have opened anyway, of course, flasher or no. Mocking karate chop flung after my hastily departing steps in the darkness or no. The hurt would have begun either way. But as it happens, it began with this. With a word, his word –
(chink crack rent space gap fissure absence)
(chink crack line border split break carve part divide)
Strangely, the only thought I distinctly recall having in that moment was: But I’m not Chinese. He’s wrong! This was a kind of power. He had nothing on me, I believed.
And yet he had something. What he taught me, what he dragged forth into my consciousness was: I look Chinese. It may seem bizarre, but in all my twelve years, this had not yet explicitly occurred to me. The fact is that I am mixed race. Not Chinese – but not not Chinese, either. Being brought up in diverse London, surrounded by Indians and Vietnamese and Greeks and Pakistanis, I had not yet learned to categorize along racial lines. I had thought of myself as black-haired, not as Chinese-haired; as brown-eyed, not as Asian-eyed.
But then he said it, Chinky, and there it was, the slur which identified me, the smear which told me what I am.
This, on the other hand, unspoken. Unspoken, but seen. By forcing his penis into my vision the flasher claimed something else of me: he ushered in my femininity, branded me as a woman. What he threw my way was my consciousness of myself as a feminine object. As an object of the male gaze.
I am female.
Again it might seem strange, now, to think of a twelve year-old not already thoroughly sexualized, but there it is, there it was: we were a little more innocent back then, in the pre-internet age. I was still on the cusp of puberty. I fancied boys, but I did not think of myself as a female thing. As a thing which could be objectified; as a thing reduced by and beneath a craving, controlling gaze; as a thing which could, and would, be fetishized.
Thus, my awareness of my ethnicity and my awareness of my femininity landed into my lap at one and the same time.
As if being Asian (a bit) and female (becoming) was somehow the same thing the same word, and as if that word spelled: Other.
Racialized, sexualized: a new era, a new adulthood, had begun in that mighty oak’s shadow.
I look Chinese.
Wrong! And yet my twelve year-old thoughts whorling. I am not Chinese and yet I look Chinese. I am English and yet I do not look English. I am both, I am neither. I am the borderline. I am the space between. I am neither, I am both. I reside in the crack, in the rent, in the…chink. I am the Chink.
The flasher got it more right than he knew. I fall into the gap that has been left undefined. I am the dividing line between countries that do not meet. I am between black and white, but there are no shades of grey. There are many shades of grey – but they are unseen, unadmitted. I am the unruly, the teeming, the seething grey
space which defies the categories.
I am the gap where so many of us live.
I am mixed.
So many of us!
A few years ago it seemed that the whole world was newly going ‘beige’ – as the newspapers had it. Reports pedalled out the statistic that, by 2020, the mixed-race population was expected to become Britain’s largest ethnic minority group. I don’t know if that’s played out, whether that’s now true. Already back then our group had the highest growth rate – although I confess, I haven’t a clue what that means. Our ‘group’?
Our group: as in you lot, of course, you lot of mixed race people.
But really: what does that mean. The stats are based on the census, which is in turn based on merely four categories: white and black Caribbean; white and black African; white and Asian; and – oof – ‘Other mixed’.
Other mixed? Is it only me who is unable to find any natural cohesion within the category? Names should denote. What does ‘mixed’ refer to?
There are so many of us, us mixed-racers. Yes, there are. But whilst non-mixed racers might see us – us Others – as an identity-bearing social entity, the picture looks rather different seen from inside. What, after all, do I have in common with a half-Jamaican, or a half-Indian, or even a half-Japanese? The latter two would tick the same box as I, ‘white and Asian’. But what we share is nothing more than the privilege of inhabiting a new category, a category hastily tacked on, a category elbowed in between the poles of white or black, white or non-white – according to whose one drop rule binary of yore we’d have been, not mixed, not dual, but simply be-raced, be-raced where the drop-less were un-raced. And yet, as inhabitants of this peculiar, negatively-defined cohort, we are meant to feel something. Some allegiance. Some…identity.
The papers were mostly reporting on us mixers during those years because of a certain princess bride, a Ms. Markle, Markle rhymes with sparkle, who before the truth which is institutional and national racism was exposed, wowed both sides of the Atlantic with her beauty and her poise, and with her unobjectionable, irreproachable, incredibly white form of blackness. She was black with all the scary in your face ghetto blasting job stealing bite taken out. Black with dazzling white teeth, with elite orthodontist-grade gnashers; black with hair not needing braiding. Boobless, arseless black. Blackless black. Raceless black. This is not to belittle Markle’s heritage. I mock, not her, but the general conversation which so gleefully cavorted around her and her wedding. Suddenly the whole world shone a light on the issue: Is she black or isn’t she? The question had to be answered. How did she identify? And how would the Royal Family identify her, on her behalf?
Of course we know the answer to that now.
But back then. Back then, black people felt she didn’t represent them. White people didn’t even dream that she might represent them. She was not an infiltration into the Establishment. She was an infiltration, she was a radical opening up of the fusty white Monarchy. Her presence changed nothing. Her presence was a new dawn!
What are you, Markle sparkle?
(And what am I).
Only one thing could be agreed upon: Markle was Other, but equally, she wasn’t Other enough. Story of my fucking life. And that of many of you mixers, I’m sure: the old story – I was too different to fit in with all the Olivias and Amys and Johns, I looked different to the kids on my street in my school at the park. But when I went to my mother’s country, my aunties looked at me, saw me sweating in the heat like an alien, and treated me like a
gweilo matsalleh gaijin ajami ang mo gringo pardesi …
– sorrows we all share.
No place. Accepted by all and belonging to none. I remember looking at Markle’s photographs and it’s true, I didn’t think black, I didn’t think white. She didn’t, in fact, seem to signify at all on the race scale. Which is how it is, for us. I recognized the feeling, found affinity in her bland smile. Such a pleasing smile. Us mixers: too in between to belong anywhere. Representing nothing. Trying to be ourselves, and feeling as we do so that simultaneously we are betraying ourselves. Embracing one part of ourselves only to find that that embraced part suspects us of appropriation, of cultural fraudulence. Shut it down, drown it out. We imitate one side, then the other; we perform one role, then the next; we dabble in languages and slangs and cuisines and never quite master any; we like to use chopsticks or our hands but are self-conscious doing so, for are watched, considered inept; in the end we give up, we float about, we drown in the non-space, we dissolve into the inky opacity of the borderline. Ms. Markle was nothing, nothing apart from damned pretty, that’s all I ever thought, that she was too goddamned pretty.
It takes its toll though, all this imitation. Mixers become specimens unto themselves. We are constantly performing, constantly trying to resemble. We like to be irreproachable. We are like paintings, photographs: we resemble the original but we remain ever at one remove from the actual. Whichever the angle we take, we are haunted by what cannot be seen, by what’s on the other side. We are haunted by mother countries which we have not known and can never fully know. We are born into an absence, and followed by ghosts. We set up our easels but we can’t clock the full 360˚ view, we are always half outside. And so, as we present ourselves as one thing or the other, , we are aware that we are not ourselves; This is me, we say, thinking, This is not me, thinking, This is not all of me. This is never me. This can never be me. I can never be me. How can I ever be me?
When I am not me I am me.
Mixed racers have always walked the line. Our heritage ‘challenges’ established categories; our existence ‘disrupts.’ Our rise is, as we speak, apparently ‘perplexing authorities.’ Well! How very fashionable – couldn’t have asked for more. We’re #disrupters, without even trying! By accident of birth we are regarded, on some subtle, highly covetable level (not to mention marketable: to wit, Gap American Apparel Benneton Dove ads), as ethnic anarchists; we break open tired types and ossified objectifications; we insert the cracks, we introduce the kinks. The chinks.
And yet. And yet come on, be serious now. Really? How can a category which goes by the name ‘mixed’, or ‘dual,’ really be disruptive? The last thing the term does is explode established labelling convention, for the word ‘mixed’, like the word ‘dual’, actually reinforces the notion of the ‘purity’ of the ingredients. It is like saying, so: there are peas and carrots, and you’re peascarrots. A bit of both – not something new, not an identity in and of itself.
A bit of both. A ‘both’ which never fully fuses into its own wholeness, which never inhabits its own integrity. The category of ‘mixed race,’ like ‘multiculturalism’ before it, is problematic not only because it refers to nothing in and of itself, but because it maintains former categories whilst pretending to introduce a new one. With a covert hiss the term denotes merely what we are not – neither wholly white, nor wholly black (that is, not whole, end of) – and, more pressingly, it reasserts the notion that the duality we weave together in our bodies refers to two distinct, and natural, categories. But they do not.
‘White’? What does this mean? ‘Black’? ‘Asian’? We are all utterly mongrel. My mother is Malaysian, but her ancestry wended its way from unknown plains in China. My father is English, but his grandmother was German. We could say that I am half-white, half-Asian. Just as Meghan Markle is half-white, half-black. But these ‘whites’ and ‘blacks’ are themselves mixed races, and so if I am mixed race, then so are you. Whoever you are, I’m pretty sure of it: so are you. Meaning that if ‘mixed’ does not refer, if it has no content other than stating what it, what we, are not (not wholly white, remember?), then neither does ‘white’ itself. And neither does ‘black’, and neither does ‘Asian’. Neither do any of the labels we commonly use to splinter our populations into discrete, manageable entities.
There is another, associated phenomenon which is on the rise: a pernicious new doctrine known as ‘identity politics’. It is peculiar that it should be taking hold at the same time as the mixed race population is growing. Why? Because identity politics demands that, as a citizen, as a political agent, each of us must identify the position from which we speak – which is precisely what it is difficult for mixed race people to do. Ideally, we must do identify our position before we speak. One’s voice is not one’s own alone; one’s voice represents a group. Your group. What’s your group? asks identity politics. Are you speaking as a woman a man as black as white as a cis-female a transgender an LGBT…
What, come on, what are you?
Spit it out, WHAT ARE YOU?
A novel aggression has entered proceedings. When we speak we do so not from a lonely corner, but as spokesperson for our heavily populated tribe. The pressure is on. We must do right by our tribe. We must speak for them. As them.
How is this possible?
If so many of us are mixed race, and if, being mixed race, we do not feel able to claim, to have earned, the right to speak for, or as one, single identity, and if, whenever we express allegiance to one identity or another, we feel nothing else but fraudulent, how is it that identity politics has taken such a pernicious hold? Is this some kind of masochism? Or are we, we mixed racers, simply not speaking? Are we outside the conversation, eliminated from the fold? Are our voices are drowned out by those with feet ensconced on firmer shores, or is it the case that…that we don’t speak at all? After all, who am I to speak? If I don’t know who I am, dare I make any squeak at all?
To be mixed race is to neither own nor occupy any identity with certainty; it is, if one so dares, to venture an opinion from a position you do not understand, which you know you cannot quite defend, and which you expect to be challenged. To speak is to take a risk: are you speaking as a minority? – but you’re not really Asian. Then as one of the mainstream instead? – but you’re not really British.
So, I’m waiting!
What are you?
Let’s go back, again, back a couple of decades or more, back to our unruly oak, to that that pinkish flesh. Back to my all of twelve years; back to a period when I would, invariably, have met the question – the question – with understanding, even with a curious kind of pleasure. Back to when I thought the question meant that I’d been seen. I would have flashed my interrogator a beatific smile – a Markle smile, a sparkle smile? – as if the asker had done me a favour by taking an interest; I would have attempted to transmit all the awed servitude of the colonial maidservant whilst at the same time soothing any anxiety they might have felt for daring to probe. Yes! my smile would say: Yes, I am a curious object; how very astute of you to notice. I am fascinating!
Such a response was kneejerk in me long before I knew the terms ‘Exotic’, ‘Oriental’ or ‘Other’, and certainly before I was familiar with these same terms in their appendaged costume: Oriental–ized. Other–ized. As a teen, I simply took the question, ‘What are you?’ at face value (it was about my face, after all, and we women are nothing if not obliging if someone cares to look at our faces) and did my best to answer. Back then, responding seemed simple too. I knew what they meant. They meant no ill-will. Like the ‘But where are you from, from?’ question, there was no hidden agenda. That’s what I thought. I wasn’t white: it was an objective fact, surely. I was flat-nosed, wide-faced, and tinged with yellow. My mother’s from Malaysia, I’d say; my father’s English. I’m mixed. I’d smile again. Fascinating, I know. I felt no shame.
This was London however (cultural meltingpot!), and the early nineties (innocent, pre-digital!), and I was young (naïve). I hadn’t realized that the question was a form of control. What are you. Put simply: it is a gesture towards classification, and classifying is a controlling act, always will be. Divide and conquer, name and digest.
Malaysians have a few words for mixed racers – rojak, campur – both words mean mixed, they both derive from food. Indonesians: gado gado. Mix mix. A fruit salad with prawn paste, a blend of curries, a veg salad with peanut sauce. In Malaysia, to be mixed is not to be diluted – half-caste – it is to be more. It is to be carnivalesque! A great taste bud-exploding riot! More is better! More is not less!
In my youth, I went with that. What are you was fine, more than fine: it give me a way to make known my enviably exotic nature! But, as I grew older, as the web connected us more and more, I began to rile at the supposedly ‘innocent’ inquiry. What are you. By that time I would have been wearing make-up, heels, miniskirts. Which is to say that by that time, I was Woman – and aware of it. Somehow, this made all the difference.
Once I was Woman, I found that the question was put to me only when I was being regarded. Answering it, in my still-sing-song tones, became the same essay in performance that the newly sexualized dress-up was. I discovered that having a race, like having a gender, meant playing a social role. I was being categorized. Categorized, I was manageable, known; I could be slotted in, understood, reduced, and desired.
I wanted to be desired. When you’re an Other, you always do. I wanted to fit in. I wanted to feel seen. I didn’t understand that I was being diminished by parcelling myself up in this way, by packaging myself in lycra and sequins and answering the question in such a trilling, unthreatening way. If I was Other – Woman, mixed – then I wanted to be model-Other. Unthreatening Other. Lovely, pretty Other!
What are you. The question is particularly violent because not only does it make us into an object, it actually demands that we do the object-making ourselves. We are the ones expected to answer the question: we are the ones expected to identify – to type-ify – ourselves. We learn to reduce ourselves, and eventually we discover that doing so is necessary, that it is the prerequisite of our being granted a role, a glance, a voice. These days, one can rarely speak without speaking-as.
What are you. Whenever we answer the question, we mixers do so in a losing way. Choosing a single identity is disingenuous, and so the ‘choice’ is equal to an inner half-alienation, to the donning of a mask. It is a bit like the denial of the shadow: being ‘more’ White or ‘more’ Black, ‘more’ White or ‘more’ Asian, decrees that one half of ourselves is less favoured, less acceptable than the other. When we choose we end up trapped behind half-masks, internally lobotomized. We grin the dull grin of one performing a role, assuming a guise, working a language.
Look closely, and you will see that our eyes register desperation. We, the (half-)oppressed. Except it is not possible, of course, to be half-oppressed. By being forced to choose, we are, in our entireties, in our wholenesses, obliterated. One half of us eats the other half; we are self-cannibalized.
As both, as neither, we experience an ‘impossible identity’. A circle cannot be square. If a equals b, b cannot be c. Black is not white. Yellow is not black. Mixed race: the impossible identity.
And so the tension builds. Can it be resolved? In laughter? Possibly. And yet…no. No, it cannot be resolved. As long as you put to me the question, and demand that it be answered on your terms, using terms you understand, you exempt me from answering with any integrity. My answer is my disintegration. My rent, my cleave. My self-abnegation via the imperative of your categories.
The German philosopher Martin Buber said that in his dealings with the world, ‘the attitude of man is twofold’ – there are, to summarize wildly, those we regard as ‘Thou’s, and those we regard as ‘It’s. We meet the world either in an attitude of ‘I-It’, or of ‘I-Thou’. I know what I’d rather be. Who wants to be seen as an ‘It’, a mere inertness, an object? The ‘It’-world is the world of things. Of objects, ideas, nations, institutions. Of chairs, tables, cars. ‘It is with an I-It attitude that a man confronts the apparent ‘content’ of his life’, says Buber, and it is in this world that ‘he is able to manipulate and control, order and create, decipher and destroy, and variously exercise his will.’
Ah, so there it is. To regard the Other as a ‘Thou’ is distasteful to those who would control us because it means acknowledging that that Other is ‘what is over and against us’ – and ‘as such cannot be reduced or assimilated, absorbed into our person or bent to our wills. They are not another item in our worldly list of things’.
In other words, the question ‘What are you?’ is not a benign, toss-it-aside enquiry from curious thoroughbred minds. It is not the question of someone who wishes to learn. It is the question of someone who wishes to know, and to, by knowing, to slot us into his existing categories of Things. It is the question of someone who is afraid of the mixed race person’s blurred, apparently unconforming identities. It is the question of someone who has no time for a nebulosity he cannot direct. It is a capitalist question: for assets to have value, they must fit into types. They must be typed. We must be be-typed. Because only types can be marketed at. Only types can have their behaviour predicted. Only types have worth.
And so, as ever, it comes down to money. In large part, it comes down to money. To money and utility; to the economic brain. Does anything not come down to money these days? The creation of race, which scientists say is entirely artificial, came about in the first place because of Whites and their Empire, because of their need to protect their money and their hallowed tribe. A whole other story – but even without all this history, it is perhaps inevitable that humans will always, anyway, want to type-ify, to kind-ify. Arguably doing so is the only way we can navigate the world: children learn by categorising the disarray, by allotting the endless vagary of disparate experience into a more manageable quantity of streams. That is like that, they say. That four-legged creature looks like that one; they are both ‘cat’. That four-legged thing is fur-less, so it’s not a cat, it’s a table. When mother made that face last time she punished me; now she is making that face again, so I know that she’s not happy and I must stop doing whatever it is that angers her. In this, notice that the I-It is, in addition to being an object-making relation, also an historical relation. It is based on the past. It has no present. It recreates the past, in order to control the present. Buber states: ‘in so far as man rests satisfied with the things that he experience and uses, he lives in the past, and his moment has no present content.’ Which means that, when you ask me the question, you deny me a present. You deny me the present. You make me into a dead thing.
You love that.
Dead, I offer up no resistance. I smile, bat my mascara’d lashes…
Perhaps the best we mixers can hope for is simply this: that we remain mindful of the violence done to us when we are asked the question. What are you. Perhaps, thus brutalized, all we can do is be gentle with ourselves. Or perhaps, trapped in the bind of this question, skewered by its javelin of an interrogative, prodded by its – penis – of an inquiry, we will be able one day to say to our inquisitor: You are asking me What are you, and in doing so you are it-ifying me. Maybe, we will be able to point out: Know that you are it-ifying me. Know that you are making me into a thing.
Or maybe we won’t. Maybe we’ll stay silent, saying it only to ourselves.
Emilia Ong is a British writer of fiction and nonfiction, whose work has appeared at Litro and Entropy, amongst others. See more of her work at emiliaong.com or follow her on Twitter or Insta.