Travel, people like to say, is wonderful precisely because of how much it changes you. Mostly I am changing into something I don’t want to be—angry, hot, overwhelmed; one more ex-pat whining in an air-conditioned lounge, unable to ask for the bill in Vietnamese. Last night, I got to be changed into a hot-headed, self-deluded bitch.
Why, you ask?
Because of my appearance. Let me say that I’m used to people talking about what I look like here. The northern Vietnamese are pretty blunt: they’ll tell you if they think you’re fat or not, pretty or not, old-looking or young. But the most common comment I get about my appearance here is how I don’t quite look like an American. “You look like Asian peoples,” is, in fact, what I was just told by a bookshop owner, after having a drink at a bar where the waitress asked me if I was Korean, an hour after my French class in which all the other Vietnamese students asked if I came to Hanoi because I might be part Vietnamese. It’s been years since I’ve had this much continuous speculation about my appearance, a fact I had chalked up to a) increased media attention to mixed race people as a whole in the US and b) just looking really white. I have traveled to a lot of Asian countries over the years (China, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, then-independent Hong Kong, and Taiwan) and what’s struck me in each of these places is how obviously the people with more historical exposure to the west are better at identifying mixed- race people. Being mixed race is Asia is not just a marker of a possible foreign nationality but of class status, family history and language. I mean, you don’t have two major wars with two major western powers in the course of less than a hundred years, along with decades of colonization, and not have a thing or two that pops into your mind upon seeing a mixed-race person of my particular age in Vietnam.
I haven’t met many mixed Vietnamese or Viet Cu here, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t seen a lot of them. There’s a fashion magazine here called Dep which routinely puts mixed-race models on its cover, and a lot of the travel tourism television ads that come out of Malaysia and Singapore feature attractive biracial women running in and out of shopping complexes, eating something barbequed over a pit, flying helicopters and going deep sea diving. The mix of west and east in these models offers the viewers (most of whom would be Asian) their own sense of the “exotic” experience all of us want, with the added comfort of knowing they will never be—or become—too far away from the familiar comforts of home.
An important side note: as you might expect, if biracial women are the female spokesmodel of choice here, white men are the inevitable leads to this eternal costume drama that is the southeast Asian tour brochure. Thus, in an ad for a new swanky Hong Kong hotel, you can see a gorgeous mixed-race woman (possibly full, hard to tell as she’s always in half-shadow having a dumpling shoved into her mouth) being clutched near a balcony by a white guy, or sitting down on the chair a white guy is offering to pull out for her, or following a white man into what seems to be a steam room-meets-wedding chapel. The worst ad I’ve seen that panders to this is a perfume ad in which a white man at an airline ticket counter gets a whiff of the young Vietnamese woman standing next to him in line, falls head over heels and then pursues her maniacally throughout the rest of the airport.
The perfume is called—and you’re really going to hate this—“Miss Saigon.”
Leaving aside for the moment how “Miss Saigon”/ Madame Butterfly Redux finishes, I should say that I’m not as upset by this this as you might imagine, largely because it’s so familiar to me and because I’m just too damn tired to keep getting worked up about it. This is the background music of Asia—Vietnam’s “white noise”—that I’ve learned to live with (not happily, I’d like to add) and that I think a lot of the smart young Vietnamese students in my class at least are pretty savvy about. I think they see it for what it is—a fantasy that feeds on that complex brew of envy, competition, and—yes-- self-hatred, all of which has been injected with an awareness that parts of Vietnam have become more globally changed; if not in the physical make-up of Vietnamese themselves, then at least in its landscape of the business world. To me, “Miss Saigon” isn’t just a reference to a bad rock-opera, it’s a nice little dig at a changing Saigon itself.
But what does this have to do with me becoming a raging bitch? Well, the other night, I had an odd dinner with a friend’s father. This man is a 76 year-old white American, very kind, smart, well-off and certainly well-traveled. He had just read my book The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee which I wrote fourteen years ago (TOTALLY not per my request: he was just curious). The book is about some of these issues I’ve listed above: the ambivalence I feel about seeing Asian women in relationships with white men considering the persistence of our stereotypes (both positive and negative) about Asian femininity, the confusion of being told that race doesn’t matter while at the same time being forced to continually acknowledge the appearance of your difference, the ways in which your “exotic” appearance makes you the object of someone’s consumerist fantasy. Anyway, he told me he thought it was very, um, interesting (pursing his lips here sourly to let me know he hated it: thanks for that, by the way) but that he wondered about some things.
For instance, he said, he’d just gone to a party in Hanoi with a bunch of young ex-pat couples. All of them were mixed: white husband, Asian wife. The backyard was filled with their happy, mixed-race progeny chasing each other around the grill. As he had just finished my book, he decided to take a little survey, and so went around the party polling people about what they thought about their marriages, about their kids being mixed race, if their children (or they themselves) ever felt confused about it.
“And guess what?” he asked, shaking his head with bemusement. “None of them thought anything LIKE what was in your book!”
“How old were the children?” I asked.
“Six,” he said.
Let’s pause here to consider the fact that I wrote my book when I was 26. If at age 6 I had felt anything like what I felt about my life at age 26, I can say with some confidence that I wouldn’t have made it past my tenth birthday.
And let’s also take a moment to consider that people at a party might not feel comfortable talking about their identity issues to an unknown American near-octogenarian trying to use them as a basis for a survey.
These things acknowledged, what galled me about this remark, and the conversation we proceeded to have after (“I’m telling you, you don’t look Asian at all to me. And I had a wife who was mixed! I have a very good eye for these things!”) was the fact that I was again being questioned about my appearance (this time, my NOT-Asianness), but this time being implicitly asked to defend not only myself but a book written to explore the meaning of this very betweenness of identity. And what mattered in this debate was NOT the conclusion that I myself had come to about what I was or felt I was, but the conclusion that I could make HIM come to about what I was (“I don’t know, those kids seemed fine, and my mixed wife, well, she basically told me it never meant anything. She was, admittedly, an unhappy woman. To be honest, I only married her because I liked her kids.”). In short, the book was not about my life or my perceptions of it, they had to be about HIM and HIS perceptions, and if they didn’t correspond to things he experienced at an hour-long barbeque with strangers less than half his age (or, better yet, to an unhappy but brief marriage to a woman he acknowledged he didn't even like), then the conclusions I had reached about what being mixed race meant over the shortish/nasty/brutalish course of my life were essentially negated, ESPECIALLY considering the fact that I didn’t look mixed to him at all, thus shouldn’t have ever bothered myself writing about this topic.
All of which really made me want to bash his head in with a wine bottle.
What also galled me about the conversation was that, during our meal, the waiter kept looking to me for confirmation of what this man was ordering—in very loud English—and would address all his questions for this man to me: something I notice that happens when I eat with other friends who look more white. Basically, a lot of waiters here seem to think that, between the two pale foreigners sitting before him/her babbling in English, the one most likely to understand Vietnamese in a pinch is the darker-haired, vaguely familiar-looking one. And so while this man is going on and on about how white I seem to him, the waiter is subtly signaling to me (via his visual distress) how Asian I hopefully might be.
For the record, I don’t doubt that those children weren’t conflicted about their identities. First of all, they’re six. They’re still learning about zoos and ice cream. They also, obviously, come from a different generation, one in which the media is—if not exactly saturated then at least burgeoning with images of multiracial people, ambivalent as these images may be. They also live in Vietnam, in an ex-pat enclave that has a VERY healthy percentage of mixed families, and are going to the expensive international school which requires that a certain percentage of its attendees be Vietnamese. In short, these kids are living the globalized, mixed family dream. I won’t lie: I had a great childhood, but if I’d had the chance to be among those families at the barbeque when I was a child, I’d have killed for it.
But the thing that enrages me most, that still makes me seethe writing this, is that at stake was the very palpable sense that the only identity at that table that counted, the one truly stable self-consciousness able to make such fine distinctions and judgments, was his: it was only through the surety of his perceptions of me that I could be granted an identity that fit with my own perceptions of myself. In short, only he could decide to confer identity on me. On that level, I had to PROVE something to him: something that he couldn’t, or didn’t want, to see.
“You know,” I said, angrily at one point. “We could flip this whole thing around. We could spend a half hour talking about what I first thought YOU looked like when we met, and then how surprised—or not—I am by the facts of your opinions based on my assumptions.”
“I didn’t tell you what I thought you looked like when we first met.”
“But you’re telling me now.”
“Yes, because you brought it up!”
It is true that, having published that fucking book, I brought it up. And yet, even without that book, I think it would have come up, and keep on coming up. Because at some point I would have mentioned my family, and maybe mentioned that my mother is Chinese American, and then we’d slip into the quagmire in which we found ourselves last night: the conversation about race that’s been going on around all of us, not just in Vietnam, but in the States. Let me be clear: when the Vietnamese (and Cambodians and Laotians) ask me if I’m Asian, it doesn’t bother me. If someone from America thinks I’m white, it doesn’t bother me. What bothers me—and I’ve said it before in this blog—is when someone starts to implicitly or explicitly insist that I must curtail myself to certain values and experiences based an identity that he thinks HE gets to confer on me. THAT’S when I get annoyed.
I’ve had Asian friends who have been just as teeth-gratingly annoying: friends who insist I like food because I’m Chinese, who say I think certain things because I’m Chinese, that I like certain types of men because I’m Chinese. I’ve had Asian boyfriends who want me to be as Asian as possible in public and as white as possible in the bedroom. (Don’t ask how that works: I still don’t know.) The thing is, it doesn’t work like that. Perhaps it might be nice if we could tie certain personal tics so directly to the genetic, physically expressed invariables of racial appearance. But we can’t. We have culture, which explains much, but race itself explains nothing.
It’s just one more digit in the ever-expanding equation.
Honestly, I hate the fact that I’m writing--again--about this. But being biracial is like living in a room filled with mosquitoes. Every time you start to drift off to sleep, you get bitten. And I’m sad about the dinner because the friend’s father is actually a kind and generous man; it’s just a testament to how infuriating the topic of race is, how it turns everyone into cartoon versions of themselves. In all honesty, I understand his argument. I even understand his suspicion and his petulance. I understand these things so well because his perception of and feelings about me are the predominant ones that American culture offers: they are—and this is what I wasn’t able to explain to him—the predominant psychic space that has been granted me. I exist, but only as far as I don’t insist upon another narrative about my life other people don’t recognize or feel uncomfortable about. In this, I’m the one who is asked—constantly—to give something up, to adapt myself to an outsider’s way of seeing, rather than the reverse. This man’s position is the one we start from, the logical proposition which has to be—through logic and persistent alternative reasoning—negated.
Wouldn’t it be interesting if it were actually the reverse? If my identity was the “stable” position we had to start with? In my mind’s eye, I go back to that party filled with six-year olds. I don’t know what they’ll think about race, what they do think already, but in some ways I like to imagine them the way my friend’s father saw them: wildly, uniquely indifferent to their meaning in this world. What a change that would be, to be like them. I can hardly begin to imagine it.