She is used to defining herself in the negative—not quite this or that; or as divided—only half or part. She is mixed, which means that she has never seen herself entirely as Chinese, nor entirely as white. As a teenager, her friends were mostly white, in a school that was mostly black and white, so she identified with the white kids. Her friends would eagerly ingest her mom’s Chinese leftovers after a night of partying (where she’d teach them how to say, We are going to drink a lot of beer tonight! in Mandarin); she was their fun Asian friend, different, yet rooted in the same pop culture, white culture. It was “just” her private childhood, her early years of living with Chinese relatives, going to Chinese potlucks, hearing and speaking Chinese every day, that now belonged mostly to a past that she unconsciously sought to leave behind.
She chose to go to a private college in Minnesota, to get far away from home and her old identity, whatever that was. There, she slowly started to see herself more as others saw her: as Asian, a diversifier, someone who was different than the “norm.” She devoured books by people of color, she studied Asian-American history, she studied Chinese. But still, her school and friends were mostly white and she did not feel an easy alignment with other Asians. Once, her Chinese cousin told her that she created a bridge for him between the Chinese and white worlds he lived in. She understood this in the same way that she understood how she was still trying to forge a bridge to herself.
Everyone had always been “them” when it came to race; there had never been an “us,” besides her and her sister. Yet over time, she started to pay closer attention when she saw other mixed-race Asians and whites. Her gaze intensified, she would feel shy and voyeuristic as she tried to discern what they looked like exactly, tried to see how other people saw her.
After college she traveled and lived in China for three years; soon the rhythm of her body and dreams returned to the sounds of Chinese. But on the streets, people only saw her straighter nose, bigger eyes, lighter hair, thicker thighs. Each year she collected more language and felt more Chinese, yet each year she also felt more foreign. Ni shi nali de? Where are you from? People always asked. America, she’d answer, mei guo, and see their faces, confused. She knew that they equated American people with white people. My mother is Chinese, she would explain, and they’d nod and aahh. Hunxue, mixed blood, they’d say, their relief palpable once they could name how she was different.
When she came home, she understood just how American she was, and just how much of her life depended upon the English language. Yet she also became more “Asian” again, when digesting herself before others’ eyes. In Seattle, she returned to her mostly white neighborhoods and friends. Friends, who no doubt appreciate her “diversity,” friends who maybe see her as more relatable and safe than most people of color. For she is not the type to lambast someone for saying something unconsciously racist; instead too often she has stayed silent, swallowed, her face hot, tongue caught. She is used to holding the shame of unspoken words inside. For she has listened so hard for so long that now she must teach herself how to speak.
Now, she is invited into groups for “people of color,” a term that only recently she has allowed to take root in her consciousness and begin to claim. For now, she has more practice naming what it feels like to be the only person of color in a room; to live between languages; or to never see herself reflected on T.V. And now, she cannot help but see race played out in every space, against every backdrop of every inherited history of relationship. But still her light skin cannot be denied, and so simultaneously she must remember to take a quiet seat in conversation, deferring to others whose experiences of racism are more extreme. And still she worries that some will see her “color” as a fraud: sniff out her world of whiteness— her white best friends, white father, white husband, white son. Although she knows now that she is a person of color in America, in a way that she will never be white, still she waits for cues from others in order to discern whether they see her as one of us, or one of them.
Anne Liu Kellor is a multiracial Chinese American writer, teacher, editor, and mother. Her essays have appeared in publications such as Fourth Genre, Vela Magazine, and The Los Angeles Review, and her manuscript, HEART RADICAL, was selected by Cheryl Strayed as 1st runner-up in Kore Press’s 2018 memoir contest. Born and raised in Seattle, Anne has received residencies and grants from for her work from Hedgebrook, Jack Straw, 4Culture, and Hypatia-in-the-Woods. Please visit: www.anneliukellor.com