Michigan in Color: Home(land)
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I’m writing this for kids who don’t think fondly of the homeland, who don’t go back because the homeland is the site of so much epigenetic trauma. For the kids who don’t speak one of their native languages regularly, and are OK with that, who maybe didn’t even learn a “native” language. This is for the kids for whom the “motherland” is maybe only 20 minutes away, maybe a four-hour flight, but has a boring name like Columbus. Or Flint. Maybe Denver. For the kids who don’t and can’t and won’t dream of returning like the tide to trees full of sweet fruit that doesn’t grow here.
Narratives of coming into your racial own are so overwhelmingly, suffocatingly floral and maternal, all blooming and blossoming and coming out into the sun and loving your mother. In the battle to separate ourselves from whiteness we have disallowed ourselves pain and discomfort within our identities. We have worked so hard to push a narrative of a rewarding, healing coming-to that it has become exclusive. In short, if, in your quest to find out about realizing your racial identity, you’ve only read thunderstorm-to-rainbow, mother-daughter bonding stories, you’re missing huge, violent, gaping parts of the story. There are some kids, so many kids — some (so many) mothers — for whom home is not a comfort, for whom “mother(land)” does not echo with compassion and beauty.
My Chinese mother doesn’t really understand racism. She refuses to believe in it as more than interpersonal, I think as a coping mechanism. My dad’s a white guy; he does his best, but there’s not much more to say. Because of him, I feel like I should be stronger. I am half white, and should carry that with me as a shield, of sorts, made of privilege. It should prevent me from hurting. It doesn’t (always) work. I hide my anti-racism work at home just as carefully as I hide my other anti-oppression work. I’m not out as trans or queer at home, and I’m not really vocal as a “Person of Color,” either. When I told my mom I was getting more involved in activism in college, specifically anti-racism work, she gave me a sour look and told me that she didn’t want me getting mixed up in stuff like that. Back in China, speaking out against the communist government meant getting taken away and tortured for weeks at a time, if not killed; it happened to a couple people in her immediate family. I know it’s different here and, on an intellectual level, she does too; still, she doesn’t want me getting hurt, and to avoid that, I’m supposed to keep quiet, keep my head down, not attract attention. So, at home, I do.
She will sometimes ask me if I feel good in my dual identities, if I feel connected, whole. I will always say yes.
I say it sometimes because it is true. I say it sometimes to protect her from fracturing. Sometimes it hurts — and I don’t want her to hurt.
I recently read in an article that trauma resides in the DNA, that certain genes are like “life’s Etch A Sketch.” I didn’t want to believe it, but the more I mull it over, the more it makes sense. My mother escaped the Cultural Revolution. She left for a reason; it’s in my blood, in every single one of my cells. She doesn’t really miss China — she misses California more than her “real” hometown, I think. She’s been back once in the past 34 years. I’ve been once in the past 20. She and her mother left the bodies of uncles and cousins and close family friends, killed by the government, back in China. No one knows where they died, or even if they died. It’s an assumption. Anything that’s happened to me here or abroad — microaggressions, racism, tokenization, sexualization, the works — pales in comparison to what happened to her over there.
I speak Chinese, and I’m so proud of that; I’m part Chinese, and I’m so proud of that. But, she tells me, I’m Chinese-American for a reason. I am supposed to be here. My mom tells me she didn’t come here with just $25 and a suitcase and not a fucking word of English for me to lust after some alleged motherland. She says, “I didn’t work my ass off to come here so that you could go straight back.” She says to me, “I’m not saying that there’s not beauty in roots, pain in being a ‘minority,’ or pride in heritage and culture.” She says, “I’m just saying — put it in perspective.”
America doesn’t want me, that’s for sure. Still, I belong here more than I belong anywhere else. I’m mixed — and I fucking hate stories about mixed self-pity — but, being totally honest, the United States is one of the only places I’ve ever been where I’m not stared at and harassed and followed and gossiped about in languages that (surprise!) I understand. I’m not proud of it, but I’m accepting it. I’m working to make this place better, because it’s the only place that’ll have me — kind of.
Despite all this, English is mine. I live in it, I excel at it, I’m majoring in it. It is totally, completely, inarguably my language. I am comfortable in it. My other identities have bubbled up through my mastery of English, my queerness and trans-ness and fatness and ugliness and my taste in music and clothes and swear words and friendships and whatever else, they all live in English. My childhood lives in Chinese, my nicknames, my basic arithmetic, my favorite foods, my extended family, sometimes my comfort. But I am expansive, and I’m coming to terms with how — maybe — I don’t need to translate every part of myself in order to be whole.
I am writing against parental relationships as cultural currency. My race is in my skin, yes, and on my tongue, yes, but it is also in my favorite foods, in the way I am able to pick up and leave so easily, in how I thrive rootlessly, how I study and learn and cook and sing and put together my outfits and take care of my friends. My race is in my relationship with my mother, yes, but it also thrives and grows and takes on an entirely different shape within me. My relationship with her does not encompass my relationship with my race, with my culture. Trans-ness and queerness have created friction in my family relationships — my mother, in short, does not approve. We’ve been through some things, private things that have put plenty of pressure on our relationship. We are on separate sides of a chasm, we are two people in the same house crowded with ghosts of warring personal histories. I’m working on that.
I am entitled to tell my story, my relationship with my culture, without her as a mediator. It took me (is taking me) a long time to believe, but: It doesn’t matter if you made up with your mother. It doesn’t matter if you know a second language, or any language besides English. It doesn’t matter if your mom approves of those ethnic studies classes you take in secret despite her wanting you to be a doctor or an engineer — or not. We have a right to our own identities, despite the languages we do and don’t speak, despite the relationships we are forced to prune or painfully maintain. It doesn’t matter if race can’t always come first, if being a child or trans or queer or a surviving academic must come first, for sanity’s sake, for context’s sake, for whatever sake. I am still authentic, I am still a person of color. I am still whole.
My journey into my racial identity has not been sun-drenched and unifying. It has not been unyieldingly rewarding. I do not bloom, I do not blossom. I have never had the chance to take Instagram-worthy photos of my mother’s hometown. I am not here to condemn calm experiences with integrating racial identity, smooth experiences with minimal conflict. I am not here to condemn the full and radical embodiment of your racial identity, especially when your other identities are unmarked. In that case, it makes sense. I’m just saying that, sometimes, other stuff gets in the way.
I’m here to create what I wish I could’ve seen as a teenager: a story that says that, sometimes, identity work — personal or familial, especially at the intersection of several different marked identities — can be violent and can end in conflicts that wedge themselves in, like splinters or tiny shards of glass embedded in the soles of feet. Coming to terms with my racial identity has taken a lot of work, a lot of tears, a lot of guilt, a lot of shame, a lot of fistfights, a lot of punk, a lot of country, a lot of alcohol, a lot of shitty coping. It is not always about love. It rarely is, for me. I’m proud of what I’ve done to realize my identities, and I’m proud of the shape it’s (I’m) taking. The process of creating the internal landscape is not a beautiful thing, I think, but awesome. This work is rewarding. It is terrifying, and fucking awful, and I often wish I didn’t have to do it. It’s about spite, and violently cutting and cutting and cutting ties. It is peaceful and painful in turn. I don’t understand ambiguity, but it consumes me. I am learning to live with that. I’m tired, resting in the exhales, in the eyes of storms. It is never over.