what are you?

Wednesday, July 15, 2020 - 3:32pm

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Madeline Hinkley

Within my first two weeks at Michigan I was

asked by a drunk white frat brother whether it was hard to see out of my eyes (they were half way squinty, not all the way there)

I was called ‘halfie’ and ‘wasian’ by a chinese woman whom I had never met before — the conversation reminded me of the way one discusses mutt dogs, cavapoos and goldendoodles

And I was told by my good friend, a black woman, that I wasn’t really asian at all

So you tell me. Or rather, let me tell you a story.

 

Tucked in a corner occupied by unused wine glasses and those that wear the blacks and whites of waitstaff

Deep in the ugliness and insecurity of high school

I knew a sweet boy, one who smiled easy and had a lyricism to his voice

Wide hands and long fingers, worn from the burns of ovens or stoves

Skin tanner than mine in those spring days

 

Between patrons, he watched me intently

I felt his gaze on the corners of my eyes and the arch of my skull where it breaks into my hairline

Letting him look, I cleaned glasses slowly

Studying each one, admiring how it sat in my hand, stubbornly holding on to scuffs and lint

 

what are you?

 

Stopping, I gazed up

White shirt loosely tucked in, hands in apron, smiling lazily

I knew him but in this moment, I saw many faces below his smile

Faces of my past, as well as those of the future

Because this question never tires itself, constantly circling and circling above my head.

 

In the english language, the use of what indicates a holding of content—a description beyond simple identification, but an explanation of existence 

To be asked what you are is to be asked to justify your own place

Not through ownership of identity, but through those that brought you here

What, rather than who, treats an individual as a vessel, which can be filled with so much contents

 

To be mixed race is to be hypervisible and yet deeply unplaceable 

I am merely a cradle for this unique blend of manifested features, 

The outcome of lack of belonging

An embodiment of distance from homeland

Creation of those that stray from origins

 

I am known for what I carry, but never valued for who I am 

Which is a deeply fragile state to exist within

To be told, not in word but in action, in the uncomfortable shift of gazes

That I am hollow, worthless without some sort of description

 

Relating more to the wine glass than the person beside me

I provide extra care, forcing a smile, bringing the glass’ spindly neck to a shine, letting everything that is me sink deep within, squinting at its design

I tell him to guess

 

Because the only answer more pleasurable for him than a real explanation is a moment of mystery, a fulfillment of fantasy

And my identity has always been about fantasy

 

The story of how I came to be, what fills me up, is more worthy than the vessel which cradles it

Yet, I give it shape, but my miracle of making it valuable and attainable, the pearl of the matter, quickly overshadows the shell which held it close

 

He guesses, and guesses, and guesses

And then I tell him

Because I’ve played this game before

And laying bare is only fun from the outside, never within

 

Between my tongue and my hand

I break down pictures on maps and crunch the numbers of percentages of bloodlines of family lost

And when the work is done

Filled to the rim

To the lip

He steps back, a self satisfied ease smoothing the lines of his face

Quickly stating he knew all along

 

Somehow this immediate dismissal of all  I have said always hurts more than the question itself

Because it reminds me what are you is never cultivated with care, but fed by a deep need to box and label

Anything unexplainable is deemed inherently dangerous

By someone, I hope we all know who

 

He has an order, a table of elderly white women, he slips through the door

leaving me to clean up the glasses, my family history spilled on the floor

 

After those first two weeks at Michigan

I never forgot the face of the boy who told me my eyes squinted —I resist the urge to wave on the Diag because he knows me, in some warped way

I continue to be called all sorts of interesting (read deeply harmful and often degrading) names by those meant to hold me close, sometimes I bite back, sometimes I embrace a resigned silence

And my friend who erased who I was, into something not whole

I never looked at the same, our relationship now stunted by this forgotten moment

Or at least forgotten for her. 

 

So you tell me. 

For I knew who I was told to be both before and after this.

And I understand how easy it is to slip into pretenses and silences and the comfort of absolutes

For me

Living anywhere but in the rippling, caustic places where colors blur isn’t an option

It’s where I was made and continue to stay

You decide if this is my place or not, but do remember that what you gaze at, gazes back 

Victoria Minka can be reached at vminka@umich.edu