What (Is) It Like…?
The ambience shifts. What looked like a stilted high school dance – stagnant bodies strewn awkwardly across a dance floor – now feels like an Ivy League dining club. The white male old heads all know each other and group off. They huddle over small tables, lost in radical and lofty conversation. There are no chairs. Back braced against a shadowy partition at the edge of the room, soda can gripped firmly in hand, I glance up at the scene between tepid sips of bittersweet fizz. It gives me something to do with my mouth.
That’s when I spot Barry – the white man with kind, squinting eyes and a bushy beard striped brown and gray like a skunk – with whom I briefly shared my conference program yesterday. He, too, stands alone. I approach his little table. “May I join you?” I ask in an airy voice. He smiles, but makes no sound. There’s a beat before he proclaims, “We met yesterday; do you remember? You’re Grace.” I nod and say, “Yes, and you’re Barry.” He nods once, satisfied. We stand in brief silence.
“Are you gay?” he asks innocently, but hopeful. “Queer,” I reply simply. He furrows his brow. “What’s the difference?” he prompts, both curious and a bit indignant. I pause. “Broader, I suppose.” I settle on a vague response, hoping to drop the subject and chalk it up to generational differences. Barry is not deterred; rather, he’s quite dissatisfied. “Gay is broad,” he responds defensively. “It’s for both men and women…” he trails off. I shrug, but he looks expectant. I weigh my options – should I really be “splaining” sexual identity politics to a 76-year-old gay man? It feels condescending to get into queer theory with someone who lived through Stonewall. But it’s not like I’m going to relent and suddenly start calling myself gay just to make him happy.
“I just think of it as ‘sexually non-normative,’” I state plainly. Barry softens but doesn’t seem particularly impressed. “Well, I’m gay!” he proudly announces. He moves on. Small talk is rebooted. The conversation eventually falls on academics. I mention my intention to study abroad in Hong Kong. “Oh! Have you seen Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing?” I will myself not to roll my eyes, huffing quietly instead. Images of white women in (half-blood) yellowface flit through my mind. The sweaty face of Emma Stone with matted bleach blonde hair sticks with me for some reason.
“Yes,” I reply noncommittally with a feigned smile. Barry is encouraged by this. “So beautiful, don’t you think? The buildings and structures…” he opines. I smile and nod, “Well, the city has grown a lot since then…” In the past sixty years, I think sardonically. Barry seems to assume that I’ve never been to the motherland and continues to list nonspecific aspects of Hong Kongese culture and aesthetics with which he’s familiar. I finally interject – “The cityscape is very beautiful. The nightly light shows especially.” Barry’s eyebrows raise, “You’ve been?” “Yes,” I feel smug, but my breezy tone betrays nothing as I take a swig of my beverage.
“But… how were you made aware… of… ?” Barry’s expression is suddenly perplexed. During the ensuing pregnant pause, my mind saucily fills in the blank: How were you made aware of such an exotic locale? How were you made aware of the best hotels? Barry opts not to finish his train of thought. He just looks at me. I assume he’s asking why (although, in an ass-backwards kind of way) I would visit Hong Kong – as many people have before him, expecting the answer to be family, thus, providing a legitimate opening into the most infamous question of all: “What Are You?”
“My father was Chinese.” I thought this would be self-evident but, hey, now the cat’s really out of the bag… Barry actually looks startled. “But… but…” he starts. Oh no. “But… the name Grace… well… that’s not very Chinese, is it?” I sip my soda, shrug, and will myself not to dignify the comment by supplying my Chinese name, so as to not be forced to listen to his butchering of it, his orientalist comments. I also suppress the urge to renounce my Anglo name just to prove a point, desperate to justify that I’m enough of something or another – code switching on demand.
“So… your mother… she was English.” Barry ponders this; it sounds more like a statement than a question. “American,” I calmly and promptly correct him. “Oh,” he starts, “so, how…” he trails off again. I anticipate his next prompt to be about how my parents met – with an obligatory star-crossed romance set in a colorful foreign land. Their parents didn’t approve, tried to separate them, and so they eloped – that kind of shit. Unfortunately, the storybook ending is not included. It’s sold separately.
Unexpectedly, Barry shifts his focus back to me. Picking up right where he left off – “So, how… what… what was it like… ?” Barry decides on that open-ended phrasing, looks satisfied with it, and pointedly turns his gaze to mine, once again expectant. Now it’s my turn to be confused. “I… don’t understand the question.” That gif of a befuddled Rachel Dolezal being asked about her race pops into my mind. But I’m not amused. “Well,” he continues, “what was it like… you know…” He trails off yet again, as if repetition of an indefinite query makes it any more or less meaningless. As if I ought to know what he’s trying to ask me because of course it’s my job to field his stupid and invasive questions.
“You mean… what is it like being Asian?” I finally supply, softly enunciating each syllable. Barry looks surprised again, but also illuminated. “Oh! So you’re Asian…” Wow. “Yes. I am. My father was Chinese,” I state matter-of-factly, noting how cyclical this conversation is becoming. Barry shrugs at that and repeats himself yet again, “In that case, what was it like… ?” “Like what?” I ask impatiently. “Well…” he looks off and contemplates my question. I try to take another swig of my soda but nothing comes out. I rattle the can and feel its emptiness.
Barry looks back, finally. “Well… children can be so cruel…” Oh, so that’s what this is. The “how was your childhood?” bit. I can handle that. I have before. They all want a sob story – poor little mongrel child with no one to play with in the schoolyard. “So,” I finally declare, “you’re asking me if I was bullied as a child for being biracial.” That’s a statement. Not a question. “Well… yes,” Barry finally agrees. Before I can even stop myself, I’m actually answering the question – my wasted words imbuing it with worth. I hate myself. “Well, no. Not really,” I say. Barry actually looks disappointed as he prompts me again, “Really?”
Hold on. “Well…” I start innocently. Barry straightens and leans in, engaged. I lean back with one arm resting on the tabletop, nonchalantly. “Some children were rather presumptuous. You know, asking stupid questions – prying, nosy.” I pause dramatically and make lifeless eye contact with him. Barry doesn’t seem to pick up on my point. That’s all right – I’ve amused myself. Barry, however, seems rather bored now. He sighs with a kind of closure and remarks, “Well, you certainly have a lot of identities, don’t you?” He sounds resentful. Or maybe just sarcastic. Between the two of us, I can’t honestly tell anymore.
GVGK Tang is a public history MA student at Temple University in Philadelphia with a specialization in transnational queer history and politics, nascent community-building, and identity construction. As a public historian, Tang aspires to engage the needs of disenfranchised communities and encourage inclusive, meaningful dialogues through thought-provoking media and exhibitions.
Tom Moore started reading newspaper comics when they were little. They are dyslexic and like things which are short and punchy. They love how this kind of imagery becomes monumental in Pop Art. Although things have gotten mixed up for them now and they can’t help but see the grandness in Snoopy and the cuteness in Warhol. Tom Moore is also part of #TheGalleryProject.