I am following diligently behind my mum. She is pushing a sparse trolley through our local Pak ‘n’ Save. I am eight.
Shall we get some oranges? Her Mandarin is soft and welcoming. I do not understand the sudden anger I feel, the hot filling my face, the tightness in my chest.
“Speak in English!” My tiny voice echoes off the concrete floors. I don’t look at her face.
“You’re embarrassing me.”
∙ ∙ ∙
On my first day of school in New Zealand, I cry and hold onto my mum. I refuse to let go. My eyes brim with fear. I recognised nothing. Strange sounds came out of strange faces, their tummies plump and hair all blonde.
I am five. I can speak two different dialects but I can’t understand theirs. I didn’t have to. They stretched their eyes and pointed at me and chanted “ching chong”; beautiful faces laughing with innocent joy.
∙ ∙ ∙
At my primary school there is a girl called Kelly. She’s not in my class, but when she heard that there was an Asian girl at school, she had to come see for herself.
The girls lead her to me at lunchtime. Hello, I say in Mandarin. She looks me up and down.
“Come with me,” she leads me into the bathroom.
The girls at school would do weird things to me in the bathroom, mostly because no teachers came in. My friend Diana, an adorable blonde-haired, blue-eyed beauty, used to keep me in the classroom at lunchtimes to hit me and pour glue in my hair. One time a teacher came in. She immediately pretended to be teaching me English, and the teacher seemed happy and proud of this kind little girl. But from then on, we would spend our lunchtimes in the bathroom. They would make me pee with the stall door open as they shuffled in their friends one by one, announcing something I didn’t understand while gesturing towards me.
I had never been to a zoo at that time, so I didn’t know how to feel. The group would giggle and stare, while I asked what was going on in Mandarin. I knew no one understood me, but what else could I do?
Kelly leads me into a stall. What is with these people and their obsession with toilets? She locks the stall and turns towards me. Her hair is a medium brown and thick and straight. A heavy fringe frames her piercing eyes - her irises are small. She doesn’t break eye contact as she puts her hands around my neck and starts squeezing.
∙ ∙ ∙
Colonisation starts with war and violence, but ends entirely in the mind. Bloodshed drives vengeance, bodies give conviction, but it is not until you teach a people to hate themselves can you truly kill them.
Comic book assassins will be familiar with this. Two in the body, one in the head.
∙ ∙ ∙
I’ve developed a special brand of feminism. “I don’t have many girl friends,” I would state in a matter-of-fact way. “Girls are so full of drama. I hate that. There’s just not as much drama with boys.”
I am thirteen.
I have gamed the system, I think. I won’t be a victim. I can force myself to success, working ten times as harder than everyone else. No one would know my struggle, I pledge. Prejudice was bad, but pity was worse.
∙ ∙ ∙
Lara Croft is my favourite movie hero. She is smart. I am smart. She is strong. I am strong. She is well-liked. I… would like to be.
I am fifteen. I have forced Cantonese out of my head, but my English is better than everyone else’s. I am learning quickly.
Today I am learning the art of feminine balance. Smart enough to be pleasantly surprising, but not so much to be authoritative. Strong enough to throw a punch, but not to open a jar when a boy is around. Mysterious and unattainable, but ripe for fucking.
∙ ∙ ∙
It’s after school and I’m doing my usual shift at the shop. I am seventeen.
I’m wearing a t-shirt I bought at The Warehouse. It’s hot pink, with a pair of black glasses printed on the front, under the words, “talk nerdy to me.” It made me laugh at the store. I never usually buy first-hand clothing, so this t-shirt was special and I wore it all the time.
A customer walks up to the counter and I begin to scan his items. He says some words I can’t catch.
“Sorry, what was that?,” I strain my ears but he’s still saying gibberish. “What?”
“Talk nerdy to me,” he points out my shirt. “I was talking nerdy to you.”
“Oh,” I muster up a laugh while he winks at me. It’s such a corny joke, I didn’t think that anyone would actually attempt to “talk nerdy to me”.
The moment is mildly awkward, but thankfully the customer doesn’t press on it and takes his things.
“You know,” he starts again, plastic bags making white stripes in his fingers, “you’re quite pretty for an Asian girl.”
He leaves. I take a moment.
“Thanks???,” I reply incredulously to an empty shop.
∙ ∙ ∙
I am in a foreign land where they talk like they do on TV and palm trees decorate the skyline. I’ve only been here two weeks but I like it. The air is warm and electric with potential.
Sam, the other exchange student from New Zealand, is introducing me to some new people. “This is Serena,” he announces. “She’s really cool! I don’t even think of her as an Asian,” he says, mustering up the best compliment he can think of.
“She’s like a white person to me.”
∙ ∙ ∙
My parents have always taught me patience and humility, but both are wearing thin. Why should I bow my head in the deepest kē tóu to a world that pulls the knife out, but only halfway? Why should I take ignorance as a compliment? Why should I agonize over every interaction, careful not to make anyone feel the slightest bit of discomfort for their own embedded racism and sexism? Why am I fighting for scraps? Why am I expected to be grateful?
∙ ∙ ∙
After 13 hours over the Pacific, I am home. It’s a sunny day in New Plymouth. The light is blue and yellow and it stings my eyes. I am twenty.
I am hugging my mum, my dad, my sister. Danting has returned home!, my parents announce. I quip back in broken Mandarin: Mingming has grown so big now!.
I want to tell them how thankful I am. To have this great life, travel the globe, go to the second best University in the world, because of their hard work and love and tolerance. But I don’t know how to compile the sentence. And I have forgotten the word for “gratitude”.■
Illustration by Pepper Curry. This post was originally published in my newsletter.