White Hot

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White Hot

When we are young, we hold ourselves with the authority of girls who are pretty, and precious, and petted their whole lives. We know we are better than our unmixed peers. Our skin is not sallow yellow or bricky brown. Our skin glows cream with the slightest tan and perhaps a freckle or two for good measure, and an olive undertone imbues our skin with the illusion of the Mediterranean. We have deep-set, round eyes that do not slant into the sides of our face like everyone else’s, and if we are particularly lucky, we have hazel eyes. But even better, we have our names, names like Gomes and Dias and Oliveiro and Fernandes and Clark and Marbeck. Names almost European. Eurasian names that do not reek of sweat or spices or pollution, that bestow upon our families an enviable Western lineage. We have names from fairer ancestors, men who came to Malaysia with ships, and guns, bearing gifts, we are told, of civility and religion and education.

When we are children, our parents take us to auditions for advertisements where the casting notes say, “Unique Eurasian look required.” At these auditions we are paraded around like prize livestock, admired for the depth of our eyes, the height of cheek bones, the fullness of our lips. But then, we lose these parts to blond, blue-eyed Eastern European children imported from the Czech Republic or Ukraine or Estonia, their photos plastered on billboards around highways, their pink-and-white skin selling knockoff Fisher-Price toys to Southeast Asian parents. Only Marissa wins a part once, but it is not for a toy company. She is to wear a hijab and lunge at a white woman, who quickly maces her, before the words “Tourists Take Safety Seriously” flash across the screen, and in smaller letters, “Public Service Announcement, Sponsored by the Association of British Women in Malaysia.” This confuses us because Marissa is not Muslim, and we have never lunged at anyone before, much less a white woman, but we celebrate Marissa’s achievement, nonetheless.

Our mothers tell us we are the lucky ones. They say nearly five hundred years of colonization have meant nothing for our single-race friends. They say the Malays have inherited sustained poverty from lost lands, the Chinese a love of gambling, and the Indians a love of drink. But we, who can pass for something better, are now a superior race. We learn that we have to speak English and only English to live up to our Western names. We have to throw away the strange Creolic language our families speak – the dialect of colonization – Portuguese mixed with English mixed with Chinese mixed with Malay mixed with Tamil. At four o’clock every afternoon we eat the meal called “English tea,” with scones and clotted cream and Earl Grey tea poured in little cups that have the royal seal from the Queen of England herself, even if we want chicken curry, or noodles in clear broth, or sambal with anchovies.

When we become teenagers, we seek out boyfriends whose skin tones are lighter than our own, because that means babies who will become lighter-skinned over time. These expatriates from other countries meet us at local watering holes that charge no cover fee for their kind, but 35 ringgit for anyone who looks Asian. We compete among ourselves to see which of us is granted free entry to the club, who among us passes for the whitest. We dance with men in their 20s and 30s and 40s and 50s, their erections straining against their pants as they lean into our ears and say things like, “I’ve always wanted to fuck an Asian girl.” We turn around and murmur, “What about a Eurasian girl?” They do not understand the difference.

Elena is the first among us to lose her virginity. His name is Russell Gambier and he calls her his jade princess. Those among us who are exact in our language wonder what it is about Elena that evokes jade, a green ornamental mineral. “Perhaps it is the greenish tinge in her eyes,” one of us ponders. “Or the greenish tinge in her skin,” another says cattily. The more superstitious among us think it may be because of the purported healing qualities of jade, specifically that jade heals all troubles that ails the loins. We wonder if Russell Gambier has a loin-related ailment.

After secondary school, the wealthier among us go abroad to college, to America, and England, and Australia, and if our parents cannot afford those countries’ schools, to Russia. In college, students of Asian descent hand us flyers for sororities devoted to Asians, and we are confused. Saturday nights, we watch groups of Asian students crush together at the ramen shop slurping noodles and soup drunkenly. Our mouths water for the cheap, salty food, but we follow our white friends to IHOP, and pretend to enjoy brown pancakes slathered in brown maple syrup. In class, we meet tall, strawberry blond boys who grew up playing lacrosse or water polo or tennis, boys who are so proud of themselves when they say things like, “I know where Malaysia is! Go to China and make a right.” We do not explain that the world is a sphere; instead we kiss them with enthusiasm. We are thrilled when they invite us to their family homes for the holidays, where their well-meaning mothers stuff us with things like turkey and pie and ambrosia salad, which we learn is a salad without vegetables. These charming white mothers speak to us slowly and loudly and ask us plaintively if Malaysia is safe. At school, our professors hand back our assignments scrawled with comments such as, “Excellent command of the language,” and we are annoyed, but decide that it is better to just take the A and move on. We receive exhortations from student organizations to rise up as people of color; sometimes we pass by campus protests where student leaders stand up and tell stories of marginalization, each worse than the previous, a perverse Oppression Olympics.

When we graduate, we join offices full of white men in blue shirts and tan dockers who have names like Chad and Todd and Parker. Our mothers are so proud of us. Don’t come back, they say; stay there and find yourself a Parker. During drunken client parties, some of our bosses ask if Asian pussies taste like fish sauce. As their staccato laughter rings through the floor, we arrange our faces into smirks and for good measure add a wink; we tell ourselves to be team players. In spite of these comments, we develop crushes on these bosses. We look them up on Facebook, we marvel at their perfect families, their ivory-skinned wives and sunburnt children with red faces and white skin-goggles around their eyes, on ski trips in Tahoe and Aspen and the Alps, even as these men chase us down hallways during business trips, grope us at company retreats, and corner us at holiday parties, breathing murky, shallow breaths laced with Paco Rabanne. Some of us give in and allow the men to fuck us in conference rooms, as they whisper a kind of poetry in our ears, “Oh you are so tight, oh you feel so right.” The younger among us are more naïve and hope that these men will leave their wives. The wiser among us hold our younger friends tight as they sob and scream and abort the fetuses who might have become a new generation of light-skinned babies.

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And then come the rebellions. One of us marries an Asian-American man. We are appalled, so we ask cruel things like if the size of his penis mirrors the size of his eyes. We are horrified when she takes his last name, Nguyen. She does not even hyphenate. She assures us, at least he is Asian-American; he may not be white, but he is still better than an Asian-Asian. We are not convinced.

Another one of us runs for mayor of her small town, and her platform is all about being the first Asian mayor to address the needs of the silent minority. She campaigns hard in Chinatown, taking photo after photo with noodle-shop owners and children at after-school programs. She takes her mother’s last name, Tan, to blend in. She does not win. She assures us, it was just for politics. We are not convinced.

And yet another one of us becomes an Instagram influencer devoted to proselytizing the gospel of Malaysian food, perfectly composed, filtered photos of homecooked chili crab and nasi kandar and char kway teow that make our mouths water. It’s only for the ‘gram, she says, white people love this kind of stuff. We are not convinced.

Some of us persevere, though. We become engaged to marry men, who, if we are lucky, have distant family connections to Vanderbilts, Tudors, and Gettys. At the wedding, we are paraded around to meet aunts and cousins and grandmothers who say things like, “We never expected our boy to marry a foreign girl.” We smile decorously even as the groom’s brother lingers a little too long in the hug and says, “He always liked the exotic ones.” Wedding guests inquire about our immigration status with morbid curiosity, “Is it a green-card marriage? Is she a refugee?”

When our mothers come to visit us when we are pregnant, we beg for the spice-laden food of home, for the galangal-laced, saffron-infused, coconut milk-flavored dishes. Our husbands screw up their noses when our mothers commandeer the kitchen and coat the air with the pungent smells of frying shallots and garlic and ginger and anchovies. Our husbands remind us to please air out the kitchen before the neighbors come over.

We move to affluent neighborhoods, and sometimes we accompany our successful spouses to their corporate events. Women assume we are “other” women, that our tall, fair husbands cannot possibly be married to us. Searching for the politest euphemism they can muster, they say, to our husbands, “Is this your…assistant?” Our children are admitted to prestigious schools, to boarding schools, to classrooms where half the boys are called Junior or Three, which we learn are not the boys’ actual names, but a reflection of designations passed down through generations. We regret not naming our sons after our husbands. And just when things seem to be going well, other kids start asking our children, “What are you?” and we don’t know how to answer.

We are fewer now, spread across the world. We keep a WhatsApp chat group which is getting smaller and smaller. Visas expire, relationships fall apart, and businesses fail, forcing some of us to slink home humiliated. Our mothers do not meet our eyes as we walk in the door. “A waste,” they say, “Now I have to take care of my spinster daughter.” A few of us find ways to stay, legally, illegally, but we do miss home ferociously. At times, the smell of turmeric wafting into our rooms from the restaurant across the street is enough to drive us into a frenzy. We feel feral and lonely, like stray animals who look through the glass at their domesticated peers, knowing we are not, will never be, the same. The years turn, time dwindles and still, older white ladies admire our skin and say things like “Asians don’t age.” We stop correcting them; we stop explaining how we are almost one of them.


Photo used under CC.

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About Author

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Vanessa Chan is a Malaysian writer who writes stories about race, colonization, and women who don't toe the line. Her writing has appeared in Jezebel, Mekong Teahouse, and Untapped Cities. Currently, she is based in New York where she is an MFA candidate at The New School, after a ten-year career in public relations, including most recently as director of communications at Facebook. She has a BA in Political Economy from UC Berkeley. Find her on twitter at https://twitter.com/vanjchan

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