I wrote this for the Watson Conference in August of 2016, but I didn’t do the best job posting that year. Hopefully that will change overall. Here it goes!
As the Watson Fellowship has wound down to an end, I have spent weeks, days, hours wondering how on earth I can convey my year in 10 minutes at the end of year conference.
It’s hard to believe that this is it. In my quarterly reports, I had written time and again about the anxieties I had faced about whether or not I was doing my Watson year the “right way,” wondering if there were other Watson Fellows out there who were equally apprehensive. And now that I have 10 minutes to tell people about a moment, feeling, thought, or memory that encapsulates my year, I’ve found myself at a loss for words. I’m not sure why I’m at such a loss, because I’ve thought about this, sometimes obsessed over, how I’ll remember this year in its richness.
My anxieties ebbed away as I began to rephrase my concerns. It was no longer about how I would present my project and year in 10 minutes. It became more about how I would remember and honor the people who let me be a part of their lives.
In the past few days that I’ve resettled back home, I’ve questioned: How will I remember everyone? How will we stay in touch? How will I apologize? How will I be present?
Today, I share something I wrote for someone.
When I was a little girl, I found it so hard to express my feelings–whether in the form of apologies, disagreements, protests, vindications, or longing. It so often seemed that I was at a loss for words in person, and so I learned to hesitate at the sound of my voice. But in those moments when I felt so frustrated, so angry, so remorseful, or so hopeful that I could no longer contain it, I wrote letters. Over the years, I’ve written letters to cousins, to exes, to mentees, to people I’ve admired from a distance. This time, I write to you.
Ahmoy, I keep thinking about the time your family took us to Grand Port. It was still summer, but it was cool there on the southeast coast, where the gold-tipped grass swayed inland and the earth was rocky and moist beneath our sandals. I had come here before, but it was you and your family’s first time. I ran toward Le Bouchon, where it looked as though someone had taken a tremendous spoon and taken a clean scoop out of the cliffs, leaving behind a great mouth.
Here it was, the sea, no lagoon to neatly lay down borders for us. Le Bouchon gaped at us, as if being inundated with water poured down its throat, and it gurgled, gurgled, gurgled.
We stood 10 feet from the edge, but your father told you not to stand so close, for fear that you’d fall. While everyone backed from the edge, your sister-in-law turned to me and asked me in Mandarin, “Ni yao qu na bian? Do you want to go there?” She pointed at the sinew of rock, strung from one end of the mouth to the other, creating a natural bridge. I had crossed it before.
The two of us went for it, leaving you following far behind. There they were, your aunts uncles and cousins watching us on the other side, waving their hands frantically, begging us to come back, not to venture too far, dare not cross the bridge. Your sister-in-law strode to the middle of the bridge in her plastic flip flops, pausing only to turn and extend her hand toward me. “Lai. Come.” Taking a few steps forward, I saw you still frozen at the beginning.
Your family called out to your sister-in-law telling her to come back. Everyone yelled at me in Hakka, “Mau hsee!”–don’t go! Your mother cried out your name, already envisioning you falling down, down, down into Le Bouchon. Your sister-in-law held my hand, and I reached to hold yours, because if there’s anything I’ve learned about myself this year, it’s that I can communicate neither belonging nor loneliness in words alone.
Ahmoy: my father and many men have asked me what I would present about my year, about their community, about our folks. “Won’t you tell them that arranged couples were happy? It’s not so bad,” one person suggested.
Ahmoy, you and I both know that it wouldn’t be enough, and that bridge says a lot about how we live.
Some of us find a way to easily traverse from one end to the other. Some of us make it to the other end, but seemingly at the cost of no return.
None of us made it across the bridge that day. We went back the way we came, getting scolded all the while. Your sister-in-law said we could have quickly made it across if you hadn’t been so afraid to go with us.
Ahmoy, take your time crossing every bridge to come, and in times when you want to go back the way you came, know that you will try again when you are ready.
It was sometime in May that I spent the day over at a Mauritian couple’s home. Mrs. Yip had excitedly offered to teach me how to make ngiouk yan–a dish that I never liked that much before coming to Mauritius.
Ngiouk yan is a traditional Hakka dish, usually made of minced meat and shredded white turnips, held together by cornstarch and steamed to form opaque bite-sized lumps. But in Mauritius, families tend to cook them instead with shredded chou chou–a sweeter, delicious substitute to turnips.
As Mrs. Yip taught me how to roll the mixture into small balls with the palms of my hands, she asked me about my family. Did they speak Hakka at home? Not really, mostly English. Did we eat ngiouk yan often at home? Nope, my mom didn’t have a lot of time to spend on cooking each day. Did my mom cook Hakka food at home? Sometimes, but we like Indian and Pakistani food, too. Did my mother work, or was she a homemaker? Yes, Mom worked. So who looked after you when you were growing up?
A lot of people took care of me. And Mom was superwoman; our customers would always joke that she was the real boss, teasing my father for never being around to watch over his own restaurant. Looking back, it did create tension in our family. Undoubtedly, my mom worked hard. She worked 10 hours a day, nearly 7 days a week, with only half of a day off on Saturday when we closed for lunch. That didn’t include all of the housework and family obligation she had to take care of.
When I was very young and didn’t understand, I used to feel angry that Mom was working so hard every day in the restaurant. I heard people say about my dad, “How can he let his wife work so hard?”
But as Mrs. Yip asked me more about my family, I told her more and more about my dad and remembered all the things he did to take care of me.
The Little Things
In first grade, I owned a pair of maroon corduroy pants. It was the first time I had a pair of pants that weren’t leggings. I wore them until the knees had holes in them, and yet, I didn’t want to give up wearing them. My classmates made fun of me for wearing clothes with holes in them, one girl even telling me I must have been really poor. I told my dad about it–I was afraid that if I told Mom, she’d make me throw them away–or even worse, cut them up into rags to wipe the table; and then I wouldn’t have any pants to wear to school anymore.
The next morning, I found my corduroy pants. But instead of finding two holes at the knees, there were two heart-shaped leather patches. The leather was neatly cut and smoothed at the edges, and the stitches were so even and straight. I turned to my dad and told him excitedly that Mom must have fixed the holes for me. He smiled. “No, I did.”
Years later, in middle school, my friends’ mothers always packed their children’s lunch boxes. My friends’ moms typically packed fruit, a sandwich, yogurt, some juice. When I unpacked mine, my classmates would always watch eagerly. Some days, I had pork fried rice kept hot in a thermos, other days I had a fresh salad with tandoori salmon filet. My friends asked me incredulously, “Did your mom get up and make that this morning?” I smiled. “No, my dad did.”
When I went away to study when I was 16, my dad would sometimes drive a total of 8 hours in one day, even if it meant only seeing me for a mere 3 hours. Each time, he would bring all the things he thought I needed. Herbal soups, jackets and sweaters, fresh milk, containers of fresh homemade dumplings, chocolates that my mom had packed, my favorite brand of instant noodles. One weekend, my dad drove to take me home since we had an extended weekend–a total of three whole days. I didn’t realize it until my friend commented as I was preparing to leave, “Your dad must really love you if you he is driving a total of 16 hours just to take you home this weekend.”
When I went to Davidson, my dad looked forward to any chance to visit campus. Fortunately, it was only an hour away from home this time. He drank coffee and enjoyed bluegrass music with me in Summit, went to evening lectures that ranged from fascinating to snore-inducing, entertained simultaneously ridiculous and thoughtful discussions with my friends, and brought trays of fresh food from Chen’s. My friends, classmates and professors, whether they liked it or not, became accustomed to “Yeeva’s dad.”
Not so little
These were the “little things” that made a world of difference to me.
I have sometimes questioned if these acts seemed so much bigger, more meaningful in my mind simply because it was my dad who did them instead of my mom. If it had been my mom, would I have been less grateful because these acts of care are so often expected of mothers instead of fathers?
I think back though to how much my mother’s work was valued for so visibly supporting our family when it came to finances. And how that also came with the occasional emasculation of my father when family or friends talked about him for not being at the restaurant as much. It’s true, my mother was exhausted at the restaurant. Though it didn’t negate the ease that comes with male privilege, my dad wasn’t exactly taking it easy either. He was experiencing the same work load and ridicule that women often receive for their role in raising a family.
I can’t say that my father made the conscious decision to subvert gender expectations, but regardless, he certainly did. Perhaps his unconsciousness about those decisions though was what made it all the more beautiful–he wasn’t trying to be bold or political; he just wanted to do the things he hoped would make his family happy and healthy, out of love.
There are a number of ways that I want to direct this post toward third wave feminism, gender equality paradoxes, glass ceilings and gender role swapping. But in honor of Father’s Day, I’m going to instead end with a part of the email I wrote to my dad:
HAPPY FATHER‘S DAY, DADDY!!!!!!
I consider myself a very blessed daughter. Thank you for always encouraging me to dream big.
It made all the difference in my life because even though I didn’t have a parent who could always tell me the answers or guide me in school, I knew I had parents who did everything and anything in their capability to show that they supported me and wanted me to succeed and wanted me to feel valued. Too many people say “I love you” so easily, but I have parents who always showed it.
I was eight years old when I had my First Holy Communion, a rite and sacrament of the Catholic Church in which we accept God’s body, blood and spirit. At the time, when I considered myself a committed and eager member of the Church, I remember it was a big day for me. Finally, I would be able to walk down the Church aisle with my brother and sister and accept the Body and Blood of Christ. And of course, in my 8-year-old mind, I was excited about wearing my cousin’s hand-me-down white dress, that white crown of flowers, and the new shiny white shoes my mother had bought for this special occasion.
As my mother curled my hair in the bathroom, I noticed her frowning a bit. After finishing the last curl, she took out her compact and began generously dusting blush on my cheeks. She dabbed a bit of lipstick on my lips. Inspecting me in the mirror, she told me what I had been hearing all summer long, “You shouldn’t have played outside so much. You look kali.”
Kali is a Hindu goddess. I had heard Chinese-Indians call each other ‘Kali’ a few times. Kali is perhaps not what is considered a conventional beauty. She has multiple hands, sticks out her tongue and stands on her consort Shiva. It is believed that Kali had been drunk on the blood of her victims and was about to destroy the universe before Shiva calmly prostrated himself beneath her foot. Sticking her tongue out in shame, she was brought back to a calm state upon seeing Shiva’s gesture. She thus represents energy as well as feminine power. In a Christian household, Kali might be viewed with fear, disgust, terror. But there was another reason why I was taught to believe that Kali was not beautiful. Kali translates into ‘she who is dark.’
My mother’s concern about my skin was not something I held against her, though we’ve had conversations about not using Kali as a descriptor. I thought her concerns had more to do with her awareness of the social politics of skin color in the United States than her actual belief that her own daughter was ugly. But my mother’s respectability politics weren’t just for skin color in the United States. Rather, I’ve come to recognize a colorism that pervades the Hakka community, in spite of our belief that we’ve remained exempt from it.
“Hakkas truly come in all colors. There are Hakkas who look just like other Chinese. But did you know there are Black Hakkas, too? That’s the beauty of our culture.”
When I was very young and just able to comprehend that being Hakka was something a bit different from being Chinese, I remember asking my dad what Hakka people looked like. He gave me an answer that comforted and inspired me, and at the expense of reality. In my ten-year-old mind, I came to think that Hakkas were an exceptionally open-minded, progressive and accepting people, and I tried to hold myself to that standard.
Growing from girl to woman complicated that belief as I became increasingly exposed to the pol
itics of being “Hakka enough.” Traveling from community to community has shown me that the greatest struggle we face as Hakka people is fighting for our traditions while also subscribing to certain conventions of our “host” countries. When I first started my journey, I had some assumptions that Hakka women around the world felt particularly pressured to balance tradition and modernity.
My own upbringing definitely influenced that assumption. My mother followed certain conventions for the sake of getting by, though she held strong to her ultimate convictions. My mother was and still remains a model Hakka woman to me. My mother did not need a college education to navigate feminism, and she was the example by which I set a lot of standards for myself and for how other people treat me in my day-to-day life.
I recall a memory from a few years ago. My sister and I had been working in the restaurant together, and one of our regular customers came up to us. Pausing to put his hands on his hips, he asked us, “So which of you is the pretty one and which is the smart one?” My sister and I looked at each other in a loss of words. My mother overheard and stepped in. “They’re both.” The man asked for clarification, “They’re both pretty, or they’re both smart?” She paused long enough from sorting her invoices to peer at him from above the rim of her glasses. “Both of them are both pretty and smart.”
My sister and I had many moments like this one with customers, acquaintances and even friends. Our appearances were sometimes dissected, evaluated and devalued in such swift motions. A high school friend once told me in half-jest that his biggest fear about coming over to our house was that he wouldn’t be able to tell my sister and I apart. “But I think one of you is darker than the other, so I think I’ll be able to tell you apart,” he reassured me cheerfully. He had asked me to prom later that year, and I said no, telling him my parents wouldn’t allow me to go. The truth was that I couldn’t get moments like those out of my head, no matter how much I reminded myself that he was one of the few friendly faces I knew at school.
Looking back at my teenage years, I wish I had developed just half the moxy and sass that my mother had. My mother was first in a number of ways. She was the first born in her family, the first to get a job to help earn money, and the first to leave school. She was of the first generation to come to the United States, all the way from Pakistan, which at that time had been led by Benazir Bhutto, a woman prime minister.
But when people (and especially men) looked at us, they saw fragile and vulnerable women, unwilling to fight. My mother did not exhaust herself directly subverting those expectations—she just created new ones. If men expected the small Asian woman behind the cash register to smile, she was friendly—but that didn’t exclude her from being firm, steadfast and sharp-tongued, too.
Was it enough though?
While I may be empowered internally by knowing my family’s history and my mother’s agency, that won’t change how others see and treat me. Moreover, it won’t change how we approach colorism in the Hakka, Chinese and larger Asian communities.
“Far from the common advertising image of women used to sell cars and other products, these women are not meant to be seductive and alluring. Nor do they fit the western or orientalist stereotype of the delicate, submissive, and sexy Asian woman. Instead they are strong, tanned, and hardworking, exotic in a different sense: the stereotypical image of a Hakka woman.”
–Nicole Constable, Christian Souls and Chinese Spirits
Nicole Constable’s research suggests that Hakkas traditionally have seen themselves as exempt from mainstream standards of beauty. And as Constable notes, that’s not to say that Hakka women have never been considered beautiful–they’ve been appreciated for how they are in their own right.
But what do diaspora Hakkas actually believe outside of academic research? Like most things I know about the “lived” Hakka experience (which isn’t a lot), it was limited to what I had read in books, articles, websites and online forums—meaning, I didn’t really know what people had to say about themselves. And when it came to skin color, I had only come to know two things. First, most Chinese from the mainland thought I was dark. As a result, whenever I mentioned I was Hakka, people began to associate ask me if I was an ethnic minority. I stopped interjecting with, “Well, actually, Hakkas are considered Hans as well” because it felt so arbitrary and defensive. Why did it matter in the first place whether or not I identified with the majority?
Second, my American college education and upbringing privileged me with the consciousness that my skin color served as one shade on a spectrum of colorism. I knew I shouldn’t worry about my skin color—to the point of believing that anyone who did care about having white skin simply lived in false consciousness.
For a long time, I assumed that other Hakka parents taught their children the way mine had taught me. But I’ve come to realize that Hakka parenting differs far and wide in the midst of globalization and westernization. Among Hakkas themselves, I often heard comments about their light-skinned relatives with single eyelids and high nose bridges—perhaps in an effort to remind others of their northern origins and potentially “pure Han” blood.
A Year of Tanning
My skin has gotten darker and darker as I’ve traveled among island nations, and I’ve been surprised at how the change in my skin color has changed my experience. In Vienna, I was considered dark among Hakka Indians. And indeed, other Hakkas who have encountered those from India have commented that many of them seem exceptionally fair-skinned–partially in wonder and partially in admiration.
In Indonesia, I befriended a student who tutored me in Bahasa Indonesia. Though the university campus was a 10-minute walk away from my boarding house, he often insisted on picking me up each morning and driving me there. “You’ll get burnt,” he explained. But when I pushed for further explanation, it was less about UV rays and more about me no longer looking pretty enough–something that I ungracefully confronted with fruitless hostility.
Between Hakkas and Hokkiens, I heard claims to who was the fairer-skinned people–insinuating the links they had drawn between fair skin and cultural authenticity and civility. “You can always pick out the Hakkas in a group of tionghua. They are very fair-skinned,” one young woman explained to me.
It was baffling to me. This desire for light skin was nothing like what I had been taught by my parents and my grandparents. Where did it come from? In college, my classmates and I had done a project on the globalization of beauty standards, focusing on the white colonization of dark skin. But where the West has begun exoticizing tan skin (emphasis on ‘tan’ as opposed to ‘dark’), I still see overseas Chinese communities valuing those tofu complexions.
Perhaps this is where Han Chinese beauty standards continue to reach overseas Chinese communities (we can argue back and forth over the organic or inorganic Whiteness of these standards). And when overseas Chinese seek to find beauty in themselves in faraway countries where they form a minority of appearances, perhaps they turn to China for a nod. Following those beauty trends isn’t just about looking good. In transnational and diaspora communities, it may mean maintaining connected-ness.
So where does that leave overseas Hakka women? And furthermore, is that where we should remain? In Meizhou, Hakka girls seemed to care a bit less about skin color, though desires to look like big-city Chinese girls are certainly present. Perhaps today’s generation is excited to have the time and luxury of being able to care about their looks. We could argue that she is exerting her agency to beautify herself and perhaps gain more social mobility.
“You look like us. Your skin is dark, like mine. Hakka girls aren’t afraid of the sun because they had to work.”
My first week in Mauritius, someone commented that I could be mistaken for a Chinese-Mauritian. When I asked how one could tell by looking, it came down to my complexion. I am tan enough to pass as a local girl, unafraid of walking in the sun.
Mauritius has made me feel nostalgic. 90% of the Chinese here are of Hakka descent, and most are Moi-yaners. We speak the same Moi-yan dialect, we eat our ya-mien the same way (on the dry side), and I hear a familiar philosophy toward dark skin. In the past, a Hakka woman had always been valued based on the work she produced, and while this system was not perfect, it still made her the agent of her evaluation. When I ask older generations of Hakka women about their youth and following beauty trends, they scoff–usually because they had bigger problems to worry about.
But there was something more to be admired. Go back to unbound feet. Hakka women, even those brought up in well-off households, refused to bind their feet. Unbound feet meant mobility, and mobility meant venturing beyond the house. Beauty standards existed, but Hakka women were willing to break them.
My tan lines intensify day by day, but I am reminded that I have a legacy of women before me who were unafraid of venturing into the sun. I am reminded that to be dark is to be unafraid. I am reminded that if there was something we could learn from tradition, it would be to be unafraid.
Unafraid of what, exactly? The Hakka community these days often talk about their fear of losing their Chinese-ness. But a lot of what we know now as Chinese does not always align with what we knew as Hakkas.
This post isn’t just about combating contemporary beauty standards. It is inextricably linked to the common fear of where we find ourselves on a spectrum of color-driven hierarchies in and out of the Chinese world; and as a result, we impose beauty standards on women to reflect where we hope to stand. Through embracing darkness, we defy colonial narratives about whiteness and its alleged link to civility. Through embracing darkness, we remember that Hakkas have traveled far and wide–to Mauritius, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago. We remember that Hakka girls women were ahead of their time in women’s rights. We remember that culture stands resilient in values, songs and stories rather than our looks or the people we marry. Through embracing darkness, we stop limiting Hakka girls from becoming the women they want to be.
With Father’s Day around the corner, I was rooting around some old photos of my dad and came across these.
While watching me look for some places to stay in Germany and the Netherlands, my dad said, “Twenty-two. I was exactly your age when I first left India.” I’ve mentioned some snippets here and there about my parents in The Deoli Diaries and past projects, but a lot of people have been questioning my parents’ pasts. Outwardly, their combined story is paradigmatic of the American immigrant story: two folks who met, settled down, worked hard, played by the rules and slowly made their way toward the American Dream (home ownership, a small business, education for the next generation).
But that sketch doesn’t come close to representing where and what most immigrants come from.
I often mention Deoli Internment Camp, where my father was interned for nearly three years. That being said, my dad didn’t have a very typical childhood. He grew up in Calcutta’s Tangra, which is sort of like our Chinatown. That’s not to say that he fit right in. My dad’s family (and most internee survivors) stuck out in the community. They talked differently, carried themselves warily and worked ceaselessly.
The local Chinese school was perhaps one of the few means of acculturating internee children back into society. Funded by the KMT in Taiwan, everything was taught in Mandarin–a language distant and strange to the Hakka my dad learned at home. He didn’t last in school very long. He quit in the middle of seventh grade, which didn’t seem unusual for a boy of that time, place and socioeconomic class.
But where my dad lacked formal education, he made up with raw curiosity–which is how he ended up in Europe. My dad was probably in his early twenties and back in Darjeeling when he met a trekker from Copenhagen. This trekker had a rip in his backpack. Having worked in my grandfather’s shoe business, my dad knew how to sew it back up. My dad’s English was good enough that he could chat with the trekker. My dad wanted to know how he could get to the United States. The trekker replied, “Go to Europe first.”
Dad didn’t have the same language skills and certainly not the same education that I had. But again, my dad has always acted on his curiosity. By that time, quite a few Hakka from India were migrating over to Europe and had established businesses. It was pretty normal for bachelors to work in the restaurants, get some experience and then open up their own places and have their own families. For the next year, he traveled from city to city, restaurant to restaurant.