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.