July 6, 2010
**I’m a little sick. Please excuse the stuffed nose voice**
As evidenced by this very Race in Film series, color is a large part of my life. This is frequently not by choice, as was certainly the case when I was a child.
It is 1993. I wear turtlenecks under Champion sweatshirts like on TV. I feel proud about this, my first deliberate sartorial decision. I sit at my desk and quietly enjoy the feeling. The room is hushed. We scrawl on a worksheet. The substitute teacher calls me to her desk. We all look up.
“Kartina,” she says.
“What are you?”
Her eyebrows draw together in the middle.
“Are you Eskimo?”
She must find out. She must know.
Unfortunately my sass had not yet developed, and instead of protesting her insensitivity, I replied and satisfied her curiosity. I returned to my seat and continued my school life as the “other”, turtlenecks in sweatshirts of little help.
I had this same teacher a few more times, and since she had forgotten, she asked me the same question again…and again.
Such is the life of the mixed person (in the parlance of our times). When you are multiracial, or even look like you are, prepare to be reminded of the fact every day.
What are you?
What nationality are you?
Where are you from?
Where are your parents from?
Do you speak English?
…You mean like Tiger Woods?
Sometimes I am feeling friendly and generous. I will answer willingly and honestly.
More often however, I know I am being exoticized and I will choose not to play. Even if asked in admiration, it is still objectification at heart and I find myself suddenly and unwillingly on display. Frequently when people do not get an immediate answer they will continue to ask (offering possible ethnicities) with curiously increasing speed and desperation until the whole exchange resembles something of a quiet frenzy. Are You Chinese? Are you Japanese? Cambodian? Are you Peruvian? Columbian? FillipinoPortugueseSicillian?
And why? I wonder.
Why does this person feel the need to know and why do they think it’s ok to ask in such an indelicate way? I do not think it’s a coincidence that these questions come mainly from those who are male and those who are white (both sexes). People, who I gently suggest, may have a certain feeling of entitlement in the world. It is their right to know.
This daily experience is enough to make you raise a few walls. Women (of all colors) are familiar with this I’m sure. The unfortunate unfriendly armor many of us must wear to simply walk down the street when something as wonderful as a genuine expression of our happiness can be interpreted as an invite.
It can be dismissed as innocent curiosity. But few things are as simple as we would wish them to be. Being unable to identify a person’s race or ethnicity can make certain people uncomfortable. How should they interact with you? In what context should they regard your behavior or even your body?
…Did that just make her a corny black person or a cool Asian?
…Was that the opinion of a Latina or an Eskimo?
Without this knowledge some folks are adrift in a rudderless boat, and that inspires panic. Maybe unconscious, but nervousness and fear nonetheless.
This state of not knowing will frustrate many people. Sometimes they won’t waste any energy hiding it. This is an honesty I can almost admire, and one that cements my fondness for Eugene Pallette playing (yet again) another gloriously frank man in Shanghai Express: the gambler Sam Salt. Ah yes I knew this post had a purpose.
You might expect a Race in Film post on Josef Von Sternberg’s 1932 film to focus on the fantastic Anna May Wong and her husky voiced character Hu Fei, or Marlene Dietrich’s Shanghai Lily “The notorious white flower of China”, or the multiracial warlord Henry Chan played by Swedish actor Warner Orland (yellowface made him a wealthy man),
or the sneaky sneaky opium induced lethargy of Asian characters in early Hollywood. Yes, you might expect me to examine all these things and more, but I have always been interested in one quick interaction:
The devilish Henry Chan (sneaky sneaky Oriental) enters his car on the train. He has just been denied access to Hu Fei’s most forbidden blossom. He is not in the brightest of moods. Lost in sinister thoughts, Chan accidentally bumps in to Mr. Baum (Gustav Von Seyffertitz). An ornery fellow by nature Baum tells Chan to get out the way. Shockingly Mr. Chan does not concede to the European man’s aggression as one might expect a Chinaman to do.
Indeed Sam Salt finds this behavior extremely curious. His mind reels, perhaps implodes. What is going on? Exhausted from strenuous deduction, poor Salt makes no buts about it:
“I can’t make head or tail out of you Mr. Chan! Are you Chinese? Or are you white? Or what are you???”
Chan displays surprising patience with Salt’s blunt questioning and answers him (uncharacteristic for the character but an easy way to give the audience information).
My mother is Chinese.
My father is white.
How many times did Chan have to repeat these words in his fictional life?
He might have been a rape inclined war lord, but here he has my sympathy.
Race in Film is Mirror’s first special series! Read about it here and stay tuned for more!
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