Lori Arden

Your Father Is Chinese

When I am in elementary school, small and shy and in second grade, an even smaller boy likes to come find me during recess. As I ramble about, roaming from monkey bars to swing set to geodesic dome, he follows at a distance. Unspooling, always, behind me, loose in the air like a red balloon.

The pattern of his presence accumulates, day by day, until soon I come to expect him. This tuft of boy, small and pale, slipping across my view like a cloud of gnats at dusk. Neither imposing nor intriguing, just there. So I pay him no mind, and just let him be.

Maybe it’s because I’m bigger than him but quiet; maybe it’s because I’m a girl. Maybe his parents forget to hug him in the morning before work, or dissolve into the striated flicker of cable TV at night. But one day the boy picks up his pace and skitters in front of me, blocking my way as I drift past the older girls Double-Dutching in their jelly sandals. They skip lightly, the glitter in the soft plastic of their shoes catching the sun as they nick the ground in small scuffs.

In those days, the creases of my shyness shape me; I fold inward like origami, seeking the soft quiet center of myself. A tight container of consciousness, I self-exile, peering up at the world from the angle of a chin tilting downward. No amount of sleep can eliminate the bags under my eyes which, puffy and purple, give the abiding impression of world-weariness before my time.

It’s a pint-sized heaviness I carry with me, an unexplainable vestige of pale blue melancholy I shoulder like a satchel. In yearbook photos I peek out from the half-drawn blinds of my eyelids, regarding the school photographer with the suspicion, the touch of terror, I reserve for all strange adults. To slink up to the stool and sit quietly, hands fidgeting as my insides judder, is an annual trial I anticipate darkly. My refusal to smile is my lone act of rebellion in an overall brief life of Sunday School obedience.

Now the little boy calls out to me, and I startle to find I am ducking my head. I palm the intention to pass him by like a soft fresh mango, the kind my Lola scores into squares, pushing her thumbs into the pliable skin and inverting the flesh so the pieces jut out, still attached at the base. Mango cities—all those little alleyways in which to hide. 

Confrontation has never been my strong suit, but now a small curiosity blossoms. What does the boy want from me? Does he want to be friends? The specter of connection prickles, causing me a tremor and a thrill. Most days I prefer to disappear, to slip from the edges. But just like any other child, I long for companionship too. 

I glance up, caught in a spotlight of midday sun. We’re in New Mexico, on the border of Texas; the air is hot and the ground is dusty. The breeze picks up and quickens bits of desert on the blacktop; the older kids on the soccer field bellow. Someone kicks the ball, and the hollow thump of it purples the air. The boy, did I mention, is white.

It’s this detail that lingers and then transmogrifies, rupturing into an exclamation point that sparks the air between us as I wait for the moment to clarify itself. Waiting, at least, has always been my strong suit.

Then something shifts; time tips, and then topples, pouring over the edge of a hill and snowballing toward me so abruptly I’m unable to steel myself before it stops again, its phantom force slamming the sounds of recess back into my ears. Reality floods in like a quick-moving tide flecked with foam, and I watch the boy reach up to his face and, in one sharp movement, jerk the corner of both eyelids up. The teeter-totter sing-song of a nursery rhyme trips out of his mouth; I listen to the lilt of it prowl the air. 

“Your father is Chinese!”

He zestfully tugs the edges of his eyelids down.

“Your mother is Japanese!”

His left eyelid stays down as his right eyelid shoots up again, two almonds angled away from each other, lancing the pink of his skin.

“And you’re IN-BETWEEN!”

And there he stops, his face a wide-open cackle. 

Already a bad memory, his taunt fractalizes in the air, and I have no place to put my eyes but on his own. I know that in looking at them I am meant to be gazing into a mirror, and I feel caught, held captive in a vortex alongside this twisted twin of mine. I take in the artificial slits of his eyes—blue, pocked with grey—and the way they orient themselves in opposing directions, one toward heaven and one toward hell. I note how jarring their asymmetry is, how uncanny to behold; their hyperbole has a cruelty that’s weighty and smooth. It slithers over to me and says to me: yes, you are different. Yes. You are strange. Yes—you are ugly, and you do not belong.

Barricaded by the moment, I puzzle it out. The fact, I want to tell the boy, is that he is wrong. My father is not Chinese, nor is my mother Japanese. He is American, from Chicago, and she is Filipino, from Pampanga. 

But then…

The conclusion flares to life like an old house on fire. Because isn’t he right, then, in a way? Aren’t I in-between?

Years later, I don’t recall much of an aftermath, or what followed me home from school that day. Only that I’d blinked, very likely, and said nothing. Just kept walking, heading for the out-sized truck tires at the edge of the playground in whose gawping interiors I sometimes liked to hide. Dust storms would occasionally gather and whip the air right outside, pelting sand at the rubber of the tires with a violence I found excessive. But I would just make myself smaller, huddle further into the cavern of wheel and hold my breath until eventually the gust died down and the particles of sand dropped, inert once more.

Lori Arden is a video editor, filmmaker, and writer currently living in Berkeley, California. A half-Filipino Third Culture Kid, she grew up moving from place to place and has lived in the Philippines, Japan, Turkey, Germany, New Mexico, and New York. Her work frequently explores notions of home, identity, and belonging, and has appeared in Panorama: The Journal of Intelligent Travel and JuxtaProse.