Written by Caroline Tsai.
Graphic by Emma Robinson.
I am seven years old when I decide to be white.
I pester my parents over and over again with the possibility that I might have been adopted – as if I might be able to sever the source of my non-whiteness that way. Upon finally realizing that I am irrevocably, very much, not white, I begin a lifelong rebellion with myself: a coup against my identity; a rejection of my origins; desperately pulling at my roots in an attempt to upheave them – to forcefully drag them out of myself so that everything that stemmed from them would wither away to nothingness. Leaving behind a blank slate. A white slate.
I learn that I am bilingual and have been speaking a mixture of my parents’ language and the language I had picked up at school; quickly, I begin refusing to converse in any language other than English. I realize that my father is packing me his favorite cultural foods for lunch and demand that he only make me peanut butter and jelly sandwiches from now on. I change my name to Jenny. Jenny is the whitest name I can think of.
I am in high school when I become a part-time model.
I envelope myself in disguise and deception – the ability to twist and control perception of appearance. As I gain more experience and my photoshoots become more advanced and complex, I continuously request those I work with to be as bold and creative as they can with my appearance. To the makeup artists: Go crazy with the makeup. Heavy on the eyeliner. Enough highlighter to make me so pale that I glow. Cover my entire face if you want. Make it so that you can’t even recognize me. To the hair stylists: Perm it. Bleach it. Dye it. Tease it. Make it into something it could never have been on its own. To the clothing stylists: Put me in something outrageous. Something unrecognizable. Something different. Something new. Something that will transform me into someone else. I master the ability to see and be seen as something that I am not.
I am a sophomore in college when I do the photoshoot.
Up until then, I have refused to ever be a part of one like this. I tell my agent: None of those kinds of photoshoots. Absolutely none. Finally, he puts his foot down. The pay is really high for ethnic models to do ethnic photoshoots because hiring a white model to do the task runs the risk of being accused of cultural appropriation. This time, he says that I am going to do this photoshoot or else he’s not representing me anymore.
So I do the shoot. Fans in my hair. Flowing patterned dresses. Red makeup around the eyes. I remember how important the color red is. I do the shoot and I never talk about it with anyone again. I don’t look at the photos. I change the subject when people in my future shoots bring it up. I don’t see myself in the fans and flowing dresses.
I see myself with the eyeliner and bleached hair. Heavy on the eyeliner. Winged like the white girls do it. Highlighter that makes me glow and clothes that make me white. Bleached hair that makes me someone else. No red makeup around the eyes.
I am in graduate school when my friend asks me why I never eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
She’s making herself a broke student’s dinner as I lounge on her couch. Absentmindedly, I tell her that I love peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. They’re my favorite. I’ve eaten them for lunch every day since I was a little girl. She asks me: So when did you stop? I look up at her, munching on her sandwich. The jelly is oozing out between the two layers of bread. The crust is still on. I tell her: I never stopped. Peanut butter and jelly is still my favorite. She points out that since she has met me a few years ago, she has watched me turn down every offer for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. If it’s ham and cheese or egg salad or tuna, I will take it; but if it’s peanut butter and jelly, I always say no. She tells me that all of our friends have learned to stock up on deli meat just so they have something to feed me when I’m over at their place that I won’t refuse.
I think to myself that it is nothing. I just happened to not be hungry all those times I was offered peanut butter and jelly. Of course I love peanut butter and jelly. It’s my favorite, I insist to her. Just like I used to insist to my father: I want peanut butter and jelly for lunch. Yes, every day. It’s my favorite.
She raises an eyebrow and holds out her sandwich to me. I smell the creamy peanut butter. I stare at the oozing sweet jelly. Part of the crust crumbles between her fingers and sprinkles on to the table in front of me. I stare at the crumbs.
I made my father cut the crusts off. The white schoolkids only ate crust-less peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. It had to be crust-less.
It had to be peanut butter and jelly.
Slowly, I get up and go back to my apartment. Slowly. Slower than it takes a lifetime to pass by.
I am a sophomore in college when I do the Asian photoshoot.
I pull out the magazine it was printed in from under my bed. The only shoot I’ve done whose images I’ve never looked at afterward. The only Asian shoot I ever let myself do. I had told my agent: None of those kinds of photoshoots. Absolutely none. I flip through the pages. I look at the photos. I see myself in the fans and flowing dresses. Red makeup around the eyes.
I remember how important the color red is.
My mother has red textiles hanging on the walls.
I am in high school when I bring my modeling friends over.
The walls are bare. I make my mother take down the textiles before my friends arrive. I make her put away the Chinese food she is cooking in the kitchen for dinner. Make her take out a loaf of bread and two jars of peanut butter and jelly instead. My friends ask me: why don’t your parents talk? I tell them they are shy.
My mother comes over and smiles at my friends. She opens her mouth to say something. I glare at her sharply. No Chinese. She shuts her mouth and smiles at my friends again. She turns to leave the room. She stops to grab a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for her dinner.
I am seven years old when I tell my parents that they can’t talk to me in Chinese anymore.
They ask me why. Because I want to be white, I tell them. I want to be white. It’s my choice. I choose to be white.
It is my choice.
I chose this.
I am seven years old the last day I speak Chinese in public. My mother is waiting for me at the bus stop. She asks me how my day was as I hop down the bus steps. I answer excitedly, in a rush of words and gestures, trying to communicate my day to her. I am unaware of languages or my participation in the act of mixing them. I only know that I am trying to communicate to the fullest extent that my abilities will allow me. The students who get off the bus with me stare and whisper to each other: what are those noises she’s making? What is that? One of them says to the others: she’s different from us. She makes those noises. Like animals do.
This is my choice, I tell my parents. I chose this.
I chose to be hindered in my ability to communicate.
I am seven years old on the last day I bring an Asian lunch to school. My father packs me his favorite Chinese foods every day. He gets up early – before the rest of us wake – and hand rolls the rice. He rips and folds the seaweed. He stirs the sesame.
I sit down in the cafeteria. My classmates stare at my lunch. They pinch their noses and ask me: what is that? It’s seaweed, I say, it’s my favorite. They squeal and point and scoot away from me. They scream about how gross my lunch is. How disgusting I must be to eat something like that.
I am seven years old and it is not my father’s favorite Chinese food. It was never my father’s favorite Chinese food. It is mine.
I choose peanut butter and jelly, I tell my father. Yes, every day. It’s my favorite. I choose it.
I chose to forget what my favorite food was. For fifteen years.
I am seven years old the day I am told that I am not a real person.
We are making new locker tags in class. I write Jung-Chen in giant marker letters. No one ever has the same name as me. It makes me feel special. The new girl who just transferred to my classroom glances over at my nametag and looks confused. That’s not a real name, she says. Yes it is, I say, it’s my name. She shakes her head and taps the boy sitting beside her. She points at my locker tag. Is that a real name? He shakes his head. She doesn’t have a real name. They call her that. I insist: it is a real name. How can I not have a real name? The boy looks at me and says: You must not be a real person. You have to have a real name to be a real person.
I am seven years old and I want to be a real person.
This is my choice, I tell my parents.
I chose to be Jenny.
I chose to be white.
I chose to change who I was.
I am in high school and I have pulled so hard at the roots of who I am that they have become irreversibly entangled. My blank slate is so blank, sticking anything on it looks uncomfortably wrong and painfully out of place. I have a collection of my modeling photos and not one of those girls in the images knows who she is. She poses for the camera anyways. Lifts her chin up. Stares straight ahead. Shows off the layers of hair and makeup and costumes that she has learned to hide behind. Winged eyeliner and bleached hair. Somewhere underneath those is a seven year old who never wanted to be called Jenny. Who loved Chinese food. Who knew how to communicate better because she spoke two languages.
I am a sophomore in college and they’re painting red makeup around my eyes. I remember how important the color red is. It represents luck to the Chinese. I remember that my mother has red textiles hanging on the walls. I remember that she stops putting them back up after I keep asking her to take them down. Our walls are empty now.
I am in grad school and I hate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
Slowly, I walk to my fridge and open the door. I stare at my jars of peanut butter and jelly. The lids are crusted green with mold. The jelly is red. Like luck. Slowly, I pick them up. Slowly, I lift the lid of my trash can and throw the two jars inside. Slowly, I watch the lid of the jelly fall off. Slowly, the red spills.
Slower than it takes my lifetime to pass me by.