BY MARIELLA RUBENSON
I’m in the middle of doing homework and my mind is drifting towards the existential.
What is trigonometry? What is life? Who am I? I glance at the globe on my shelf and my
eyes land squarely on Kunlun Shan, the long mountain chain in Asia. Is a teenager
there also trying to find the value of cosine using a Pythagorean identity?
I spin the globe and I am again looking at China, but this time the province of Fujian
pops out at me. I find Xiamen, a city on the coast, and think of how this place is a part of
my story. I know this from having done extensive research for a presentation in 10th
grade history. I told my classmates the story of Lim Chuaco, a poor baker who left
Xiamen in the late 1800s to seek his fortune on a small, heart-shaped island in the
Philippines. He built a bakery, married a local woman and raised a family. Their son
became a lawyer and diplomat who married the daughter of the town mayor, had six
children, and moved them around the world--to Pakistan, Korea, Egypt and Italy. Their
only daughter married the son of an Iraqi general, who back in the 1700s had Jewish
and West African ancestors. Their daughter married the son of a Dutch Jew, whose
parents survived the concentration camps in World War II and a Swedish Jew, who
also, in the 1700s, had West African ancestors. That daughter had me.
As soon as I finished telling this story, a classmate exclaimed in disbelief, “you’re
It took me a second to realize what they were talking about. Wasian? What does that
even mean? Then it clicked. Wasian: White and Asian. I never thought about race all
that much before--not mine and not others. But in that moment, I realized that my
classmates were looking at me a little bit differently, as though opening up about my
origins reframed the picture. I was still the same person I was a moment before, but the
image they now saw was, let’s say, a bit less cropped.
This spring, following the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd,
and the growing importance of the Black Lives Matter movement, I started to reflect
more on race and how critical it is to acknowledge it as a part of people’s identities. I
realized that recognizing race is a way of understanding people better, where they’re
from and what their experience might be. Every time I step outside, walk down the
street, enter a classroom or attend a family event, I am presented with a tapestry of
colour. It's been like that ever since I can remember and I haven't reflected on it. It's
who I am and where I live. But as someone from a multicultural family living in one of the most diverse cities in the world, it occurs to me how absurd it is that I hadn’t given it
that much thought before.
The colour of one's skin is the very fabric of one's being. It’s the face that stares back
from the mirror, the image captured in a selfie. There is no way of avoiding it. I share my
blue eyes with some of my white ancestors and their almond shape is something I’ve
inherited from my Asian forebears. These eyes help me navigate my way in this world,
just as his, hers and theirs do. If I don’t see my race or that of others, what else am I
missing? Framed another way, by being mindless of race, am I denying someone an
essential part of who they are?
If I ignore race, I ignore origins. And I would miss so much.