BY MIA JERPHAGNON
Wafts of salty breeze tickled my nose as I gazed at the ocean. Like all things of nature, its whispers were both haunting and welcoming. The deep water rolled in blue, murky waves, and yet the choppy peaks adorned with crowns of white foam brilliantly reflected the light from above. The Atlantic Ocean lived on forever, the horizon blurring with the sky in a painting of bittersweet colors.
It occurred to me that everything is formed of water: the sea, clouds of moisture, and even sixty percent of the human body. Maybe we and the rest of Earth were not so separate and dissimilar as we think.
My eyes averted from the water, and I focused on walking towards my destination, a tall building with a staircase leading up to a platform next to an office inside.
Today, I was going sailing. I was not enthusiastic like my dad—not in the least. While he was excited to go out on the open water as he did when he was a little boy, I cringed at the memory of my last experience here. Years ago when I went sailing, it had been rainy and miserable, and my wetsuit was an irritable nuisance. Still, I trudged towards the building which housed the local sailing school, if only to make my dad happy.
When we arrived, Papa and I ascended the staircase. A rack of wetsuits in faded violet and red stood a few feet away. Teenagers crowded on the stone stairs stepped aside as we passed. I felt ridiculously silly in my bathing suit while everyone else was geared in wetsuits.
Soon enough, we reached the registration office. Papa checked in, and we were then directed back outside to get our wetsuits. From a group of kids ranging from elementary to high school, an instructor emerged and hands us thick, dark fabric, which seemed to belong to blubber on a seal, not clothing on human skin.
The suit fisted tightly in my hands, I headed back inside the building to the girls' locker room. Inside, I managed to pull on my newfound "skin" and play with the zipper under my chin. It felt bizarre, especially with its confusing velcro straps.
My confusion should have been a sign.
Feeling akin to a Selkie from the Irish myth, I attempted to locate my dad as I walked outside near the wetsuit rack, but I failed to find him. My body shifted in discomfort at the absence of his calming presence.
Then I noticed the stares. The instructor gestured to his wetsuit, obviously trying to tell me something important. He said something unintelligible. Bystanders began to sticker, and for the life of me, I could not figure out why.
"I . . . don't speak French very well," I mutter to him, stumbling over the words. The truth was, I was not as bad at speaking French as I appeared, but at the moment I was distracted by the fluttery, nervous feeling in my abdomen.
I overheard an anonymous voice in the crowd remark, "Un américain."
One kid—in fact, a boy I recognized from earlier on the stairs—tried to explain in English to me, "Your combination is on the wrong side."
Confused, I squinted. Why is this happening to me right now? And what can he ever mean by "combination"?
“Stupid,” he admitted in a French accent while raising his palm. I knew he was referencing how he was incapable of speaking English properly, but it only made me feel dumber than ever.
More kids were laughing.
Only then did I notice that everyone had the zippers on their backs, not on their fronts.
"Ohhhhh . . . ," an expression of understanding dawned on my face. I must have had put the wetsuit on backward.
“How embarrassing” would have been an understatement.
I placed my hand on my forehead and laughed to myself, heading back to the locker rooms. I attempted to “shake it off” like the Taylor Swift in her song, but I was, of course, unsuccessful.
Surprise, surprise, it turns out “combinaison” meant wetsuit in French, so his inference that combination was the English translation was an easy mistake.
Later, after two hours of sailing, I found out that boy, the very one who had made me feel embarrassed at my lack of common sense and IQ, was my second cousin. The last time I had seen him was when we were nine years old, so I was unable to recognize him .
So the lesson learned from this basically was: avoid Europeans and wetsuits at all costs.
Now, with more experience under my belt, I can understand my feelings from that fateful day. At the time, I was young, and I chalked up the incident to my lack of common sense and humorous misfortune. But as someone of Thai and French descent living in America, I now realize I felt out of place with my identity. Switching between my French, Thai, and American roots—while never feeling quite stable in either—I never felt comfortable in my own skin.
That day, I thought I was Selkie, but now I realize that could not have been true. A Selkie is comfortable with all its skins and forms, easily changing at a whim. In contrast, I was an awkward preteen who had acne and no idea how to fit within my inherited cultures.
However, I have learned that I should not aspire to be Selkie. A mistaken belief that has led me astray these past few years was that I needed to switch my identities as one would change clothing for different occasions. I am not a Selkie. I am a girl who is all of my cultures and passions at once, a girl who is no less French if I am also Thai and American.
I am, indubitably, Mia.