100 Percent of Both

Racial identity of an Asian in Africa

ACCRA, Ghana — According to a select group of hormonal Ghanaian men, I am the promised land of sex and green cards that will unfurl upon the mere uttering of "ni hao," rumored to be the universal mating call in Asia. The most popular pickup line I have received is essentially a long string of southeastern Asian countries, question mark. (Korea, for whatever reason, never makes the list.) The grammatical fragment is often accompanied by a look of wide-eyed wonder and teeth slightly bared in what I imagine to be curious lust. I feel really Asian in Ghana. Granted, the color of deeply polished ebony is the norm here, but I'm not even the glorious pale shade of ethereal white skin that can be seen on Ghanaian advertisements. I am pasty and yellow. I look strange to most Ghanaians—and they kindly tell me so. In the middle of a conversation with a young Ghanaian named Masso, he suddenly stopped talking, shoulders stiffening and eyes swiveling wildly from me to my friends Emma and Andrew, who are both white. Masso pressed his palms together in a sort of awed hesitation: "You," pointing at me, "are not like them," pointing at Emma and Andrew. Never before had I heard myself described in such a comparative manner, and I felt, frankly, like a weirdo. Inspired by the weight of his recent revelation, Masso signaled my hair. Ah yes, Asian hair: that straggly, limp mass of long black material sprouting from my skull. What was I? Where did this thing, this anomaly, come from? Whether strangers grip my heavily sun-blocked forearm to press it against the darkness of their own, or whether I am harassed by the unflagging shouts of "Hey, China" or "Chinese woman," I am constantly reminded of how different I look. At one point, I hoped that wearing sunglasses would somehow obscure my Asian eyes. I did not want to be a novelty, so I shied away from being Asian and gravitated towards being American. And I hearken back to the fifth grade, when the boy on the school bus taunted me endlessly for speaking "ching chong." Even in the States, others would constantly categorize and demarcate. There is an extremist tendency in the Asian-American communities to which I have been exposed: You are either Korean or not, hence the popularity of terms such as "white-washed" (bleached and freshly pressed American), "Twinkie" (carby Asian on the outside, creamy White on the inside), and "FOB" (fresh off the boat). But it had taken me long enough in America, much less in Ghana, to realize that being Asian has very little to do with not being American. I can be both and still be a feasible human being. I don't want to split my identity in half again, and I willingly sacrifice simplicity to keep myself intact. So when Ghanaians ask if I am 50-percent Asian and 50-percent American, I say that I am a 100 percent of both. And despite all the brown dust that cakes onto the back of my calves after walking, I can still scrape away a thin, pale line with my fingernail and revel in the fact that I will always be pasty. —Esther I. Yi '11, a Crimson news editor, is a History and Literature concentrator in Dunster House. She prefers 45 SPF.