Expat Life

A Revealing Journey With Inescapable Mirrors

Coming home

Detail, Harumi Yukutake: Paracosmos. 2016. Installation, circular mirrors on curved staircase/ Photo by author

The immigration officer at LA International Airport (LAX) arrivals asks, “What’s the purpose of your visit?” What? Huh? I am shocked. Does my US passport not clearly state I am a citizen? Is this not the line for returning citizens? He turns to my Asian face. He is dead serious. “To come home!” I retort, then quickly add in an even tone, “It’s a home visit.” After a 24 hour trans-Pacific flight, all I want is to go home and head to bed if jet lag will have mercy on me.

Where is the cheerful “welcome home” I’m used to in the past decades? I love the warmth in the air every year my husband and I return from overseas projects. What is happening? Was it the presence of my White husband that warranted the cordial nods all these years? But that is only a flick of wonder. I have no wish to go down that road.

Yet, I cannot stop thinking.

Is it race? Culturalism? Or other agitations?

Way back in the last millennium, I entered Paris for an epic trip. I lived through an intensive semester of French and continued to explore the rest of Europe. French? I forget. Yet I subconsciously reenter one scene all the time.

On a long train ride, a child two empty rows diagonally behind me spews vomit all over his mother and the aisle. Grotesque lumps crawl in greenish porridge. I watch what follows with dismay, and utmost respect. His mother retrieves two sweaters from her bag. In a swift motion, she wipes up the huge repulsive puddle on the train floor after quickly cleaning herself. She then strokes her child’s back with a steady hand, as if nothing happened. Hush.

The White woman’s (yes, White) civic accountability holds a place like none other. Her motherly attributes are as impressive. Oh I know that is a one-off incident. But what I see on subsequent trips to Europe do not matter nearly as much as the train imprint on the young mind. She beats the tourist who trashes others’ bathrooms.

We become mirrors of our cultures when we travel. Small encounters yield huge effects. Who knows what the LAX immigration officer encountered.

If I’m influenced by the better side of another culture, am I a traitor of my own?

My husband and I lived in Hong Kong during the past millennium. He used to play fast-pitch softball with fellow Americans and local friends. In one international tournament, hubby joined Hong Kong Chinese players to represent the city abroad. They had fun, even though his injured lower leg swelled to double like a gigantic wooden mallet. Those were good multi-cultural days.

I had fun weekends with my husband’s team on the field. The energy, goodwill, and aroma of the wok in the cafeteria lured. But off the field, some called me a western-worshipper. Ouch! It doesn’t taste good. It’s time for soul searching.

Detail, Wu Guanzhong: A World of Ice and Snow. 1997. Ink on bark paper/ Photo by author

I love contemporary Chinese ink and calligraphy. I’m intrigued by Zhang Daqian’s humor and moved by Wu Guanzhong’s truthfulness. Names like Gu Wenda and Xu Bing roll off my tongue in the present millennium.

And I love Cantonese cuisine in Hong Kong. In my childhood, treasures like aged tangerine peels and fresh ginger were omnipresent. Extensive herbal knowledge is a best kept open secret, a source of cultural pride.

I’m proud of my mother’s culture. Am I prey to culturalism?

The question is not binary. Not everything is all love and rosy, I know. The thunder of colonial trample on diverse Asian nations hits hard when I cross living artists’ paths. I’ll start with the British, who document everything floral and faunal. That includes colonial natives.

At a museum seminar, Sabahan-New Zealander artist Yee I-Lann’s Study of Lamprey’s Malayan Male I &II stuns. I absorb the appropriation of British photographer John H. Lamprey’s work in the 1800s with horror. The undressed Malayan man looks nervous, incongruently holding a spear. I-Lann punches the instigator with a “pow!”. She dignifies the naked man with an empowered fist. He stares right back.

Ahh. John H. Lamprey facilitated a system to document naked ethnic subjects. To him, colonial natives were specimens in the White man’s eye. Did other photographers of the period take nude White male photos? Yes, those were Olympians in athletic posts.

Titarubi: History Repeats Itself. 2016. Installation, hooded figures of gold-plated nutmegs, partially burnt wooden sampans with miniature copper-plated cannons/ Photo by author

In a darkened gallery at Singapore Art Museum, hooded forms send hollow chills. On close-up, I realize the ghost figures are gold-plated nutmegs. Amid the aroma, Indonesian artist Titarubi’s burnt boats croon eerie moans.

When the British traded Banda for Manhattan in 1667, the Dutch rubbed their hands with glee. Nutmeg was worth more than gold. Dutch torture and genocide of Bandanese to clear for plantations escaped discussion. The native population collapsed from 14,000 to 480. Not until artists and researchers dig up history does this surface.

That is the tip. I brace for the iceberg. Melting, humongous icebergs traveling through vast Asian populations. A humiliating colonial past of a few centuries needs reconciliation. If an Asian community heals and gets ahead without a victim mentality, well — kudos!

Does it mean Asians naturally embrace other Asians? That’s an outsized misguided question. Recall World War II? It’s not a myth. Ironically, Japanese artist Harumi Yukutake’s work Paracosmos calls out hypocrisies. Her thousands of circular mirrors line a curved grand staircase. No viewer can escape self-reflections from the most unexpected angles. Are we that different?

Detail, Harumi Yukutake: Paracosmos. 2016. Installation, circular mirrors on curved staircase/ Photo by author

The question extends: Am I aware of American cruelty against Asians in the past? Yes. Do I bear a grudge against White people today? No. Why should I? Not my husband’s loving family, and not those I know in person.

Outside the colonial museum building, a darker woman and a blonde young girl approach me for directions. I mistake them as mother and daughter, to the older woman’s chagrin and the girl’s furious protest. They are friends, not related. I guess their color difference is not of substance to me. Why not? Plenty of hybrid families thrive in my life. Have I arrived?

Not so fast.

Must we pass on the burdens of our past to the next generation or let live free?

Finally, I’m home from LAX and done with jet lag. I realize I need to replenish my compact. It’s top of the line and comfortable for sensitive skin. I head to the brand’s counter.

“No, we don’t carry Asian colors. You’ll have to go to (some mall in China Town that I never visit).” Without so much as a glance at the compact I hold up for her inspection, the White saleswoman dismisses me. I’m confused. What colors are Asians? I happen to use one of the lightest palettes. I always buy the same from the brand country-wide, because it’s closest to my natural skin color.

I head to the next department store nearby, not the one the woman mentions above. A helpful Black saleswoman looks at the compact and says, “You know, it’s not trendy to use light colors anymore.” Huh? So my natural skin color is now subject to cover-up by what’s trendy?

The cosmetics industry politicizes its products. No secret. I’m not sure if I’m qualified to talk about the Black plight. But if I prefer my compact color close to my natural complexion, am I racist?

At the evening party, my charming host introduces me to his woman friend from Sri Lanka. Her broad gold necklace sets off her sunken black eyes and dark chocolate skin. While I enjoy the hors d’oeuvres, I’m also amazed by others’ shock over Asians’ wide diversity in colors. My amazement promptly turns into empathy on sensing my new acquaintance’s discomfort. Her experience I’m spared.

So what color is Asian? Over 50 ethnicities exist in China alone, reflecting as many subtle shades. Indonesia? 1300 ethnic groups. India? Over 2000.

The thorny topic of color keeps reentering even though I’ve unsubscribed. I have been both the majority and minority. Issues about race, color, and culture can alternately come across as trivial and piercing.

With the cloud hanging, will I have the energy to reintroduce myself?

A bond develops with my collection of award-winning Italian furniture. To reenter its embrace in foreign lands is like a homecoming. Yet the big reentry will be different.

A friend from Hong Kong plans to reenter life on a 10-year voyage. Fifteen years of care for her cancer-stricken mother transforms her. She will sail the world with her English-German husband in their 55-ft sloop. Crystals, porcelains, and fine silverware cease to have their former meaning. All these will go to someone who can use them. My sailing friends need shatter-proof, scratch-proof plasticware for marine use.

Oceans link more than landmasses. Ports are my friends’ connection to humans and supplies. I look at her with some concern, despite the couple being avid hobby sailors.

Fear not. My friend reassures me sailors of the world have an unspoken code of kinship. Even strangers lend a hand at anchor time. I wonder if the code extends to land people?

Fear. Some years down the road, my husband and I will reenter the US again for good. A new culture shock will strike, I’m sure. Will I be close to long-distance family? Friends I’ve made along the journey will no longer be near me. What are homes with pristine beaches and nice people abound, if not one soul there shares what’s me?

Detail, Zhu Legeng: Landscape Reflection. 2015. Ceramic installation of lotus parts with gold interiors on melting streams in spring/ Photo by author

Encounters weave themselves into my odyssey, like fine streams of water flowing through intricate terrain. Reentry time will come. Will I live in my authentic fabric or change to shatter-proof plastic marine ware? Will I walk tall? Will I embrace all the shortcomings of my countrymen and those of my own? Will I have the energy to reintroduce myself?

A reentry into what? A place not where I grew up. A space with my beloved furniture? For years, home is where my husband is. Will hubby and I again be foreigners at home?

I will be fine. The unspoken bonding of global friends is real, so are family and friends with a global vision. I’m over the shameless gawking and the barely veiled, curious peripheral stares. Do you know why? From enlightened boomers to Gen Z, people are breaking the spell, aren’t they? Aren’t they?

Fear not. I will be fine.

© PseuPending 2021

Discover more in Pour Your Favorite Drink. This One is Artisanal.



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Pseu Pending (Seu)

Leisure is a path to the thinking process. Museum Educator/ Contemporary Art Researcher/ 4th Culture Woman/ Lover of Good Eats. Top writer in Poetry, Food