Sometimes I Have Skin Trouble

I remember way back when, in Malaysia, I was, like many of my peers, quite convinced that race doesn't matter, that it's just another thing dividing people, and that I should ignore the colour of my skin and work on what's inside.

I mean, that's what every one with the faintest bit of moral fiber says, right? Beauty comes from within. Work hard and it will show. Bla bla bla.

So when I got to Canada, I was kinda pleased when I made friends fairly easily and one of them said, "when I see you, I don't see a Chinese."

Except that it didn't stop people from talking slowly to me as if I'm fresh off the boat, and expressing surprise when they found I could speak perfect English. Most people I know have asked me a variation of the following questions at least once:

"Where did you learn English?"
"How long have you been speaking English?"
"How is your English so good?"

Never mind that most ESL students are more aware of the grammatical rules of English than most native English speakers of Canada, but it got to the point where I grew really comfortable answering these questions. And then it occurred to me one day that if I really believed that race wasn't a big deal at all, I shouldn't have to feel comfortable answering those questions.

It never quite struck me that I was, in fact, a minority within Canada until I attended a bathhouse event. (Yes, Halifax has a bath-house and Venus Envy used to take it over for a girls (and all woman-identified)-only night. They were fun events where I could go and indulge in my desire to wear as little clothing as possible in a warm space despite it being fall or winter outside.)

So I was at the bath-house, surrounded by other women, all shapes and sizes, in various states of undress, and I was having a grand time, going from space to space, checking out the Purple Wand room, and cool stuff like that, and then I paused in front of a mirrored wall.

And then it sort of struck me (like an internal slap on the face) that I was Asian. And that night, I was the only Asian, in a bath house full of white women.

Something about that moment has stuck with me since then. I'm still having trouble processing what it is.


  1. Years ago I worked as a classroom aid during summer school to a teacher who'd been doing it so long, she wasn't very good anymore. One of the years we had 2 kids from China who didn't speak any English. They were in the summer class because sometime soonish they were probably going to immigrate to the U.S.
    Their English progressed RAPIDLY during the 4 weeks they were there, and it definitely wasn't the teacher's doing, nor was it mine. They were clearly getting a lot of help at the house they were staying at (with surprise, surprise, someone who could speak the same language as them). One day a young (20something) guy came in wearing a t-shirt from MIT or Harvard, with witty text on it. It was very obvious to me that HE was the reason the kids were learning English so quickly.
    The teacher proceeded to talk to him like he was an idiot: slow and loud (as though that even IS a way to make someone understand you if they don't understand the language). The thing is, even after he responded to her multiple times sans accent, quickly, intelligently, clearly TOTALLY FLUENT, she still kept talking to him like that. It made me want to scream.

    I guess this is only tangentially related, but the idea of publically "othering" someone like that just infuriates me so much, and it reminded me.

  2. I went to a hammam (a turkish public bath) in Granada last year and had to completely strip to change into my bikini in the locker room (no changing rooms). After the (very lovely) bath and massage was over I had to shower in an open place with other naked white women. I was the only non-white there. It was a very weird, weird experience. As much as I find it difficult to say this but, the first few thoughts that came to my mind was, "Is my body really that inferior to theirs?". Mind you, because of my nakedness I was rendered completely vulnerable to everything, even to my own (illogical?) self-shaming.

    *p/s: I'm very excited about your new blog!

  3. DeviantE: Yeah, that's really annoying! I fortunately don't have people speaking s-l-o-w-l-y to me anymore. I think it's because my body language telegraphs "NOT A STEREOTYPICAL ASIAN!" so people are less inclined to talk to me that way.

    cycads: That's so bizarre - one would think one would find other non-whites in a space like that!

    p/s: Thanks!!


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