Cassandra Khaw: “I didn’t know I was exotic until you told me”

Rupert Wong author Cassandra Khaw writes about Western reactions

I didn’t know I was exotic until you told me.

Growing up, it was all black hair, brown eyes, skin that was dusky, that was brown, that was sandstone-pale. When people spoke, it was music: Hokkien, Tagalog, Malay, Cantonese, Tamil, Kelantan-Pattani Malay. When people came together, it was always a communion held in triumphant patois, a little bit of whoever they were, mixed up as we went ‘kasi I one char kway teow, extra pedas can?’

White people lived in television screens.

Hair that pale, skin so transparent, such things did not exist in our normal. Our eyes were not the color of our veins, were not green or cracked-diamond blues, were not gray with pupils matte-black it their wintry heart. Some of us were tall but we were rarely that tall. White people belonged in Hollywood. Not at home.

I thought you were the exotic ones until you told me.

Don’t get me wrong. It isn’t that white people didn’t exist in Malaysia. They’re here too, have always been. Some louder than they need to be, some crasser than they should be. And before you ask, the answer’s no. No, the sex tourists didn’t help any. I grew up being told to be wary of the white man, wary of the Caucasian who is only here chasing the fantasy of the sarong party girl.

There are plenty of Westerners here who are respectful of the country, who pick at their pronunciation of our dialects, submitting to corrections until they’ve learnt the right intonations. There are just as many (maybe more, I’m afraid) who do not, who loudly mutilate those few words they know, who call everything ‘quaint’ and ‘twee’ and marvel at the idea of high-speed Internet right here in the sticks. (Ignore the skyline. Ignore the technology. Focus on the colonial houses, overrun by ivy. Focus on the huts, the traditional architecture.)

Either way, though, your people are not, were not, will likely never be the majority. You’re just ghosts, just strangers, exotic to no end.

And then I went to the West and everyone told me:

You’re different.

You’re exotic.

You’re the odd one out.

My first year in America, I spent in a fugue, surprised by Panda Express and questions about the sugariness of food back home. (“Why is Chinese food always so sweet and fried?” “It isn’t.”) For the first time, I had my English called into question. (“How is your English so good? Did you go to school here?” “No?”) For the first time, I found myself second-guessing every conversation, unable to tell if someone was interested in my presence or the color of my skin. (Chinese girls aren’t wilting flowers. We all grow up to be our mothers, our ribs full of dragon fire.)

I was so exotic to some of you.

It still strikes me as strange.

I am of the Chinese diaspora, for all that I have had the privilege of living in Asia. My Hokkien is different. My palate is more adjusted for spice. When I speak, it isn’t with the cadence of the motherland, but with the rhythm of my Peranakan forebearers. But I was never exotic until you said it was so. I was only Chinese, only Malaysian, only the intersection of my identities.

Then you told me I was wrong.

And you know what?

I guess that can be okay.

We’ll be exotic together, you and I. You with your brass-threaded hair, your acid-washed eyes. I, with my epicanthic folds, my flat nose. We can be American, Japanese, German, Thai, Dutch, Chinese – one big homogenous lump. If I have to be your Yellow Peril, you can be my ‘ang moh kia.’ Fair’s fair.

I didn’t know I was exotic until you told me.

Rupert Wong and the Ends of the Earth is out from Abaddon now.

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