More often than not, memories can be brought forth triggered by something as small as a gesture. The older the memory, the more speckled it is. In my experience, I can bring forth the memories of places, its events and its feelings too rapidly and too precisely, too vividly as though harshly transported back. These past few months have produced meaningful conversations around race and identity. With these topics at the back of my head, dark late nights in silence before sleep and sunny in-depth family conversations have spurred recollections of long forgotten events.
I remembered it was towards the end of the semester in year 7 and I was with a group of friends after 3:15pm waiting to be picked up. The weather was tepid, unusually cloudy with our shadows marking the bitumen under our sneakers, I remembered the white netball markings on the court. I remembered the feeling of being affected by something that had happened and that I was seeking empathy and an ear that would listen to me. What I couldn’t remember was precisely what was affecting me, how the conversation started or what I said to my friends.
In a positive and consoling tone my friend said with a gentle grin, “But, I don’t see you as Asian though!”
There was no malice or ill feeling, it was her frank with no harm intended. She was trying to console me but I was confused. I didn’t understand what she meant. I didn’t know what to say or what I was supposed to process. A silver car coming to a stop called the end of our conversation. I said bye and went home.
I remembered one particular day, our teacher was absent. Instead, we had a middle aged white Australian man as our substitute, I think he was actually a P.E teacher. He was blocky with a deep laugh and an impatient looking frown. Truancy was a big issue at my school, so taking roll call was stressed and always occurred at the beginning of class.
We took our seats and quietened down, the substitute teacher’s meaty hands held a neon lime green clipboard that had our names listed out alphabetically by our family name. We all knew who was who in class and where we stood in line on the class roster, I knew my name came after Joshua King. The class waited impatiently, wanting to get roll call out of the way, wanting class to end so that we could leave the coolly humid classroom and break for recess and fresh air.
Joshua King’s name was called out and he replied he was present in a bored tone. My name was up next. I waited in anticipation, a silly nervousness running through me whenever it came to public displays of anything that involved myself. I waited, ready to answer that I was in class.
There was an audible pause. Shortly after, the substitute teacher chuckled and said, “I’m not even gonna try pronouncing this one.”
The memory cuts there.
I remembered my self-portrait back in high school art class. The assignment was simple, an A5 acrylic painting of ourselves from the shoulders up. It was the first assignment we had that focused on painting humans. Prior to this, we focused on abstract still lifes and imitating famous art styles. The whole class started off sketching and transferring their preliminary markings onto a scrawny canvas, and, a few classes later it was time to paint.
That day, it was in the middle of winter and the bright sun beamed down into the art room, the smell of paints and transparent solvents permeated the air. We all adored our art teacher, she was kind and understanding, and always wore patchy eclectic clothes.
“Listen up guys, everyone write this down…” she said in her loud voice.
She told us the formula for skin coloured paint. The majority of the recipe called for a good amount of Titanium White, a dollop of yellow, a spike of red and a whisper of blue. The blue was the last colour added and it completely transformed the paint. I remembered being intrigued and astonished that such a miniscule amount of blue could change the paint so quickly when mixed together. I felt like I was learning something tangible at school.
I painted my portrait. It didn’t look like me. Closer to the assignment’s deadline, I realised that the colour of the paint I was using for my skin wasn’t quite right. The more I worked on my self-portrait, the more unrecognisable I became.
Isn’t it strange that you don’t always realise how you’re feeling or how you’re affected in the moment when something happens? Although seemingly small and born out of ignorance and innocence, these incidents at their time and circumstance made me falter and doubt who I was. Unbeknownst to my teen self, it was disconnection and isolation I felt. I remembered these sentences that came out of the mouths of teachers and school friends, it made me doubt my own identity. These sentences stressed that for some reason I needed to validate my Asian-ness, validate what I looked like, who I was.
Recollecting these memories and processing them reaffirmed that regardless of how oblivious you are to it, society works in ways that are at times hurtful. What they teach you at school is not absolute, and seemingly ordinary comments and perceptions can be baseless, ignorant and inadvertently hurtful. Although I wish it would come quicker at certain times, realisation is an exceptional thing. It helps to process some sense of what has happened. Recollecting and processing these events have reiterated that I am the only one who can say I am this or that, it has reminded me that I love my name and those that can’t be bothered to learn it, don’t deserve to say it.
Yoshika Kon currently works as a Communications Officer at Propel Youth Arts WA, and enjoys writing and taking photos for her often neglected blog and Instagram. A keen listener, she is particularly fond of conversations surrounding topics of race and identity, Asian popular culture especially in the context of globalisation, books, travel and food.