Not So Simple

Contributed by Susan Tan

“It’s simple, Susan.  Just pick one. Which would you rather be?”

It was my first day of first grade at a new school, and we were playing a getting-to-know-you game that doubled as a class-demographics survey. We had divided ourselves into groups based on favorite ice cream flavor, age, favorite animal, and zip code, laughing over shared interests.

Then came a question on race. I thought seriously for a moment as the other kids sorted themselves into groups. But I quickly found my answer and carefully chose my spot—halfway between the group of students who identified as white and the group who identified as Asian. I was proud of my creativity, and excited to share my answer.  

So I was shocked when my teacher disciplined me in front of the class, first asking why I hadn’t chosen a group, and then, when I explained that I had chosen a group—half one, and half the other—chastising me for choosing two groups when her survey allowed her to tick only one box.  

Which is when she demanded that I choose between the two.

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I remember how alone I felt, sitting on the rug with my classmates watching me. I remember how desperately I wanted to explain that I couldn’t choose, that the very idea of such a choice was impossible. But I was seven and couldn’t find the words, and so I responded only with silence, unable to articulate what I knew, even then, was something intrinsic to my very being. My teacher, clearly aggravated, said that she’d call my home that night to “get the real answer.” It’s to my mother’s eternal credit that she in fact found that “real” answer that night when she listened, flabbergasted, as my teacher explained the problem at hand. “She’s a Susan!”  I heard my mom bark into the phone. “Put that on your survey.”

This episode was a defining one in my childhood. At the same time, what’s striking, as I look back, is that it wasn’t really a surprise. That moment on the rug merely confirmed something intangible that always followed me, the logical progression of a question that tends to plague the children of mixed-race couples: “What are you?”  

This question was so common that as a child I felt it was simply to be expected in a family as unusual as mine. I’m a child of Russian Jews and first-generation Chinese Christian immigrants who fled communist China because my grandfather was an evangelical Christian minister. Needless to say, my childhood was a confusing, sometimes hard, though often wonderful time (and there was always excellent food).  

The idea for my debut novel, Cilla Lee-Jenkins: Future Author Extraordinaire, grew from a desire to write about my family. I imagined a child misunderstanding the question “What are you?” and, in doing so, joyfully reclaiming it.

In her first few iterations, Cilla was missing a key component of her story— the impending birth of a sister. I’m the oldest of three sisters, and I knew that Cilla would get a sibling someday. But I thought her story should, at least at first, be about the silly things, her family, her friends, her misnomers, and, of course, her destiny as a future author extraordinaire. Yet the more I wrote, the more I found myself circling back to the girl on the rug, to the difficulties and intricacies of identity that, as a child, I’d struggled to articulate. I began to think about my own sisters, and other children of mixed-race families who find themselves presented with complex and difficult questions of race and identity at a young age, forced to confront the idea of themselves as a “what” long before they’ve begun defining themselves as a “who.” Suddenly, my story wasn’t simply a matter of a young girl amusing the world with her precociousness and misunderstandings, and a younger sister emerged in a narrative that had really been thinking about her all along.

With Cilla, I’ve hoped to live up to my mother’s answer to my teacher all those years ago by creating a character whose identity is inextricably linked with her racial identity, but who is just as much allowed to define herself, to be a character all her own, without the need to answer to any higher category or type. I’ve worked to reclaim the “What are you?” demands familiar to mixed-race children.  And in doing so, it seems I’ve found the words that eluded me all those years ago.  

I’m so pleased to share them with you, and I hope you enjoy them.

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Susan Tan has lived many places in her life, but calls Concord, Massachusetts, home. She grew up in a mixed-race family, and, like Cilla Lee-Jenkins, had very little hair until the age of five. After studying at Williams College, she earned her PhD from the University of Cambridge, where she studied children’s literature. She currently lives in Somerville, enjoys frequent trips to Chinatown to eat tzuck sang, and teaches at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

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