Yellow Skin, White Masks
It’s a look of adjustment. Coloured people have felt it since the ancient time, since the long, long ago when the sun stopped shining where white people come from and race was invented. It’s that fraction-of-a-second shift you see in somebody’s face, a twitch of their eyebrows and then a smile-in-recovery when your English is better than they expected. You see relief, because talking to you won’t require any extra effort, mixed with a tepid kind of comfort, because you’re more or less one of them. Sometimes, hopefully most of the time, you see a touch of guilt.
This is not an evil in and of itself. It’s an annoyance you’ve learned to live with because of the fact that people look different. Human beings form patterns in their minds based on what things look like and how they behave, and are surprised when those patterns break. You are human and you do it too.
It’s nothing like being asked, “But where are you from?” It’s nothing like that feeling you get when you lie in bed with somebody and wonder if they like you for you or for the colour of your skin or the shape of your eyes. It’s nothing like that feeling when you’re not lying in bed with someone, and you wonder about the same cause.
I am walking back to my hostel from the beach in Nha Trang, Vietnam, a modest city defined by two sets of tides. One tide tells the rise and fall of warm ocean water over Nha Trang’s coarse, sandy shores. The other tells the ebb and flow of old Russian men, whose swollen, sunburnt stomachs hang over itsy-bitsy budgie-smugglers like teardrops waiting to fall. Both are forces of nature we have learned to live with and to treat with respect.
At the door to my hostel is a man who is pink in the face, arms and one of his legs. He is white everywhere else, covered only in fluorescent yellow AFL shorts and a thin silver thread around his neck. The man spits words at a KFC delivery boy through a familiar accent.
“Mate, I wanted three sandwiches. Three. This happens every fucking time,” he says, holding only two sandwiches in his hands.
His eyes are pale and blue like ice, opened wide and radiant from his short-haired, flaking face. I want a different word to describe what I see in the clench of his brow and the gleam of those eyes, but hatred is the only one that comes to mind. Any other day, any other person could call him beautiful.
I walk by, my gaze meets his, and that look of adjustment takes longer than usual. I’m wearing still-wet swim shorts and a plain grey T-shirt. I have a backpack slung over one shoulder and a water bottle in my other hand. I could be like him. I could be human.
But my hair is black, my nose is short, my skin is dark and hairless and my eyes are slitted. I might not be human after all. He looks at me and narrows his eyes like he is deciphering a complex code that will answer this question, that will tell him if has a right to hate me just like this KFC boy.
When the look of adjustment takes this long, I usually give them a hand. I say “hey”, often with a beer in my hand, and ask them where they are from so they can ask that question back and all that ethnic mist floating about my face clears away. I can’t do that now.
I give a smile to the Vietnamese man in a KFC shirt and offer him a horribly pronounced “cam on”, then walk with heavy feet up the stairs. I catch a glimpse of the Australian’s face on the way, a glowing core of guilt hiding behind pride and anger.
In bed in the top bunk of my room, refreshed by a shower and the cool breeze of the air conditioner, I stare at the ceiling and try to remember that face. As natural as my shivers in this artificial cold, I envision that look that robbed me of my humanity and carve it into the walls of my mind.
As I do I think of little things, like the day I realised my accent had changed so that my r’s became soft and my vowels slow and slack-jawed; the day I bought a Wallabies jersey and ran onto my training field to cover its crest with sweat, mud and, over the years, my blood; the pride I felt the first time I used my Australian passport, when I left my Singaporean one at home and stood in the airport line with the Australians, not the others. They feel more like dreams than memories now.
I need to talk to someone to find out why I can’t let go of this thing that barely happened to me, why I don’t want to let go of it, why it feels so important that I know I’ll lose a part of myself if I ever do forget it.
I’m travelling with a friend and he’s in the bed below me. He’s been listening to Kendrick Lamar non-stop for the entire month of this trip, telling me at every opportunity that hip hop, for its poetic expression of ideas and its power, will be the definitive cultural movement of our generation. He would have voted for Obama if he was American, three times if he could. I hear him move. He’s awake. I lean over to say something, but he’s the one to talk first.
“Man, PC people have gone insane,” he explains. “They’re complaining about the Oscars not going to enough black people. It’s like some of these people just want to get angry for the sake of being angry.”
I carve those words next to that face, deep in the walls of my mind, and promise myself that this is only the beginning.
Cover by chuttersnap