When I was nine, I lived in Canal Fulton, Ohio with my
mother, her third Caucasian husband and my two older sisters. Our split-house
sat in a new development at the end of Redwing Drive. I played outside everyday
from sunup to sundown.
I don’t remember any of the children specifically. I only remember our legs poking out of our shorts covered in scrapes and bruises, the hot, moist canine-like smell that rose up from us, generated by our laborious play. We raced each other through the undeveloped hills, the woods and freshly paved streets, for hours and hours. I had straight hair then. (This was long before puberty, when my hair would change its mind and poof into curls.) The ends touched my tailbone. When I look at pictures of myself at that time, I see how very dark I was—my skin a deep hue of bark—nothing like my sisters, who did not resemble each other or me, despite our having the same parents.
One afternoon, late in the summer before fourth grade, one of the children’s mothers took me aside and asked me what my nationality was. This was the first time in my life I had been asked directly. Who knows how many times my mother was asked on my behalf?
I wonder how many times I’ve been asked since that day, easily once a week, although sometimes daily. I’ve come up with an estimate of how many times I’ve been asked: What’s your nationality? Where are you from? What are you? Are you a foreigner? Roughly 2,000 times in my life, most likely more.
This particular mother asked in a way that was typical of how I’ve been asked in subsequent years. She wasn’t rude or suspicious or offensive. She was curious, kind, smiling (although I’ll never know what was behind her smile, or behind anyone’s smile, for that matter). Still, at that moment, I felt very much apart.
The children were far away. I could see them in the furthest reaches of the back yard on their bellies in the grass hunting for tiny toads. I didn’t want to be different from them. I did not want to be separate. I did not know what the word nationality meant. It had many syllables and confused me. I shrugged my shoulders after a few awkward moments of searching her eyes and shifting onto and off of my toes. Then I dashed off, rejoining the other children.
The mother sat down on the deck with two other mothers. Their voices dropped to whispers. At that moment, I had a surprising clarity that was too slippery for me to hold onto in my coming years of growth. My identity was her fascination. Any attachment or judgment she had belonged to her, not to me. I wish I could’ve kept this insight as I turned 10, 14, 23 and 31—but I couldn’t.
I looked to my mother to explain to me who and what I was. I wanted her to give me the tools to find my own relationship with my identity, a clarity that I could then take into the world and wear at all times—a protective covering, so to speak—but she did not.
Instead, I was always and I’m still—more often than I care to admit—surprised when I’m asked this question, regardless of how many thousands of times I’ve been asked. My tongue twists and I feel how separate I am from everyone else.