A Palace of Doves

My struggle with colorism is incomplete and complex, as my childhood was filled with uncertainty and underlying insecurity that I haven’t fully moved past.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

I watched the film “Mulan” (1998) repeatedly throughout the two week long Christmas break of 2016, each scene cementing into my mind as I fell asleep on the couch beneath the frigid window. I would always fast forward past the scene where Mulan comes out of her tent to greet her angry fellow soldiers—too overwhelmed with my own second-hand embarrassment—and resume right at the moment she stares in horror as the Huns set off for the Imperial Palace. The screen pulls back from her fear-stricken face to reveal the glittering lights of a celebrating capital city full of dragons and lanterns. If Mulan weren't occupied with saving China, I’d have no doubt she would've stared in awe at the sight. She lives in a rural town—far from the emperor—just like her position in the patriarchal society she grew up in.

If I were in her shoes and living in 15th century China, I would have been astonished to see the foreign sight of riches that a peasant girl could only dream about. My only glimpses into such an extravagant life were from the dramas my mother watched while I was a kid who curiously peeked at the television. Despite the floors being soaked in blood and betrayal, they were stepped on by elegant monarchs who wore headdresses of gold and fresh flowers and clothes of the finest silks. In one particular scene I saw, the household of concubines and ladies filed out into the throne room, all suspects for a poisoning attempt. As the guilty maid was caught and carried out screaming, a servant turned his head down, out of respect. The servant’s gruff hands tightly gripped a broom as he crept out of focus, behind the doors of the room as the emperor beat down a warning to the room full of future potential snakes and scorpions. He had no place in the room full of pale, well-bred nobles.

Dark Chinese girls didn't exist to me until I was in third grade. I had concluded that if my parents were both fully Chinese and I never saw a Chinese girl with my skin tone, then I must have been adopted. There wasn't anything in my mind that could explain why I was the only girl in my family who wasn't fair. Looking back, my skin was almost identical to my father’s hot chocolate color. But to me, he didn't look far from those servants and scrapped-up soldiers in my mother's movies. He spoke fluent Mandarin and Cantonese and told me about his childhood growing up in a rural village in Guangdong. He strongly resembled my paler uncle; being illiterate in all dialects of Chinese and unfamiliar with any culture, I couldn’t help but convince myself that he and I weren’t alike at all. It wasn't until I met another Chinese girl tanned like brown sugar that I began to feel some connection to red lucky bags and dumplings buried underneath maple syrup and loonies.

We met on a sunny beach where I could spot her complexion from a mile away. As her parents began talking to mine, we built a dam, and I compared her skin to the color of the wet sand brushing against our legs as the waves trickled in. She spoke fluently to her mother who asked her if she wanted to join Girl Guides with me the following year. That little worry in my head that I wasn't what my parents said I was rubbed away as I saw her speak fluent Chinese back to her mother. I met two more dark-skinned Chinese in my fourth grade class who were darker than I was and even more knowledgeable of my own culture. I was surrounded by Chinese kids who spoke to me like I could speak back to them, ate the Chinese food that I would bring to class potlucks, and worried as much as I did about my grades. I started calling myself Chinese and even enjoyed the confusion in strangers’ faces as I egged them to guess what ethnicity I was. It was a fun little game for me, obscuring a harsher reality.

I laughed off the comments I got about my weight and appearance in sixth grade, letting the nitpicks later pummel me down in eighth grade. I tried to not think much of being used as a joke in "date, marry, kill" or being called ugly by the boys during camp. Everything was just a funny tease or a bit of attention that was rarely given to me as a kid. It was fairly sour, but food was food, and I couldn't be a beggar and a chooser, so I pretended not to notice.

Whenever I got called "fat" or "hideous" in eighth grade, I would go on my phone after school to stare at myself in the camera, waiting for my cheeks to lift or my baby fat to dissipate. I would zoom into my odd nose, then my monolids, and then skin. There wasn't anything remarkable I could find, no beauty worth a glance. There wasn't enough makeup I could steal from my aunt to make myself look feminine to others or anything worth an Instagram comment from a friend; the best I could do was to throw on baggy clothes and cover my face whenever someone looked at me.

It's difficult to talk about being darker than most of my family and Chinese peers. Sometimes, when I think about bringing up colorism to them, a bitter sting inside my chest would pull me away. I would feel guilty about sharing that bitterness and keep to myself, letting the taste settle to the back of my throat. Only once in a lonely year would I share this pain with someone else who shared it too, providing slight relief as we relished the thought that there's someone else to talk to about being called monkey or being referred to as a boy consistently. I would find myself sitting in a palace full of princesses and princes. I sat on a high throne decorated with roaring dragons and billowing clouds and dressed in layers of flowing gold and crimson. The insults about my appearance never reached my ears; I was finally at peace as I observed the luscious gardens, glistening lanterns, and majestic imperial city. Unfortunately, the moment would wash away too soon, and just as soon as the conversation would end, I would wake up staring at my bedroom ceiling, wondering if I would ever be seen as beautiful by my culture without having to save a country.

People who looked like me were destined to remain in the rice fields hundreds of years ago, never to set foot on imperial grounds; we would live under the shadows of the fairer princesses and celebrities. Sometimes I wonder what my father’s village looked like; I want to see the miles of roads he biked to school and the house he played cards with my uncle in, but I fear that if I ever visited China, I wouldn't survive being criticized publicly and being stared at for my skin. If I were born a peasant girl in 15th century China, all I would've been able to do back then is stare at the glittering palace from the distance of hundreds of cities as my feet were numbed in the watery fields. All I would see is a horizon, blank and blue against the millions of rice plants on rolling hills, and there would be no hope in my heart to ever see the grand steps or the red towers. I would have to wait for another lifetime to sit amongst my pale peers without worrying about being seen as less than them, but when the time comes, I will be able to admire my arms in the sun as they seemingly glow, full of fire and richness.