Biracial binaries

Living in liminality

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Whether it was projection or personal connection, I tied myself to each page of “The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts.”

I fell in love with the marriage of family folklore and reality that’s presented in the narrative, a story of a girl grappling with her familial ties and her own personal relationship with China. Maxine Hong Kingston, the author of the aforementioned autobiography, writes of the emotional turbulence of individual racial reckoning with such delicacy that I, at times, was lost for words.

Within Hong Kingston’s own reckoning, an evident binary is produced. She stands with her feet in two separate worlds: one in her Chinese family narrative and the other in her own American surroundings. Identity formation is forged between the space of that binary, as the novel fluidly alternates between fantastical passages of fiction and chapters that speak to real life events. There isn’t exactly one side that dominates Hong Kingston’s recounting of her life; neither side of the binary prevails. Instead, what is produced is Hong Kingston’s projection of herself as a woman warrior: an image of strength that pays homage to both sides of the binary. 

As a biracial person born southeast of London, my narrative may differ from Hong Kingston’s, but it still reproduces a similar binary with all its associated emotions. I myself yearn for the connection to a past, to a culture that my physical location seeks to disconnect me from. It is within that yearning where the ghosts of curated culture slip in and out of my current consciousness. My disconnect only allows me to catch glimpses of half of my identity, which I grasp at in hopes of affirming myself within the uncertain liminal space.

In that way, I suppose I contest Hong Kingston’s own minor rejection of her family narrative. She wishes to distance herself from her family’s ghosts, to push away from the folklore her mother seeks to keep alive through reproduction. I’m reminded of one argument in particular between Hong Kingston and her mother. She writes, “ ‘Time is the same from place to place,’ I said unfeelingly. ‘There is only the eternal present, and biology.’ ” Steeped in bitter sentiments, Hong Kingston’s remark sits and signifies her argument with folklore replacing reality. 

Instead, I wish to continue reproduction of culture, as I have drifted far to one side of the binary, away from my Chinese half. I previously thought that if I reached far enough, I could grab that side of the binary, and pull it closer — eliminating the liminal space that produces internal identity confusion. This reaching was subtle; at times I did not even realize that my attempts at affirmation actualized themselves in my external self. Yet again, liminality was forcing my hand, as I tried to externalize the internal. 

Red envelopes and handmade wontons were always part of my narrative, but I refused that such facets sufficed identity affirmation. Going out for dim sum on a Sunday meant that I would feel incredibly out of my element; I knew the names of the dishes by heart but never learned Mandarin or Cantonese. I was never sent to Chinese school on the weekends like some of my classmates — at the time, I was grateful for my mum’s withholding, but now I realize how much I missed. Hong Kingston writes of her produced combination accent; she names it her “cut-tongue.” I instead wish for the knowledge of the double language she possesses. 

While I fail to affirm identity through language, my attempts to pull myself away from one side of the binary present themselves in my physical appearance — most recently, through a new tattoo. 

A Chinese traditional vase sits in my parents’ home; it holds the weight of one side of my biracial binary in all its blue and white porcelain. However, it sent my mum and I into a row over representation: It is a male fertility vase, and my mum feared it would offset my chi, as this vase was not meant for me specifically. 

My current role within my family narrative would not allow me to encounter the vase, but I wished for its physical presence to join my own. If I stare at myself in the mirror, the tattooed vase stares back at me, telling of something greater than its aesthetic alone. But its presence does not affirm my identity, did not clear any liminal anxiety from my biracial binary. The gap between my identities remains wide open. 

Within liminality, there is not only yearning, but also waiting — waiting for the day when my reckoning with the biracial binary will end in some climax of acknowledgement. But identity is not dependent on a specific day; there is no linear temporality to this actualization. I must realize that the foundational part of my own narrative that I seek to connect to already exists, even if it isn’t in the literal manifestations I expect. 

Francesca Hodges writes the Monday A&E column on exploring liminal spaces within art and identity. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @fh0dges.