The Biography of an Ex-Chinese Man
From my great-grandfather to "Black Like Me" to Jessica Krug, what it means to perform race for a white audience
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Before the crisis, I dined at a bistro on England’s coast with a septuagenarian white man and woman with whom I am close. As is inevitable when dining out, we eddied into the topic of favorite restaurants. I mentioned a Chinese place where Peking duck pancakes are made by hand and long noodles served free of charge on birthdays, like cake. Once, the chef violated the health code to let me bring my dog inside, where he gifted us tea and oozing salted egg buns as if we were his treasured children. It is homey because his heritage is mine.
Ha, the old man interrupted. Do they serve dog?
In improvisational theater, an actress must not contradict her partner on stage. She must keep alive the illusion of the fourth wall so everyone, including the audience, feels secure. The joke was my prompt to yes, and…
Instead, I kept talking as if he’d never spoken. I ate my starter, two scallops on a white plate. The old woman, anxious, reminded me of the rules. It was just a joke. By the time the mains arrived––fish fillets whose carrots had been banished to a separate dish––the woman’s insistence had brought me to tears. I escaped outside, where I came across a door without a handle. Years of blue paint smoothed its boundaries. “A door that can’t / be opened is called a wall,” writes poet Victoria Chang in Obit. I banged it with the fleshy edges of my fists. No one would see the evidence of my anger. I would leave no marks.
“Occasionally it is interesting to think about the outburst if you would just cry out,” Claudia Rankine writes in Citizen. “To know what you’ll sound like is worth noting—” I already had an idea of what I sounded like when I didn’t cry out. As a journalist, I used to record interviews with executives. When I’d play back the tapes, I’d be surprised by my high, tense tone. My sentences were punctuated by fake giggles, as if I were supplying the laugh track to my own performance. The interviews were usually on the phone or in a small room, just myself and the interviewee, often a white man. But theater requires an audience. For whom had I been performing with no one to watch, no one to patrol the fourth wall?
Some people are gifted at improv. We have names for them: con artists, grifters, frauds. A recent favorite among millenials is Anna Sorokin, a.k.a. Anna Delvey, the daughter of a truck driver from a town near Moscow. Using fake checks, hotel tabs, and Céline spectacles, she transformed herself into the German heiress of a €60 million fortune who tipped concierges in hundred dollar bills. After she was exposed in The New York Post and arrested for grand larceny, Sorokin captured the nation’s attention as easily as she’d once taken in cash. An Instagram account documents her outfits in court; Shonda Rhimes is producing a Netflix series.
We can relate Sorokin and other fraudsters––see Leonardo DiCaprio in Catch Me If You Can and The Wolf of Wall Street––because they’re driven by a value system we’ve been trained in since we first lodged a coin in a gumball machine. The con artist affirms capitalism’s principles and confirms its boundaries, making our own actions appear acceptable. The hedge fund manager pretends he can beat the market; the therapist pretends to be interested in our thoughts. So long as the con artist is guided by capitalism’s dictates, we admire him for his stamina. In his essay “Why I Call Myself a Socialist,” actor Wallace Shawn argues a man’s life on stage is less exhausting than on the street, where he must act out capitalism without any breaks: “He knows that when he’s on stage performing, he’s in a sense deceiving his friends in the audience less than he does in daily life.”
In 1848, Ellen Craft, a light-skinned slave from Georgia, disguised herself as a white southern man. Illiterate, she lodged her right arm in a sling so she wouldn’t be required to sign her name at hotels during her escape north. Such desperate gestures toward freedom served a second function as a “practical joke on white society,” writes Black civil rights activist James Weldon Johnson in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, his 1912 novel about a biracial man who passes as white.
But racial fraud can take many forms. What is for some a matter of survival and necessity is in other cases a ruse undertaken for personal gain. Those already protected by whiteness pick aspects of non-whiteness that don’t threaten their safety: a new name, a new vocation. At the turn of the century, Archibald Stansfeld Belaney moved from England to Canada, renamed himself Grey Owl, and launched a career as a First Nations environmentalist. Segregationist speechwriter and Klansman Asa Earl Carter reinvented himself in the 1970s as Forrest Carter, a Cherokee memorist. In the 21st century, genealogy center librarian Michael Derrick Hudson submitted a poem under the name of a former high school classmate, Yi-Fen Chou.
The latest trend is a white woman, estranged from family, who adopts what she perceives to be markers of Blackness: curly hair, spray-tanned skin, a mishmash of dialects. She changes her name: Rachel Dolezal becomes Nkechi Amare Diallo, Jennifer Benton becomes Satchuel Paigelyn Cole, Jessica Krug becomes La Bombalera. She surrounds herself with friends of color, goes to Howard University, assumes the presidency of her NAACP chapter. Having dedicated herself to the role, she begins to reap the benefits. A book by Krug was a finalist for a prize for books on slavery. Benton tried to inherit the estate of a deceased black friend by claiming to be her sister.
These women, once unmasked, can relax offstage, returned to whiteness. But a person of color has no break, because her stage is every space with a white person. After the dinner with the septuagenarian couple, I privately played out what I imagined to be their conception of the Chinese. I’m going to eat you, I’d tease my dog. When the couple came to stay, I concocted a plan I wish I’d been reckless enough to execute: I’d place my dog in a kennel without informing them, then serve a mysterious meat dish and apologies about how special guests deserve special sacrifices. When I told friends, they cry-laughed. At least I’d entertained one audience.
Stage lights only illuminate if what’s offstage stays obscure. The audience’s view is made possible by the darkness in which the audience sits. In an interview with New York Magazine’s Vulture blog, novelist Kaitlyn Greenidge says, “The thing about whiteness is, of course, if you’re not white, you know whiteness and the rules of whiteness better than white people do, because you have to to survive.” Color, then, can be a tool for whiteness to understand itself. In the 1961 nonfiction book Black Like Me, journalist John Howard Griffin masquerades as Black in the Jim Crow South. His revelations of the treatment of Black Americans by white ones (probably not revelatory to Black readers) are less interesting than Griffin’s confrontation with his newly alien self, one created through skin dye, up to fifteen hours of daily tanning, and doses of the anti-vitiligo drug methoxsalen. In order to understand whiteness, he must transition through darkness. “Turning off all the lights, I went into the bathroom and closed the door,” Griffin writes. “I stood in the darkness before the mirror, my hand on the light switch. I forced myself to flick it on. In the flood of light against white tile, the face and shoulders of a stranger––a fierce, bald, very dark Negro––glared at me from the glass. He in no way resembled me.” A journalist maintains objectivity through distance from his subject; Griffin, distanced from this new body, can now be objective about what happens to it. Tellingly, the text of Black Like Me was first published in serial form under the title “Journey Into Shame.” Shame is the emotion that limps after trauma; victims feel they are to blame for things that were done to them, rather than things they did (which evokes the often confused emotion of guilt). Griffin’s text was written for whites. Their shame stems from the trauma white people experience when they lose the safety of whiteness, when they can no longer look in the mirror and identify themselves as human.
Griffin wore blackface to expose trauma; others wear it to escape it. In the 2014 novel Your Face in Mine, writer Jess Row spins the tale of a Gatsby-like figure who transforms himself from white high school hipster to Black business mogul, all through a series of surgeries conducted at a clinic in Thailand specializing in gender confirmation surgery. The implication is that wishing for another racial identity is analogous to gender dysphoria. But the character undergoes this transformation––complete with a Black wife and children––less out of a feeling he is Black inside and more out of a desire to escape his life as it was when he was white: a lonely childhood with a paranoid single parent, an adolescence marred by a friend’s death. This character is revealed through the eyes of a white Nick Carraway-like narrator who is himself familiar with cross-racial cosplay, having studied Chinese, married a Chinese woman, and been invited by her parents to come live in China as their son. “Was I fleeing from something?” the narrator asks. “Was I certain why I loved this new language, with its four tones and eighty thousand characters, its unshakable alienness, its irreconcilability with any language, any world, I knew?” In popular culture, we are fascinated by aliens––the green-bodied, spaceship kind––not because of their own qualities, but because we want to know how the aliens see us with their big, googly eyes. The aliens can see us clearly because they come from the incomprehensible darkness of space.
During Queen Victoria’s reign, when Britain consolidated its power over a fifth of the earth’s surface, tea was a trade secret: its seeds, cultivation, and roasting were kept under the equivalent of intellectual property law by the insular Chinese government. The British fought two wars to force China to accept imports of Indian opium, the good that kept the British-Chinese trade balance in check. But Britain feared the Middle Kingdom would legalize opium farming within its borders and jeopardize its access to affordable tea. So in 1843 it dispatched to China a Scottish botanist, presciently named Robert Fortune.
Like many on-the-ground agents of empire, Fortune came from a humble background, born to a hedger in the Scottish Borders. Thanks to a thirst for exotic flora, the working-class labor of gardening had been elevated to a science. Imperial botanists, also called plant hunters, travelled on ships to colonies and often held degrees for the practice of medicine on humans. This blending of human and plant body played out in science with Carl Linnaeus’s sexual system, which posited that flora could be categorized by their number of reproductive organs. Shortly before Fortune’s birth, Sarah Baartman, named the Hottentot Venus for her breasts and buttocks, was installed at Piccadilly Circus. For two shillings a head, visitors could marvel at “THE GREATEST PHOENOMENON Ever exhibited in this Country.” People also paid to ogle plant bodies; around the time Fortune was uprooting 250 plant species for British import, the sixth Duke of Devonshire spent the equivalent of today’s £10,000 for a Filipino orchid.
In For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History, journalist Sarah Rose writes that Fortune initially viewed China “as an enigmatic society” and “himself as a missionary for the Western way of life,” but “the country inevitably began to assume a human face for him.” That face was first embodied in the Chinese staff who steered his ship, translated his deals, and carried his loot. Then Fortune transformed himself. His memoir, once of the period’s popular diaries of empire, recounts his entrance to the forbidden city of Suzhou: “I was, of course, travelling in the Chinese costume; my head was shaved, I had a splendid wig and tail, of which some Chinaman in former days must have been extremely vain; and upon the whole I believe I made a very fair Chinaman.” That fair Chinaman’s legacy was to bring Chinese tea to Indian terraces, end the British addiction to Chinese caffeine, and introduce new flavors of colonialism to the Indian subcontinent. The plant bodies Fortune displaced solidified his position in London as an educated man, far from his Scottish working-class roots. He had conned two populations: first the Chinese into thinking he was one of them, then the English into believing he belonged.
Decades after Fortune’s visit, my great-grandfather was born in China during its “century of humiliation,” the period that began with the Opium Wars and ended with the expulsion of Japanese and French forces after World War II. My great-grandfather finagled a job as a cook on a U.S. military ship while the West fretted over Yellow Peril. Earlier, anti-Chinese riots had swept 200 American towns, including what some scholars call the largest lynching in the country’s history. Chinese were targeted for immigration bans by the U.S., Canada, and Australia, while Great Britain passed a special Chinese deportation act. Chinese men who did find a way in, often by forging documents, faced restrictions on where they could live, whom they could marry, and where their children could go to school. Such rules, crafted to protect the jobs and women of white men, excluded those deemed “undesirable” in a similar fashion to today’s points-based systems in Canada and Australia, due to be launched in the U.K. in January.
My great-grandfather passed all the tests and settled in Cincinnati, where he opened a restaurant-nightclub credited with the discovery of a blonde singer dubbed the Shanghai Bird, later known as Doris Day. By many standards, he was secure, or he would have been if he were white. He performed the next best thing: patriotism, so often conflated with whiteness. When outside his household, my great-grandfather edited out his birth country and parents; in the revision presented to reporters, he had grown up in a California orphanage. When World War II broke out and the U.S. organized the mass theft of freedom and resources from other Asian Americans––those of Japanese descent––he tried to reenlist in the Navy. After they rejected him because of his age and his eight motherless children, he lobbied politicians and won a consolatory post as a guard at an Army depot where, according to an obituary in The Cincinnati Post, he was “always was half an hour to an hour early for work, and stayed well past quitting time.” He donated all his Army earnings to military non-profits such as the United Service Organizations. Congressman Robert Taft Jr. called him a “devoted American.”
I would call him a desperate American. The white racial fraudster, faced with unmasking, drops her act to plead for forgiveness. Jessica “La Bombalera” Krug, realizing she was on the verge of being revealed, outed her “napalm toxic soil of lies” in a Medium article: “I am not a culture vulture. I am a culture leech.” Confession allows the fraudster to be rehabilitated. But no such option existed for my great-grandfather. To admit he was born in China would endanger his right to live in the U.S.; to not work for the Army for free would endanger right to live. Once he began his act, the backstage vanished; only he and the audience remained. And an audience exists only as long as an actor can hold its attention, which requires playing to its desires. Non-white Americans are praised for being “hardworking,” another way of saying they’re not Communist and therefore foreign; they are applauded for making sacrifices to send their kids to school, a site of inculcation and assimilation. These prolonged performances are exhausting. I’ve seen in my great-grandfather’s bloodline the signs of John Henryism, a phenomenon first documented among Black men in North Carolina who suffered unusually high rates of hypertension. Its namesake, John Henry, is depicted in folklore as a railroad worker who, fearing a new steam-powered rock drilling machine would devalue his labor, challenged it to a contest in front of an audience. Henry won, according to legend, but later died from the stress. A statue of him stands at the mouth of the 6,450 foot-long tunnel that was his final project. He holds a ten-pound hammer, his body tilted forward as if about to pound at rock. But his back is to the tunnel. He faces out, forever on stage.