Evidence of Existence
My first year of college in Los Angeles, I got into the habit of dying my hair—purple, turquoise, flamingo pink, cherry pink—before I could realize that it was my subconscious way of coping with the cultural and physical adjustments. Shui tu bu fu, the Chinese would call it: not suited by the water and soil. Hearing this term for the millionth time from my mother on the phone, who found the old Chinese idiom more acceptable than a western clinical mental illness, I contemplated sadly, how much of a misfit does one have to be, to be rejected even by the water and soil.
The conspicuous hair colors were more ill-fitted on me at the time than the L.A. climate. My look precisely mirrored my inner struggle: I would wear my bright pink hair with a pair of black frame glasses that had been with me since middle school, a university hoodie, and a pair of black leggings. One day, sneaking out of a film lecture and staring at myself in the basement floor bathroom mirror, I thought, this girl looks unhelpably confused. What would people make of me at first sight? A Chinese international student with struggling English? A SoCal Asian American who is likely going to medical school? Or, could I pass as an “ABG,” if I wore falsies?
At the center of all these questions: why did the idea of falling into any of those categories upset me, and, if I was sure that I belonged to none of the three, how do I possibly prove it, without attracting too much attention to myself? Coming from a country where I easily blend into the vast majority, I was experiencing what Cathy Park Hong calls “minor feelings” for the first time: “the racialized range of emotions that are negative, dysphoric, and therefore untelegenic, built from the sediments of everyday racial experience and the irritant of having one’s perception of reality constantly questioned or dismissed.” I remember feeling particularly displaced, to my surprise, whenever there were more Asians in the room. “Who let in all the Asians? You rant in your head. Instead of solidarity, you feel that you are less than around other Asians, the boundaries of yourself no longer distinct but congealed into a horde.”
The outstanding astonishment when I encountered these lines in Hong’s book, as if someone had voiced aloud my darkest secret. For the longest time, I would actively avoid classes and campus organizations that were pillared around topics of race. I refused to tie my own struggles into race, the same way I stopped writing altogether for weeks after my professor told me to write more about Beijing because it is more interesting. As Yiyun Li puts it: “I have spent much of my life turning away from the scripts given to me, in China and in America; my refusal to be defined by the will of others is my one and only political statement.”
The feeling of alienation peaked when I watched a roomful of students—looking distinctively different from each other yet similar in the decibel and confidence with which they spoke—discuss and debate over racial topics. Deep down, I observed a quiet resentment. I envied the opportunity to speak loudly about one’s society and oneself. I faulted my own inability to do so.
May 2020, after George Floyd was murdered, the Messenger group for the campus film club that I was a part of was heated with support links and long texts. Amid all these, one stood out: How would you feel coming home to your store looted? Sounds like a good premise for a film (followed by the curious emoji). I recognized this student, S, as the only other Chinese international student active in the organization—or perhaps the only one, considering that I myself always resorted to the distant, shadowed corner of the classroom at weekly meetings and never spoke up. What S said was not new to me; I had already seen a handful of other students sympathize with the middle-class small business owners by that time. However, S’ comment particularly upset med. I was angry at the presumptuous creative license that she implied to be taking. I was angry because her vantage point was so conspicuously privileged and inconsiderate, that I felt the background we shared inevitably resulted in a complicity against my will.
It hit me then, that even the wish to remain self-willingly silent could be stripped away, that silence is always abused, as did my own, ever since my mother told me that to be quiet is a virtue when she threw shaming words at me and I attempted to defend and protect myself. I spoke up, for the first time, by having a sustained argument with S in the groupchat for hours explaining her inappropriateness and voicing my own opinions. I stopped clicking to see who liked my messages after a while, after I saw the profile picture of a girl who is a Chinese native, moved to Canada for high school, always spoke with a dramatic American accent and abused the ambiguity of the phrase, “I’m from Canada.” Was she overcompensating for, or hiding from something? I could never be sure, but the effort with which she lived her life was familiar enough. In that quiet thumbs-up preceding her selfie, I let her off for her silence, if I ever had the right to do so to begin with.
Later that day, S sent me a direct message on wechat—the primary Chinese messaging platform—asking why I had to come at her like that, when I was supposed to be her ‘fellow Chinese friend,” and that she was nothing but well-intentioned. We had only talked maybe twice before then, barely friends. In her message, she sounded genuinely hurt, alone, and helpless. Your so-called innocence is your biggest menace, I said.
Yet what really disturbed and lingered with me was her self-proclaimed Chinese camaraderie. Growing up, I was so accustomed to people preaching collectivism and patriotism to me that I trained myself to tune out whenever I hear these statements. For some reason, they never succeeded in convincing or converting me. “The writer Jeff Chang writes ‘I want to love us’ but […] Who is us? What is us?” (Hong) The idea that I naturally share self-knowledge with someone simply because we exist within the same family, school, classroom, provokes in me the urge to run further away in the opposite direction. Living is a lonesome march.
Understandably, the possibility of joining other people in this journey can mitigate the daunting uncertainty. In middle school, when I used to opt out of signing up for school or class-based activities, I remember a childish, rebellious feeling of victory, as if sneaking a bag of sugary snack behind my parents and chewing it softly in my bedroom in the dark. Was that running away, however, the starting point of my self-exile? I carved out my identity from a net of negatives: what had failed to fit into the collectivist blueprint was me. What fails to fit into the English language and its culture silhouettes the shape of me. I thought I was winning, but all along, perhaps, this game involved me and only myself. I was the contender and the rival, as well as the solitary witness in the palely lit stadium.
Scholar Joan Scott brings into question the problems associated with using subjective experience as evidence in minority studies: “when the evidence offered is the evidence of ‘experience,’ the claim for referentiality is further buttressed – what could be truer, after all, than a subject’s own account of what he or she has lived through? It is precisely this kind of appeal to experience as uncontestable evidence and as an originary point of explanation – as a foundation on which analysis is based-that weakens the critical thrust of histories of difference.” Trusting in Scott’s well-intentions, I could not help but notice that she is white. In order for a person-of-color to tell their experience and be taken as true and self-evident, what a long way it must have come. Scott instead advocates for questioning the framework within which a piece of evidence lies, the premises that such accounts are built upon.
I sense the same sentiment with every word I put down on page; the questionable framework, for me, is the language I write in. I started writing poetry my second year in college. One of the first poems I wrote began with the line: “one cannot lie to a blank page/so here we go.” But can one really not lie? Am I not lying, by putting myself at a safe distance with my own experience, safely replaying it and drawing some sort of conclusion in a language so foreign, so arbitrary? “[T]he circuits of a poetic form are not charged on what you say, but what you hold back.” (Hong) In one of my recent poems, a line echoes, “I put up a photo on my wall the same way I start a poem […] what is left out differentiates praying from mourning.”
Approaching the end of her book, Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life, Yiyun Li shares quite candidly a series of personal anecdotes, a turn from earlier sections, where her eloquence becomes evasive whenever it comes to personal storytelling. I hope this is cathartic for you, I jot down genuinely in the margin as if writing a letter; as is this essay, letters that will never be sent out, my own private evidence of existence.
Hong, Cathy Park. Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning. One World, 2021.
Li, Yiyun. Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life. Random House. 2018.
Scott, Joan W.. “The Evidence of Experience.” Critical Inquiry , Summer, 1991, Vol. 17, No. 4, pp. 773-797. The University of Chicago Press. 1991.
Yi Mo (she/her) is a bilingual poet, writer, and translator currently based in Los Angeles. She works with Mandarin Chinese, English, and some rudimentary Spanish. When not reading and writing, she plays music, watches light-hearted tv shows, and meditates on the ethics of being a romantic.