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Returning to a Golden State

How being half can make you whole

By Alison McBainPublished about a year ago 6 min read
Image by Sindi Short, Pixabay

I am an immigrant to the strange state of Connecticut, even though I’ve lived here for over a decade. Sometimes, I don’t know how to react to people who make assumptions about me — about my background, my race, my kids, my job, my interests. I feel like a foreigner when searching out those who have a similar background to mine, because I seldom find any hapa who were raised with the Asian side of their family, like I was in California.

But I didn’t move directly from one “C” state to another. Before Connecticut, I lived in New York City. Cosmopolitan NYC, a melting pot of nationalities and races. And yet it was also often sharply divided by neighborhood, which was strange to me. While we might all mix together in bars and restaurants, grocery stores and bodegas, where we went home was not always so interwoven or so colorblind.

I remember walking in Prospect Park shortly before we moved out of New York, pushing a stroller with my three-month-old daughter, and having several other moms stop to admire her. I felt on top of the world — of course my daughter was the most unique and wonderful baby ever, I thought, just like any new mom always thinks her child is the best in the world (until having the later revelation that they’re not — they’re just like every other baby at that age).

“Are you available?” one woman asked me after I smilingly accepted her compliment on my daughter.

No idea what she was talking about. “What?”

“Are you full time or part time? We’re really looking for a full-time nanny. If you’re looking for a permanent position with more hours...”

Granted, I didn’t look much like my daughter then. She initially took after her father as a baby and was blonde, blue-eyed, with very fair skin. I… am not.

What do you do in that situation? I felt guilty, embarrassed for the other woman. And yet it had been her mistake, not mine. It had been her brazen assumption that I couldn’t be the mother of this child. So I told her the baby was mine and not someone I had been hired to watch. She said “oh” and scurried off.

Yet I felt like I had done something wrong. There was a dissonance there that I didn’t belong. That I had somehow infringed on her assumption. In that moment, I felt very far from home.

California was my home when I lived there. Not a place that I always felt comfortable, and not always a place that was fun or easy to be. I was growing up, after all — moving through the awkward stages of childhood to teenager, from teenager to adult. Searching for identity and where I belonged.

But the redwoods were part of my blood, and the scent of sunburned grass in the summer held a particular flavor of air that is hard to describe, and it nourished me each time I breathed it in. I knew the cold wash of the Pacific Ocean over my head as I dove into the waves, the taste of authentic chili verde and how to pronounce it correctly, and took for granted the perfectly succulent strawberries bought at the corner market and sourced from a local farm.

About half of any group of my friends or coworkers were Asian — not always Japanese, but also Korean, Thai, Chinese, Filipino, Indian, etc. Most were from a single racial background, but every time I ran across another hapa, I could tell with just one look. California is a state that has a large Hispanic population, and with my olive skin and dark hair and eyes, I was often mistakenly approached when walking down the street by someone looking for directions and thinking that I was from a similar background as them. They would take one glance at me and ask their questions in rapid-fire Spanish. I would help them as much as I could, but often had to resort to “No hablo español” when my rudimentary, school-learned language ran out.

But I don’t know what it is, I can always spot someone who is hapa rather than Hispanic. Perhaps one factor is that there are more of us than there used to be. Before, each half-Asian face was a revelation, a secret the two of us shared that was hidden from the rest of the world. It used to only be my sister and me when I was young, but my world expanded to my half-Malaysian friend in high school, my half-Filipino friend in college, a co-worker at my first job, and others. We had long conversations about our backgrounds, as young people do — a person could be half, and being half could be the whole of one’s identity.

In the Bay Area, that was okay. People understood the idea. Everyone was different, so being different, we were all the same.

For a long time after I moved to the East Coast in my twenties, I didn’t return to California. And after my grandmother died when I was in my early thirties, I didn’t even want to go back. Plus, I was busy. I was having and raising my daughters, and my California-based parents were perfectly willing to come visit us on the East Coast — do some sightseeing in New York City, visit their granddaughters in Connecticut, and then go back home again. I didn’t think very often about going to the West Coast, since traveling with young children was a pain in the butt that I didn’t want or need to undertake right then.

Until it was time for me to return. My mom was having a harder time walking because of back problems. She’d already had both hips replaced, and long flights wouldn’t be great for her. So I agreed to bring my three daughters to California that summer, not knowing the pandemic would be coming for us half a year later and would make a casual trip cross-country something even more out of reach.

When the flight first skimmed over the mountainous edge of the bowl that was the Silicon Valley, my daughters were supremely tired, but very excited to take a peek out the window. This was a strange and foreign place for them to visit, thousands of miles distant from their rainy homeland of Connecticut with its snowy winters and trees that blushed orange and golden in the fall. The endless sprawl of buildings as far as the eye could see was a revelation, the evergreen mountains scarred by the kiss of wildfires and threaded through with the dried, dead grass that gave the state its “golden” nickname.

“Look at that,” I remember saying. Already, I could almost smell the baking heat of the sun on the burnt grass, and it was like I could breathe again for the first time in years. A part of me had never left this place and never would, a part of me that my daughters would never know.

“This was where I grew up,” I told them, and the thought was a bittersweet hum behind the joy of my return. “This was my home.”


About the Creator

Alison McBain

Alison McBain writes fiction & poetry, edits & reviews books, and pens a webcomic called “Toddler Times.” In her free time, she drinks gallons of coffee & pretends to be a pool shark at her local pub. More: http://www.alisonmcbain.com/

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