|An American in London
Notes from an invisible woman
published April 3, 2002
Sometimes you see yourself moving in slow motion. The German-speaking tourists to wonder-filled London looked like they were waiting for someone, probably a friend. Just a few minutes earlier, my eyes had passed over them as casually as one might look at a cluster of mailboxes standing on the sidewalk. Ten feet from the gates that mark the entrance to Chinatown, I watched the tourists break off their conversation and start peering through their enormous camera lenses at me, spinning them into focus, glancing at the camera backs to make sure they had enough film. Five feet from the gates one of the men said something to a stout woman in a flower-print dress and kangaroo pack, and she shuffled just off to the side of the gate, clutching her straw hat, looking toward me to make sure she wasn’t blocking the view, then leaning her head out to make sure it would be in the photo.
For a moment I wondered if I should turn back, but the gates were approaching too quickly now and I was reluctant to walk all the way to the other gate, even if it was only a block away, and so I put my thumbs beneath my purple backpack straps and strode through the gates as the men holding the two cameras snapped away, just as I passed beneath them. Click. Click. A few more for good measure as I walked away. Click. Click. Out of the corner of my eye I could see the lenses following my face.
The woman started speaking gleefully behind me. The men answered her in hearty German tones with congratulatory smiles at one another, and then they gathered in a small cluster in front of the gate.
I am not a celebrity. I just happen to have been an American woman of Korean descent who was passing under the gates of Chinatown one August afternoon and unintentionally provided a photo op for some German-speaking tourists who evidently saw my black hair and dark eyes and assumed I was a native. Perhaps it was only my radiant beauty that they wished to remember forever, however I am neither so naïve nor so vain to think that was the case. I have never wanted to speak German as much as I did in that instant, to convey to them somehow that they had made a mistake. It never occurred to me that I could just have easily screeched at them in English, that anger comes through regardless of what language you might be speaking in; all I remember at the time was feeling like the tourists and I were separated by a great piece of glass that would have taken far too many words to dissolve than I had the time and patience for that day.
Was it because my family could have passed for Chinese? Some magnetic pull always drew us to the Chinatown of every large city we traveled to, usually for dinner or dim sum, occasionally to shop for Chinese pastries--pale yellow walnut cookies with a cracked outer crust, black bean cakes rolled in sesame seeds and deep fried. Particularly when I was young, I luxuriated in the fact that here I was free from the playground taunts of schoolchildren back at home in my predominantly white neighborhood. "Chinese, Japanese, Dirty knees, Look at these… Me Chinese, me play joke, me go pee pee in your coke…" As a six-year-old still small enough to sit on my uncle’s shoulders and command my legions of black hair and bald pates, I surveyed San Francisco’s Chinatown from a towering eight feet up, watching a gold-and-red dragon dance its way down the street. With my chin barely reaching over tabletops, I stood on the ground and surveyed the world up close, peeking at trays of pins and brooches shot with red and blue, and origami how-to books with tigers grinning out of the covers.
My uncle would have bought me one of those books, except that it was in Japanese and I wouldn’t have been able to read it. Uncle didn’t seem at all surprised to find a Japanese book in Chinatown. As he explained to me, it wasn’t such an anomaly to find books in Asian languages other than Chinese here, and they blended in with everything else on the table, just as any Asian person could walk about San Francisco’s Chinatown in perfect comfort. Secretly I longed to slip the bright paper out of the backs of those books and steal it away for experiment, directions be damned. I loved how thin it was; I could hold it in two fingers and shake it up and down to make it flap like a bird’s wing, with a tiny rustling noise. I could crumple the paper up into a tiny truffle that stained my palms with yellow and green dye. For years afterward, I would absentmindedly gravitate toward any origami book I saw in cramped Boston gift shops, my fingers itching to crease the bright surfaces.
An American in London