Yellow Light

A narrative by Kara Au


Image: Kara Au.

I’m a child, jumping between the two single beds that I crashed together with my older brother. The blankets are wrinkled with indents from our tiny feet and my brother is laughing. My brows are furrowed. I’m trying to hide my frustration behind a pained grin and thinking: I will defeat you today.

We share a bedroom because it’s normal for children in poor families to share rooms. I’ve been to my friend’s house from school and they don’t have to share. I only know that I’m poor, and poor siblings share bedrooms. I don’t know how to become unpoor, so I ask my mother and she gives me a cryptic smile, then asks me to help prepare eggrolls for the coming week. I hate making eggrolls and I keep saying to myself that I can’t wait to leave this restaurant.

“Watch out!” My brother tosses the miniature football at me and it lands on the corner of my head. I smush my eyes closed as I tumble downwards into the darkness. Thud.

* * *

I leave the hospital with my mother and slip into the front seat of our van. My bottom lip is stitched together and fluffy like a cotton candy cloud with its blue and purple stained hue. There is a sharp bump where the football hit my head and I wince as I gently press it with my finger. I’m already devising a new strategy on how to get revenge on my brother. He always wins and he always gets to apologize. Just once I want to win and apologize, before I’m old enough to drive a car, because I’ll be too cool to want revenge by then.

As soon as we return home I look at my face in the mirror. My mother rushes back to the restaurant while I admire my epic battle scars. While scanning my stitches I take note of my appearance: my black hair is unkempt and flat, sitting at chin-length with a small, tubular strand asymmetrically tied with a ponytail to the right of my head. I briefly smile to observe the progress of a bottom tooth growing back and think about how I got more than a fair rate from the tooth fairy. I stare into my almond-shaped eyes that are dark brown but look black without the sunlight. I then use both index fingers to lift the corners of my eyes and stretch them upward diagonally towards my temples. This is what the kids do at school. I can’t see very well, so I let go.

Later that evening, my brother begrudgingly apologizes and we are forced to hug. You win this time, I think to myself. We have shared this social ritual since time immemorial to appease our parents. Tonight is a ceasefire, but the war will continue tomorrow.

I feel as though I’ll be stuck a kid forever. Spending all my summers biking to the marina and poking jellyfish on the shore, or sitting in the sweltering basement with my siblings, imagining what it would be like to live a normal life where I don’t have to wash dishes or assemble eggrolls. I will have my own bedroom and my parents will have the time to drive me to my friend’s house. Instead, I wander the grass fields at recess, staring at caterpillars and giving the perfunctory performance of being a well-adjusted classmate. I am a yellow child, bold like the sun as it rises in the morning, but cautionary like a traffic light as I’m told to stop for others. Someday I will challenge that light, bursting through at the very moment it flashes to red. I’ll smile because I will have finally made it. Being exactly as I am, casting away the doubts that I carry.

* * *

I used to have a crush on a boy called R. His father delivered soda to our restaurant. I don’t remember what he looks like now and we have since lost contact, but it was my first encounter with desiring another person. He was a boy with much lighter skin than I, but I didn’t know anything else at the time. I am the only Asian in my class, I don’t know what it means to look like me yet. It feels like an awkward privilege looking back.

R introduced me to the possibilities of digital technology. Arguably, I am here today because of an innocent play date with a boy I thought I loved. When you’re young, every experience feels like the first and the last that you’ll ever have, so you hold on. You don’t see a future decades from now where any interaction can become trivial. I thought I loved R because he was the first boy that I ever desired. R is nothing to me now, I don’t remember his face, all I see is the paper outline of a person, cut out and glued onto a collage of picket fences and poplar trees. I don’t know who he is anymore, but the wisdom he shared lives on inside me.

He teaches me how to download content on the internet, the kind that you have to delete within 24 hours for “preview purposes only.” This led me to late 90’s and early aughts adventures in message board and graphic design culture. You made your own avatar and signature to stand out while participating on these message boards, images that appeared with every response you posted with your username, a moniker to identify you by.

I used to see a lot of usernames with the word “AZN” in them, but I didn’t know what it meant. In my ignorance, I would pronounce it like “aw-zen,” not realizing it really meant Asian. What does it mean to be Asian? All I knew was that I was one. I’m not pale, bouncy, and blonde. My nose bridge is flat and I can’t wear plastic frames or else they stick to my face. People regularly mispronounce my surname and ask where I’m from. I don’t know why they don’t just take Miramichi, New Brunswick, at face value, why I need to share the intimate and harrowing story of my parents’ journey to Canada. They want access to me, and I’m too afraid to say no.

I don’t know how to be together with people when I’m also supposed to be “other.” It feels like I’m constantly performing two jobs badly. To reconcile this feeling, I sometimes imagine myself as a company with two roles: people and culture coordinator (togetherness) and diversity advocate (otherness). It feels like some weird irony to use corporate language to make sense out of a feeling of being racialized.

The thing about togetherness is that everyone gets to decide how they want to be together with other people. Are you with me, are you near me, are you holding me?

* * *

It’s my first time in Montreal, Quebec. I’m looking at manga, Japanese comics, at a Chapters bookstore. It’s me and another Asian boy. Two white boys walk by and call us “fucking losers,” then laugh and walk away. That was the moment I felt embarrassed for being Asian. While not an explicit racial slur, I felt a shame in my subconscious that I had no idea I was holding onto. I am one of the only Asians in Miramichi. There were a lot of us in Montreal, so many that I wanted to cry in relief. It made me wonder why I look the way I do back home. Were those two white boys right? Were they racist, was I a fucking loser, was it both?

Seeing more of the world, I feel confused. I’m a teenager now, caring less about winning against my brother and more about fitting in. You have to grow up fast when you’re the children of parents that come from nothing, and faster when you have to face a world where everyone reminds you of what you look like. My white friends all have boyfriends and I still can’t figure out how to live in my coloured body. We don’t really talk about it because we don’t know how to talk about it yet. The internet is supposed to help me connect to similar experiences, but they’re all from the city. They’re going to Chinese school and going to Chinatown. They’re drinking boba and I don’t know what that is. They have ethnic grocery stores and I have a Sobeys without an international section.

I don’t want to remember these thoughts anymore. Things are different now.

* * *

Poet and essayist Adrienne Rich once wrote:

“An honorable human relationship — that is, one in which two people have the right to use the word ‘love’—is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other.

It is important to do this because it breaks down human self-delusion and isolation.

It is important to do this because in doing so we do justice to our own complexity.

It is important to do this because we can count on so few people to go that hard way with us.”[1]

I feel like every human goes through the process of learning to love the world they live in. Every day the world is instilling a truth; sometimes it stings, and you want to turn away. Other days it’s soothing, like the gentle lulling of waves against the shore. Some days I can’t stand this world and what it’s made of me. On another day, I take responsibility for who I am.

I think we are all trying to build honourable human relationships in the best way we know how. With the people who’ve hurt us, the people we love, and the people we have yet to know. When the truths are not the same, we are faced with the complexity of life. But in that complexity you find justice, and as author and activist bell hooks says, “The heart of justice is truth telling, seeing ourselves and the world the way it is rather than the way we want it to be.”[2]

These days, I try to walk the path of love more than hate. I have many reasons to be angry, but that’s why it’s so easy. Every day is a struggle in trying to figure out what’s a story I’m telling myself to be alone, and what is the truth that will allow me to be together with others. I still try to challenge that yellow light every day at the moment it turns to red.

[1] Adrienne Rich. On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966-1978 (New York: W. W. Norton & Company Inc., 1979), 188.

[2] bell hooks. All About Love: New Visions (New York: Harper Collins, 2000), 33.

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