When I was in the eighth grade, I wanted my yellow skin to turn white. I wished for my coarse black hair to change into long golden locks and my slanted brown eyes to turn round and blue. I yearned to become an all- American girl with freckles on her cheeks and a last name like Smith or Thompson.
I didn’t want to be Chinese anymore. I didn’t want to be different.
Nearly everybody in my suburban ward was white— from the green-eyed bishop to the lanky boys who passed the sacrament. Only a few brown faces dotted our sunny chapel, like the elderly black couple and the Latino teenagers who sat at the back of the room. And then there was us, the Asian family who had converted a few months before. In our ward of apple pies and American flags, we stuck out like weeds in a rose garden.
I was a little ashamed of my yellow-skinned family. My mother struggled with her English while my father struggled with his belief in God. We looked nothing like the perfect Mormon families I saw in the pages of the Ensign who studied the scriptures every morning and prayed together every night. I hungered to be part of such a family.
Sometimes before I slipped into bed at night, I wrote in my diary about my future husband and how he would whisk me away from my Oriental existence. Page after page, I scribbled down a list of what I expected in a spouse: handsome and strong, kind and responsible, a returned missionary with an unwavering testimony. And, of course, he would have to be white. If my own family refused to fit the mold of the ideal Mormon clan, I would have to create one for myself.
Once I started my freshman year at BYU I surveyed my new landscape and set out to achieve this goal. Besides taking classes and studying for exams, I was always searching for the perfect Mormon boy who would help me form my perfect Mormon family.
During my junior year of college, I thought I might have found him. His name was Taylor and he was the perfect all-American boy I had always dreamed about. Warm green eyes. Dark curly hair. He was funny (in a sarcastic way that I liked) and smart (in a nonchalant way that I admired). For a semester and a half, we took classes together and went on a couple of dates—but the words “girlfriend” and “boyfriend” always loomed beyond my grasp.
One late night in the spring, I lamented to my roommate about the awkward pseudo-relationship I had with Taylor. Did he like me? Did he like somebody else? What was I doing wrong?
My roommate looked at me and then looked away. “I don’t know if I should tell you this,” she said as she bit her lip. “Taylor doesn’t want to date you because you aren’t white. His cousin told me. Are you okay?”
For a couple seconds, I was speechless. But I just shrugged and gave a flittering laugh. I told my roommate I was perfectly fine. Didn’t bother me. This was Taylor’s loss, right?
But as I went to sleep that night, I drenched my pillow in a current of tears. I told myself Taylor was a waste of my time and he was stupid, stupid, stupid. Yet, a small part of my heart screamed against these words. He wasn’t a waste of my time! And he wasn’t stupid! If only I could rid myself of my yellow skin, then nothing would’ve stood between Taylor and me.
For the rest of the semester, I deleted Taylor’s emails before I could read them and I avoided him altogether. Whenever I went to school, I couldn’t help but wonder if the boys on campus only saw the color of my skin rather than the color of me.
When autumn arrived a couple months later, I found myself boarding a wide-winged airplane and heading for a semester abroad in London—a place where I could blend into the patchwork of brown, yellow, and white faces roaming through the streets. Here in the city, Taylor would only exist as a ghost in my mind, an ache to be gradually forgotten.
On one of my first days in town, I ventured across the acres of Hyde Park to my genealogy class at the LDS chapel. As I trudged up the steps of the gray-stoned building, I wondered if there was any way to weasel out of this mandatory course. The proper title of the class was “British Family History” and I didn’t possess a drop of European ancestry in my DNA.
At the end of my first class, my teacher pulled me aside to discuss alternative assignments catered to my “special” situation. She wanted to help me feel welcome in class, yet my cheeks flushed and my eyes darted to my shoes. Quietly, my thirteen-year-old self peeked from the corners of my mind and asked, “Wouldn’t this be so much easier if you were white?”
Since none of my genealogy had been done before, my teacher decided I should cobble together a fresh family tree, starting with the names and birthplaces of my relatives. The assignment was simple enough and I sent an email to my mother later that evening, asking her to provide any information she possessed. Any anecdotes would be appreciated too. When her email arrived a day later, I opened the response with a half-interested gaze. Yet as my eyes scanned over the computer screen, I couldn’t help but read and reread the words my mom had written in her broken English.
“Your great-grandfather was very rich man. Born in Wuhan,” my mother wrote. “He even owned Rolls Royce, but everything taken away from him when Communists took over.
“Grandma was first woman in our family to go to college,” she continued, “but she left school when she meet her husband. He died in plane crash when she only twenty-seven. Very, very sad.”
Finally, she wrote about herself and my dad: “Daddy and I met in college—in a club to practice our English. After I finished master’s school, we move to America. Then you were born. So cute. You were fat baby.”
By the end of the message, I wished my mother had written more. What happened to my great-grandpa? Was he sent to one of Mao’s “re-education camps” to atone for his bourgeois lifestyle? And why didn’t my mom ever tell me she had a master’s degree?
Questions swarmed in my mind and I wrote another email to my mom. When the message was sent, I felt a twinge of regret. Memories of my middle school days crept into my mind—the upturned nose I wore whenever my father stumbled in his English and my frustrated sigh when my mother offered Chinese food to my American friends. A different sense of shame now burned into my cheeks. Week after week, my folder of genealogy grew a bit fatter. And little by little, my interest in my Chinese heritage trickled into my wanderings of the city. I often drifted into the Asian exhibitions of the museums I visited, catching sight of Buddhist statues from the Tang dynasty and woodblock prints from the Cultural Revolution. Walking among these precious artifacts, an odd feeling filtered into my heart—a feeling I never had felt toward my race. A feeling of pride.
When my semester abroad came to an end, I headed back to BYU where the next year and a half swiftly whizzed past me. New classes, new internships, and new wards. It wasn’t long before I was packing my bags again and getting ready for graduation. On one Saturday afternoon as I cleaned out my desk, I found an envelope stuck between my books on Chinese history. It was an invitation to Taylor’s wedding.
It had arrived a couple weeks before—with a photo of Taylor and his blue-eyed fiancée—but I knew I wouldn’t be able to attend their reception. I was going out of the country in a few days. I was going to China.
After graduation, I flew over the Pacific Ocean with my father by my side and together we glided over the city of Beijing. When our plane touched down onto the runway, I pressed my nose against the window and took a long breath. I thought about the millions of people outside who spoke a language I barely knew and who wrote in a script I barely understood. A part of me wanted to turn around and head home.
And yet, in a way, I was already there.
My father patted me on the leg, telling me it was time to go. As I went to unbuckle my seatbelt, I caught sight of my face in the window. My black hair looked messy and my yellow skin was dry. My slanted eyes blurred from hours of traveling. But my reflection didn’t bother me anymore.
I stretched my legs, grabbed my bag, and stepped off of the plane into the light of the sun.