Kat Nugent reflects what being mixed-race means to her, and her journey to unite the two halves of her whole.
My memories of my late Popo hang in a deafening silence. They come to me not as moving frames, but as vivid pictures and unmistakable smells. When I think of my Popo I see flashes of her frail liver-spotted hands placing cylinders of Haw Flakes candy into mine. I see her uncomfortable smile as she feigns comprehension while my English dad speaks at her in a language she has tried her best to learn, but can not understand. I smell the savoury musk of the cupboard filled with dolls that she has collected for her grandchildren over the years, the sweet menthol of the cajuput oil she has rubbed onto her tired joints, and the aseptic odour of the ointment that her carer would apply to her bed sores when she could no longer walk.
These memories are static and silent because I can’t recall a single meaningful conversation that I had with her before she died. Language was an obstacle in our relationship; she was most comfortable speaking Hokkien (a Chinese dialect) and was also fluent in Indonesian. I was and am only fluent in English. This was the easy excuse that my conscience would eagerly grasp for whenever I felt those twinges of guilt that came in increasing regularity after she died. But as my late twenties herald in a new era of inner-reflection and self awareness, I’m finally acknowledging the disturbing truth that the reason I didn’t connect with my Popo was not because I couldn’t, but because I didn’t want to.
Today it’s impossible for me to think of her without being confronted by the insidious internalised racism that poisoned my relationship with my own ‘Asian-ness’ throughout my childhood and teenage years. My adolescence was plagued by an internal identity battle that so many mixed-race children struggle through. It was asymmetric warfare that my Asian ‘side’ always lost – a defeat that was to be expected given the wealth of environmental advantages my Caucasian ‘side’ had going for it.
In my child’s mind, I had willingly bought into a racial value system sold by the society around me. Through the brainwashing of Disney cartoons, euro-centric advertisements, Hollywood movies, compliments focusing on my ‘white’ features, criticisms founded on my ‘Asian’ ones, I accepted that ‘white’ meant normal and ‘Asian’ meant weird, ‘white’ was beautiful and ‘Asian’ was ugly, ‘white’ was the best part of me I wanted to show off and ‘Asian’ was the part I wanted to shed. I had been moulded to be ashamed of half of who I was and so I did what I could to detach from parts that reminded me of it, including my Popo.
Growing up in Australia with predominantly white friends, embarrassment was a potent emotion that I experienced almost on a daily basis. I was embarrassed of the Tupperware filled with pungent slimy food that my mum would pack me for lunch, of her speaking in Indonesian (she can speak English so why won’t she just speak English?), and of even referring to my Popo as ‘Popo’, instead calling her ‘my mum’s mum’, a phrase with such blatant purpose to disconnect that I think back on it with immense guilt today.
Guilt is one of the three waves of emotion that strike me when I now think of my Popo. It’s one that’s preceded by regret and followed by fear.
First comes the painfully futile feeling of regret, of wishing that I had spent time getting to know who she was not just as my Popo or as my mum’s mum, but who she was as Lim Jun Kim, a devoted daughter of Chinese immigrants who had come to Indonesia in the hopes of a better life for themselves and their children; a young girl whose adolescence was stained by the austerity of the Japanese occupation and a strong woman who fell in love and started a family in an unstable country under a military dictatorship. Then comes the throat-constricting guilt, not only for what I had robbed myself of, but for what I stole from her. In a Chinese-Indonesian culture where elders are to be revered and respected, my Popo loved a granddaughter who rejected and dismissed her.
And finally it’s the fear that the damage is irreversible. Pondering the future and thinking about having children with my white English partner sparks a deep anxiety about the potential lasting effects that this internalised racism may have. I’m afraid that the slowly-growing Asian representation in movies and T.V still won’t be enough to counter the toxic seeds of shame that were sown in me that I am still weeding out to this day. I’m afraid that rather than passing on my maternal culture and language, my children will inherit a hate for that quarter of themselves that they will see as different – a quarter is much easier to shed than a half. I’m scared that their white- passing faces will make it all too natural to see my mother, their grandmother, as odd and other and their father’s mother as familiar and family.
But sometimes the fear is followed by a ripple of hope. I find hope in the way that I have recognised this dual-identity crisis in myself and the world around me. As I was the first- generation of mixed-race individuals in my family, my parents didn’t have the first-hand experience to help me navigate these complexities but I will. I am immensely proud of my blended identity and am assured in the confident knowledge that I will be able to educate and encourage my children to feel the same. I think forward to a future in which they will proudly share with their friends a packed lunch of pempek, perkedel and bubur ayam prepared by my mum, their Popo, and speak to her happily in a combination of Indonesian and English.
Two months from now, I will be starting Indonesian language classes, arming myself with the tools to fix and strengthen the chain of lineage that I once tried to break. In this newfound awareness, I have the gift of a second chance to make sure that this society-inflicted disease of self-hate stops with me, and a responsibility to give my mum and my potential future children a bond that my Popo and I never had.
By Kat Nugent
Artwork: Nina Goodyer