“Would you call this a dumpling or a potsticker? Or a gyoza?” I ask as I turn my friend Gemma’s plushie dumpling around. It’s cute with blush pink cheeks and squinty smiling eyes. Asian eyes, I suppose. The first name that comes to my mind is actually gaau-ji, a Cantonese word that evokes memories of warm afternoons with my maternal grandmother, who I lovingly call my po-po, folding pleats into dumpling wrappers to hold that precious pocket of juicy meat and veggies. When I think of potstickers, my mouth fills with the greasy taste of microwaved hangover food from a resealable bag out of the freezer. I flip the dumpling over; the tag on the back says: Made in Bangladesh.
“Jenn!” Gemma grabs the toy from my hands, making a noise that’s somewhere between a growl and a sigh. “Are you listening to me at all?”
“No,” I admit.
“I’m trying to help you with your love life.”
“I don’t need help.”
“With five unsuccessful dates in two weeks? You clearly do.”
I groan. Dates are the worst, especially first dates. I never know what to wear, and I never know how much eye makeup to use to make my eyes look less small without looking like a panda. I hate putting in work to keep my eyelashes from smearing mascara all over my hooded eyelids, and it’s always a fight to get my straight black hair to hold any kind of curl. After all that, I end up on some mediocre date only to force small talk and answer the same questions every single time. My last date with Caleb was especially awful.
His dating profile advertised photos of a cute, blond, dimpled 25-year-old with interests like hockey and cooking, which are things that I listed as interests too. He’d listed hiking as well, which made me roll my eyes because every millennial needs to love hiking for some reason. The photo with his dog was the one that made me swipe yes.
After quick introductions from opposite sides of the restaurant table, he wasted no time in asking the dreaded question: “Where are you from?”
“Edmonton,” I answered, hoping that’s what he meant.
“No, I mean where are you actually from?”
“I was born in Edmonton,” I repeat, keeping a straight face.
“Um,” he swallowed. “I mean, like, where are your ancestors from?”
Pangea, I wanted to say, the same place that all our ancestors are from. Instead, I bit my tongue and gave the answer that I knew he was fishing for, “My parents are from Hong Kong.”
“Technically, yes,” I said, not wanting to get into the history lesson about Hong Kong’s colonization by Britain.
“Cool,” he said. “My cousin’s girlfriend is Japanese.”
I continued to listen to him blabber on about sushi and “gochujang sauce” or whatever, as I buried myself in my burger and fries, wishing for time to pass faster. Unsurprisingly, his follow-up messages went ignored on my phone after that.
It’s people like him who make me beat myself up for calling myself generically “Asian” all these years instead of explicitly stating that I am Chinese Canadian. With 48 countries in Asia, it’s not exactly clear which one my ancestors were from.
Now Gemma’s flipping through my dating app, and I can’t believe I didn’t delete it after the nightmare date with Caleb. I don’t know what people expect when they see my photos and my interests. So far, I seem to be either too Asian, or not Asian enough, or the wrong kind of Asian.
Gemma asks, “Have you ever been in love?”
“Is that a fundamental requirement to be a functional human being?”
“Well, no, but… you’re twenty-five years old and you’ve never been in love. Doesn’t that make you kind of sad?”
I shrug. It wasn’t necessarily something I put thought into but it does make me sad to think of my last girlfriend, Chloë, who I dated almost one year ago—she was the first girl I’d ever dated. My family wasn’t religious, unless you counted my mom’s annual visit to the temple on Chinese New Year, but they were traditional, so dating girls was never an option for me. I opened my dating profile to all genders about two years ago because I realized that I cared about the person, and not the gender.
Chloë was originally from Hawaii, and I’d never met anyone as kind as she was. She had a weekly volunteer shift picking up garbage out of city parks, and on more than one occasion, I’d accompanied her to buy Subway for a homeless person downtown. On our third date, she took me on a midnight picnic, and I’d spent the night tracing the constellations into her light brown skin.
Funnily enough, one of the first things we bonded about was how our families had disliked our skin tones. She was darker than me, but I tanned easily, and I could have caught up to her complexion during the summertime if I tried. My aunt used to buy me papaya soap, which is supposed to have skin whitening properties, because she said ladies must be fair and only labourers were tanned from working outside in the field all day. Most of my friends were white, and they’d go to tanning salons or use fake tanners that left orange streaks on their legs. All of this gave me a confusing outlook on what a desirable skin tone was supposed to be.
Chloë and I dated for three months, and it was the longest relationship that I’ve ever been in. On our three-month anniversary, she told me that she loved me.
The last person who told me “I love you” before then was Gemma as I dropped her drunken form back at her home; before that, it was another friend who was super grateful that I’d helped him move. I’d never had anyone say it to me in the way that Chloë did. Growing up, I knew my family loved me from the way that my po-po would make my favourite stir-fried noodles when I came home from school, or how my dad would go out of his way to drive me to art lessons across town. The words “I love you” never passed their lips; it was an unspoken truth that we knew, so I didn’t know how to respond to Chloë. I told her that I didn’t know if I loved her back.
On hindsight, I think I did love her, but I don’t think our relationship would have worked. Her beauty made me insecure. When I was a kid, the same aunt who bought the papaya soap would tell me to pinch the bridge of my nose with a clothespin to make it less flat or pull out my chin because my chin was weak. She even suggested that I get double-eyelid surgery to make my hooded eyes look bigger. Chloë had all these features that I had been taught to want and instead of appreciating her beauty, I sometimes found myself seeing the flaws in my own.
“Earth to Jenn!” Gemma shouts before hurling the dumpling plushie into my face. “There must have been somebody, like anybody in your entire life that you might have loved?”
“There was one person,” I say suddenly as if getting hit in the head by a soft toy could awaken an epiphany in me. Really, I just want to give her something to chew on so she’ll drop the topic. She leans in expectantly. I swallow, a little embarrassed because I’d never told anyone this before. “Rafael Hawke in the sixth grade.”
“Aww, I didn’t know you had a sixth-grade boyfriend!”
“No, we never did anything romantic. He gave me his phone number right before summer break, but I never phoned him.”
“I don’t know.” I think back to the last time I saw him and the melancholy glance he’d spared me from the corner of his eye. “I still think about him from time to time and I wonder what would have happened if I had called him… not that we’d still be dating now or anything.”
Her chocolate brown eyes look at me wide and tearful. Gemma looks like how I feel—half-Chinese and half-white. Her lips push into a pout. “I’m going to find him for you.”
“Good luck with that,” I laugh, hoping this will keep her off my case for a while.
She doesn’t bring it up again and I forget about the conversation entirely until a month later, I get a message from her with a link to an Instagram profile. The bio says, “Rafa Hawke, he/him. No relation to Ethan Hawke.” His account is public, featuring an impressive selection of paintings. After some scrolling, I finally come across a picture of his face: he has wavy long brown hair, tanned skin, and big doe eyes with long eyelashes. I’d recognize those eyes anywhere.
There’s a weird tightness in my chest as I realize how much I underestimated modern technology and Gemma’s sleuthing skills.
After waffling on whether to message him or not for an entire week, I finally decided to tap out a message to him and send it into the internet cosmos. Now I’m sitting at a table for two at my favourite Italian restaurant, worrying the corner of my napkin between my fingers. Italian is good, right? It’s not overly exotic. Compared to the homecooked rice and noodles laden with soy sauce and sesame oil, Italian dishes like lasagna and ravioli covered in gooey melted cheese and fresh basil were an exciting treat for me when I was growing up. Now that I’m older, I wish I had learned how to make Chinese dishes. When I’m at home eating my soggy spaghetti with pasta sauce from a jar, I reminisce about my po-po’s fragrant steamed fish and sautéed gai-lan with oyster sauce. Maybe I should have picked a Chinese restaurant.
The chair across from me scrapes across the linoleum floor. As I look up at Rafael for the first time in thirteen years, my heart skips a beat. He still has the same soft brown eyes. His long hair is tied back and a grey beanie rests snugly over the top of his head. His stubbled face splits into a grin when he sees me, and it’s the same boyish smile that I remember fondly.
“Hi,” I say.
“Hi.” His smile widens. My memory did him no justice. “It’s been so long.”
We update each other on what we’ve been doing with our lives—he’s an artist and an indie musician, and I’m an accountant working 9 to 5 at a big company. He was surprised that I hadn’t pursued art because he remembered how we would stay after school sometimes and draw together.
“My mom had a shortlist of careers that she would support. Sadly, artist was not one of them.” I tear into the soft bread, crumbs scattering over my plate. My parents would only endorse jobs that they deemed financially stable; after spending their first several years in Canada eating on the cardboard-covered floor, off milk crates, they wanted a different life for me.
“Ah, I see.” he says. He doesn’t say that it’s cruel and restrictive parenting like some people have said before, so maybe he understands.
“Accounting is a stable job.” he adds, “You were always good at math.”
“Being bad at math wasn’t an option.” I sigh.
“I don’t know why it was always a big secret for you though,” he chuckles.
I raise an eyebrow.
“I remember when you used to write wrong answers on your homework for your friends to copy and then change them back right before we had to hand it in.”
I laugh. I’d forgotten that I’d used to do that. “Being smart wasn’t cool! I was just trying to fit in.”
“I know. You always were trying to fit in.” He smiles sadly. “Honestly, I never knew why. You were the coolest person I knew.”
“You don’t mean that… I was so different. So weird.”
“Why do you say that?” He shakes his head, and he sounds almost offended. “Because you were the only Chinese person in our class? Kids were stupid.”
“And they grew up to be even stupider adults,” I say, evoking a laugh from him.
He’s right though. I always felt like I could never fit in. Not only did I look different from everyone else, but no one understood why I had to go to violin practice after school once a week or why I couldn’t hang out on Saturday afternoons because I had Mandarin classes. Rafael made me feel not weird. He made me feel like it was okay to be me, whatever I was. When the other kids demanded that I say something in Chinese, he would yell at them and tell them that Chinese wasn’t a dialect, something that I had never needed to explain to him.
“Yeah, and I bet they’re all adults who don’t know how to appreciate good food. You had the best lunches!”
“The Spam and egg sandwiches?” I grin. He happily swapped lunches with me back in the day even though I never had Lunchables or chocolate milk.
“Those were amazing!” He swoons at the memory. “And the Vitasoy drinks? I pick them up every time I go to an Asian grocery store.”
I don’t admit to him that I often threw out my lunches in junior high because other girls my age thought they were gross.
He offers to split a dessert, and I accept. It’s a nice change to be able to stay for the whole meal instead of rushing through my entrée to get home faster.
After his first bite of panna cotta, he asks, “How come you never called me?”
“After sixth grade?”
He nods. “I really liked you.”
“I really liked you too. I regretted not calling you for years after that.” I frown. “Honestly, I just didn’t really think that I could call you. I didn’t know romance was a thing. It was always something that happened in books and movies but never to someone like me.”
“Because the main characters were always white?” he asks, wrinkling his nose.
I’d never really thought about that. “You know… maybe that is part of it. Their lives were so different from mine.”
“You always had a lot of insecurity about being different.” His gaze is heavy, and I want to look away. “Do you still have that?”
“I don’t know.”
All through grade school, my friends were beautiful Caucasian girls—fair-skinned and blond, or brunette dyed to blond with splashes of freckles across their noses that they hid with concealer. When I entered university, I was shocked to see so many people who looked like me, who grew up with families and lifestyles like mine.
There was a group of Chinese Canadian girls that I’d hung out with a few times; I thought we’d had a lot in common, but besides our backgrounds and physical appearances, we were totally different. I didn’t recognize the names of the Chinese dramas and shows that they mentioned, because I’d grown up watching American television, like The OC and Gossip Girl. When they swooned over pictures of their favourite hot Asian actors, it was clear that I did not have the same taste in men. Sometimes they’d speak to each other in Cantonese in public, giggling as they gossiped about someone right in front of them; it seemed rude and alien to me. It was as if I’d been trying to hide my culture for so long that I didn’t know how to be with other Chinese Canadian people. My mom used to call me gwai-mui or “white girl” and it would make me feel like I was too white to be Chinese, like I was ashamed of my culture. These girls made me feel like a gwai-mui every time I was with them.
Rafael offers me the last bite of dessert which I accept. Surprisingly, he pulls out his cell phone and starts typing something in. Neither of us had touched our phones all evening. My phone pings with a notification and I see an Instagram message from him with a phone number. We’d arranged this meeting over the app, so I didn’t have his number.
He says, “If you’re not seeing anyone right now, I’ve been waiting since summer after grade six for you to call.”
I’m about to say yes immediately but I stop myself. He’s looking at me earnestly with his paint-stained hands and guitar-callused fingers clutching his phone hopefully. A purple crystal dangles from a leather necklace over his black tank top, visible under his open red flannel shirt. Briefly, I glance down at my own outfit: a black-and-white polka-dot blouse and a grey pencil skirt, and I wonder when I lost all the colour in my life.
With the last taste of sweet panna cotta lingering on my tongue, I say, “I’m sorry. I have some insecurities to work on.”
He nods understandingly, standing up. “I guess I’ll see you in another thirteen years then?”
I stand as well, giving him a tight hug. “I’ll be sure to bring the Vitasoy.”
Emily Yu (she/her) is a first-generation Chinese Canadian born to Hong Kong immigrants. She is a writer and a dreamer, living in Moh’kinsstis Treaty 7 territory, also known as Calgary, Alberta. Her short story The In-Between was selected for the Humainologie Short Story Festival 2021. Follow her on Twitter @emilyyu_writes