For the first time in my life I was attracted to Asian men. It happened on my first trip overseas, to be exact—in Hong Kong, 34 hours before Great Britain ceremoniously handed its Crown Colony back to China. Journalists were all over the island, schedules in hand, looking for anything newsworthy. The world was watching, waiting for change.
I was in the press lobby on the twenty-sixth floor of the Wanchai Towers, 6,900 miles from home in San Francisco. My friend Alison was somewhere down the hall trying to finagle last-minute press credentials, and I sat by the front desk wide-eyed and overwhelmed while reporters from around the globe rushed by to check in.
I’ve been attracted to men of all ages, five years my younger to twenty years my senior. I’ve run my fingers through the locks of brown hair, blond hair, red hair, black hair-and over the heads of some men with not much hair at all. I’ve loved Caucasian men, admired African-American men, fantasized about Latino men, but never have I once seen an Asian man that I cared to give the time of day. Some women might feel the same, but probably none of them are Chinese like me.
I’ve been half-Chinese all my life. My father’s family is originally from Canton. My mother’s family is Caucasian—a mix of English, Dutch, maybe even some Scottish. I’m what they call HAPA, from the Hawaiian term meaning half Asian, half white. However, growing up fourth-generation American-born in a white, middle-class, Southern California suburb, I always thought that I was not just half, but all white. Just like my friends.
At a young age, I formed my own assumptions and ideals about the men I wanted to be with. Men should be good-hearted, intelligent, hardworking, taller than me, wearing a nice smile, and musically talented. Adventuresome, a definite plus. I liked them white, and I preferred them Jewish. Or so I thought, until I went to Hong Kong and they walked in. The Chinese journalists, that is.
I couldn’t take my eyes off them. One at a time, sometimes two, they walked up to the front desk. But they didn’t just walk in, they entered. They arrived at the desk with a purpose. I was transfixed by their smart designer black and gray suits. Every inch of them was polished from their no-nonsense haircuts to their expensive Italian shoes. Their briefcases were unscuffed and their cell phones were kept professionally out of view. They, as almost all men in Hong Kong, wore silver oval glasses. Maybe they needed the prescriptions, and maybe they didn’t. They looked intellectual. Distinguished. Complete. I didn’t know their names, their dialects, or their business. All I knew was that they were tall, dark, handsome…and Asian.
I just sat and stared as they signed their papers, every move crisp and confident. Unlike any other journalist in the room, they knew where to go and what to do. My gaze followed them down the hall to the left, where they disappeared into unmarked rooms, official government attendants close behind.
Suddenly I noticed that my brow had tightened. A confusing paralysis overcame me, and I hid in my guidebook. I didn’t want to think about how I looked to them. My grandparents never taught me the Cantonese word for wet monsoon rat. I was wearing gray cotton leggings with a red poncho tied around my waist. My hair was a mess and covered with a baseball cap. My feet hurt, and I didn’t feel like being seen. My soggy umbrella fell off the couch, and I pushed it under my backpack. I felt like Cathy, that awkward, pathetic, comic-strip girl who never seems to have anything put together.
Then I heard American voices. My eyes lifted to three Caucasian guys, on the right, sauntering down the hall. A comfortable smile revealed itself on my face. They wore jeans and khaki photographer’s vests. Their tripods, gigantic camcorders, and fuzzy microphones were slung over their shoulders. I knew their names were Jake, Mike, and Jack. Had to be. Rugged names, for rugged individuals. I wanted to go with them. I wanted to be them, roving Hong Kong for the perfect shot, the perfect story, fantasizing about a hostile Tiananmen-like outbreak that would bring home the Pulitzer. I imagined them pushing through crowds to get to Prince Charles, a shot of Governor Patten, a meeting with Martin Lee wouldn’t phase them because they did it last week and probably would tomorrow too. Running and sweating and then drinking a cold beer with the boys at the end of the day.
The Chinese men came back, standing across from the Americans, both before me. A subtle quake quivered and shook along my spine. My head was shaken and my cranium seemed to crack. I looked from one to the other. Chinese composure. American ease. Chinese integrity. American enthusiasm. Why now, when never before had I admired a tailored suit? A cell phone? A briefcase? An Asian? I put my guidebook back in my pack and sat up straight. The quake continued, but my heart was still. I was separating, body and mind. I was opening up. Suddenly my blood was a river flowing through me. A thousand creeks flowing in and around my body, encircling the island of my heart. The Chinese were proud. The Americans were comfortable. Now my body was flooding, and I stood on my heart, the only solid ground.
I looked back and forth at them one more time, the Asians and the Caucasians. They didn’t look at me. They didn’t have to, they were me. I closed my eyes. When I opened them, they were gone. I had been lost in a mirror.
Alison was coming down the hall, without a pass, but ready for the street. Hong Kong awaited. The next day the British were going to return their last colony to the Chinese. We had come for the handover, but now I knew…I had come to take back me.
About Jennifer L. Leo:
Jennifer Leo is the editor of Sand in My Bra and Other Misadventures and co-editor of A Woman’s Path. She has written for books published by Travelers’ Tales, Lonely Planet, and Globe-Pequot. Her website Written Road, is a resource for travel writers. View Jen’s full list of works, services, and speaking venues at www.JenLeo.com