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Wong, Alexandra, Turnip Cake


Alexandra Wong
Age: 17, Grade: 12

School Name: Hunter College High School, New York, NY
Educator: Victoria Meng

Category: Personal Essay & Memoir

Turnip Cake

  1. Five-year-old Alex when she’s still 欣怡 wakes up in the middle of naptime. She tiptoes over to Miss Alice and asks in her very best Mandarin if she can go to the bathroom. She’s proud to have gotten the words right, in the right order, and tries to contain her smile. Miss Alice says no, in English. Naptime is almost over. Wait.

I have so many stories that I want to tell about being half Chinese. Half Canto, with a white mother. Nobody else seems to. But my command of language precludes that: Latin is the only language I can claim to know besides English (Je ne parle pas beaucoup de français, I say: my French-British mother shakes her head woefully that I have never been to Paris: the croissants, the champagne, the culture!). I am aware that it is impractical and a dead language, and no, I do not want to work in the Vatican. What about Taishanese, my grandmother’s dialect? That would be useful. I can’t speak it. A phone conversation with her: “Hi, Yun Yon!” “Hello, baby! You good?” “Wǒ hěn hǎo!” “Okay, okay.” My father, gesticulating furiously at me to struggle through the language barrier, but I’m quickly running out of things to say. “Wǒ ài nǐ, Yun Yon!” “Wǒ ài nǐ, baby! Bai bai!” “Bye!”

Wǒ ài nǐ is Mandarin for I love you, not Taishanese or the closely related Cantonese. The cultured dialect, as the great-aunt I see once every several years says, shaking her head, not the dying Chinatown lingua franca. Recently, I asked my father why she says wǒ ài nǐ. Mandarin is the dialect I learned during my two-year stint in Chinese nursery school and promptly forgot as soon as I entered affluent-neighborhood-public-school first grade. Yun Yon just used the one I knew, he says.

So stories from my grandmother are secondhand. Here is one: Yun Yon had two parents and an older sister in the mountains of Guangdong, and a dog, who was white and adorable and named the Taishanese equivalent of Snowy. They had a farm. There were horses. Yun Yon won’t come to our house often because of our two cats. She doesn’t like pets. One day when she was seventeen, she went into the barn after working in the fields all day. Snowy was floating in the horses’ water trough, with his neck snapped. It had something to do with Mao Zedong.

I will never be told this story in Taishanese. My father mentioned it to me one evening, offhand. I don’t know if Yun Yon would tell me, even if I understood. Yun Yon doesn’t wear blue because it’s the color that Mao wore in all the propaganda posters and hasn’t talked to her sister who now lives in Brooklyn in forty years because the sister believes Mao did great things. You will never disrespect me by going to China, she tells my father. Horrible place. Mandarin is far from me. Cantonese is further, and Taishanese — half an hour to my grandmother’s — is furthest. My father is the Asian one: my mother taught me pomme and je m’appelle Alexandra and l’éléphant est gros. I choke on my words. They die on the palate.

2. Here’s a more recent story. Fifteen-year-old Alex, who is now alternately Alex or Alexa or Sasha depending on who you ask, accidentally gets off her bus one stop early and is now lost in Flushing trying to find Fay Da Bakery for the egg tarts. (She recently learned that the egg tarts came to Hong Kong through Portuguese monks which has something to do with Macau which is a place she only knows about from that sexy casino scene in Skyfall.) An elderly lady walks up to her and presumably asks for directions but she doesn’t understand. She can tell it’s Taishanese. It’s a little rougher than standard Cantonese, tones faster and consonants more palatalized, and besides, the lady is probably part of the older generation from Guangdong, rather than Hong Kong. She smiles apologetically and says in her very best memorized Cantonese that she doesn’t speak Chinese. The lady shakes her head and walks off. Gwáimūi, she hears. That she recognizes. Ghost girl.

I am not recognized by my name Wong. Odd looks frequently happen while introducing myself. If they have seen my name only in correspondence, they are confused when meeting me in person: Who is this decidedly non-Asian girl? She’s half Chinese, actually. I smile. I know most halfies have white fathers and Asian mothers. Laugh! If the person is white, I proceed this way, with a joke: the rest of me is Assorted White, I say, mostly French, with some distant relatives in northern England and Holland and Dutch Pennsylvania thrown in for good measure. Oh! the person says.

Sometimes my last name is misspelled Wang. No, that’s the Mandarin romanization, I say. I’m Wong, with the o. I’m Canto — turnip cake sticks to the roof of my mouth, and I’m so obsessed with egg tarts —  even though I can’t speak it. One more question that Chinese people ask me: which Wong is it? There are two distinct surnames, 黄 and 王, that are pronounced the same way in Cantonese. The romanizations are the same. I tell them it’s 黄, yellow. They nod sagely. You have good eyelids! And a high nose bridge. Why don’t you speak it?

A good question, with a complicated answer and the omnipresent wish-I-could that I thought about this past year, as my friends and I struggled with identity in various ways. I watched us break down our identities to the minutiae, via two hundred-word-texts and midnight Twitter threads, and try to assemble ourselves back into a single person. My catharsis was angry poetry, default Arial font, Google Docs.

This is my conclusion and convergence: I am a ghost flitting between identities, never corporeal. My copious knowledge of Chinese surnames variously transliterated as Wong or Wang or Huang is overwhelmed by my inability to speak any dialect, let alone my grandmother’s. But I am Asian-American and I am allowed to say that. I know that. This can be my story to tell.

3. Here is a clarification regarding my various first names. Yun Yon called me 欣怡 until I was about six. Then I promptly forgot what my Chinese name was, along with all my Mandarin. 

4. I am determined on tangibility. Recently, I asked my father to remind me of my Chinese name. He had also forgotten, so he asked Yun Yon, who wrote it on the back of a red envelope from the Flushing TD Bank. “She was very happy,” he reported. “She thinks it fits you.”