“You’re Indian. You can handle it.” Those were the words offered to me by way of apology after receiving an unnecessary amount of Tabasco sauce on a pizza slice at a friend’s birthday party many years ago. The words were not an apology, of course. They were more of an exercise in the mental gymnastics that allows a person of some other ethnicity to stretch a popular aspect of my ethnicity to cover their own back.
Around 15 years old, at a pool party, I ate my Tabasco-flavoured pizza in relative peace, quietly musing that my people prefer chilli – not pepper – sauce.
Many similar memories, swirled in a heady cocktail of presumptions, resurfaced reading food writer Ming-Cheau Lin’s recently released memoir, Yellow and Confused.
Under the tagline “Born in Taiwan, raised in South Africa and making sense of it all”, Lin shares a largely unfiltered journey into her adulthood. Her story is told in anecdotes, photographs and reflections, all structured as if to walk us through the author ruminating on the question, “Why am I the way I am?”
Yellow and Confused is a palpable effort to understand and order an identity that’s publicly understood in vague terms, from the sole perspective of the one living it. There is no collapse into a single story on “otherness”. How can there be?
Written by the now 30-something year old Lin, what this atypically young memoir lacks in the specificity of stories told with the hindsight afforded by time and age, it gains in the broad messiness of documenting a life while still making sense of it.
Same same, but different
As teenage me was learning to swallow any discomfort served with copious amounts of the Tabasco sauce all Indian people are expected to handle, Lin had long since learned to separate food into the categories of “safe for public school scrutiny” and “just for my family and I”.
In a touching retelling of an incident involving a lunchbox full of homemade Taiwanese food, Lin retraces an early form of self-hate: shame for one’s culture not resembling a ham and cheese sandwich on white bread with the crusts cut off.
“‘Why does it smell? … My dad told me you people eat dogs – is that dog?’” Lin recalls her classmates saying. “I didn’t eat my lunch. I was too angry … Although I didn’t know why, I knew that I already stood out. This was another thing I didn’t want to stand out for,” she writes.
The early chapters of her memoir meticulously lay out this history of her people in relation to South Africa, complete with an explainer of the differences and nuances of Asian ethnicities. Lin kindly shines a light on common gaps in knowledge, easing us into her world with a firm, educating hand.
A personal history
Lin grew up in Bloemfontein. She moved there aged three with her parents and older sister from Taiwan under the apartheid government’s economic stimulus scheme incentivising Taiwanese business owners to set up shop in South Africa. The incentive: a new market and an honorary white status. The trade-off was otherness: a complicated position in South Africa’s unjust racial hierarchy where Taiwanese people would never be fully white, but would not be fully welcomed as black either for a long time to come.
Lin would grow up to embrace her people’s food, becoming a champion of the preservation and provenance of Asian food as a writer and food consultant. But all this would be a hard-won triumph of personal conviction over playground Orientalism.
Scholar and critic Edward Said made the term Orientalism popular through his study of Western representations of the Arab-Islamic world. Stereotypes about different identities emerged, grouping together places and people. The idea of Orientalism has since been extended to look at other ways that his theory can be made applicable to different experiences across the globe. Representations of East Asian people as “yellow” or “comical”, Arab people as “inherently violent” and Indian or South Asian people as “inherently meek” or “stingy” are examples of how Orientalism has seeped into popular narratives.
Lin’s triumphs, from the lunchboxes of primary school to the dinner tables of restaurants, may seem small to those who are wired to leap over or skirt around attacks on personal identity. But they paint a clear picture of the very real makings, breakings and remakings of an individual in a minority in a nation grasping for its democratic identity.
She writes of navigating tensions of being absorbed and integrated into predominantly white social structures while maintaining a duty to home; of embracing feminism even when it conflicted with cultural norms. Her work explores the tensions between becoming an individual and being a good representative of her people. Lin writes of identifying with her cultural heritage without being defined by pre-existing Orientalist stereotypes. And she writes of her experiences during #FeesMustFall and #MeToo, periods of viral social change we are effectively still working through.
These are themes relatable to those who may identify with any one of the categories of “minority”, what the book deems “person of colour”, “anti-capitalist” or “other”. Recollecting one’s own stories of subtle discrimination in the new South Africa is almost unavoidable while reading of Lin’s. Her style evokes the feeling of bearing witness to a friend’s catharsis. It may lead the reader to take on her feelings of anger, betrayal and confusion at a society that claims diversity but cannot embrace it.
But to what end? Why recollect the sticks and stones that have bruised us? Where does dealing with the past end and dwelling on it to the point of debilitation begin?
How do I deal with my own otherness? How am I – or how have I been – complicit in forms of othering myself? These are questions worth asking regularly and Lin’s memoir is a fitting prompt.
Yellow and Confused closes with a chapter dedicated to the stories of other Asians in media and creative industries in South Africa. Told in the first person, we can easily imagine this as the closing montage of a documentary, one in which the words from Edward Saïd’s Orientalism echo loud and true: “The more one is able to leave one’s cultural home, the more easily is one able to judge it, and the whole world as well, with the spiritual detachment and generosity necessary for true vision. The more easily, too, does one assess oneself and alien cultures with the same combination of intimacy and distance.”
If there is any sense of finality to Lin’s memoir, it is here. Yellow and Confused is a memoir of a millennial Taiwanese South African, and it shines a light on a lived experience that is poorly featured in our contemporary media landscape. In this way, it is also a public service to collective memory.
Because of Lin’s vulnerable and bold act of writing her history, it is comforting to know that while experiences like the Tabasco incident may have a hand in shaping us, and knock us in ways we may not anticipate or be able to avoid, they don’t singularly define us.
Yellow and Confused was published in 2019 by Kwela Books, an imprint of NB Publishers. Ming-Cheau Lin is also the author of Just Add Rice, a cookbook.