The cool sand cushions me like the embrace of a long lost sister. Salt heavy in the air is a wet dog’s kiss, moist, soft, and adoring. The shady overgrown canopy of crepe myrtle, long grasses, dark green vines, and pine trees frame the walking path with gentle arms. I hear the song of cicadas and a breeze stirring the trees. A crooked but sturdy wood fence, gray with age, guides my daughter and me along until we emerge from the path, rejuvenated by the vastness of the blue sky. As the sand grows hot under my feet, I hear shrieking seagulls and feel the rush and spray of seawater.
With my daughter’s small hand in mine, we walk clumsily toward the dunes. I look around as she pauses to adjust her sandals. Although I’m sharply conscious we are the only Asian people within sight, and probably on the whole beach, it’s not a new feeling to me. As a Korean person adopted into a white family, I’ve lived my entire life under the white gaze. Since more often than not, I am the only person of color in a given space, I’ve grown used to feeling as if I were a chopstick dropped into a drawer full of forks. While my daughter has taken on her father’s thick Mexican hair and arched Vietnamese eyebrows, most people see her as a miniature version of me. After 30-some years, I can’t help but feel relieved to finally have a match, another chopstick beside me in a stifling drawer of whiteness.
Since it’s off-season, it seems like there are more seagulls than people on the beach. I see him, a harshly tanned, silver-headed white man sitting about 15 yards from us. As we step into his peripheral vision, he swivels his head around to face us. Instead of politely turning back around, he continues to watch the two of us from his striped beach chair, his mouth a thin line. My thoughts spin, and I begin to rattle through different scenarios. Maybe he’s trying to figure out how we fit in, what our socio-economic status is; how and why we are in an affluent vacation area where the tourists are majority white. I wonder if I should force a confident smile and wave to him, like I know I belong here as much as he does. I have a sense of exhaustion from a lifetime of always being on guard, of rarely being comfortable simply existing in my own body, the body of an Asian woman. In this era of #StopAAPIHate and #IAmNotAVirus, it crosses my mind that I should be fearful of a white man who looks too long. I’ve learned that in the real world, my proximity to whiteness, even when it’s my own family, does nothing to protect me against racism. I’m reminded of a moment early in the pandemic when I sneezed at work and a white man pointed a pale finger at me, dropping a single word: “Coronavirus.” I felt the weight of the accusation, a branding of my otherness. I had sputtered trying to defend myself as my co-workers’ silence worked its way through the room.
I wish there was a way to tell the man my story. I could walk over and tell him how my parents first brought me to this beach as an infant in 1983, and we stayed a block away at the Ric-Mar, a motel still in operation. I would tell him the first time I saw the ocean, I had arrived in the United States only a few months earlier. I wish he knew how I dug my chubby brown hands in the sand and let the surf lull me to sleep on my parent’s orange beach blanket. In summers after that, I would say to him, I spent languid days at this beach, catching sand crabs by the bucketful, sifting sand out of my bathing suit, boogie boarding and bodysurfing until I could barely keep my eyes open, my mouth always puckered from too much salt water. Instead of Korean foods like kimchi and gimbap, my childhood summers were filled with the same flavors he might know—caramel popcorn, boardwalk fries topped with ketchup and malt vinegar, shaved ice in every flavor. I wish I could say to the man staring at us, “I belong here.”
Without acknowledging the man’s attention, my daughter and I continue to shuffle forward. We approach the ocean, my beautiful old friend, shimmering in the sun, and I remember how she raised me, to be tan, strong, and fearless. The memories of what I learned from her wash over me: how to cautiously reel in blue crabs with just raw chicken on a string and how to grasp them by their rear flippers to avoid getting bitten, how to seize waves the moment before they break and how to recover from dizzying wipeouts, how to love the feel of the sand and seawater on my skin.
At last, the man spins his head back around to face the sun, finally done with his mental calculations. It takes a second to realize we are safe, and my body begins to relax. I’m relieved to avoid confrontation, but the anxiety of the moment leaves the taste of blood in my mouth. I’m left with a residual off-kilter feeling after spinning into those dark, familiar places I dread visiting.
As I gather myself back together, my daughter releases my hand and runs to meet the tide. Her thin brown legs kick sand in the air behind her, and the wind whips the black hair around her beaming face. The uneasy moment is swept out of my mind when I see the joy in my daughter’s face, how free she is. I smile because she knows we’re home.
Sara Streeter (Hea Sook Han) is a transracially adopted Korean-American, a recovering interior designer, a biological mother. She is working on her first novel and has work forthcoming in Fatal Flaw and Gasher Journal. Find her on the web: sarajstreeter.com.
Image Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Michael Sullivan