Passing—who passes as what and when they are allowed to pass—is a topic that rears its head at unexpected moments and reminds me, for all the talk of “not seeing race” and for all the calls from certain groups to “not make everything about race,” that the way minorities are viewed often falls outside of our power. We don’t need to “make it” about race, because it always already is.
I was recently in a small corner of London on a work-related trip in an area that seemed mostly for us tourists. In the hotel was a lively mixture of business people, conference attendees, and families from all around the world. I enjoyed stepping in the elevator on the way to the in-house coffee shop and into a steady stream of German, Arabic, French, and Chinese. As someone who isn’t used to hearing such a rich linguistic flow around me on a daily basis, it made me happy to hear so much language in the air. One morning, I walked up to the coffee shop and put in my order. The barista was a bubbly young woman whose quick, expert movements whittled down the long line until I was the final customer. As she prepared my drink, she glanced up and stopped. After a moment’s pause she smiled and said, “I’m sorry, I saw you yesterday, too, but I have never seen someone like you—what are you?”
What are you?
I wasn’t offended by the question nor do I believe there was any malice behind it. Her curiosity seemed genuine; she was simply someone who looked at my features and, based on the visual signifiers she is used to, couldn’t place me. The exchange, however, lingered with me as I headed over to the conference space. Among the milieu of foreign travelers in a busy London hotel there is still something about my face that warrants closer examination. An indescribable essence of something that people can’t quite put their finger on, but, as with the barista, nags enough at the mind to make them question a stranger.
To be clear, because of the privileges that come with my particular genetic makeup—Japanese-and-white—and how I present (as pale skinned), I am not constantly reminded of my difference and I am not always thinking about how my face reads to others. However, the thing about race is that it isn’t an issue—until it suddenly is. Until someone asks you to explain yourself. Until someone on the outside decides you are too much of one thing or too little of another.
This precarity—of always being on the verge of a misreading from the outside—propels me in my adulthood towards other half-Asian writers. I grew up in a time and place where there were no other half-Asian children around me, let alone those who were half-Japanese. As I grew older and more biracial writers came into my world, I found a camaraderie and a recognition of experience that was new for me. It felt good to find these people, to read about how they moved through the world and how they made sense of themselves in various contexts. It was this constant desire for other halves that led me to Edith Maud Eaton and Winnifred Eaton.
The Eatons, sisters from the turn of the century, dealt with this same racial ambiguity throughout their lives, learning to navigate how others interpreted them in vastly different ways. They were prolific half-Chinese and half-European writers, working and writing mainly in Canada and the United States. But while the older one generally presented herself as “Eurasian,” of Chinese and English descent, her younger sister passed her entire adult life as half-Japanese and made her name as a popular novelist who brought “Japan” to the West. They are more commonly referred to by their respective pen names: Sui Sin Far and Onoto Watanna.
Sui Sin Far is lauded as one of the matriarchs of Asian-Canadian and even Asian-American literature, with an emphasis on her depictions of Chinese immigrants living in North America at a time when there was a significant amount of anti-Chinese sentiment. She is often painted as an innovator, a figurehead of social justice, and an example of a woman who was able to be independently successful, living off her literary output and never marrying. When I first came across her writing, I was drawn to the way she refused to be pinned down by readers and critics who wanted to emphasize the “foreign,” non-white half of her. In contrast, her sister, Onoto Watanna, is a more complicated figure for modern readers to make sense of, particularly for someone who is half-Japanese herself.
Readers don’t need to dig far into Onoto Watanna’s oeuvre to start seeing signs of trouble. Her pen name itself is a synecdoche for the rest of her writing. Though the random assortment of syllables felt authentic to much of her readership at the time, anyone with the slightest understanding of Japanese names and phonetics will recognize the name as something decidedly not Japanese. Regardless, it did the trick: for many American readers the name was “foreign” enough to conjure images of the Orient while remaining pronounceable—and, therefore, manageable. They could make sense, to some degree, of what box she fit in. This delicate balancing act of being both foreign and legible appears throughout her writing.
Switching from Winnifred Eaton to Onoto Watanna marked a career move that allowed her to cash in on the Japanese exoticism that her readership was looking for—because it reinforced what was already floating around in the cultural milieu. She was able to capitalize on the interest in Japan as a curiosity; though Matthew Perry’s forced opening of Japan happened in 1853, the Meiji Restoration of 1868 marked the official end of Japan’s isolation under the Tokugawa Shogunate, all of which happened less than two decades before Watanna was born. Had her career begun even a decade or two before or after this event, passing as half-Japanese would not have been a lucrative or logical move.
But if we accuse Winnifred’s name change of being a commercial move, couldn’t we say the same for her sister Edith? Surely, the switch from Edith to Sui Sin Far heightened her exoticism by obscuring the white half of her in favor of the Chinese half.
While Winnifred selected her name and built her career on the fantasy of Onoto Watanna, Edith experimented with names for much of her career. For instance, though I refer to Edith by her most well-known pen name, Sui Sin Far, this was only one of many names she used. Before she became Sui Sin Far, she published under her given name, her own initials E.E., as well as other more whimsical pen names: Canadian Fire Fly or simply Fire Fly. For one set of travelogues she even used the name of a male Chinese traveler, Wing Sing, thereby playing with gender as well as name. Finally, she toyed with all the permutations of what would eventually lead to Sui Sin Far—Sui Seen Far, Sui Sin Fan, Sue Seen Far. She even omitted her name entirely from her work at times, a habit that has made it hard for scholars to pin down everything she has ever written. Between switching names and moving between Canada, the United States, and Jamaica, she made it difficult to catalogue down her full literary output and her writerly identity. For Edith, changing names was less about solidifying a specific persona and more about reinforcing her liminal identity in the eyes of readers. Both sisters, it seems, understood how important a name is to the way you are perceived and how much can be explained—or misinterpreted—through a name.
Here is the thing: I also changed my name in my early twenties, like Sui Sin Far and Onoto Watanna. As a child, I would daydream that my name was Julia Shiota and by then I had even decided that would be my pen name. At that point, I wasn’t aware that women could simply change their name if they wanted to. For most of my life I had a different last name, one that was clearly “white” and one that helped with the shroud of ambiguity as to what I was. Years after my parents divorced, however, I decided to legally change my name to my mother’s maiden name. Since I had no contact with my father’s side of the family and was raised almost exclusively by my mother, as well as her family, it felt like a homecoming to shrug off one name and step into a new one—a name that felt more authentic to who I was. Like Sui Sin Far and Onoto Watanna, this name change made me, in some ways, more legible to the outside world. Most people see my last name and can figure out that it is Japanese; they can look at my face and put half-and-half together to come up with something legible.
In one of her journalistic pieces, Sui Sin Far writes about the illegibility, the essence of difference, that the body of a mixed person holds. In a piece in The Montreal Daily Star from April 1895 she writes:
There is occasionally to be seen a half Chinese child with bright complexion and fair hair, and these combined with a straight nose, small mouth and wide eyes might easily deceive a stranger, but a person who has been informed of the child’s parentage notices at once a peculiar cast about the face. This cast is over the face of every child who has a drop of Chinese blood in its veins. It is indescribable—but it is there.
It’s a fascinating thing to watch someone guess you right in these situations. There is an odd sense of accomplishment in being able to pin down what someone is by sight and most people seem proud of themselves when they can “do it.” And within the United States, people do usually get it right: I am usually labelled on sight as being part Asian. When I confirm that I am biracial I will then get a run-down of what it was that made me supposedly easy to categorize. It’s in the eyes, they usually say.
In her Montreal Star article, Sui Sin Far dances the line between acknowledging the supposed indescribable essence that is there, the blood of non-white ancestry coming to the surface, and exposing the retroactive nature of these visual markers. The person really only notices difference once they are told about the half-Chinese child’s background.
What is the problem with this retroactive move, with a backwards reaching affirmation of something that turned out to be true? The London barista was right, they may say, and the child from the article was half-Chinese, so why all the fuss? The issue with hinging identity purely on visual markers and, by extension, reaffirming identity by what we see means too much emphasis is placed on outward designation. Who you are becomes contingent on who is looking.
What becomes important is not how you see yourself, but how you are seen by the outside world. No one asked the child how they viewed themself and the hashing out of their appearance occurs without them taking an active role in how their body is read. Can we blame Watanna, then, for trying to claim some autonomy over how her body was read? Can I blame her for seeing how others saw her, for seeing the anti-Chinese sentiment and deciding to bypass all of that and cashing in on the United States’ fascination with a recently-opened Japan?
But there are long-ranging consequences when someone tries to pass as something inauthentic, as Watanna does. David Shih articulates the crux of the issue in his article on the Eatons by stating that “in a society that insists upon attaching meaning to phenotypic signs, one recourse of the racial subject is to compensate by manipulating such signs in order to pass as belonging to another race.” In many ways, Watanna took stock of the marketplace and delivered on what the white readership expected to see, thereby propagating a false understanding of Japan. That is not to say, however, that every reader believed her claim. Although she was careful to construct a full biography to accompany her public persona, there were a number of critics who became suspicious of her when significant errors in geography, history, and language continued to crop up in her writing.
But relatively little ruckus was made over the discrepancy between who they saw and what she wrote. And that itself is telling.
The lack of first-hand knowledge and the blatant mistakes present in Watanna’s work ultimately reveals the bias of her reading public. Her writing is peppered with images and allusions that stem from the Orientalist tradition that they came from, as Watanna herself never visited Japan. Since so much of the imagery comes from the Orientalist tradition, many of her readers simply accepted these images as fact because they reinforced the images already circulating in the West. In Edward Said’s famous Orientalism, he writes that “what gave the Oriental’s world its intelligibility and identity was not the result of his own efforts but rather the whole complex series of knowledgeable manipulations by which the Orient was identified by the West.” And, after all, since Watanna herself was of Japanese descent (it was believed), she had an essential knowledge of Japan that she inherited from her supposed Japanese mother. Whether her eyes had seen these sights or not, that something inside her had authentic knowledge was what mattered.
That is what is offensive in Onoto Watanna’s image and even her writing, both marked by odd usages of Japanese words and allusions to culture that swing wildly between anachronistic and simply untrue. It feels disrespectful, for someone who actually is half-Japanese, that this is the image she put out in the world as authentic and that the West gobbled it up. And it further fed into how Japanese individuals were seen by the West.
Yet I still write about her.
What I find oddly compelling about the two sisters, even Watanna, is how their writing shows individuals moving through a world where set categories already exist and the ways that are available to them to “game the system.” What does resistance look like under these circumstances? We often hope we can find strong, inspirational figures to pattern ourselves off throughout history, to show us what it means to resist. And sometimes we find them. Sometimes resistance is generative, creating a dialogue about difference and about what it means to be a minority figure in a majority-white environment. But other times the attempted resistance is ineffective or messy, leading to a propagation of stereotypes and an upholding of the status quo. These failures can do real damage, but we can also try to draw something useful from the wreckage.
Focusing on how Watanna was “wrong” and how Far was “right,” as the binary often goes, obscures the very personal struggle both felt about being biracial which came out in their writing. Both sisters wrote several stories centered on biracial characters who grapple with their place in society—stories which are often marked by tragedy and pain. Setting their biographies aside for a moment and examining some of their writing reveals a very real struggle with being biracial, whether the sisters cop to their true backgrounds or not.
In “Daughter of Two Lands,” Watanna’s titular character, Sakura, is a young half-Japanese woman living in the United States. The short story opens at an auction house where many ancient Chinese items, brought over by an American dignitary under questionable circumstances, are being eagerly purchased by white collectors. We meet Sakura amidst the buyers gleefully looking over their new acquisitions. When she refuses to purchase any of these things, the white collectors around her scoff, with one even saying, “As a Japanese, [Sakura] simply wants to show her contempt for mere Chinese art.”
Within the first few paragraphs, a white character interprets Sakura’s actions, reading into them a racially-charged narrative that Sakura instantly rebukes. Later, as she and her beau, a strapping American Lieutenant named Tony, leave the auction, their conversation plays on a similar theme: Sakura’s identity. She says:
“Don’t you see? You are American, and I—why, I am half Japanese—Eurasian. I’ve lived here—in my mother’s home most of my life, but I know, deep in my heart, I am more Japanese than anything else.”
“If you could see yourself now—as I see you—you wouldn’t say it. Why you are as Western as I am,” he protested.
“In my dress, perhaps. In my looks even, to a degree; but not in my heart! Ah, don’t you see how everything about me yearns over the Orient when anything really vital touches it? Sometimes when people speak slightingly of the Japanese or Chinese I want to run away—to flee far, far away from them, because of the terrible hatred that surges in me! How could I marry an American, feeling as I do?”
Tony’s claim hinges on appearances, like the viewer of the half-Chinese girl in Far’s Montreal Star article. What is important—or at least what Tony views as persuasive in this heated moment—is not how Sakura sees herself but how she is perceived by others, namely himself. Yet, an accurate perception is never guaranteed, as when her distaste for the auction is read as disdain for Chineseness stemming from her Japanese identity. For someone occupying a liminal position, like Sakura, actions are readily misinterpreted to fit in with the viewer’s understanding of the world.
After leaving Tony on the street, Sakura enters the home of her (white) aunt who assails her with a similar litany: “I insist,” said her aunt, stiffly, “that you are not an expatriate in any sense of the word. It is absurd to consider yourself anything but American.”
The characters that signify “Americanness” in the narrative (the auction-goers, Tony, the aunt) all immediately dismiss Sakura’s attempts at self-identity.
The story unfolds rapidly from this moment, with Sakura secretly returning to Japan after stealing American military secrets to ferry back with her. Hidden beneath these rather sudden B-grade spy movie actions is the childish hope that a life in Japan will resolve the tension she feels. But it is just as impossible to be biracial in Japan: after continued internal anguish, Sakura dramatically rips up the state documents she brought with her to her father’s home and falls back into the arms of her beloved Tony, who happens to also be in Japan on deployment. Though she travels to Japan to stake out her identity in response to the way she is viewed by others, she ultimately acquiesces to the narrative that the Americans have crafted for her.
Anachronisms and awkward Japanese usages aside, “Daughter of Two Lands” delves into very visceral material about biracial identity and autonomy. There is no moment of self-acceptance for Sakura, no space where she felt able to exist as a daughter of two lands and feel at peace. What she found, unhappily, was that she needed to pick a side.
Far also addresses the neither-here-nor-there position of biracial children through her short story “Sweet Sin: A Chinese-American Story”. Like Sakura, Sin is introduced in the midst of conflict: the story begins with her taking on a group of boys who taunt her for being of Chinese descent—a fight which she wins. When she returns home in bandages, she responds to her mother’s censure by exclaiming:
…it isn’t the Chinese half of me that makes me feel like this—it’s the American half. My Chinese half is good and patient, like all the Chinese people we know, but it’s my American half that feels insulted for the Chinese half and wants to fight. Oh, mother, mother, you don’t know what it is to be half one thing and half another, like I am! I feel all torn to pieces. I don’t know what I am, and I don’t seem to have any place in the world.
Far’s story packs a heightened affective punch here through the pain of a little girl—the same type of little girl that is the subject of Far’s article in The Montreal Star. Young Sin already intuitively realizes what Sakura needed to physically move to find out: there is seemingly no place for either them in the world. Tragically, while Sakura’s story ends in a broken acceptance, Sin’s ends in death. Her final note to her father touches on the burden of being biracial, her desire for her American beau, and the burden of producing children who would be subject to the same treatment she suffered:
Father, I cannot marry a Chinaman, as you wish, because my heart belongs to an American—an American who loves me and wishes to make me his wife. But, Father, though I cannot marry a Chinaman, who would despise me for being an American, yet I will not marry an American, for the Americans have made me feel so that I will save the children of the man I love from being called “Chinese!” “Chinese!” Farewell, Father, I hope God will forgive me for being what he made me.
For Sin, there is no escape from what God made her to be and, by extension, what her children would also be. Since there was no place among the living, she joined the dead.
What strikes me in both stories is the sheer impossibility of living as someone who is biracial. In both stories the titular characters are resigned to the way they are read by others; each end in a sort of death, whether metaphorical or literal. It seems, then, that the moral of both stories is those of us who are biracial must choose a side, even if that decision isn’t what we truly want.
The point is reinforced by the fact that in each story the white parent, the mother, dies. Thus, the specific racial identity of both characters is reinforced by the parent that remains: Sakura’s Japanese father plays a key role in drawing her back to Japan, while Sin’s Chinese father’s desire for her to marry a “Chinaman” unwittingly precipitates the tragedy of her death. The significance of the father’s race also returns us to the question of names: Sakura and Sin carry names that signal their exoticism; their whiteness is overwritten by their fathers’ racial difference. These names, coupled with the way the other characters interpret their identities and behaviors through an already racial lens, precede them as clear markers of difference—as something that must be labelled and, ultimately, assimilated.
Though the stories tragically reinforce the narratives imposed on both Sakura and Sin from the outside, there is still an undercurrent of resistance. While the characters grapple with their own identities, they challenge white-American assumptions as a way of pushing back against imposed narratives. Sakura pushes back against the auction goers’ interpretation of her and resists her aunt’s dismissal of her Japanese father. Likewise, Sin pushes back against her mother’s claim about the Chinese half of her being “savage,” stating instead that it is her American half that causes her to fight back. Through these moments, Sakura and Sin articulate their internal tension directly to readers who—like the auction-goers, like Tony, like Sin’s mother—would have been majority-white.
While it seems these stories only depict tragedy for the biracial heroines, they also reveal the problem with adhering to rigid visual markers of difference. Neither character maps cleanly onto stereotypical images of “Orientals” and they are unafraid to say so. Readers who potentially have more in common with the auction-goers or Sin’s mother may therefore see something of themselves in these characters and may see their own interpretation of these biracial characters as something just as problematic. The stories challenge the desire of the reader to have an easily assimilable understanding of either Sakura or Sin, forcing them to consider the ramifications of their assumptions. While being Japanese or being Chinese is reduced to a guessing game for the white characters in the stories, they represent very real lived realities for both Sakura and Sin that are matters of life and death.
Looking at Far and Watanna’s work, it becomes clear that these two figures also don’t easily map onto our assumptions about them. The heavy focus on their biographies at the expense of their writing is itself a reenactment of the racially-based reading of their time since, often, we extrapolate meaning more from their personal histories than their literary output.
Reducing individuals to visual markers of race removes their ability to speak, but it also leads to a flattening out of liminal identities overall. While I refer to biracial identity as a specific category, that designation is still troublesome. Even those of us who are Japanese-and-white experience that Japaneseness-and-whiteness in a multitude of ways. The way that each biracial, hafu, or mixed-race individual sees their identity is radically different and the way they experience themselves can be messy Being a contingent person often means being defined from the outside, regardless of how you may see yourself, and that outside reading can often leech in to determine how we view ourselves—sometimes in a negative way.
The questions around who passes and how someone passes are inextricably linked to being mixed. While no one would accept Watanna’s caricatured performance today (nor should they), her writing reveals the complexities of living as someone at the mercy of others’ ideas about them. It is messy and it is at times problematic. And we should point out where both Far and Watanna were able to benefit from being mixed, in contrast to other individuals who could not pass or who were fully Japanese or Chinese and, therefore, too exotic for the white turn-of-the-century public.
The United States’ long history of wanting to know the answer to what are you? has led to an environment where clear racial categories are expected, where much of race becomes about least common denominator: Asian-American, Black-American, Hispanic-American, and so on. These categories work to create communities and spaces where individuals are empowered, where we can share experiences that differ from majority-white spaces. But if we are not careful these categories can become rigid and reinforce markers that leave mixed individuals adrift. While I have many white Americans trying to guess what I am, I also have many Asian-Americans telling me that I don’t look Japanese enough to them and, therefore, the claim I make about being Japanese is illegitimate. In many cases, I must justify who I am under a barrage of questions about how Japanese I actually am—from both white and non-white parties.
Rigidity breeds boundaries that historically perpetuate violence hinging on visual markers or the things extrapolated from supposed visual markers. Discussions regarding whether someone biracial fits “better” into one category or another is simply a watered-down way of keeping destructive language in circulation. Focusing on the space occupied by biracial and mixed-race bodies reveals cracks in the United States’ discussions on race and where we can do better to accurately and authentically depict the experiences of minorities.
Image (left): Image of Edith Eaton [Diana Birchall, 1980]
Image (right): Winnifred Eaton (Onoto Watanna)