My #whitewashedout story, a short-short story by Cecilia Tan

Here’s a story I wrote in 1993, in the MFA program at Emerson, in Pam Painter’s short-short story class. It’s actually an autobiographical piece about the disconnects between my “identity,” “ethnicity,” and “heritage.” It’s a very American longing, I think, not unique to POC, but it felt like in the wake of the #whitewashedout tag going around Twitter today, that in this story I had already said everything I would contribute to the tag. So I decided to post it:
“Learning the Alphabet”
by Cecilia Tan
All the words of Chinese that I know I can list on a single page.
Bok choy: chinese cabbage, something I do not like to eat.
Confucius: a philosopher, but whose name could not have been that originally, any more than my name would have been Cecilia if I had been born in China, a Spanish first name married to a Chinese surname. Dad’s name is Sergio, so I share that in common with him, like filipinos who were given new names by Magellan and the Spaniards who ruled the islands for three hundred years; but my grandfather who came from China is named Francisco, and I know that could not have been his real name any more than Confucius was Confucius’. Even Dad does not know what his father’s real name was, like a secret identity, a Chinese identity, that grandfather hid when he moved from China to the Philippines. For some time he had even changed the name of the family to Martinez, but that must have been too much for him and he changed it back to Tan, though he still never taught any of his children Chinese and scolded them whenever they were disobedient: “You rotten filipinos!” in a filipino dialect of course.
Given that my father never heard a word of Chinese when he was growing up, it shouldn’t be a surprise that I know so little of it. How about waray waray then, the filipino dialect only my father and his generation of the family speaks? I don’t know a single word of that either, since my father came to the United States, and like his father has only spoken the local tongue to his children — “You American kids!” — so I will stick with Chinese, of which I know so few words.
Junks: the boats they paint eyes on the front of in China, this I learned from a children’s book, full of painting of men with round hats like cymbals.
Kung Fu: the martial art, this I learned from David Carradine, along with shao lin, Grasshopper.
Lo Mein: noodles, I think, but so are chow mein, chow foon… chop suey, Chung King?
Mei Fa: the art of hair sticks, this I learned in Macy’s from a perfumed, rouged woman with too many gold rings, who raised her clawed hands like a hieroglyph to show off how her blond, intricate whorls were held in place with what looked like short chopsticks sprouting from her head. Now I wear them, too, but I have my doubts that Confucius’ mother ever did.
Oolong: black, this from my Jewish boyfriend who likes Chinese tea.
Peking duck: but of course, it is Beijing now, and I know how to cook it, but what good is a “traditional” recipe that is only one generation old?
Quit this obsession with China, I think, and get back to eating apple pie and worrying about democracy. Really. So did I mention that my father thought apple pie was disgusting when he first moved to the States?
Tai Chi: something I always dreamed my grandfather would teach me when he came to visit us in the States, but he didn’t. Unless I spoke first, he never said a word to me, two generations of languages distant and nothing to talk about. Very often he received Chinese-language newspapers in the mail, and I used to steal them from his room and pore over the tiny black characters regimented in columns and rows, waiting for some moment of magic to strike me, to bring my Chinese blood out in me, and make me understand these symbols, this one like three boxes piled one atop the other, that one a lily next to a mountain, this one a robot by an easel, that one a picket sign–the only symbol I ever learned since the magic never came–the symbol which meant “Number One.”
Waiguoren: foreigner, this I learned from a book by a white American woman about an imaginary future China that had become the last superpower, but then I forgot it and had to learn it again when I read a book by a white American man about how he spent his life studying kung fu, Chinese language, Chinese history, and was finally granted a visa into the country to teach English at a medical college there. Xenophobic is how he described the Chinese, afraid of foreigners, waiguoren, aliens, rotten filipinos, whatever you call it, so it is no wonder my grandfather never told his secrets to waiguoren like us. You cannot blame him, I tell myself, but it hurts.
Zhonghua Renmin Gongheguo: People’s Republic of China, this I learned just now out of shame, to at least be able to say the name of the place I will never call home.

Notes on this story:

This story originally appeared under the title “Lexicon” in OTHER Magazine, edited by Charlie Jane Anders, Issue #3, 2003.
This is the first story that ever made me cry while I wrote it.
I wrote this 23 years ago. I can’t believe how little has changed.


  1. In a sense, this does look like a very American story (or Western Hemispheric.) Years ago, I read a self-help book on self-esteem & identity (from the 1970s, I think), claiming that a huge number of white or whitish Americans are affected by “the checkerboard” – a knowledge or suspicion that some of one’s ancestors were POC (specifically, African-American). According to the book, a deep sense of shame over this and a determination not to let anyone else know is (or was) pervasive enough to affect the culture at large. A deliberate erasure of roots or refusal to pass anything down is usually seen as a gift for one’s children and grandchildren, who then have a sense of loss. In the mid-nineteenth century, many immigrants to America were ashamed of being Irish, and that shame was passed down until no one remembered where their ancestors came from. Growing up in New York, my mother surrounded herself with Jewish friends, learned their culture, fasted for Yom Kippur. As an adult, I realized that she was ashamed of having a slightly-visible amount of Mohawk blood and a father who couldn’t pass for white. She wanted to be someone or something else. On the other hand, there are stories of refugees from Europe in the same era (1930s) who would never admit to being Jewish. (In some circumstances, being Mohawk might have been safer.) It’s a tangled web.

    1. Well and there was nothing about America or Americanism in the urge my Chinese grandparents had when they ceased speaking Chinese to their children in the Philippines. They just wanted to assimilate. But the immigrant narrative is the dominant one in America and I can only see the yearning for a homeland (that maybe doesn’t exist) through the American lens.

      1. Oh yes, a refusal to transmit culture to descendants happens in various places. I find it mind-boggling when parents refuse to speak their own first language to their own children, but I’m sure the parents think this is for the best. Luckily, my 2 stepsons (one of whom was born in Canada) haven’t been cut off from their Chilean roots or the Spanish language. Visiting the Old Country (if possible) usually seems worthwhile, even though several people I know say it showed them why they wouldn’t want to move back permanently.

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