I hate my skin. It isn’t fair and clear, with peach-tinted cheeks, like the girls in Chinese movies. Nor does it glow with the promise of summer like the caramelised beach babes on the covers of Dolly magazine. Large pores, inherited from my mother, speckle the space around my nose. I hate my hair, which sits against my scalp as flat and black as an oil slick. I spend hundreds of dollars to volumise it, texturise it, bleach it. I hide my broad forehead behind a sweep of fringe. And my bridgeless, button-shaped nose–a stunted runty cousin to the proud pinnacles of my peers–it can’t even prop a pair of glasses up. I hate the way my face prompts others to question my foreign, other heritage.
I love my olive skin. I love the way it deepens to brown at the merest touch of sunlight. Its subtle green undertones remind me of the cool colours of forest undergrowth, or a beach in winter. I love my eyes, which are almond-shaped and shallow with folded lids like my father’s. I like the shiny blackness of my hair. I like my cheekbones, which are high and wide like my mother’s. I cherish the unexpected angles of my face: the strength of the cheeks and the jaw, the wide forehead, the soft chin. I like that it holds both sharpness and softness, both inquisitiveness and openness. I like the way my face carries pieces of my ancestors, and invites others to wonder where I am from.
I’m pretty sure he’s Filipino, from his chestnut skin and rolling accent. He wears a short-sleeved shirt, pale blue, with his name embroidered on the pocket: Paul. The same name as the Filipino nurse I met in my first rotation as a fresh-faced intern: too-friendly young Paul who stood against me in the medication room and pressed his hand over mine and made me freeze.
This Paul is a generation above. Salt-and-pepper hair, thinning at the temples. A slight stoop to his shoulders. A slight paunch at the gut. He walks along the corridor towards me, tacking to one side with the weight of his bucket and mop.
‘Hello! Where are you from?’ His round eyes regard me warmly, as though we’ve met dozens of times before. Perhaps I remind him of a daughter, or a niece, or an old girlfriend.
I smile and reel out the words I must have said a hundred times.
‘Oh, I thought you look Filipino! I’m Paul. Are you the new doctor?’
I nod sheepishly, glancing away from his cleaning equipment.
Over the next six months, we wave intermittently at each other, and exchange simple words, with a mixture of distance and affinity.
He walks past me, doubles back, and approaches with an earnest smile. Black backpack. Black skinny jeans. Black sneakers.
‘Hi! Do you have two minutes? I’m doing some research and I was wondering if I could ask you a few questions.’
We are kin unmet: brittle black hair, almond-shaped eyes, olive skin that holds scars easily. There is an immediate sense of similarity.
‘What sort of research?’ I ask, tucking my handbag in to my side.
‘I’m doing a theology course.’
It’s not an answer, but more than an answer. He talks about his studies, and I’m listening, but he’s not telling me much. I smile and listen harder.
‘Mind if I pull up a seat? I’ve been walking around all day.’
We sit, knees pointing together, in the foyer of the library. He’s talking about his faith now. I wait for the research to begin. At my elbow is another Chinese girl, playing on her phone. Several feet away, a tall white man huddles over his laptop.
‘I was wondering, where are you at, in your beliefs? Do you believe in God?’
I stare into his crinkled eyes. I’m at the end of my journey; he’s in the middle of his. The question is a bridge through time. I could tell him so much, but it’s impossible in this space. I give him a single word answer.