by Melanie Cheng
When I was seven years old, my family moved from Sydney to Hong Kong. I remember my first day at school. I remember the teacher asked a girl called Randee to look after me. I remember that Randee had brown eyes and black hair, and that she was half Filipino and half English. I don’t remember that when I arrived home later that day, I announced happily to my mum that there were other kids just like me in the class. My mum does remember this. Probably because it made her sad. Up until that point she hadn’t realised I was aware of my difference—I’d never voiced it to her before that day.
I am what Robert Park, an American sociologist would have described as a Marginal Person. Somebody who lives in two worlds, but who is more or less a stranger in both.
Some days it does feel that way.
Like when someone tells me, for the umpteenth time that I don’t look Chinese. Or when I’m at the Chinese Writers and Readers Festival and I can’t recognise the simplified Chinese character for my own name. My own name.
In 1997 I graduated from high school. It was the same year that Hong Kong was returned to China. As I watched the ceremony—the march of the People’s Liberation Army troops, the departure of the Royal Yacht Brittania—I didn’t know how to feel. I was, after all, a descendent of both the colonised and the coloniser.
I felt this division constantly, relentlessly. I was a girl who was secretly jealous of Alice Patten—the most popular girl at my high school, who just happened to be the daughter of the last governor of Hong Kong, and a symbol, whether she liked it or not, of white imperialism. I wanted the boys to look at me the way they looked at Alice. I wanted to visit Alice’s bedroom in the tower at government house and order a room service afternoon tea. But I was also my father’s daughter. A man whose people had been made second-class citizens in their own land. A people who were now being handed over, albeit with a lot of pomp and ceremony, like a piece of merchandise.
The word liminality, is derived from the Latin word limen, meaning threshold. Victor Turner, the British cultural anthropologist, defined liminal individuals as “neither here nor there; they are betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention, and ceremony”. Wikipedia tells us that in anthropology, liminality is the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of a rite of passage, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the rite is complete.
When I read this I immediately thought of purgatory.
Why is it that in-between states always have such negative connotations? Why is it that words like pure and whole and pedigree are associated with goodness? Why is it that mixing is perceived as a contamination, rather than a means of enrichment?
But perhaps it doesn’t have to be this way.
What if, instead of choosing between my two sides, I choose the liminal space between them? What if I claim this complex and intricate space for myself? What if we all do?
In Colson’s Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, Cora says:
“I’m what the botanists call a hybrid. A mixture of two different families. In flowers, such a concoction pleases the eye. When that amalgamation takes its shape in flesh and blood, some take great offence. In this room we recognize it for what it is – a new beauty come into the world, and it is in bloom all around us.”
In the novel A Many-Splendoured Thing, Han Suyin writes:
“We must carry ourselves with colossal assurance and say, look at us, and envy us, you poor one-world people, riveted to your limitations. We are the future of the world. Look at us.”
I would like to join Colson Whitehead and Han Suyin in declaring our legitimacy, our validity, our beauty. I would also like to address the memory of Robert Park, in announcing that we are not marginal people. We are people—claiming and occupying and celebrating a liminal space. Our space.
Melanie first read this piece for our launch of LIMINAL issue #1, on March 21, 2019.