Adjectives

by Rie

I

I want to think of a better title but what is there but adjectives? The coloured words we hurl that paint people like the colouring books we know they are. That’s a horrible analogy. Let me start again.

I once wrote a description of myself. It came from a bad place (in a fitting room in a department store at a time I couldn’t look at myself without flinching). I remember feeling as if I had my hands bound by the genetic lottery and self-loathing. But, that, I realise is too shallow. It’s pressing my palm against the ocean and thinking it a single plane instead of crushingly deep.

The hardest adjectives to swallow are those that are actually true. I enjoy being self-deprecating – it’s the easiest way to make people laugh – but I stay away from the words I’m afraid to hear. I’m most terrified of the word “cruel”. Close runners-up would be selfish, stupid, ugly.

And, again, these are hard because I can use those words easily on myself. There will be distilled moments in which my soul is black; black enough that touching me would soot your hands.

I’m hoping that the sum of blackness and whiteness in me is a light, light grey.

Still, the other thing about being self-deprecating is forgetting how to use nice words on yourself (and, likely, everyone else). Now, I use words like quirky (neutral, but still). Sometimes I jokingly remind people I’m adorable (I say “remind” as if it’s true; it’s not). I sometimes dare to describe myself as happy, as someone who generally loves people.

I’ve forgotten how nice it is to colour myself white instead of black.

I tried to write myself into existence on a page in my notebook.

My first sentence, unconsciously, was: She was both the light and the dark.

I’ll add “pretentious” to my list of adjectives.

(I’m kidding. That’s mean.)

II

This all makes me think of the poisonous adjectives. The ones we attach without knowing a person. We defend their use by arguing they are sometimes true. But, then, what is true? Your opinion aligning with someone else’s? (Not a large enough sample size.) A judgement made based on history? (Doesn’t work on different individuals.) Is a single moment in time really enough?

Race has become a thing. Not that it has recently come into existence but that it has become a thing to me. (I am woefully outdated.)

I, being delightfully mediocre, am prone to making jokes that separate people by race. I am part Foochow-Chinese, therefore, my talents lie in being loud and making money. I am Chinese, therefore, I am competitive and cheap. I am Asian, therefore, I care mostly about money and this means mostly caring about grades. It’s easy to not be Asian; I’d just have to make YouTube videos and drop out of vet school.

And, yes, I acknowledge that a lot of it is also composed of cultural observations. Remember when I mentioned I was reading the Malay Dilemma? As I got into the middle, I realised that I was guilty of the same thing I was accusing Dr. M of: I pigeonhole entire races. It is somewhere between consciousness and subconsciousness – I actively justify my impressions but I do not know where they come from.

I realise that it spills over. It’s not just colour. I listen to you and quickly sort you into a box. I look at you – your hair, your nails, your clothes – and have filed you away.

III

I fear the day we are all boiled down to words and numbers. I am my height, weight, colour, religion, intelligence.

Maybe I’ll ask you to imagine me more complexly. To see beyond the asymmetry and the cultural fingerprints I leave. To see beyond the words I am assigned; to see beyond those limits.

But my request may be my undoing. It would reveal my own hypocrisy. At the end of the day, we are nothing but adjectives.

Let’s talk about puppies next time. I like puppies.

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