By Nina Coomes
“What are you?”
The first time Chicago asked me this question, it was out of the mouth of an inquisitive twelve-year-old boy. It was the first day of school at Mary Gage Peterson Elementary. I was the New Girl, wearing blue jeans, white ankle socks and a teal sweatshirt that says “SOCCER CHICK” down the arm because I figured nerds don’t wear sweatshirts with sports words on them. The school yard was riotous–a far cry from the orderly lines of yellow-capped students filing into a Japanese first-grade classroom, even further still from the soft siphon of school bus to hallway introduced to me when my parents first moved us from Japan to rural Illinois.
Boys flung backpacks over the black iron fence, their too-big t-shirts flapping like seagull wings as they hurled themselves onto trampled grass. A flock of girls with gold earrings swarm by the double doors licking Hot Cheetos dust off manicured fingers. Parents crowded nervously around the asphalt where we were supposedly lining up by grade, shouting warnings, farewells, admissions of love in languages I had never heard before.
“No, really, what are you?”
I recalled the question being posed, and examined my options.
In Japan, where I was born, the answer would have been “haafu,” the Japanese pronunciation of the English word “half” used to describe people of mixed Japanese descent. Among the homogeneity of my peers, it was always painfully obvious that I was taller, lighter, more outspoken then the rest of them. There was no reason there to ask “what” I was; clearly I was not one of them and that was all that mattered.
When my parents first moved my sister and I to the United States, we landed in the cornfields of rural Illinois, where the question was less about what we were, and more so trying to decipher if we were Chinese. I am not sure why anything Asian automatically became Chinese, but I spent the majority of my third-grade life failing to convince my peers that Japan was not a Chinese island I had made up, but a country on its own.
Never before had anyone asked me in such a direct manner what I was, as opposed to who I was. I wondered if I should be offended, if this classmate of mine had somehow sniffed out my indecisive half-immigrant status and was perhaps making fun of me. Should I be flippant? (“I’m human, what are you?”) Should I be honest? (“I’m not actually ever very sure.”) The options ran through my head as he asked for the third time,
“What. Are. You?”
I have lived in Chicago for eleven years now, and the twelve-year-old boy who asked me what I was has been the first of many people to ask me this. On that nerve-wracking first day of school alone, I was asked over and over, choruses of “what are you?” ringing through hallways, cafeterias and classrooms. But it turned out, this question wasn’t just directed at me. It was everywhere. People asked my younger sister, their teachers, the ice cream man—”what we were” was code for how we could read and understand each other. For the first time, in my public school’s modern-day Babel, everyone was everything, so much so that it was impossible to be “us” and “them.”
What are you?
To me, this is Chicago daring us to join in her cacophony. It was, and still is a call to arms of a sort of motley crew, a suggestion to examine and reexamine what I am, what I could be, pulled into the context of her gritty and broad arms. What was I on Devon? What was I in the sudden hush of the Korean supermarket? What was I on the Green Line at 10pm, alone? Her question was accusatory and loving all at once, revealing the livability of an unanswerable question. Ten years later, I’m still answering that question.
Only now, I’m learning to ask this city back.
“What are you?”