When I was five, my step father took me on a journey. We made our way to a building in central London where, without explanation, I was told to be a good girl. As we stepped inside the self-satisfied polished odour of this place, I knew immediately I was somewhere important. We sat waiting in a dim high-ceilinged office until we were called into a room where a man with glasses sat behind a desk. I was frightened by the cavernous room, the glint of the man’s glasses.
I remember little of what was said. Mostly, I remember the falsely confident tone of my stepfather’s voice as he spoke to the man, the kind you might use when embarrassed, and you try to hide your discomfort through a feigned carelessness, a counterfeit bravado.
The man wrote with his pen as he listened, then instructed me to stand up and come towards him. Uncertain, I looked at my stepfather.
‘Go on. Listen to the man.’ Reluctantly I stepped forward.
‘She must lift up her dress.’ I didn’t move.
‘Go on!’ my step-father insisted. Then he softened his voice. ‘It’s okay.’ I lifted up my dress.
The man waved his pen upwards.
‘Higher.’ I obeyed again, this time lifting my dress so that my panties showed. Behind his glasses he eyed me coldly, measuring me against some invisible standard.
‘Now turn around.’ Slowly, wobbling with fear, I rotated before him.
‘You’ll need to pull her panties down a bit.’ I froze. It was worse not being able see his glittering glasses, only to feel them behind me.
My stepfather did as instructed. I could feel his uneasiness as he tugged down my panties. A moment of silence followed and then my father pulled my panties up again. I turned around while my stepfather retreated to his seat.
The man grunted as I faced him once more. Waved his pen again to show he was done with me. With relief, I ran the few steps to my stepfather.
Later we would learn I had passed.
As we walked away from the big building hand-in-hand, I looked up at my stepfather.
‘Papa, why did that man make me lift up my dress?’
Actually I don’t remember asking him that. By then I had already learned that to remain silent was a refuge from the frightening parts of my life I didn’t understand, a way of warding off danger. Still, in my fantasy, I like to think that I did ask, that the little girl who was me was brave enough to voice the more difficult question and that we had the following exchange.
‘Papa, why did you let that man make me lift up my dress?’ My stepfather looks down at me. ‘He needed to see if you were white enough.’
I imagine how it might take a moment for me to absorb this disturbing answer. I am silent. In the pause, my stepfather smiles in answer to my as-yet-unspoken question, and in his best final-line-of-a-fairy-story voice adds, ‘and of course you are.’
Despite being half-Japanese, my bathing costume line had shown me to be ‘white enough’. Now my parents and I, along with my younger, blonde brothers could travel unhindered back to South Africa, where being Japanese meant being classified as an honorary white. I had been given clearance as completely white, a whiter person than I had any right to be.
So began my initiation into being someone other than who I was. It would be many years before I understood the full burning shamefulness of that small but potent event. It was 1967.
Author’s Note: this is the prologue to a memoir in progress about growing up foreign in South Africa and the search for my Japanese father.