In Mixtape (2021), Beverly Moody, a middle school student in Spokane, WA, finds a mixtape that her parents made. Beverly’s parents were sixteen when they had her, and two years later they died in a car accident. The film centers around Beverly tracking down all of the songs on the mixtape, since it has been destroyed and all she has is the track listing, and constructing the mixtape in the same order her parents did. As she does this, she discovers that one of the songs is in Japanese, and in order to help her translate it, she walks across the street and introduces herself to Ellen because she thinks Ellen is Japanese. Ellen agrees to help, but when she puts the headphones on and starts listening to The Blue Hearts’ “Linda Linda,” she immediately takes them off and turns to Beverly telling her, “This Japanese. I’m Taiwanese.” This is a fleeting moment in the film, and it sets up the friendship that forms between Ellen and Beverly. However, it also gets to the root of what I have been writing about over the past few posts, the question, “What are you?”

With the film, the focus rests on Beverly, the white middle school student, and everything that happens in the movie benefits her, whether good or bad. Ellen, her Taiwanese neighbor, serves as the sidekick, and we see stereotypes peppered throughout the few scenes where we see Ellen interacting with her overprotective mother. While the core of the film focuses on Beverly, Ellen, and Nicky finding themselves, the use of Ellen in this manner is problematic. I don’t want to focus on this for today’s post, but it’s important to note. Rather, I want to use the above scene as a way to look at two more moments in Mohja Kahf’s The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf where one’s preconceived notions impact the ways that one views someone else.

The first moment occurs when Khadra finds a roommate in Philadelphia “out of necessity.” Bitsy Hudnut, a young Iranian woman “with dyed blind hair and brown roots” moves in with Khadra, and from the outset, Bitsy makes it known that, as she puts it, “I normally loathe and despise Arabs and have successfully avoided them all my life.” Even though Khadra knows that Bitsy is Iranian because the guy at the YMCA tells her, Bitsy doesn’t know, when she first meets Khadra, that Khadra is Arab. Rather, Bitsy things Khadra could be Greek. She thinks this partly because most of Khadra’s stuff remains in boxes and she does not wear her scarf when she first meets Bitsy at the door.

The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf by Mojha Kahf | PublicAffairs

Bitsy’s feelings cause a tension between her and Khadra, mainly because Bitsy seizes every chance to let Khadra know how much she hates Arabs, leaving little notes all around the apartment to tell her the reasons why. In retaliation, Khadra seeks to discover Bitsy’s real name because she knows that Bitsy isn’t it. When a piece of mail gets forwarded to the apartment, Khadra discovers that Bitsy’s name was Fatima-Zahra Gordafarid. Fatima was the daughter of the prophet Muhammad and Khadijah, so Khadra wonders why Bitsy would abandon that name for something like Bitsy. Khadra confronts Bitsy about her original name, and Bitsy breaks down, crying and struggling to breathe. Khadra feels terrible, and Bitsy tells her what happened to her family, events that caused her to change to her name when she moved to America. She tells Khadra that her parents died during the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1978 and she can still “remember running through the street, terrified, and being surrounded by women dressed like [Khadra] . . . and Islamic phrases ringing out all around.”

Within the relationship between Bitsy and Khadra, the question of “What are you?” expands. Khadra knows that Bitsy doesn’t like Arabs and Islamic fundamentalists. Bitsy, while initially thinking that Khadra may be Greek, finds out she is Syrian and Arab and begins to despise her. One of Bitsy’s reasons for hating Arabs comes from the Islamic Revolution because, as Khadra thinks, “it had to do with [Arabs] bringing Islam to Iran–excuse me, Persia–fourteen centuries ago.” Khadra had a soft spot for “revolutionary Iran,” not because of the fundamentalism but because of “the way it stood up to America.” She didn’t think about the victims of the revolution, Bitsy and her parents and others.

Bitsy and Khadra never really become “friends” in the novel, but their relationship points out that the question “What are you?” never really gets to the core of who one really is at one’s center. Khadra and Bitsy learn about one another, yes, but they do so through antagonism and through causing pain to one another. While they begin to peel away the layers, they still never get to the core of who each of them truly are; their perceptions still rest, partly, within their preconceived notions. These notions run deep, and in Bitsy’s case, given the trauma she endured, uprooting them does not come easy. Instead, the root linger, even when the branches and trunk disappear. They remain buried.

While we see a lot of Bitsy and Khadra’s interactions with one another, a more fleeting moment of misidentification occurs later in the novel. Walking down the street humming one of her aunt’s tunes in her head, Khadra encounters “[t]wo Egyptian women” walking towards her as they push strollers in front of them. She greets them with “Assalamu alaikum,” and the women look at her quizzically, and one asks, “¿Qué?” Immediately, “Khadra realizes they are not Egyptian but Puerto Rican.” Mohja Kahf’s construction of this interaction, which occurs over two sentences, drives home how easy it is for us to misidentify individuals. Kahf introduces the women as “Egyptian,” but after the question, she shifts from “Egyptian” to “Puerto Rican,” pointing out the slippery nature of identity and how easy it is for us to misidentify others.

When we ask, “What are you?” the phrasing calls upon our interlocutor to define themselves. However, inherent within the phrasing of the question, the person asking it demeans the recipient because it comes across as, “I need you to define yourself because you are different from me.” It positions the person as “Other,” as somehow inferior to the person asking the question. For me, I go with “Where are you from?” Yet, I find this question problematic as well, as I have written about before.

We, as humans, desire ways to categorize the world around us. We want to place things in boxes that seem familiar. That is where these questions stem from. They also stem from our desire to get to know one another and to learn from one another. Our goal is to build bridges, not set them on fire before they even get completed. Beverly’s assumption that Ellen is Japanese in Mixtape is an adolescent assumption, yes, and it opens the door for Beverly to learn about Ellen’s Taiwanese ancestry and culture, something that sadly does not occur in the film. Bitsy and Khadra’s relationship opens the door for more understanding between them as well, and it provides Khadra with a broader worldview, one that challenges her own. In the former relationship, we see bridges emerging, albeit from a connected feeling on isolation. In the latter, Bitsy and Khadra don’t torch the bridge, but they don’t reinforce it either. It just stands.

We need to let our relationships grow through mutual respect and understanding. We need to be vulnerable and open to the ways that others challenge our own worldview. We need to make sure that instead of relying on preconceived notions we must take the time to get to know individuals, learning about them and how they choose to identify themselves. These are the ways to build bridges.

What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.

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