Body in transit

My mother (far left) and her crew colleagues aboard a Cathay Pacific flight, 1970s.

Body in transit (in the place between my Chinese mother’s marbled hands)

by Mariam Ella Arcilla

Your skin moves like soft terrazzo
as melanin slow feasts on your skin.

Vitiligo, a co-conspirator of the sun, 
becomes a zapping force, a strike that glows. 

At first, it arrives on your left eyelid: a ghost-white dollop 
the size of a Mentos candy.

Soon, your coal-black eyelashes evolve into fibre-optic straws,
a contrasting curtain for your shuttering eyes.

While I take shape inside your belly, 
a system of erasure forms outside of you, 
effacing your caramel birth-tone with invader hues.

You licked my nose when you were born, you tell me. 
You thought my skin was splashed with milk.

Using your body, you teach me how to count.
One, two…now three diffused orbs form behind your ears.

On the collarbone five more,
settling like snow that never melts.

As the years grow, my counting on your body
graduates to dozens, then hundreds.
Your pigment becomes soft flashlights
that guide me across your morphing body, 

a galactic swirl of 
lemon-lime bitters…
beige sand…
The immediate surface indicators 
of your identity, your selfhood,
become murky as you attempt 
to renegotiate your place in the world as it moves
and as you move through it.

I read somewhere that Doreen Massey said:

It is a sense of place, an understanding of ‘its character’, 
which can only be constructed by linking that place to places beyond.

But what happens when one moves 
between places and beyond places for a living? 

You walk the skies as a Cathay Pacific stewardess,
traversing between countries, streets, hotels, 
between cultures, crowds, transit lounges.

Comfort curls you into a liminal space 
between Departure and Arrivals, 
in that crampy airplane toilet cubicle, 
that place beyond, up in the clouds
you choose to become someone else, 
you choose to be from somewhere else.

You become skilled at camouflaging.
Make-up bag jingling with
tonal rainbows of foundation creams 

Ready to blend, you assimilate your skin-swatch 

according to the weather:
fairer during winter 
darker during summer and autumn
(½ Almond, ½ Honey)

You stain your faded hair dark, 
try permanent eyebrow tattooing.

For you, these acts are not simply cosmetic;
but a reclamation of your shifting complexion.

Within that sticky limbo, we begin to create places beyond. 
We create scenarios for your vitiligo.

 …a floating archipelago on skin.
…materialised perfume sprayed on the temples and wrists.
…tiny moons that orbit your moles and shoulder.
…a web of sparkling-silver hair that spins strings through sunset light.

COVID keeps us apart, so we don’t see each other for almost two years. This month, we reunite.

I roll out of the plane and into the squeeze of your hugs. 

You take my hands and place them within yours.

Both our hands now rest on your heart,
so I feel its booming beats.
Only then do I register a new information:

Buried between your tone-marbled hands,
on your collarbone, just above your heart
are new brown sunspots, three dots
in the shape of an ellipsis.

Quote from: Doreen Massey, A Global Sense Of Place, Marxism Today, 1991

This piece was commissioned for Melbourne Art Fair: Perspectives on Place and published in 2022; format above revised by the author in 2023.

[ID: Four dark-haired South-east Asian women pose in front of the camera. They work as stewardesses and are aboard a Cathay Pacific commercial airplane. Dressed identically, each woman is wearing a blouse with swirls of colours including red, black, orange, green and yellow. They wear red skirts fastened by a slim black belt.]