“So… what are you? Like, where are you from?”
Like many mixed-race and/or “ethnically ambiguous” people, I’ve spent quite a bit of time explaining myself. I grew up in a mostly white suburb in Southern California, I’ve spent a lot of my time (and writing) trying to explain who I am (my dad is Chicano and my mom is Filipina. My brother and I call it “Mexipino/a”).
Being mixed-race in the U.S. was and is confusing at times. In a society desperately trying to slip an easily-read label, we struggle to fit that narrative. We get told we’re “not-_______ enough,” or not really _______ , as if our mixed status means there’s a quantifiable amount of culture we’ll never be able to maintain.
And, like it did for a lot of mixed race folks, those words hurt. A lot. They made me question myself and my identity, they made me feel less than to my community in a world that already looked at Brown people as less than. Yes, my parents helped me try to navigate these waters and helped me be proud of both cultures, but it was hard when people I thought would get me still made me feel alone. It made me feel as if I had nowhere to go.
I grew up, though, and began finding power in being mixed race, and learning to claim both my AAPI upbringing (most of my friends were Asian-American) with the truth of both cultures. I learned Spanish and danced Tinikling. While I still got the looks and the questions, knowing that I wasn’t alone in my responses and frustrations made it more bearable.
Instead of feeling alone, I learned the stories of others who shared my struggles, or struggled so that I could have more. I learned how to ask my family for their stories: Why did we eat the food we did? How did we end up in America? Where did my hair come from? I was surrounded by people who had so many amazing stories to help make sense of my own– I just needed to listen.
Through the magic of the universe, I found even more stories last night, when I discovered this NPR LatinoUSA piece on being Asian and Latino.
When I shared this online, Darren Naruse showed how this affects the next generation as well.
This made me realize how, even when it was hard, I felt extremely happy to be mixed-race. As one of the participants noted that being Asian-Latino helped him to essentially code-switch between cultures, finding the similarities between the two that helped him navigate both well.
In reminiscing on my own experiences, I realized the blessing, in some ways, of being “othered.” Having others frequently question my identity forced me to dig deep to actually figure out who I am and what my cultures mean to me. It meant learning how to be “fully me,” as Darren put it.
Being mixed race is a sometimes-confusing but ultimately beautiful journey. The additional challenges are rooted in a journey of deep, powerful self-discovery that have made me who I am now. It pushed me to learn the stories of both my cultures to find pride build strong connections with them. The questions and push back I got ultimately led me to learn and develop those cultural understandings even more as I got older.
Then, I moved to Hawai‘i.
Hawai‘i is unique in that there is no ethnic majority, and if there were, it wouldn’t be white people. Many residents are AAPI, and its the home of the largest mixed-race population in the United States. The cognitive dissonance I’d had on the mainland growing up began to melt away. I do get asked what my ethnicities are, a common practice here rooted in discovering common ground–the people asking are often mixed themselves. As Darren points out, living in Hawai‘i means that it’s easy to not think about race, at least in terms of “belonging and not” on a daily basis.That sounds impossible to non-white folks, but it’s true.
There’s a blessing and a curse to this, though. Of course, not feeling othered where I live is a huge blessing. However, I’m now largely removed from Latinx culture, since the Latinx population is about 10%. This can feel hard, since it feels like half of my story no longer had anyone to connect with. I wrote about in 2016 for Honolulu Civil Beat:
[The tamale woman] was there every Saturday, yelling with a sense of tired, joyful urgency. It was like a breakfast-and-supper song: “Tamales, tamales ! Tamales de POL-lo, tamales de QUE-so, tamales tamales !” My housemates hated her, and I wasn’t always a fan, but now, in Hawaii, I miss her voice.
I miss her singing, her call, and her food that makes us special. I miss the small, daily reminders I am not just American — even if the United States is a place I feel lucky to call home — but that there is another language, culture and history waiting there for me whenever I want.
In moving to Hawaii, I now walk a weird line. I’m an outsider, but not really. My dark skin and mixed roots make it easy for people to assume I’m from here. It took a 3,000-mile journey, but I found a place where I can walk nearly anywhere and feel like, at least at a glance, I belong.
But in another way, I am a minority again. Half of my culture is completely visible here, but another half feels like it has been lost. I search for that half, seeing her curly hair, the poetic words she knows, and the palate of memories that include my mom’s mole and my grandmother’s noodles.
I know my mother is in me, forever entwined with an Asian culture that is just as beloved, just as precious. But I worry that, being here, the blossoming of one half of me is threatening to overtake less cultivated roots on the other side. I fear that if I am far from the consistent reminders of one culture for long enough, it will slip away into silence.
Is there a place where both of my cultures can live and thrive side by side? Is there ever a stable, fertile ground to place both feet firmly and grow roots, instead of the balancing act I live each day? Is there some way, some place where I can feel whole?
I don’t have the answers. I wonder if anyone does.
As I revisited this piece, and with three more years under my belt, I’ve realized that I have to create the place where I feel whole. It’s up to me to look ahead and create a spaces and connections.
Being connected to my cultures is active work that I have to initiate, instead of waiting for the world to push me there. It means practicing my Spanish when I can, making it a point to make, find, and eat Mexican food. It means finding Filipinx groups to connect and organize with. I am no longer seeking connections in response to being othered, I must actively seek these stories because I know they are important not just for me, but for the next generation as well.
When my children who, of course, will be mixed themselves ask me those questions, I can no longer rely on others to share those stories. It is my kuleana– privilege and responsibility– to share the stories and pride of both cultures with them. This means that I have to keep learning, connecting, and developing my understanding of them, even when it feels easier forget.
I can no longer just keep the stories handed to me by others, I must be the one seeking and sharing those stories too. In doing so, I am able to help the next generation write theirs, as I continue to write my own.
This blog post is part of the #31DaysIBPOC Blog Challenge, a month-long movement to feature the voices of indigenous and teachers of color as writers and scholars. Please CLICK HERE to read yesterday’s blog post by Julia Torres (and be sure to check out the link at the end of each post to catch up on the rest of the blog circle).