“Are you mixed?”
This is what the makeup artist asks me as we hang around the jpop exhibit. I blush and shake my head no. I’m wearing a long lavender wig, lashes sprinkled with stars, and a pastel pinafore. If anything it looks like my parents had relations one rowdy night with a cotton candy machine. But this lady insists I’m Korean.
It happens again while I’m in Flushing waiting for my boyfriend. I’m shopping in a boutique where the staff is freely mixing Mandarin, Japanese and Korean. I’m just here for the floral stationery. One shop girl wants to know where I get my dress – not too unusual, since I typically dress like a Disney princess wannabe. When I tell her my clothes are from Japan, she reminds me that mixed girls are cutest and offers me a discount.
I’ll solve the mystery right now. I’ve had this question a lot online, from fans and friends alike. I am 100% white. I am from European immigrant, pale-skinned, New England stock. I have grasped at the straws of my genetic heritage. In high school, I played the Irish harp. My grandmother made us French-fried onion and green bean casserole, not her mother’s pierogies. They never spoke their languages to their children. Whatever culture we had, my grandparents sold to buy us American whiteness instead, or whatever that meant in the 1950s when my mother was born. (After all, whiteness has changed greatly over the years, but I digress.)
I’m scared to talk about this. There, I said it. I want to support the people I see fighting for racial equality across lines right now. I know I am just an ally at best, and that I might come off as another white-girl-tears Becky at worst. I’m not saying this because I am a weeaboo, Koreaboo, egg, or afflicted with yellow fever, though I’ve been called all those things. It would be easier if I could sum up my heritage as simply mixed or hapa and move on, instead of having to justify myself with my life’s story. But I’m not trying to be something I’m not. I know I am white, and the privilege that comes with it.
2015 at the Mitsuwa summer festival, wearing my first yukata
On the flip side, I’m not white enough for my own family, sometimes. They groan every time they see the rice cooker on for dinner and they are pretty sick of me dragging them to sushi restaurants, where they order chicken teriyaki. My mom cringes when I go to town on a Korean fried fish with a pair of chopsticks. They are exasperated with my pet collection of languages and evenings watching Asian dramas. In my own house with visiting cousins, I’ve been called a race traitor.
When I met a new friend, after a few minutes’ chat he says, ‘So what kind of white are you?’ I stutter a little. I know that being asked ‘what are you?’ is a classically uncomfortable question for lots of POC or biracial people. I know it’s part of my privilege that this is the first time I’ve been asked that. But I’m still not sure how to answer. I eventually say lamely, ‘well, I’m from Connecticut,’ but that doesn’t explain much about who I am. Yes, I am born and bred on cow corn and northwestern Connecticut hills. I’m naturally some kind of blonde and I have the world’s whitest parents. What I can’t qualify with visions of Martha Stewart, Stars Hollow and Yale in the fall is that I’ve inherited a jumble of languages and cultures. My extended family is made up of Chinese, Japanese, Sri Lankan, Jewish and Cuban relatives. I had French picture books from my aunties as a kid, and I coaxed Québécois out of my Alzheimer-dreaming grandfather as a teenager. I spent ten years under the Japanese based culture of Lolita fashion and stumbling through the language and cultural expectations for modeling work. My little cousins speak Canto. I myself speak decent French, some sloppy Japanese and a growing child’s vocabulary of Korean.
this is what love looks like
My boyfriend has diagnosed me with a kind of multi-flavor Konglish – I usually start a sentence in English and then slip into something else halfway through, or drop in pieces of vocabulary when I run out of English nuance. I’m not trying to offend or re-claim something that’s not mine when I accidentally speak another language, though I know girls who squeal broken Japanese make everyone cringe. When I’m speaking, I often have to pause and translate my own thoughts for the audience I’m speaking to. Early mornings make me mumble in Korean. I sleep-talk and dream in multiple languages. Twice now when I’ve woken up out of anesthesia, I have forgotten how to speak English, to the consternation of the nurses around me.
I will never fit in an easy box. I remember my first time getting dressed for Korean church, looking at my hair in the mirror. It’s platinum blonde, or alternately, jewel pink. All the guides on being respectful to your Korean elders (and yes, I see the irony on studying this) said you should color your hair “natural” or “dark”. Even if I bought a box of black dye, I was not going to fit in. I was never going to be Korean for my in-laws, and I was never going to be a classic Uconn white girl for my aunts and uncles on my Connecticut side. I can never fit on either side, as tempted as I am to try.
For much of my life, I have been passing. I pass as straight, so I don’t feel I can speak to the righteous fear of the Orlando shooting, even though I know what it’s like to be afraid to hold hands with my same-gender partner in public. I pass as white, and I am white, but that doesn’t mean it’s okay to shit-talk #BlackLivesMatter in front of me over Thanksgiving dinner. When it comes to issues of Asian-American rights, I am thinking of my boyfriend, my cousins, my friends, my future children. I worry I’ll accidentally dip my children in whitewash, and in the same breath I worry that I’ll overdo it and give them the extra burden of carrying their Asianess around, in a name they have to repeat three times or in a lunchbox that smells funny. What if I pass on broken language that doesn’t fit in anywhere? What if I don’t tell my children what it means to be Asian, and everyone else tells them instead, encapsulated in stereotypes of Bruce Lee and nail salons? Am I even qualified to do either?
In between a rock and a hard place, I often end up saying nothing, or worse, wishing I had said nothing in the first place. If I don’t speak up to issues of injustice, does it mean I’m another white person who doesn’t care? Or if I do, does it mean I’m another white person who should keep my mouth shut about things I don’t understand? I often just feel… voiceless.
I know that’s something we have in common – to whoever is reading this right now. It’s something that unites everyone who has ever been judged based on who they are or what they seem to be. It’s when you wonder if you are overreacting or convince yourself that they didn’t really mean it that way or if you are just too sensitive. It’s not that I don’t care about these issues today. It’s that I do care – a lot. I cried watching a documentary about homeless elderly in Chinatown. I yell things at my TV screen during the Republican National Convention. I am way too patient with the Jehovah’s Witnesses who come to my door prophesying the end times (again). I am sitting with my mixed-faith prayer group listening to the other ladies talking about sending white light and love into the universe when they see trouble on the news, and thinking, yes, BUT, we also have to march and call our senators and vote. Even if I am wrong, even if I am missing some big picture, I want to know, because I do care.
I am part of a new generation of Americans. We are going to be a blended community, a blended family. Language, food, culture, religion, and gender are no longer bound to the old definitions of skin and body. I truly believe that is a good thing, something that makes us stronger, that makes our heritage richer, a process that has been slowly coming together for years (like in my current read, The Color of Water). But it doesn’t make this any less confusing a transition, for people on both sides, whether you’re biracial, mixed, or just multi-cultural.
I said when I started this piece that I was scared to speak up, about feeling “mixed up” on racial and cultural identity. I still am. But I know nothing is going to change in this world if we never talk about these feelings. I think every experience is valid, and deserves to be heard out. My motto for this year is “fear means go”, and I have leaned on it hard for the past six months. I am charging into what scares me; I am looking at my fear with curiosity. Isn’t courage speaking even when your voice shakes?
What makes you feel like you don’t fit in a box, or are stuck between two worlds? What makes you feel erased or invisible? What makes you feel voiceless?