I was sitting in the local café the other week, cozied in the corner with my coffee in front of me and headphones in my ears: the universal sign for, “do not disturb.”
Nonetheless, the person enjoying their breakfast next to me waved a hand to get my attention.
Before I could fully pull the plug from my bubble of personal space, they looked at me awkwardly and asked,
“Where are you from?”
I hate this question. I have always hated this question.
Even when I lived in the place “where I am from,” people still asked me this.
“Where are you from?”
That question has always made me feel as if I do not belong no matter where I am when it is being asked.
This question has been the cause of the identity crisis that I have been suffering from for the better part of my life.
To start, let me introduce myself.
My name is Karamea.
I was born in America, in the predominantly white and Mormon state of Utah.
My Father is a Māori-English-Swiss-Chinese-Samoan, born and raised in New Zealand.
My Mother, a French-Canadian Norwegian, born in America but raised in Canada.
When I was in elementary school, I remember trying to explain to a boy on the playground why I had a white mother and a brown father, and why my father had an accent that wasn’t “Mexican.” In the early 90s, Utah lacked serious diversity and most “people of colour” in that town were Mexican.
There’s no short way of explaining my bloodline, and if you can imagine two 10-year-olds trying to talk ancestry, it was a conversation doomed from the beginning. After about 30 seconds, said-boy was understandably bored and simply said, “You’re like a mutt, like my dog.”
A mutt, like his dog.
Twenty years later, that phrase still echoes in the back of my mind.
A few years after that playground incident, my family moved from that predominantly white town to a new predominantly white town, where I would soon become the token “coloured” friend in my social group.
At the time, I didn’t necessarily feel Polynesian enough to hang out with the other Polynesians. But I also wasn’t white enough to avoid the underlying racial slurs I spent my high school days awkwardly laughing off.
For those of you that know me, that might sound silly, but again, I was raised in Utah.
St. George, Utah to be exact.
During that time, if you were brown but you weren’t Mexican, then you were Polynesian, probably Hawaiian or Samoan, “because it’s all the same, right?”
By my junior year of high school, I was used to being called things like “blacky” (even though the girls next to me in class were much darker than I was, because they spent every other day at the tanning salon), or hearing the joke about smiling if the lights went out so “they could find me.”
One day after school, the boys I used to hang out with laughed about tying me to the light pole in the parking lot, because I was the dark one, so that’s where I belonged.
I don’t blame my friends. None of us were privy to even the slightest idea of racism at the time. Granted, it was in our history books, but in a town settled by white Mormons, no one really seemed to question the lack of diversity.
In fact, the original mascot of the college in St. George was a “rebel,” modeled after a Confederate Army Soldier, and the Confederate flag was flown alongside the American flag on campus for years. (The rebel, holding a confederate flag was also made into a statue that was placed on campus for some time.) It wasn’t until the early 2000s that the school finally changed the mascot to something much less… racist.
What I also didn’t realise at the time was that the ache in my heart was my smarter self telling my wanna-be-popular self that what they were saying wasn’t okay. But I suffered in silence, while doing my best to continue being an off-white version of my friends.
Because my ancestors come from around the globe, I wasn’t taught a specific cultural practice. Instead, I was raised with religion. With at least four generations of devout Latter Day Saints (Mormons) on both sides of my family, my childhood was based around the church and church practices.
For many around the world, that’s the way it is — religion is the keystone of the family. But for others, the cultural practices of “where they are from” take precedence.
The Polynesian Cultural Group that my parents made us occasionally attend when I was young focused mainly on Hawaiian Hulas and Samoan Sivas. We were one of the only families in St. George at the time with Māori roots, and the Aunties that taught the group were Hawaiian and Samoan, so that is what we learned.
My brothers kind of knew the Māori Haka from observing my grandfather and their uncles and the All Blacks, and I successfully performed a Samoan Siva at my high school graduation celebration, complete with traditional puletasi. Both my Samoan grandmother and her cousin attended and they couldn’t have been more proud.
That was the first of two times that I have ever performed anything culturally connected to my roots.
In America, unless your parents were raised with specific ethnic cultural practices that they can pass onto you, whether that be song or dance, a second language, or even just certain types of food, the only culture most of us really grow up with is pop culture. And by the time we are mature enough to recognise that there is more to life than what is on the cover of People Magazine, we’re far beyond emotionally displaced from who we actually are.
Fast-forward to college, when I enrolled myself at a school in Florida and ran as far away from that white bubble of a town as I could, without needing a passport.
Surrounded by colour, I began to feel as if I blended in with everyone else. Yet my crisis continued.
There I was, with that unique “twangy” Southern Utah accent some of you might be familiar with, continuing to confuse those around me.
I remember one instance in particular, where a nicely drunk boy scoffed at me when he asked my name. “You don’t even sound Mexican,” he mumbled.
“That’s because I’m not. I’m Polynesian. I’m from Utah.”
“Wait, what?” he said.
That is the usual response I get. A response that’s driven me to become a wallflower whenever I go out.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy meeting new people, telling my story and having good conversation. But after years of introducing myself, waiting for the confused look, then re-pronouncing my name, explaining my name and where it comes from, and then kindly telling the person questioning me that I’m not Mexican or Greek or Italian, I got tired of it.
It has become easier to retreat to the wall when I’m out, where I don’t have to bother stumbling over words, explaining who I am or where I come from in the quickest way possible.
Before you tell me that I am overreacting, imagine having that conversation almost everywhere you go, almost every time you introduce yourself.
I grew up ticking the “Pacific Islander” box on all of my forms through school, all the while questioning if I should instead tick “White (non-Hispanic),”because, at the time, the “Two or More Races” box wasn’t even an option. On top of that, for some reason that question was never multiple choice.
I grew up resorting to the phrase, “I am Polynesian,” not because I was not proud of the other parts of who I am, but because not everyone cares to know much past that. All they want to know is why you look “different.”
But I have always felt a sense of guilt every time I resort to that answer. Because that answer does not allow me to claim that I am also my mother.
In 2014, I made the decision to move to New Zealand. Some of my family had already been living here and my parents were making plans to move as well. I was experiencing an epic year of anxiety and general life confusion, and in my head it made sense to go back to my roots. At least, to one of the countries where I have roots.
So I booked a one-way ticket, panicked for a few months before leaving the States, and here I am, two years later.
But that identity crisis? It’s still going on.
I might look like I fit in here, but my American accent is a dead giveaway. So, as soon as I introduce myself, it’s the same conversation, the same look of confusion.
That same dreaded question: “Where are you from?”
It’s not until after I get through the part about my dad being a Māori that people let their guard down.
Last month, New Zealand celebrated Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori, Māori Language Week. As part of our Māori Language Week issue at the local newspaper I work for, I interviewed two people about my same age, about their personal journeys in learning te reo Māori. They began to learn the language when they were young, but turned away from the culture and the language through their teenage years in order to better fit in with their peers.
It wasn’t until recently that they recognised the importance the Māori language plays in understanding our individual whakapapa (family history/bloodline) as Māoris. So, they restarted their journeys and have used the Māori language to discover more about who they are.
That conversation and finally being close to a part of my culture gave my sundry identity a flicker of hope.
I realised while writing that piece that without the language of the land, we lose our identity. If a language is lost, forbidden or forgotten, over time, cultures will lose their way of life, ceasing to exist.
That epiphany is another story in itself.
So, where am I from?
I answer that question differently almost every time, depending on where I am when it is asked.
But the long answer?
I was born in America, raised in Utah by a mother who was raised in Canada and a father who was raised in New Zealand.
They did not teach me to be proud of where I come from as a place, because the place that I come from did not make me who I am.
I was taught to be proud of my French-Canadian grandfather, who spent his days in the Canadian Navy. I was taught to be proud of my great-grandmother, who left her own mother in Norway at the age of 18 and took a boat to America all by herself.
I was taught to be proud of my great-great grandfather, an orphan from China, who sailed the seas and eventually settled in Samoa. I am proud of the story of his son, my great-grandfather Ahmu, who eloped with my Swiss great-grandmother because they were forbidden to marry.
[bctt tweet=”I know I am not alone in this feeling, but I don’t really know what the answer is.” username=”wearethetempest”]
And I am proud of my Māori grandfather, who courageously packed up his young family and with my grandmother moved from New Zealand to America to start anew.
Without them, I would not be here. They are where I am from.
Over the years, I have come to realise that claiming to be from somewhere automatically creates an invisible line of segregation. Whether you claim a specific neighbourhood in your city or have pledged your allegiance to one red, white and blue flag.
While being proud of your country, your culture, your people, is a beautiful thing, that pride can be twisted into the idea that one race or one people is superior over another. That sense of pride has caused nothing but discrimination, war, death and destruction for thousands of years.
I know I am not alone in this feeling, but I don’t really know what the answer is.
I do know that we are all connected. No matter what landmass we come from, no matter the language that we speak, or the way we say our prayers.
We all breathe the same air and will continue to do so for as long as the Earth allows.
I believe that I come from the stars, the sea and those who have walked before me. I will do my best to be proud of the land that I stand on, no matter where I go.