My mom calls me hapa.
Everyone else would just call me half; half Asian and half white. Aside from the comments I sometimes receive from fascinated simpletons on how exotic I am (that’s an entirely separate issue), I get asked more often about what I am.
For the longest time, I struggled to answer that question. Whenever I took a scantron test, the questionnaire only specified to mark one ethnicity. This meant I belonged in the Other category.
Being the Other is more than an identity crisis, to me, it is my life.
As a baby, I was raised by my Chinese grandmother. I grew up speaking Chinese, eating Chinese food, and playing with other Chinese kids. My brother, on the other hand, was raised by my white grandmother, living an entirely separate childhood.
At home, I didn’t speak Chinese because my brother and dad wouldn’t understand and we didn’t eat traditional Chinese food because my brother wasn’t used to the flavors. This was the arrangement my parents made when they had to work.
This arrangement also left me totally unprepared for when I entered elementary school.I rejected my Chinese culture. I denied what made me different. Click To Tweet
When I went to school, suddenly all my Chinese was replaced with English and really bad English at that. My teachers used to call home to ask why I spoke this way. As if that weren’t enough, my transition into a classroom full of white peers made me blatantly aware of how I was different. There was half of me that felt like it belonged, but I was raised on the other half which felt out of place.
Like any little kid, I feared isolation; I thought I had to make a choice. As a result, I rejected my Chinese culture. I denied what made me different. I hated being part Asian.
That feeling stayed with me throughout high school. Being Asian had its stereotypes that were easy to turn into jokes. Squinty eyes. Intelligence. Even my appetite.
Now I realize that my way of fitting in was to direct these jokes on myself. Was this me coming to terms with being half Asian?
At the time, I thought it was.
In actuality, I was intentionally racializing myself as an attempt at blending in with the students who were white. I laughed because they laughed, but it was never as funny to me as it was to them and I didn’t understand why.Chinese food is the one thing that opened me up to the culture. Click To Tweet
What reintroduced me to my culture is going to sound absurd, yet it’s something that has always been there for me; something I can’t live without: food. It might seem cliché, but I love to eat. Asians especially communicate the most through food: if you’ve eaten yet, what have you eaten, what you should eat. Chinese food is the one thing that opened me up to the culture, the tradition, and the people that fed it to me, including my grandma. It was the one element of home I never left behind.
Still, my feelings were not resolved. The more I went with my mom to eat at Chinese restaurants, while she ordered in Chinese and I sat quietly looking at the pictures on the menu, the more out of place I began to feel again. This was different though.
Somehow, I was now too white in an Asian setting, wishing that I wasn’t. The most startling moment for me was when the owner of our favorite Chinese restaurant commented on how I didn’t even look Asian to my mom. I was shocked. Offended, even.
Of course, I was Asian. Yet once again, I was left feeling like I had something to prove.If I can’t find a place to fit in, I make one for myself. Click To Tweet
Since then, I had been floating in a middle ground between my two cultures, avoiding any confrontations that would make me seem either too Asian or too white. I felt I had to justify my presence wherever I went, except when I went to college. The college I go to is out of state, but I found a community of friends from all over the world who showed me being diverse gives you more places to fit in, not less.
When I think back to my past animosity, I struggle to understand why I felt a need to choose.
I was only cutting myself in half.
If I can’t find a place to fit in, I make one for myself. My background is what makes me unique, and I’ve begun to appreciate that fact. I don’t need to answer what I am anymore, but it is who I am that matters.