Growing Up Mixed
A Few Short Stories
It’s kind of complicated.
I never thought about categorizing myself until I moved to the States at the age of 12, and I was asked to check a box off stating my race.
It was for my grade six official end-of-the-year exams in Bethesda, Maryland.
“African-American,” “Pacific Islander,” “Caucasian,” “Asian,” or “Hispanic.”
I was confused. Not angry, but confused as to why they needed to know this in order to grade my algebra exam. And then, I was frustrated.
On that first day, I remember ticking off Pacific Islander, because I had lived in Tahiti for six years, longer than anywhere else. I remember that when I was little, I thought I was Tahitian. I grew up there and learned to speak with a floral, rolling-my-r’s French-island accent. Then my parents told me I was Swiss, born in Switzerland, on the other side of the world.
The next day, I had an English exam and that same question came back to haunt me. This time, I checked off African-American. My grandparents are from Madagascar.
Later that day, during my science exam, I checked off Hispanic. I got along well with the Hispanic students in my school and I was often mistaken for Peruvian or Argentinean.
Marking off that box on the front page of my English, math and science exams was harder than using the Pythagorean theorem or memorizing the anatomy of a frog. It seemed so formal and irreversible, to shade a box. There I was, sitting in that box, constricted.
“It’s kind of impressive she managed to keep her accent after all these years,” my white cousin comments. He’s referring to our white grandmother, who emigrated to the U.S. from England at 19. I nod, agreeing without question, trying to concentrate on the teenage boys playing soccer below us.
“It’s funny how we celebrate some immigrants for keeping their accents and mock others who don’t,” my ex-girlfriend replies, daring us to think a little harder. Hunched over on cold steel bleachers, I try to.
I realize how I didn’t talk to my Filipino grandmother much as a child. I didn’t talk to many people, to be fair, but I always just thought I couldn’t have a conversation with her, as if there was a language barrier.
As if she didn’t speak English fluently. As if I was somehow smarter and better because I could speak English “properly.”
My one language to her two, my one comfort zone to her risky transcontinental journey almost 50 years ago.
With the sun beating down, seated next to my parents, I realize both of my grandmothers were immigrants, but that I held them to different standards.
I am 11 years old. Jane is seven, Elyse is in diapers, Annabel is 16 and out in Ohio. Jane has brown, curly long hair, white skin like her mother, like me. She is insecure, constantly throwing tantrums, desperately interested in my approval. I scorn her.
Elyse is darker skinned, with black, loose curls that fall around her head and frizz in the summer, becoming a large and unmanageable afro, like mine. She is the youngest, will become the consolidator and compromiser, the ferociously judicial and honourable. She is only a baby now; she looks just like our father.
Annabel is brown, people assume she is unrelated, or adopted, or lost. She is tall, loud, but with black, tight, nappy curls that must be tamed. She will one day speak to neither of her real parents, only my mother.
It is nighttime. I am awake.
It has gotten to be about that time of night. My father’s car is suddenly in the driveway, a silver BMW he bought with a small windfall from some shrewd tax evasion within small-time mortgage brokerage (the IRS would eventually catch up to him and toss him back to poor-immigrant status).
I remember a weekend we spent together, driving that great silver ship across the city, across Jersey, to display at family parties, to parade through old neighbourhoods amidst cries of “Alabanza!”
In the space between the sound of his car door closing and our porch door opening, I quietly lock my sisters into their room.
Mom is up. She is sitting at the dining room table, in view of me if I peer around the edge of the bedroom hallway’s end. Her back is to me.
Mom is a Jewish lady from Michigan, the daughter of a pair of alcoholic Detroit blue-collar working types; she married a Dominican immigrant whom she met working at a non-profit for homeless, gay, AIDS-affected youth back in ‘90s Manhattan. I can remember the way she sat, straight backed, in one corner of Abuela’s home, always smiling, smiling, never speaking, at once enveloped by and apart from her surroundings.
Dad comes into the house. He is coked up, and drunk, hurling increasingly spiteful insults at his “jojota” of a wife, who stole him away from his family, his home; she spitting with rage at his addictions, his absence from our lives, his violence. He says he’s taking us to his mother’s. She says we’re going to a motel, that he can sleep off his drugs without us in the house.
I am standing at the hallway’s corner’s edge. My hands are gripping two sides of a divided line, a split identity.
People always tell me I look just like my mum. She has the dominant family genes, but we also have the same build and similar features. What I often don’t think about however, is how much I do not resemble my own father—until we are out in public. One time he took me to a butcher shop.
As the butcher added more to the bag my dad said, “no way! That’s way too much!” The butcher replied, “you’ve gotta treat your wife right, buy her nice things.” …gross sir, I am his daughter.
Another time I was on a road trip with my mum, dad and sister. We stopped at a rest stop along the highway and as my sister and I stood in line for the bathroom, dad walked by and said, “haha you have to wait in line!” My sister replied, “shaddap!”
As dad walked away laughing, I turned to my sister and explained that to everyone else around us, it probably looked like she’s yelling at some random white guy.
I grew up with an absent Chinese father, looking nothing like the white family members I was raised alongside. They would take me to Chinese restaurants as if to say, “look, these are your people!”
When I was seven, a girl in the bathroom said she would block the bathroom stall until I said “something in Chinese.”
I couldn’t, and I peed myself.
When I meet someone, I can tell whether or not we will be friends based solely on their initial approach. People usually start with casual questions like “what do you study? Where do you work?” However, others will begin with “what are you? Where are you from?”
More often than not, if I answer “Canada” and that’s not the answer they were looking for, they say “but where are you really from?” I will answer again with “Canada,” and when that’s still wrong, they persist and ask “…but where are your parents from?” The answer remains honest as “Canada.”
When they are left displeased by my answer for the umpteenth time, they persevere with “yeah okay…but where are your grandparents from?”
To this I will crack and let out an annoyed “China and England.” At this point in the conversation, finally satisfied with the response, they give a light “oh, okay, cool, I get it.”
These are the people who will not last beyond ten minutes because they are ignorant fools. Within minutes of meeting me, they know the lineage of my ancestors before they even bother to ask my name!
What does one gain or take away from this? Peace of mind that they managed to solve the mystery of my deceitful face and the race to which it belongs? I would answer the question gladly if people were more direct and sensitive with the approach, perhaps by asking, “what is your background?” instead. Dragging it out to seem passive and indifferent rather than being direct is consequently just rude.
In grade eight, during exam periods, we’d have mini breaks to eat snacks. Replenish and refuel. No child left behind—that 2000-era American bullshit. Tommy was a cool kid. He played football and basketball. Somehow his freckled white face didn’t become a target for ridicule. Lucky bastard.
On this break one afternoon, Tommy strutted through rows of desks and metallic chairs to say hi to my friend Billy. Billy had cool-points because he was athletic. I didn’t have cool-points because I was fat, had long unkempt coarse brown hair, and wore glasses. For that whole year, I probably never talked to Tommy once.
As a snack that day, I brought a plastic bag of shrimp chips, a staple at any Asian grocery store. Tommy asked what I was eating. Shyly, I told him.
His stupid face scrunched with disgust. He walked away, sick with the weight of foreignness. I didn’t punch Tommy in his freckled face that day, but I probably should have.
Growing up, my brother had four imaginary friends: Bubby and Mooboo, Little Sarah and Big Sarah. Bubby and Mooboo were chill and always did whatever my brother wanted, but most of the time the Sarahs were mean, so my brother would flush them down the toilet into the sewers.
About 15 years after the imaginary friends ceased to exist, I asked my brother what his friends had looked like. Apparently they all wore overall jeans, Bubby and Mooboo were Chinese and the Sarahs were blonde and white. I had no idea! When I asked him why Bubby and Mooboo were Chinese, he said, “because I thought I was Chinese, so they were too.”
This caught me off guard because when I was a kid I always acknowledged that I was—and still am—half Chinese and half British by blood. However, growing up closer to the British side of the family, eating roast beef and Yorkshire pudding for the holidays, in a predominantly white population, I always found my cultural balance to be 75 per cent white and 25 per cent Chinese.
I had never stopped to think that my sister or brother would have felt differently about the weight of each side. How strange to think that we grew up in the same household with the same parents, half Chinese and half British, and yet we never questioned each other’s personal stance on identity.
Kurt is annoyed. We’re in grade ten, math class, and I’m taking part in the group teasing a little too much. His face becomes red, his eyes divert downwards toward the classroom’s cold tiling. Then he says it.
“Shut up you stupid chink.” Stupid what? —I’m asking. Something is off, as I anxiously look around our group seated on the desks in the back corner.
I turn to a mutual friend Kevin and ask what that word means. He lets out a cackle uncomfortably—that’s a really racist Chinese slur, he explains.
I’m Asian. Or Pacific Islander—whatever, but I’m not Chinese.
Kurt’s awkward, but a friend. He’s a quiet white boy from Ontario who just moved here. I don’t blame Kurt really, or feel anger. I should’ve stopped joking so much, right?
Later, I moved to a mostly-Asian grade school, where I became the dumb white girl who could never impress my peers. In my mostly-white high school, it was assumed my hard work was genetic intelligence.
When I meet new people, my nationality often becomes their business, whether they are fetishizing my race, or asking me to justify my novel existence.
I am proud to be mixed race, but also consider the confusion and struggle it took to get to such a place before making judgments on my appearance.