College is described as a time for growth, where we students join clubs to explore our interests, or discover new ones, and take classes that are supposed to help us figure out a profession to pursue. While maintaining an acceptable GPA, having a social life, and getting a decent amount of sleep each week, we are also supposed to discover more about ourselves as we dip our toes into adulthood.
As I reflect on this stage in my life, I can’t help but ask myself this simple yet thought provoking question: who am I?
A large part of who I am comes from what my parents taught me about our cultures. The problem is that the cultures I am a part of may not be so evident just by looking at my face. Often, one glance at a sliver of skin is all it takes for someone to form a first impression based on racial stereotypes. Our identities are partially shaped by our interactions with others, and when there’s a disconnect between how the outside world views us–their opinion based on stereotypes and assumptions–and how we view ourselves, we end up recalibrating our personal definition of who we are in an effort to reconcile the dissonance.
While perusing the bookshelf at 35 College Ave, I came across an elegant, white book titled “Whasian,” which immediately halted my scanning eyes. Written by Joy Huang Stoffers, a fellow SAS Honors Program student, this novel details a college freshman girl’s struggle to define herself amidst the added stress of a dysfunctional family.
Ava, the protagonist, is Whasian, which is a combination of “White” and “Asian”; she has a Chinese mother and a European-American father. Some synonyms for Whasian include: Amerasian, Eurasian, Hapa, and Halfie. Coming from two different worlds, East meeting West, Ava struggles with her identity because her racial ambiguity, white face with asian features, causes her to feel like she is floating in between both worlds, unable to plant her feet firmly in the ground and define who she is.
Ava’s mother belittles her daughter’s unique appearance and labels her a “mongrel,” which only hinders Ava’s attempts to find herself. Like Ava, I am Whasian and this commonality is what prompted me to pick the book off of the shelf. I identify with Ava and know what it’s like to feel like an outsider. Fortunately, I was never on the receiving end of another person’s disgust at my heterogeneity. I never heard slurs directed toward me, that I know of, except for the one time when a boy called me “slanty eyes” on the playground in second grade. I cried to my parents because a description of a facial feature I had no control of, my eye shape, was mocked, and in a tone so nasty that I felt that it was wrong to have slanty eyes. They comforted me by driving the schoolyard taunt out of my head and replacing it with love and a positive view on my appearance. My family and friends do not see me as two different halves, but as a harmonious whole. Their support and love has helped to pacify the rough seas formed by attempts to make me feel ashamed of my hybridity.
I don’t get bothered when people ask me, “What are you?” Obviously I’m a human being and they are not asking about what species I belong to, although the tone in some peoples’ voices may come across that way. Sure, the question can be rephrased in a better way, but I know that the person asking the question wants to know about my ethnicity. I don’t mind when they try to guess my mix either–I treat it like a game, like Fool the Guesser you see at fairs.
I hope my face is ambiguous enough to stump them. I smile whether they guess the right or wrong ethnicity; I am amused by their curiosity and appreciate the desire to decode my features. Maybe I am naïve, or ignorant, or insensitive because I am not affected by or don’t acknowledge the microaggression contained in this question. Maybe I have this outlook because I have not been treated poorly because of my race and ethnicity.
Recently, my dad has been asking me how I identify: as White or Asian. I see myself as both but sometimes I’ll feel more like one than the other depending on the situation. Because of my mix, it’s sometimes a struggle to fit in with one group or the other. Even though both sides of my family accept me, I’ll feel out of place when surrounded by my mom’s relatives and friends because I’ll feel too White. Conversely, I’ll feel too Asian when surrounded by my dad’s relatives and friends. What makes it worse is that despite practicing the traditions and knowing the customs, I don’t speak either of their languages so it distances me from fully being a part of my cultures. This concept of not fully belonging to one or the other has prevented me from joining respective clubs on campus because I’m afraid my inability to communicate in the native language will result in me being seen as an outsider.
Like Ava, I learned to celebrate both halves of my identity. I hope to someday learn the languages so I can feel like I truly belong to both my cultures. I love being mixed. My parents have shared their traditions with each other and with me, and as a result, we have created our own way of celebrating both cultures. They coexist in my house, and in my soul, and they mix and interact in new and interesting ways. It’s normal for us to eat kielbasa over rice or to share opłatek before digging into a plate of pancit. I know I am not alone in my heterogeneity. I belong to a community of other racial mixes who understand what it is like to be between cultural worlds.
Who I am and how I see my self will never be a fixed definition because I am constantly changing, growing, and learning.
What I do know is that I will cherish my cultures that were brought together when two worlds collided to form one family.
Who am I?
I am Whasian.