Consciously Creating Culture
The Burdens & Blessings of Being Biracial
For me, growing up biracial in America wasn’t the worst thing ever, but it wasn’t always easy, and it was utterly complicated in many subliminal ways. Looking back—it was actually pretty messed up. But it’s also made me stronger and wiser. As for my background, my mother immigrated from Singapore to marry my father, a Midwestern American of English and Scottish descent.
Early on it was obvious that I didn’t look like any of the other kids in school, though I suppose being surrounded by fair-skinned people made me easily believe I was the same as them. I was one of only a handful of children of color in our suburban Chicago district, but I don’t specifically remember other kids being blatantly racist toward me. In fact, even my brother and I amused ourselves by pushing up the corners of our eyes to appear even more ethnic, and imitated Asian language with nonsensical syllables. Perhaps we naively copied jokes we saw on TV, and made fun of ourselves so that no one else could.
I remember a homework assignment where I had to ask my parents about our family heritage. My mom never had a clear answer for these questions: “Well, I was born in Taiwan, but I grew up in Singapore.” I’d implore her with a desire to understand precisely where I came from: “So does that make us Taiwanese, or Singaporean?” She’d reply plainly: “Taiwan is a part of China, so we’re Chinese,” adding in a confusing “but your grandfather may have had some Japanese in him.” Consequently I abandoned attempts to identify myself by my racial origins.
I’d find trinkets from the motherland around the house, which inspired and beguiled me with their foreign beauty. Ornately crafted jewelry boxes, little chests covered with shiny floral fabrics, and carvings & art featuring the Singaporean merlion mascot — a mythical creature with the head of a lion and the body of a fish. These artifacts always had a certain musty odor to them, which I associated with my relatives although it was simply the smell of unused antiques. These were not exactly displayed proudly — they were tucked into drawers and closets as more secret reminders of where my mom came from, while mostly western tchotchkes adorned the fireplace mantle.
Because I was her daughter, my mom appeared normal to me, but I always longed for a more tender relationship with her, the kind of sweet and soft mother typified in American media culture. In future analysis I would realize that she was probably fleeing her traditional Chinese heritage and a lot of childhood trauma, when she left home for the States. Although she couldn’t shake her Asian stoicism, she never cooked traditional food, and never spoke her native Hokkien dialect, except when she was on the phone to relatives. She drove a station wagon, hosted Tupperware parties, and indulged in soap operas. She seethed when ignorant people assumed her home country was populated by thatched-roof huts and tiny farm villages, being that Singapore is largely an advanced, bustling metropolis. She once remarked that a doctor had advised her not to give her children “too much soy sauce” when transitioning us to solid food.
Was my mother ashamed of her origins? Did she defensively adopt the American lifestyle more fully to avoid these assumptions about her? In typical Chinese style, she never said too much about her past, or revealed her emotions, so I had to guess what she was thinking and feeling. She’d ignore me and change the subject if I asked deep questions. It was only with experience and the clarity that accompanies maturity that I would eventually begin to understand her, though I wished she had been able to discuss these things with me and help me through my own insecurities.
I know I certainly did not feel comfortable in my own skin, although when I was also in the midst of an awkward adolescence I felt particularly unattractive. On a trip to Singapore to visit family when I was a teenager, I was amazed by whitening creams and eyelid treatments being readily available at department stores. My biracial eyes took on different traits throughout my high school years—sometimes appearing more Asian with what is called a monolid; other times a more European shape with creases. Throughout that time they would sometimes not even match each other, and it seemed as if my DNA couldn’t figure out who or what I was supposed to be, adding to my discomfort and lack of confidence.
Indeed I did fantasize about being more white, having been surrounded by white people and culture, and much closer in proximity to my father’s side of the family, whom we visited much more frequently. I grew up idolizing white film stars and models, coveting and assigning a higher value to their features. In school other girls dated frequently and had boyfriends already, and I believed that I was too weird-looking to attract anyone. It was embarrassing to be different, and I craved acceptance.
Though my girlish crushes and celebrity fantasies were white, my first kiss was a Mexican classmate, and the first boy who asked for my phone number was African-American. He worked at the local movie theater, and one time I noticed him looking at me while I hung out with friends. The next time I went to the movies, he approached me and asked for my number, and I obliged. He was cute and I was thrilled for the attention.
As luck would have it, and in the time of landlines, my mom picked up the phone when the boy called. I was in the bathroom. Sounding irritated, she called my name and came to the door—I knew already who it was. As I came out, gripped with nervousness, she gave me a suspicious look, covered the receiver with her palm and hissed in an accusatory tone: “Is he black?!” I returned her haughty gaze with a wounded glance, shook my head and rolled my eyes, and grabbed the phone from her. I spoke with the boy that day, but we never met up.
Later as years went by, I’d call my parents with excitement whenever I had a new boyfriend, but my mom’s first question would be “Is he black?” Her second would be “Is he Mexican?” I wished she’d ask how well he treated me, or what we had in common, instead of the color of his skin.
Although she herself was in an interracial marriage, my mom was biased against my partners. I don’t believe she garnered full-on hatred toward any other race, but she did have major prejudices, especially when it came to her daughter’s romantic life. I found it peculiar when she once told me that marrying my dad was a symbol of prestige where she came from.
She’d been engaged to a Chinese man before meeting my father, but that first fiancé died in a plane accident, after which she discovered he’d been cheating on her with several of her friends. It was one of the only personal stories she ever told me, matter-of-factly, and though she hid her emotions about that, I wonder if she’d partly married my dad to escape him. I can surmise that her own father had been a similar type, with the only thing I really learned about him being a family legend repeated with chagrin any time the subject of him came up — he was a gynecologist who had divorced my grandmother to wed a younger woman, leaving his children and their mother behind.
As I neared college age, I began hearing about “the Asian fetish”. I didn’t quite grasp its sexual or derogatory nature at first, but it became a ticket to embracing my heritage and unique appearance. That, and the music videos for David Bowie’s “China Girl” and Prince’s “The Most Beautiful Girl In The World”. I grabbed on to the welcome idea that there were men out there who valued Asian women, and that made me feel better about being one. The concept of this fetish now provokes a level of scorn within me for its commodification of my heritage, and assumptions about my body, even after I accepted it from a handful of immature romantic or sexual partners along the way.
Similarly, I also remember once being called “exotic” with adoration by an older woman who was a co-worker, which helped me feel content in my uniqueness at that time, but the concept wore off when it that word began to feel like a cheap compliment. I soon learned that I could tell if a man was attracted to me by how quickly he’d ask my “nationality” — to which I’d quip with a deadpan tone: “I’m American”. I’d be much more apt to talk with him if he used the correct terms “ethnicity”, “heritage”, or “background”. The thrill of believing I was actually sought after for my alternative appearance quickly gave way to the upset of being typecast and stereotyped.
Through these experiences I discovered that I didn’t want anyone to accept or reject me based solely on my appearance, and I especially didn’t want to do that to myself. Eventually I found inner strengths and confidence that had nothing to do with looks. I began to appreciate my East-West mixed blood in tandem with my skin color and mixed features. Being made up of two halves of what often felt like opposite extremes, I realized I could understand and relate to both. I often have opinions that contradict themselves, as I can always see both (or many) sides to an issue. I may not be as fair-skinned on the outside as I once wished to be, but I am fair-minded on the inside with regards to my often-varied viewpoint. Because of my experience being biracial, I see and feel things that others may not. Because of my difficulties in accepting myself, I now accept others more easily and extend empathy toward them for their struggles.
I have empathy for my mother, who endured many trials leaving home and the security of autonomy to live under scrutiny and bias in a new land that was founded on diversity yet is not always accepting; and for my father, who undoubtedly faced both criticism and crude jokes at his choice of a partner. I have empathy for fellow mixed-race people, as well as for narrow-minded racists. I have empathy for anyone who’s ever felt out of place in their own skin, in their own neighborhood. I have empathy for my self, who once thought that having been born one way or another could have possibly defined her identity or made her life better. Her naive beliefs were the result of many outside forces out of her control. But now she has the power to control her mind, her body, her attitude and her heart. She is forgiven.
Let’s forgive others, too. Read:
Prescription for the Removal of the Tumor Called Hate