Guest Post by Melinda Frank
“I thought you were Dutch–you’re Indonesian?”
“I thought you were Irish–you’re Dutch?”
“Wait, you’re white and Asian?”
“What are you anyways?”
I hate answering the question “What are you,” because in my experience, that question always overshadows the more meaningful question of “Who are you?”
So let’s get it out of the way now. What am I? I am a born and raised Midwestern girl. My mom is Indonesian, and my dad is of German/Irish descent. Our upper-middle-class suburb is predominantly Caucasian, with an Asian population of less than 5%. There were exactly two (and a half, if you count my family) Asian families in my neighborhood. But somehow, I always distanced myself from them: I wasn’t fully Asian, so I had a hard time fully identifying with the Chinese families in our neighborhood. As a Hapa, I was hovering over the definitive racial lines present in my community.
My race doesn’t define me, however. I am also a college student, bookworm, crafter, and friend. And a lot of the time, I find myself wishing people would ask questions that get to know who I am rather than just asking what I am. Racial identification has been a struggle in my life from an early age. Long summer days in the summer sun left me extremely tan, and I remember being asked what race I was when I was eight or nine years old. When people first look at me, the first thing they try to do is figure out what I am.
For most of my life, I’ve been a part of a strange racial guessing game that I’ll call “What the Heck Are You Anyway?” Most of the time it only takes about 10 minutes before a new acquaintance becomes a contestant. Guesses include anything from Hawaiian to Brazilian, Korean to Native American. Because I do not have Asian eyes, people have always had a hard time placing me.
In fact, one of my closest college friends simply assumed I was Indian. After a few rounds of “What the Heck Are You Anyway,” my friend finally began to understand why I respond with “It’s complicated.” People just cannot seem to grasp that sometimes other people cannot fit neatly into their own racial boxes. It disrupts some presumed universal order and makes people uncomfortable when the people they meet cannot be limited to one culture or race. I cannot speak for monoracial Asians, but for those of us who are Asian and something else, it is difficult to convey our heritage to people who are trying to put us into a box.
It seems like I have lived a lifetime of identity crisis in my 22 years of life. As a Hapa, I’ve struggled with defining my racial identity and quite honestly, I had never heard the term before coming to college. I just considered myself a racial blend.
One of the defining moments of my struggle to answer the question “What are you” was the college application process. I remember sitting there in front of a computer screen asking my mom which box to check under the racial category. When I was younger, the answer was easy- I’m white, I said. Because who knows where Indonesia is? Answer: not very many elementary students. Then middle school came, and I began to understand a bit more the implications that race had on my life. Specifically, I began to actually experience the discomfort that comes from being a person of mixed race. So I started to explain, in simplistic terms- my mom is Indonesian, my dad’s white. However, this left out the Dutch, English, Irish and German roots that also contribute to my ethnic makeup.
Fast forward to junior year of high school, however, and here it was- years of questioning coming to a close in a few tidy boxes. And with that, I checked the Asian, Caucasian, and Pacific Islander boxes- and I haven’t looked back since.
Racial discomfort comes from the feelings that are brought on by being a truly melted individual in America’s melting pot. We struggle with our mixed-race status as we all continually work on balancing our American and ethnic cultures. Which brings us back to the questions of “What are you?” and “Who are you?” I am still struggling to acknowledge, accept, and own my mixed race status. But one of the most important lessons I have learned from my experiences as a Hapa is the importance of knowing who you are and where you came from. The importance of trying to get to know who others are which can only be accomplished by looking past the stereotypes and seeing the person. It is who we are, not what we are that defines us- our ethics, actions, personality, and character.
Next time somebody joins me for a round of “What The Heck Are You Anyway,” perhaps I will give a simplistic answer. Or maybe, just maybe, I’ll continue to explain what makes me unique, giving a voice to those of us who feel left out or trapped between the lines of racial identity. Next time I have to fit into somebody else’s racial box, I’ll break that box wide open and introduce them to me, Melinda, because I’m not just my race, I’m me.
Melinda Frank is a college senior studying history and communications and enjoys reading, “Friends” reruns, and family bonding. She blogs at Growing Up Ethnic.