Part 1: Life at the crossroads of culture and race
I am often the topic of what I like to call racial roulette. This plays out one of two ways:
When someone meets me, they will start talking to me in Tagalog, Spanish, or another language they assume I speak. Or, my favourite of the two, the person will simply ask “Where are you from?” or “What are you?”
I’ve made this uncomfortable question into a game by telling them that I’m Canadian. If they’re still unsatisfied with my answer, I ask them to guess. No one likes this answer. The guessing game immediately puts people in an awkward position because the emotional labour is immediately placed back on them.
Being asked the question where are you from? is one of the most common microaggressions in the book. Initially limited to the experiences of African Americans, the term has since expanded to apply to other marginalized communities and captures more than a racial lens.
Journalist Hahna Yoon notes a paradox in microaggressions in her article: “The normalization of microaggressions is antithetical to a well-rounded society with equal opportunities for marginalized individuals.” In my formative years I picked up on this, confused by consistently being told my culture was celebrated, while people from my cultures were treated differently because of stereotypes.
As a mixed person, I would hear things about a person’s occupation based on their country of origin. My own mother was assumed to be my nanny when I was a child, just because she was Asian and I didn’t look like her. This made me wonder what I would be limited to based on how others saw me.
Unrecognizable, and therefore unseen
At 16, I was as excited as anyone else to start driving. My father refused to teach me, citing too much potential stress on both our ends, so he hired someone. I still remember getting into the passenger’s seat and saying hello only to be met with “Well, that’s not what I was expecting,” and then a quick, panicked addition of, “My wife is Thai,” from the white man who was my instructor.
As if he popped a balloon, my excitement drained out as I was reminded that I was a visible minority. In not meeting the expectation of my Persian first name and Irish last name, I learned that my name and my appearance didn’t go together.
So, what am I?
At the most basic: I’m Black and Asian. My father is from Trinidad (Afro Caribbean with a dash of Indian) and my mother is from Indonesia (she’s Chinese-ish). But if I had to identify myself, I’d say that I’m the quintessential Canadian – the country’s embodiment of multiculturalism.
Growing up, I often felt like a puzzle people were always trying to piece together. Too many times people would voice their thoughts as they tried to guess. “You don’t have Asian eyes” they’d say as they stared at me, or they’d exclaim “You’re so exotic!”
Being racially ambiguous also means hearing all the best racist hits. When I was visiting New York with my Asian friend, we stayed with her family. A tip her uncle gave us was that if we saw a Black man, we should cross the street. To this his wife quickly interjected, waving her hands frantically as she said that he should say African American, because that was what was wrong with the sentence.
I wasn’t always aware of my identity. Until I was eight, I grew up in an international community in Saudi Arabia. I was sheltered in a bubble, unaware of the outside world and what being Asian and Black might mean. This all quickly changed when my family moved to Canada.
I visited Indonesia every summer until I was eight. Spending so much time there made it feel like home. I grew up eating Indonesian food and it’s what I cook the most often nowadays, always keeping my stock of soy sauce, oyster sauce, tamarind, sambal, and kecap manis in check. I used to wear a snake pendant an Oma gave me, a reminder that I am intuitive, intelligent, and wise. And I was raised on Indonesian stories like Ramayana.
When my family moved to Vancouver, being surrounded by Asian faces made me feel at home. I recognized my family members in the faces around me.
But no one recognized me.
When I was in university, I’d often walk past community clubs and wonder if they’d accept me. Instead of walking up to the tables to join, I protected myself by never giving anyone a chance to question whether I was Asian or not. I had been burned too many times with the phrase You don’t look Asian always ringing in my head.
Feeling a closeness to a culture, but looking not of it left me with a strange cognitive dissonance. I was culturally more Asian than Black, and yet, I didn’t look like it, and was therefore not invited to Asian spaces.
Taking Stock of My Blackness
The move to Canada not only made me uncomfortable in my Asianness, it also heightened the awareness of my Blackness. Sometimes I wonder if my family had stayed in the artificial international community of Saudi Arabia, how long would it have taken me to realize I wasn’t Black?
There was nothing strikingly odd about my parents. Sure, my Mom was a bit short and my Dad was balding, but they were them, and I was me. However, in Canada because I wasn’t one thing or the other, I started being told that I couldn’t be who I had always been.
One day in high school, a classmate told me I wasn’t Black because I didn’t act like it. This was the first time I was made aware of my Blackness, or possibly lack thereof.
Being “Black” was never a discussion in my household. My father was too busy building his career and the topic wasn’t in my mother’s reach. Instead, they emphasized the importance of education. Conceptions of the world were drawn on intelligence and willingness to achieve my potential, not race.
So for the first time, I raised the issue with my father. “You’re not Black,” I told him, using the same language my friend had, hoping to catch a glimpse of what my response should have been. My father turned slowly and looked at me without reaction and simply asked what I meant. I explained what happened, then he asked if I thought I was Black.
“What do you think Black is?” he asked. When I said, “Not us,” he simply responded by saying, “Alright, I’m not Black.”
The three words sent me into an identity crisis far too much for a thirteen year old to handle. Laughing at my confusion, my father said the words that I carry forward with me in every situation:
“Listen, your friend doesn’t know what Black is. Don’t listen to him. I raised you to be a person, not a colour.”
Culturally Asian while presenting as Black
When people found out about my mixed identity, the stereotypes and expectations of me would increase. I was praised for being smart because I was Asian and given access to the mystique of being cool because I was Black, but always chided for the negative connotations of being Black, such as being labeled as “angry” if I was too vocal or outspoken.
I rarely carry the weight of being Asian, because on sight, I’m not immediately perceived as such. Being Black is where I bear the brunt of my discrimination.
The first time someone called me the N word it was jarring. I know exactly where I was when the verbal assault was lobbed at me from a stranger and I still remember how he looked at me, leaning his body into my space as we passed. Claiming I was Asian could not protect me at that moment. All I could do was keep walking, carrying myself away as fast as I could from the incident.
The decisions I make now as I walk through the world are to protect myself from further hurt. I move through the world frightened at times of being recognized as Black because it could get me killed. My partner makes our AirBnB reservations because he is white and therefore has no possibility of being denied. On the days my hair is flowing freely, I worry if it’s a flag that I’m Black and if my skin is light enough to seem non-threatening.
Likewise, because I present as Black, I also bear the responsibility of representation. I walk into every room determined to ensure that if I’m the only Black person that that a person will meet I am seen as put together, well mannered, and well spoken. But even this has complicated effects; the reward of hearing someone say “You’re so articulate” means not only that I succeeded but that in their head, Black people are not recognized as teachers, doctors, and scientists rather than athletes, musicians, or nannies.
The search for belonging
While I feel a deep connection to being Asian, I still feel like some days I have to fight for it because of what others see. And that’s the interesting thing about culture and race; so much of it is based on how you look.
Someone recently told me “you have the best of both worlds” – I really do. I just wish everyone saw it that way. I belong to two communities who each have had their part in shaping who I am. Although it’s made the question of identity complicated, I know it’s a gift that’s made me spend more time thinking about the things that keep us divided.
Ultimately, all this boils down to one thing: belonging. People have always searched for belonging and for minorities, belonging is especially important. To better understand the world around me, I decided to turn to history. I wanted to connect with the rich histories of both sides of my heritage and find answers. How did the communities before me find their space? And where, then, do I fit in?
This post is the first in a three part series. Part Two is available here.
Featured image provided by author.
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