“What are you exactly?”
Ahh. The all too familiar question I receive either from complete strangers or from friends who finally feel like they’ve known me long enough ask. To answer that exact question, I’m just like everyone else. I’m human! But I’ve learned that when someone asks me this, I should assume they are asking about my ethnic background. And even though most don’t mean anything offensive by that poor choice of wording, it still makes me feel like I’m the “other” or that they’re trying to fit me in one box. To answer the intended question, my mom is part Mexican part Spaniard while my dad is Khmer (Cambodian) and Chinese.
As if growing up wasn’t confusing as it already was, I was also constantly battling how I identified myself. There would be phases of my childhood when I was ashamed to be Hispanic and fully embraced my Asian side. Then there were times when I despised the Asian side of me and claimed only the Hispanic part. It’s alright feeling like you identify as one more than the other(s), but that wasn’t my problem. My problem was that I was always hating part of who I knew I already was. As someone who moved to a small town in Minnesota with a predominantly white population from a diverse area of Houston, TX, I faced different challenges depending where I was.
When growing up in Houston, it was always the struggle of being enough of my ethnicities. I was either not a “real Mexican” because I wasn’t a “full one” or because I didn’t speak Spanish. I would go home and watch a lot of Mexican novelas on Univision just so I could fit in and prove I was Mexican to my classmates. And sometimes I was told I wasn’t Asian enough because I didn’t speak Khmer or get the top grade in math. No matter where I was or who I was with, I was an outsider.
When I moved with my mother and older sister to rural Minnesota, it was a different situation. This time instead of trying to be enough Hispanic or enough Asian, I was spending all my energy to abandon both identities and be white. In my mind, to be white in small town, MN, was to be accepted. It seemed to be working because I was getting invited to sleepovers, parties, and people were even coming to my birthday parties. But it was still there. The racial remarks were still there. Although not directed at me, they could sometimes tell that it made me uncomfortable. They would then turn to me and say “Oh, but you’re not a full Asian (or Hispanic), so it doesn’t apply to you!”
So I resorted to smiling and laughing along with them. I chose not to make a scene out of fear of rejection and I just took it. I felt the intense need to fit in. And it wasn’t long until me being multiracial was used against me. When I got the top score in the grade for the state writing test, I was told that an Asian must have graded my paper. I was laughed at when I brought homemade salsa and fresh tamales to a potluck because then my “Hispanic side was coming out.” No matter how hard I tried to be white, I was always reminded that I wasn’t. I was different. In a small school with the majority being white, I stuck out like a sore thumb.
Soon enough I started wondering if sticking out is a good thing sometimes. Sure, I won’t always have the most pleasant experience when my race is brought up in conversations, but there is plenty good that comes out of it too. Sometimes people are just curious and want to learn more about something they’ve never known about before. Instead of trying to cover who I was or putting too much effort in being something instead of the other, I’ve learned to embrace who I am.
As I was discovering my inner feminist during junior year of high school, I was also finding joy in myself and the importance of intersectionality in feminism. The moment I chose to embrace every aspect of myself, I felt free. I’m not some quiet, submissive Asian you heard about on TV or lazy Hispanic. I’m not a pile of stereotypes. I’m unique. I no longer felt the need to hide the fact that I am Asian or Hispanic. I finally felt free to watch anime without being ashamed, eat tamales every Christmas, talk Spanglish at random times, grab the chopsticks instead of a fork, listen to Marco Antonio Solis or RBD, get good grades, talk obnoxiously loud, not be ashamed whenever my mom is talking in Spanish in public (or dad talking in Khmer), and let my dark, thick, curly hair flow freely. I’m grateful because I am free to be me. I was always free to be me.