It took me until I was twelve to realize it.
I was at junior high and my mom came to help out at an event. When my classmate saw her, he whispered to me:
“I didn’t know your mom was Chinese.”
I didn’t know either.
(Hey, Mom. Apparently, you’re Chinese.)
That was the first time it dawned on me.
Or to be more precise, I’m half-Asian, half white. My parents are American. But also, Mom is of Korean descent and Dad is a mix of Scottish, Hungarian, Irish, etc. etc.
Fast-forward to high school. My friend and I decide to write a novel together. I suggest that the main character be biracial. Like, half-white-half-black. Or, half-white-half-Indian. Or—
“No,” my friend says. “Let’s just make her normal.”
Normal. Meaning non-white is not normal.
My friend inadvertently just introduced me to the concept of otherness.
Fast-forward to uni. I’m attending an event at the Poetry Foundation in Chicago. A biracial poet goes up to perform her poem. As she reads, she bites down on certain words:
And I think YES! That feeling of being not fully something. I’m not crazy after all. It’s a real feeling.
I felt it not long ago, actually. My friend was expressing to someone how diverse of a friend group he has. Then he gestured to me and said:
“Rachel’s half-Asian, half-American.”
If I had a bucket for every time someone called me half-American, I could collect enough water to drown a baby elephant.
But despite these frustrations and feelings, being sort of Asian has been a cake walk for me. Especially compared to others’ experiences of being not white. I had an American, upper-middle-class upbringing. I’ve never been discriminated against.
I also never feel like I qualify as an ethnic minority.
Can I even call myself Asian?
I ask my brother this over the phone. He says:
“Of course. Why not?”
“Well,” I say. “I can’t even speak Korean.”
The only time I feel like I can call myself Asian is when I meet someone who is Asian-American. Or “sort of” Asian, like me. I get to geek out about ojingeochae muchim and complain about the people who say I don’t “look” American.
The best part is, I get to talk about being in this in-between space. I don’t have to worry about them thinking that I have a victim mentality—as though it’s been SUCH a struggle being sort of Asian.
Because it hasn’t been. But they still understand how it feels.
I’ve realized that being in this in-between space means two things for me:
One: I will always have a heart for the Asian American community, for Koreans, and for those who are ethnic minorities.
Two: I can’t FULLY relate to any of them.
Like I said. I don’t speak Korean.
But I do know what it’s like to be considered not fully something. Not fully American. Not fully Asian. Not fully the norm. I have felt othered. I have felt as though someone were trying to figure out which box to put me in.
My dad says, “It’s not a problem unless you make it a problem.”
But at twenty-two years of age, I go further than not making it a problem. I don’t worry about trying to fit into “the Asian box.” Or “the white box.” If I do, then I’m just doing what the people who annoy me do: reduce myself to my race.
When I do think about it, I realize I’m happy to be who I am. Ethnically and culturally.
A white girl. And also an Asian girl.
One more thing: Happy Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month.