What is an Identity?

In the course of my life I have been thought of as White American, North Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Tibetan, Korean, Filipino, and even Kazakhstani. Depending on where I am, what I am wearing, or what language I am speaking, others assume my identity. Even after I clarify that I am actually a mix, half-white/half-Hong-Kong-Chinese, people tend to look at me suspiciously as if I would lie. “But are you sure you are not….?” or “But where are you really from?” The initial snap judgements people make have a more lasting impact on their perception of you then any clarification that you can offer later.

My explanation tends to get more convoluted as I patiently explain that while I am an American citizen, I am also a Third Culture Kid. As the confused looks mount, I go through my shopping list of homes: Hong Kong, Calcutta, Taipei, Beijing, New Delhi, Virginia, Chennai, and Manila, all before turning eighteen. Then I say that I am fluent in English and Cantonese, with some passable Mandarin and a handful of phrases in Hindi, Tamil, and Tagalog. At this point many people do not know what to think and instead just simplify me into a neat little title of their choosing.

I have had more disappointed looks leveled my way by people who are shocked, even a little angry, that I do not speak my “heritage” language. Never mind the fact that I am not even a little Korean or Thai or Tibetan. On the flip side, when I do try to speak a little bit of the language, I am praised for sounding completely native even though I am probably mangling the pronunciation just as much as the next foreigner. Clothing is also an effective form of camouflage whenever I want to fit in. It is amazing what wearing a sari or a Tibetan chupa will do to alter how people act towards me. I cease to be an outsider and am instead just one of the masses. It is almost like a super power. I belong to nowhere so I can belong everywhere.

I have been called the Asian one in the group. I have also been teased for being a gui mui (a somewhat derogatory term for white girls in Cantonese) and for having an adorable accent. During high school one of my very international friends, who had grown up in India, started calling me “chink” and “chinky” as if it were a sweet pet name. Needless to say we had words and that particular epithet was dropped. A significant other took to introducing me as his Filipino girlfriend, when that was the country where I had lived in the least. I have also been told that I would make a spendid wife because, “Japanese women can cook well and are subservient.” Stereotype after stereotype has been placed on me and yet, when I fight back, people just shake their heads at me like I am a quaint, confused little child.

I detest labels that are too broad. They are completely useless at conveying anything meaningful or worthwhile. Asian is one of those labels. It needs to have some sort of qualification like Asian American or East Asian or South Asian. I make it a point to never refer to anyone from any country of Africa as African since there are individual countries that speak more to their culture than a broad term that sweeps them all into one category. In fact, there are some groups within each country that would rather identify themselves as a tribal entity rather than a national one. Likewise with Asian. There is such a diversity of experience that it seems to cheapen a person’s identity by lumping them in with a mix of ethnicities that have nothing to do with their own life.

I personally do not identify as Asian American since this identity does not acknowledge my mixed heritage. In fact, the only time I refer to myself as Asian is when I am joking with friends who likewise identify as Asian. They are Indian, Hong Konger, Mainland Chinese, any country in Southeast or East Asia, and even white people who have lived most of their life in a country in Asia. All identities are fluid and mine more than most.

I am a supporter of whatever a person chooses to label themselves. I have had too many people try to tell me who I am and how I should speak or act. However, I do admit to attempting to appropriate other people for my own ends. The President of the United States, Barack Obama, is someone who I would call a mix and a TCK. He is half-black, half-white and he grew up in numerous places including Indonesia. Yet the news broadcasts him as “black” and the detractors say that he is not really American, as if being born in Kenya would make him less of a citizen.

If ever that comes up in conversation when I explain my TCK-ness, I answer with this response, “I respresented you as an American abroad.” I am a diplo-brat (a United States State Department officer’s daughter) and as such I was the official face of what an American is. I am a multi-cultural, (hopefully) intelligent human being who applauds diversity, hard work, and innovation. Half of my heritage is a first generation Asian immigrant and half makes me a Daughter of the Revolution. It is useless trying to peg me as one more than the other, although people tend to skew more towards the Asian based on my appearance. I have an equal number of genes on each side while my twenty-five years of cultural experience is pretty split between eight-and-a-half solid years in the U.S. and the rest scattered around different areas of Asia and then the Middle East.

Identities help place us in the world. While we are being taught that labels do not, should not matter, a movement that I agree with, the reality is that this ideal fails in practice. We are such a complex, diverse global community that is still divided by ethnic, racial, religious, and national boundaries. There are still so many people who believe that to belong to a certain country you have to look a certain way. In China I was stopped at passport control and questioned for not having a Chinese name regardless that my passport was from the U.S.  The United States especially has this odd double standard where people will proudly trace their heritage to the “old country” while condemning others who wear a more ambiguous heritage on their faces.

The current controversy that deals with this issue is the Coca-Cola commercial “America the Beautiful.” For a country of immigrants, where it actually says “e pluribus unum” on the U.S. seal, it is shocking and upsetting how large an uproar has emerged from this advertisement which supports unity. The ad plays the classic song in a number of languages; all groups of people who identify as American and who are a part of this culture. One of the women singing is actually a Native American who, in a later interview, accurately points out that her people were the first Americans. It is terrifying to see the ways in which people have responded, the least of which are those responses which reveal their absolute ignorance. A group of people thought that this was the American anthem. They were protesting a song for being “not American enough” while not even knowing their own national anthem.

On the flip side, I think that as a culture and a nation we are moving forward. Despite the backlash against the commercial, there was an even greater protest against the backlash. This is important for America as a whole since we will only become more mixed and more diverse as time goes on. Recognizing that the “other” that you see on TV might one day become a part of your family is the first step in embracing inclusion. Additionally, the internet and the sheer amount of individual voices that have flourished online has allowed more people to express themselves on a public platform. There are more writers detailing their life experiences across racial boundaries. There are humorous Youtube videos that challenge the question “But where are you really from?” There are posts on all social media networks which vocally discuss nationality, patriotism, and ethnic identity. Our world is already shifting and it is important to continue to push issues of race and nationality into the public sphere.

I am multiplicity of ethnicities, races, and nationalities. And that is okay, arguably normal even. In our increasingly globalized community, strict barriers delineating each cultural nuance will hopefully start to crumble. Keeping an Asian household, i.e., taking shoes off before going into a home, might just fade away and instead we might just say that it is a shoe-less house. Japanese/Asian subservience will morph with southern hospitality to become just hospitable: full stop. While stereotypes and judgements based on appearance will not go away any time soon, it is promising that we are already making progress.

I do not think that every cultural practice should be de-ethnicized. I am hoping that pointing out the similarities in habits across cultures will help us find commonality in our practices. This commonality will hopefully lead to further understanding and would in turn support the tearing down of certain stereotypes. There are plenty of aspects of Asian culture that should be celebrated as distinct and culturally significant but I think that while people focus on the loudest, most mundane, or even insulting stereotypes, a fuller understanding of Asian culture as a whole will be limited.

To this goal of understanding, I would like to see people listen more when their initial assumptions are challenged. If someone disagrees with how you have labeled them, maybe take a second to assume that they know themselves pretty well. No matter how complicated, no matter varied, everyone has the right to label themselves. Asian, Asian American, American, Mixed, or any other variation has just as much right to be respected and heard. Who knows, you might just learn something new.

By Cecilia Haynes, Contributor
United States of America

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