I will never forget the time in my second period high school biology class when my teacher looked me directly in the eyes and asked “What Asian are you? Chinese? Japanese? I can’t tell.” My faced burned with shame as I tried to explain in front of the entire class that I was a mix of two cultures, the product of two parents born across the Pacific ocean form each other.
My entire life I’ve straddled the line between two continents, living as a morph of two cultures that are as different as apples and oranges, but that blend together in a Thanksgiving with both the traditional turkey and pancit, a Filipino noodle dish. My 5’8” frame towers over my grandmother on my mother’s side and my stick-straight, dark black hair failed to stay in the braids that my white friends attempted to place on my head.
I have been faced many times with choices that force me to choose one side of my heritage or the other. I remember on standardized tests, I’d raise my hand and timidly ask whether I should mark the “Asian” bubble or the “Caucasian” bubble, to which the teacher would reply “Just pick whichever one you want, I don’t think it matters.” Little did she know, it did matter. I was struggling to identify with either side and felt as though I was betraying one parent by choosing the race of the other. My darker skin would stand out in pictures against the paleness of my cousins on one side of my family, but on the other side, I would sit in the middle of conversations that were completely in Tagalog or Bisaya and nod along as I caught the odd English word.
Since that time in my life, tests have begun to include a “mixed” bubble. I was lucky enough to be surrounded by a larger amount of diversity in high school and now in college which created an environment that allowed me to create and form my own personal identity. It was heartbreaking to realize that I was trying to squeeze myself into a box for so long and felt obligated to categorize myself as one or the other. Instead of embracing and exploring who I was as an individual, I rejected my heritage and minimized the significance of my cultural identity. I truly believed that I was stuck in the middle between two sides that were irreconcilable. Slowly, I began to surround myself with people who could relate to my struggle and listened to others perspectives on their own racial identities. I began to come into my own and formulate my own thoughts and opinions. I was timid at first, but, with time, felt comfortable sharing my side of the story.
Thankfully, I’ve learned many things since that point. There is no “right way” to discover your identity. There are no specified steps, no manual to tell you how it’s done. It truly is an introspective process that you and you alone can determine. It’s a continuous journey that I’m still on today, and despite the difficulty, it is important to remember that you are what you define yourself to be regardless of what other people think.