What Are You?

Two things happened in the past few days that have made me stop and think about my racial background. 

First, a college classmate of mine contacted me.  It took several very-unrelated steps to reconnect us after college and then start a conversation which gave him occasion to ask me about being racially mixed. 

He and I were on a project design team our senior year in college.  He is a Caucasian man married to a Chinese woman.  I ran into him, his wife, and their baby at a very busy Mandarin Kitchen while eating dim sum several months ago which prompted us to connect on Facebook.  I recently had the opportunity to ride a dirt bike at the Kellogg Motocross track near Kellogg, MN.  My old classmate commented on the picture of me riding because he works in Plainview, MN (the nearest town) and passes the track on the way to work.  Kind of interesting we would end up being so close to each other somewhere so far from where we originally meet. 

It was this conversation about dirt bikes and Kellogg that gave him the opportunity to ask me about race.  His children will all be half Chinese and half Caucasian, Hapas just like me.  He wanted to know if I ever experienced anything negative because I am mixed and if there was anything he could tell his kids to help them.  Well, umm, if that isn’t a topic slightly outside the scope of a Facebook message. 

I did my best to answer him in a few points that have been most defining for me in regards to my racial heritage, but it was difficult because I have spent quite a bit of time thinking about my heritage and how it has effected me and ways it has manifested itself that I did not realize until much later.  The Mojo Monster always say, “Don’t get me started!” when she starts talking about subjects that get her really worked up and cause her to rant on and on.  Well, this is one of those “Don’t get me started!” topics for me. 

So after having to think hard about all of the aspects of my multicultural heritage and trying to edit them down to a few sentences in a Facebook message, I see an article about the Bamboo Curtain.  It was about how cultural traits of Asians and Asian Americans often do not align with the common American perception of a good leader.  The mislabeling of these cultural traits as weaknesses has led to Asians and Asian Americans being underrepresented in upper level positions in American companies. 

It was a very interesting article.  And particularly relevant as I have been struggling with my personal style of communicating and interacting with people and the apparent incompatibility of my style and “the way” to get ahead in this world: networking.  I don’t want to force myself to be someone I’m not, or uncomfortable all the time, in order to effectively network in the conventional sense, but I also want to succeed and leverage my strengths and connections.  It has been a struggle, but didn’t necessarily associate my communication style with my Asian American heritage. 

But I am thinking about it now.  A lot.  There is so much about being multicultural and multiracial that has defined me, and I have been fortunate enough to always have known how much of an asset it is to me and how special and unique it has made me.  There have been a lot of times that I have felt like the odd one out or left out or stuck in the middle or obligated to embrace one side or the other.  But I’ve never been bullied or felt discriminated against. 

The most common interaction I have with strangers about my race is being asked, “What are you?”  The cheeky, defensive answer that the multiracial people who came before me used was “I am human.”  I usually want to engage people about it so I turn the question around and ask them what they think I am.  It makes most people very uncomfortable and usually helps them realized how tactless asking in that manner is and produces a lot of interesting answers, but starts a conversation which is really the best approach to take to any racial situations.  Conversations lead to education which leads to cultural sensitivity if not understanding.  I have been mistaking for everything: Middle Eastern, Native American, Latin American, Mediterranean, everything.  I like to identify as “ambiguously ethnic.”

Oh, I am stuck all over again with so much to say on the topic while trying to limit my ramblings.  There is the story of my self-segregating birthday party where all of my Asian friends hung out in the kitchen making potstickers and all of my white friends hung out by the keg drinking beer and I was stuck running between the two.  There is the story of all the white, Midwestern boys I’ve dated and different culture I have introduced to their lives and families.  There is my fear of being hit on because I have the appeal of both the “Exotic Other” but also with the familiarity of a Midwestern American instead of the cultural differences.  There is the story of my association with food and love and getting mad when people didn’t eat the food I gave them because they just weren’t hungry but I heard that as “I don’t love you.”  That my communication style – think, reflect, and then speak – might have been influenced by my stoic Chinese father.  That I have Hapa radar, get really excited when I see Hapa children, and always want to tell their parents, “Hey, you’re kids are going to look like me when they grow up!”  That I didn’t realize I was different from other white kids until I was a teenager, and then I shot to the extreme other side and only identified as Chinese for several years. 

So many stories that I will save for the next time something gets me started!

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