Long before I could understand what “identity” is or what it would mean to me, I would often get asked, “What are you?”. I was uncomfortable with the question when I was in elementary school, and I am still uncomfortable with the question now at the age of nineteen. Though today I am more confident in my ethnic makeup and racial identity, it has always been the phrasing of the question that makes me feel uneasy.
Here is a “brief” history of my background that will hopefully give some insight into my identity confusion. My Mum was born and raised in Diego Martin, Trinidad and immigrated to NYC to attend university. Because my Granny was born in Hoboken, NJ, she had an American passport which permitted my Mum to obtain one, when she moved to the U.S. My Grandpa is a Trinidad native who met my Granny when they both went to college in NYC. My grandparents are both of Chinese descent and my Granny grew up on Henry Street in Chinatown. My great-grandparents are Chinese and moved to Trinidad as indentured laborers in the 1850s, after slavery was abolished. So, my Mum identifies as Trinidadian-Chinese.
As for my Dad’s side of the family, it’s white as hell. My Dad was born and raised in Antwerp, Belgium and moved to New York City when he was 21, where he met my Mum. My Bomma (grandmother in Flemish) was born in Brussels, Belgium and my Bompa (grandfather) was born in Antwerp, Belgium. My great-grandparents were all also from Belgium. Because my Dad is Belgian, I was able to obtain Belgian citizenship too.
Okay, back to my identity crisis…
I have always felt uncomfortable with my identity. Physically, I was always one of the tallest people in my class up until high school. In dance class, I never felt like any of the other girls who had slim, petite bodies and could be easily picked up for dance routines. I was often in the back or side during choreography, so I wouldn’t block other girls from being seen. I felt like I would tower over my friends, and today at 5’8”, I still slouch terribly when talking to someone. I often felt like I had no one to relate to in terms of body image or what was an acceptable size for girls my age. I was somewhat conscious of my Asian heritage and knew that I didn’t look like most of my classmates. I could count my Asian friends on one hand growing up in South Orange/Maplewood, NJ.
Flashback to first grade, when I got on the wrong bus home at the end of the school day. At the time, I had been taking the bus to school for a year with the same people, so there really shouldn’t have been much confusion. At 3:15 p.m. we dashed out the school’s main entrance towards our school buses. Each yellow school bus looked the same – worn, red leather seats and old seat belt buckles that were smooshed in the creases of the seats because everyone refused to wear them. This day was different. Little Margaux made it onto the bus headed towards a local synagogue where Hebrew school was held. I knew that my family had celebrated Catholic holidays, so how did I end up on this bus? During roll call for the bus, my name didn’t end up getting called (duh), and I was taken off the bus by my teacher who believed I was mistakenly on the bus. She said, “Margaux, you’re not Jewish! That bus is going to the synagogue!” Sadly, I now realize that my confusion of getting onto this bus was because I was infatuated with a Jewish boy called CJ at the time. Shout out to CJ for making me think I was supposed to be on the bus to Hebrew school. The teacher guided me towards my correct bus, and off I was back to my neighborhood. I knew that she had met my parents from events like “Back to School Night” and parent-teacher conferences, but I doubted that religion ever came up in their meetings. No one in my family wears rosary or a cross, or anything that could signify a relationship with religion, so how did my teacher come to this conclusion? She assumed. That was the first distinct memory of when someone assumed my identity based on their own judgments.
The next time was third grade, when I got eyeglasses. Boy, was my eyesight bad! Despite this, I refused to wear my blue wire glasses in class. Mind you, I sat in the way back of the classroom, and my eyeballs were practically begging me to stop straining them all year. I kept my glasses hidden away in the back of my desk like a little secret. I didn’t want to be the “Asian nerd” that I saw on TV with glasses. I now understand this as an indirect suppression of my Asian identity. In a Pew Research Center survey, they concluded that “A quarter of white and Asian biracial adults say that, at some point, they have tried to look or behave a certain way to influence how people thought about their race.” When my teacher called on me to answer a math problem, I was puzzled. Not just because math was not my strong suit, but because I couldn’t see the damn blackboard. I voluntarily embarrassed myself after she asked me which operation to use for the problem, even after she pointed to the symbol. It made me feel so dumb. It wasn’t until the last few days of the class that I decided to start wearing my glasses. It was only because my white friend, Peyton, started to wear her new glasses that this somehow translated to me that it was “okay” for me to wear mine too.
Now, I’m eight, walking around the American Girl store in Rockefeller Plaza in December. It was the year I finally convinced my parents to buy me an American Girl doll for Christmas. It seemed like most girls, whose families could afford the hefty $100 price tag, had one. I thought I had to have one. There I was staring at the “Just Like You” doll collection. These American Girl dolls were different. They were supposed to look like us, young, little girls. But, American Girl didn’t have me in mind when making these dolls. I pointed at the doll with blonde hair and blue eyes. This doll was the farthest from what I look like. I have brown eyes, dark brown hair and a complexion other than fair, like this doll had. They didn’t have any remotely Asian looking dolls, but they did have black dolls. They also have historical dolls which do represent characters of color. American Girl doesn’t assign a particular race to any of their dolls but it can be implied by skin tone for many. My parents nagged me for what felt like a thousand times, “Are you SURE you want this doll?” “Yes!” I exclaimed back at them, each time. Blinded by how their apprehension was rooted in concern, I still wanted this expensive, white-ass doll— a representation of what whitewashed media told me to aspire to be. I only played with that doll a handful of times.
When middle school rolled around, I was still as confused as ever about my identity. However, I was sure that I was white and Asian with Trinidadian roots. In my sixth grade U.S. history class, a girl abruptly asked me, “What are you?” I uncomfortably laughed in response. This wouldn’t be the last time I would be confronted with this question. I was confused; “what” am I? What did she mean by this? It felt like I was an animal in a cage being pointed at and the spotlight was switched on. Another girl at our table chimed in, “Aren’t you like, 100% Italian or something?” I also thought this was weird. How odd it is for people to assume your identity — telling you what you are or aren’t as though identity is solely based on physicality. I quietly told them I was Belgian and Chinese, hoping no one would inquire about the latter. For once, I was saved by the teacher who started the lesson.
On the other hand, while I have grown up being hyper aware of race and ethnicity other than European white, many of my classmates probably had not. One of my closest friends, Maya, was the only person whom I was able to confide in about our biracial identities. She grew up a block away from me and we took the same bus to elementary school everyday (I wonder if she knew I was missing that day I got on the bus to Hebrew school). Similarly, her mother is also Trinidadian but is black and her father is white. Though U.S. News reported that my high school was 59% minority enrollment, it seemed too often we vented to each other about how unaware or offensive our white classmates and staff acted towards people of color.
It’s not unusual for people, especially children, to be curious about one’s background or cultural roots. In my own experience, identity becomes trickier to explain when you’re multiracial. Sometimes, the answer you give people isn’t enough or what they were expecting. People expect that because I’m Asian that my Mum must be from China. It is unfair and naive of me to assume that everyone was raised to be aware and respectful of other peoples’ religions, ethnicities, cultures, languages and so forth. If you’ve grown up in a bubble where everyone is one race, more or less looks the same, and has roughly the same values, then it’s no wonder you may go around believing this is how the rest of the world is. I will admit to growing up in my own bubble where multi-ethnic diversity has become my norm. That is why I am so “shocked” when I travel outside my hometown or New York City and can count the people of color on one hand. However, chances are that you are privileged enough to have access to news and the internet and you can see that the U.S. (and the world for that matter) is not one color, religion, orientation, or language.
In the years to come, I would be told how “white” I look by some and how “exotic” it was that I was mixed. Though I don’t identify as being more Asian than white or vice versa, it would be wrong to pretend as though being white in passing is not a privilege. Then high school came around, where people were even more interested in each other’s identities and backgrounds. I think that as teenagers develop a stronger sense of personal identity, they become more curious of others. We want to know, how can we relate to our peers? What have they experienced or understood that I haven’t? People would say my eyes were “chinky” when attempting to say they looked small and Asian. In 2015, Pew Research Center conducted a study, The Multiracial Experience, and found that 55% of participants were subjected to jokes or slurs because of their racial background. At what point are “jokes” no longer jokes and rather a tool of oppression and silencing? I often found myself wanting to speak out, but I couldn’t find my voice and didn’t feel like I was “enough” of a person of color to matter. People would laugh when I said I had Trinidadian roots; they assumed that because my mom was Chinese, there was no way that an Asian person could have a West Indian nationality.
I remember sitting at the cafeteria tables with my classmates and always feeling like I had to hide my lunch. It wasn’t anything particularly “strange” or smelly, but it wasn’t what my peers were eating. I grew up eating a European style breakfast and lunch with lots of jam, cheese, bread, chocolate and spreads. Eating Belgian chocolate sprinkle sandwiches was my normal.
I tried to train myself to enjoy a Smucker’s Uncrustables, but it just wasn’t gonna happen. My Mum was not packing me a PB&J sandwich with Lay’s potato chips like I had seen my friends eating. She was very confused and grossed out when my brother and I asked her to buy us the overly processed (and obviously tasty) Cosmic Brownies. I didn’t understand how she couldn’t see that we wanted them to fit in with other kids, but I also couldn’t see the cultural barriers that we were confronting.
I feel more connected to Trini culture than to Chinese culture. I grew up eating homemade pelau and stew chicken, and the closest to Chinese traditions we celebrated was the Lunar New Year, going out for dim-sum and playing Mahjong with extended family.
When I’m in Belgium walking around with my brother and Mum, we don’t look like my dad’s side of the family. Despite it being 2017, my Mum and I still got stares as we walked to the bathroom at a rest stop. Interracial marriage, what a concept! (*Gasp!*) It is important to remember though that in the U.S., interracial marriage was illegal until 1967. Throughout our trip in Belgium and France this summer, my brother, Mum, and I would often take note of the lack of people of color in certain areas. It seemed the farther away we drove from major cities, the more heads we turned.
I don’t look like my white, Belgian side of the family. I don’t look Chinese enough to be considered a “real Asian” to many. I don’t feel like a part of the Caribbean community because I’ve been told I don’t act or look like it.
However, I think that part of understanding your identity is knowing that the boxes that may exist around it are not necessarily ones you have to subscribe to. I don’t have to look or act a certain way to believe I am part of a community or culture that reminds me of my family and home. Identity is only as exclusive or limiting as you let others tell you it should be. Sometimes it feels as though I am obsessed with race and identity, but it has also been such a big part of my experience growing up that it’s impossible to ignore. When far too many negative things are racially charged on a day-to-day basis for most people of color, it’s not something we can ignore. I can be white and Asian and embrace my Trinidadian roots. I can be Chinese and be just as Belgian. So when someone asks, “What are you?”, I reply with, “All of the above.”
Gif by Ashlie Negron