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When You Don't Fit Into a "Race" Box

The “race” question in the demographics section of any questionnaire always leaves me stumped.

The other questions are straightforward enough. How old are you? What is your marital status? Highest level of completed education? But when I get to the section that asks What is your race/ethnicity?, I am usually faced with the following options:

  • Asian/Pacific Islander
  • Black/African-American
  • Caucasian/White
  • Hispanic
  • Indigenous/aboriginal
  • Latino
  • Other

Only occasionally do I have the option of “two or more races,” and even more occasionally do I get to check off more than one box to indicate just what races I claim in my title of “two or more races.” Often, I just end up checking off “other.”

I fall in the category of bi-racial, technically, being half-Asian and half-white (ethnically, I’m half-Chinese and half-American). Sometimes I debate over just checking off “Caucasian/White” or “Asian/Pacific Islander” and leaving it at that, but then that raises the question of consistency on the off-chance someone were ever to audit all the surveys I’ve answered in my life (“Why were you Caucasian one day and Asian the next?”). When I took the PSATs years ago, I asked my proctor if I could check off more than one box. He said no, I had to pick just one. “What, you mean pick whether or not I relate more to my mother’s side or my father’s side? Like, pit one parent against the other?” He raised his eyebrows at me and rolled his eyes. I ended up checking off “other.”

It’s not just in menial survey questions that I struggle with how to relate to both sides of my heritage. To my American friends I’m Chinese, and to my Chinese friends I’m American. I’m the one my American friends will go to for questions about Chinese food or how to use chopsticks, but my Chinese friends would laugh at the thought of me being an expert on those topics. (For the record, I am the first to admit that I don’t hold chopsticks correctly. You’re never supposed to cross them, and I sometimes do. Oops.) I’m the one my Chinese friends will ask about American pop culture, but amongst my American friends, we joke about how I’m a “pop culture void” because I have zero knowledge about the majority of references that most Americans grew up with.

I was raised and have studied in both the US and China/Hong Kong. I have family in both places. I speak both languages. I try to celebrate the culture of both sides of my heritage: Christmas is as important to me as Chinese New Year, Thanksgiving as Mid-Autumn Festival. I’ll wear my favorite ancient Chinese coin necklace to match my Pandora charm bracelet. My closet has both a qipao and a little black dress. I’m as happy eating a bowl of steaming wonton noodles in soup as I am baked macaroni and cheese. I love that I have two heritages, two cultures to learn from. I wouldn’t change it for the world, and I’m fortunate that even as a child, I never felt insecure about identifying as being Chinese in my American schools, or American in my Chinese school.

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