What my best friend taught me about my own biracial identity
Today is National Best Friends Day! In honor of this very important holiday, we’re celebrating the wonderful lessons we’ve learned from our very own besties. Here, one reader shares her incredible story of friendship.
When Sydney and I met two years ago, I didn’t know immediately that she was half Asian or even multiracial. I just thought she was exceptionally friendly and we clicked. A mutual friend, who insisted we were scarily similar, introduced us after a particularly grueling session of hot yoga, our shared addiction. She could barely lift her arms because she had recently torn an muscle, but she was bubbly nonetheless. It only took a few minutes of chatting before we birthed the kind of entertaining rapport that would put the Kardashians out of business if a camera crew ever agreed to follow us around.
The first night we spent together she drove me to Brookline, where we sampled Lemon Pie and Strawberry Banana flavors for half an hour in Yogurtland, unaware that the thimble-sized sample cups in our fingers had turned soggy. She chatted about her ex’s deranged antics. I complained about my boyfriend at the time, who was lame enough to try to keep our relationship a secret. We moved recklessly from one subject to the next until she suddenly poked me in the arm and said, “I forgot to ask you — you’re half Asian, right?”
She said it so comfortably it caught me off guard. People usually save that question for months into our friendship and, even then, after they’ve had a few glasses of Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s always accompanied by nervous shifting in their seats. They tilt their heads downwards and whisper “what are you?” as if it’s a secret or a taboo subject.
But Sydney blurted it out without any embarrassment or hesitation. You had to admire that kind of gumption. I smiled and nodded.
“Me too!” She squealed in a hoarse voice, “Oh my gosh, together we make one full Asian!” We doubled over in hysterical giggling, and her laugh was loud and familiar, as if I had heard it all my life. We were inseparable after that — we texted all day long about Nicki Minaj’s butt, we spent weekend nights sitting on her air mattress eating ice cream sandwiches, and we continued to visit every frozen yogurt joint in the city.
Sure, we were doing all the marvelous, silly things that besties tend to do. But it was different with her — we skipped all the tricky stuff I usually have to wade through with girlfriends. There were never any awkward questions about how my parents met. Syds didn’t care how my mom got her legal citizenship. She didn’t make comments that were meant to be friendly but in reality made me incredibly uncomfortable, like how I look so exotic but sometimes just purely Asian, especially when my hair is pulled back and I don’t have any eyeliner on. Unlike so many others, Sydney didn’t inquire whether I identify more with my Korean heritage or my Italian one, as if she were trying to make sense of me by placing me into a single-race category. Quite frankly, she didn’t care in the slightest bit — and it was refreshing. I could be whoever I was without explanation.
This isn’t to say that all my other friends have been cruel. Not at all. But the reality is that we live in a society that doesn’t give us much language to speak of the multiracial population, so sometimes things are said in ways that aren’t very pleasant.
A few weeks before I met Sydney, I was at a pub in Cambridge with several girls from my graduate school program. The obligatory Journey song blared over the speakers. I glanced around to notice that I was the only non-white in the whole bar, which was crowded and stuffy; I quickly sipped on my Blue Moon. Our group had just completed the same exam in our Spiritual Care and Counseling class, so we chatted about how thrilled we were that it was finally over. Amidst the noise, Isabel, my redheaded gym buddy, leaned in and asked if I had taken my Pepcid AC.
You see, I turn bright red when I drink alcohol, a trait that isn’t uncommon among those with an Asian bloodline, as most lack an enzyme that properly breaks down alcohol. Taking Pepcid AC has been a long-time trick of mine to keep what I call “the glow” to a minimum.
Teresa, a progressive Catholic from Pennsylvania, overheard and asked why I needed to take any medicine at all. Isabel replied with a big grin, “Because she’s Asian! Or something weird, anyway.” She was trying to be funny, I think. And it apparently was humorous to the six people — six friends — at the table because they all chuckled noisily without a verbal response. I excused myself early that night and biked home with a nauseous feeling in my stomach.
On a particularly cold winter night, I recollected this memory to Sydney as I was wrapped in one of her Skidmore College sweatshirts. A sea of empty ketchup packets and candy wrappers lay at our elbows. I mused over how each one of those women were socially conscious, intelligent individuals who often volunteered with prison education programs or fought for LGBTQ rights. They were smart and generally warmhearted. I wondered aloud how they could be so ignorant. There was no doubt that Sydney understood me and had probably encountered something comparable, but while I expected her to match my frown and kick off a tirade about how inconsiderate people can be, she had quite a different response.
“Yeah, they think we’re weird, but so what? In forty years, everyone will be jumbled up like us,” she said as she lay flat on the floor of her bedroom, sporting her signature smirk. “Plus, maybe she says mean stuff like that because you don’t tell her it’s mean.”
I never expected Sydney to be wise — or even serious. She was usually laughing so hard at a meme on Facebook that she clumsily bumped herself into a sharp corner. She pointed a finger at me, grinning, and instructed, “Besides, you need tougher skin than that, boo.”
I thought her incontrovertible sense of humor was just an amusing part of her that didn’t hold much meaning, but maybe it was more than that — perhaps it was the very thing that helped her forgive easily and move forward. It was certainly something I could learn from, as my way of responding to these situations was general coldness and a grudge. While sharing a nearly identical ethnicity was the initial parallel that brought us together, it was differences like this that kept us close long after. Syds became my mirror in a way: We loved the same things, shared countless characteristics, yet she showed me my flaws, the dark corners I could afford to feed with a little sunlight. She continued to say eloquent things like “People will be haters” and remind me that we can’t expect others in our life to change unless we ask them to.
Ironically, finding a bestie who was also of mixed race was exactly what helped me be better friends with other girls, regardless of their race. Misunderstandings may still happen, but I actively turn them into conversations, maybe even learning experiences. I have a stronger network of girlfriends than ever before — and I’ve spent the past year moving from one place to the next. I miss Syds more than anyone else, of course, and a lot has changed since I last saw her a year ago. I teach yoga in South America and she will start a prestigious medical school program in the fall. But every time we email or text or send weird things to each other on Facebook messenger, I can feel that everything is the same. She makes me laugh until I forget that I was ever mad about anything.
Gina Florio is a freelance writer and traveling yoga teacher. She’s a Harvard alumna who is committed to talking about American multicultural life. Her two greatest loves are Bon Iver and afternoon snacking, and she considers herself a backbend enthusiast.