For as long as I can remember, people have asked me the same question over, and over, and over again. The question I’m repeatedly asked cuts deep, and leaves a mark. It makes me uncomfortable, it makes me mad. The question is, “what are you?”
If you’re like me — no matter your race, religion, or ethnicity — just reading that question induces a serious cringe-spasm. You can’t see me right now (at least I hope you can’t because I’m wearing my PJs) but for some reason my dark hair, golden skin, and almond-shaped eyes make people take the quest of finding out “what I am” as seriously as some take understanding the last season of Lost.
Throughout my childhood, I wondered why the answer mattered so much and why people felt driven to determine what race I am. I mean, who cares? There is more to me than what I look like. I’m a mother and wife, a runner and writer, a friend and doughnut lover, but in my 33 years, I’ve been asked what’s in my blood more times than I can count.
When I was old enough to grasp the weight of the “what are you” words, which was in around fifth grade, I started answering the bizarre question with answers that would entertain me.
“What are you?” They’d ask.
“Female. American. Lover of Steven Tyler. Superb sleeper. Mediocre break dancer.”
“No,” they’d press. “What are you mixed with?”
If only I’d have thought to deflect to sex-ed (“I’m mixed with my mom’s eggs and my dad’s sperm.”), the conversation might have ended sooner (note to self: answer with this from now on).
Even in my awkward, clunky years (I might still be in them), I wanted to beat the curious at their own game: craft a different answer, name a different ethnicity, to each and every friend, foe, or cat, who asked. And so I did. I’ve been everything from Albanian to Asian, Brazilian to Burmese, Cambodian to Californian, which oddly pleased the askers more than, ya know, the truth. This, of course, made me stop and think. If everyone is so interested in what I am, maybe I should be, too. I could use this nagging and awkward question as an excuse for learning about my own history.
Raised by divorced parents who are both Caucasian, I knew I was different. Different than my Dad’s family, different from my blonde haired-blue-eyed brother, just different, period. I knew there was something a little awry but didn’t quite know what it was.
As it turns out, there was a secret being kept from me and the truth about my biological father wouldn’t surface until I was about 9 years old and even then, I couldn’t comprehend all the pieces of that very complicated puzzle. It wasn’t until high school ended that I was finally ready to go looking for him, to find the man whose DNA had made my life an endless flurry of, “what are yous.”
Years passed. I searched every avenue possible but continued to come up against dead ends. He was like, a ghost.
Then, one bitterly cold November day in 2008, after I’d birthed a human of my own, my journey came to an abrupt and devastating end. My birth father, this man who held all the answers to these questions, had died four years prior from a slow-burning cancer. He was buried in the town I lived in at the time, and who was listed as his daughter in the obituary? Me. The news was traumatizing. How could I be so close to him and yet, so completely far away when he took his last breath? I tortured myself with dozens of open-ended questions that couldn’t be answered, I still do at times. I also continue to cross paths with people who just have to know: “What are you?”
As I slowly (sort of) accepted that I could never know this man, this very important part of me, I researched like a madwoman and started finding bits and pieces of this him all over the web — they were places I’d looked before but had for whatever reason come up empty. It was almost like he heard my pleas. I followed the clues, and managed to connect with my paternal grandmother (and only living blood relative to my father) through hand-written letters and a handful of visits. She tells me stories, things he’s said about me, tells me how alike we are, and the pieces of me that look like him. And despite all the times I didn’t know what to say, what to tell people about my roots, finding my father even after his death has given me something concrete to hold onto: An answer to that oft repeated question.
My father is gone. I never knew him in life and in a way, a part of me will never heal from that. But now, if someone asks me what I am, I tell them without hesitation, or doubt: My father’s daughter.