"What are you?" or the question I never know how to answer
When people are first introduced to me, quizzical stares are not uncommon. Lingering eyes try to gauge the pigment of my skin and finely tuned ears struggle to pick up on the origin of my last name. It never lasts more than a few seconds but I always feel in those small moments that I have become part of a game show or an invisible hand has written a giant question mark on my forehead. Unable to be categorized, by default I am placed in the “other” folder, a file waiting for a later date to be re-examined with an eye comfortable enough to be critical.
I am a child of a Caucasian mother from Indiana and a father originating from India. My parents have an adorable love story as two people who met in New Mexico and continued on to live an adventurous life guiding them to New York and ultimately California. They settled down when my sister was born and I followed, four years later. My mother’s pale complexion, strawberry blonde hair, and blue eyes combined with my father’s deep brown skin, rich chestnut eyes, and strong, furrowed eyebrows resulted in the golden-brown skin tones of my sister and I, each resembling one parent over the other. While my sister takes after my mother, I am the spitting image of my father. Smile for smile, I am the generational mirror that looks back at him with my dark brown hair and wide, rounded nose.
Now don’t get me wrong, I love that I was born into a family with two distinct cultures from two parents whose open-mindedness became a pillar of my childhood. I grew up exposed to two religions, American and Indian holidays, and became well-acquainted with my Indiana-ian and Indian extended families.
The issue arises when others try to place their finger on exactly what ethnicity I belong to. It all started with those pesky standardized tests. Even as a child, on every single exam, the first question I always had difficulty with would be the small box under the area one would write their name asking me what race I identified as, commanding me to only pick one. My young mind couldn’t comprehend why I had to pick one. It was as if it was challenging me to pick one culture, one parent, and one half of who I was.
As I got older, the question symbolized by the Scantron tests became vocalized as friends and confident strangers began to ask, “What are you?” “Where are you from?” “Your parents are from where?”
The questions never offended me and I understood that curiosity generally just got the best of them. In fact, when I was too young to understand what it meant to be blended or mixed race, I would have my friends guess which parent was mine at Back to School nights (which I now realize put them in super awkward positions) and thought it was amusing to see them always glance right over my blonde-haired, pale-skinned mother. Even now, I’m always curious to hear what ethnicity people assume I am and sometimes feel grateful that if I were to travel to some parts of the world, I wouldn’t immediately stick out as a tourist because of the way I look—even if it was completely new territory.
The questions aren’t bad at all, to be honest. Once I know someone, I don’t mind explaining my background or my parents’ story, but the emotions the questions trigger are the tricky parts to tackle. Ethnicity and culture remain as general initial starting points for forming one’s identities, a background for one’s story to build on, an answer that’s quick to be supplied when one begs the question, “Who am I?” Yet, for me, it’s as if I belong to two worlds but have never truly fit into either.
Growing up in California has left me more in tune with standard American cultural values, but my father’s storytelling of his childhood in India along with his imparted knowledge of Indian holidays and traditions places me in a weird limbo I still haven’t navigated fully. When visiting India, I can’t completely communicate with all of my relatives, my western clothes firmly distinguish me as an outsider, and my poorly garbled Marathi places me at the edge of the hubbub, smiling and nodding back at the friendly family members including me with their welcoming arms and eyes, but not quite belonging. Yet in Indiana, where communication isn’t a problem in the slightest, my skin color sets me apart from my lighter skinned cousins, singling me out in photographs and making me feel like an impostor in my own family.
Of course, I’ve only ever felt immense love from both sides of the family and these feelings of confusion are self-imposed, but they still exist and it’s something that consistently baffles me as much as my blended features might baffle an outsider. Being a person of blended ethnicities can cause an observer to wonder or stare, but understand that sometimes, that person you’re letting your glance linger on for just a little longer than usual is just as confused as the outside eye might be. It’s hard to provide a succinct, concrete answer to the question, “What are you?” when I myself haven’t fully come to understand what my mixed background means to my identity. So until then, what am I? I am a daughter of a generous, loving mother and a creative, brave father. I am a female with a strong love of reading and a stronger love for my friendships. Most importantly, I am my own person still figuring it all out and that is perfectly fine.
(Image via Charlene Chua)