Since coming to America almost thirty years ago, I’ve been hyper aware of my mixed-ethnicity and I’ve been trying to reconcile it - what I am and where I fit in. For those of you who don’t know, I’m Asian, of Chinese and Filipino origins, and Caucasian (German and Spanish). Of my Asian side, I’m mostly Filipino but I grew up in Hong Kong so, in many ways, I relate more with the Chinese part of my ethnic makeup.
Over the past month or so, things have happened that, in my mind at least, have reinforced my differentness and/or pushed me to identifying with my Asian side. Even before these incidents, I’ve always seen myself as Asian and referred to myself as one but, when I look back on my youth, I feel that I was never quite Asian enough in Hong Kong and being an immigrant in America I’ve never felt white enough here. The impact of this duality hits home when I go to the Asian grocery store and I catch other customers giving me interesting looks of surprise, as if to say “What’s he doing here?” With my Filipino brethren, it’s funnier still when I speak Tagalog. I’m usually greeted with expressions that display equal amounts of shock, joy and disbelief. My Tagalog isn’t great by any means but, if I keep it simple, it’s passable. One time, I was mistaken for a US serviceman who learnt to speak Tagalog. And the other Filipino insisted I was even after telling her I wasn’t. Not that all non-Filipinos who learn to speak Tagalog mispronounce their words but, going by movies and shows like Back To Bataan and Bring ‘Em Back Alive, my Tagalog pronunciation and accent are actually quite good and better than that of John Wayne and Brue Boxleitner.
As a writer, I’m trying to work my way into the literary community. As an Asian American writer, I’m trying to break into that literary world as well. So, last year, when Hyphen magazine interviewed me for a piece on Asian American authors who’d self-published their books and when I was invited to submit my novel, Back Kicks And Broken Promises, to the Asian American Writers Workshop for its annual Asian American Literary Awards (although the invitation was withdrawn, as per the rules, when AAWW found out my book was self-pubbed), I was naturally excited. I was thrilled because my work and the fruits of my work were being recognised but I was further excited because I was starting to make my way into a community I hope to fully belong.
Well, recently, three subtle but impacting events helped me get closer to sorting out my feelings about my identity crisis. Before I go on, please take note that I’m talking about my identity crisis with regard to my mixed race makeup and upbringing. I embrace the fact that I’m mixed because it allows me to see things in the unique way only a mixed person can. However, not all mixed race people have an identity crisis but if my experiences can help those who do discover ways to sort theirs out then job done.
Anyway, here’s what happened. I was at breakfast with my son at McDonald’s. It was our usual Sunday thing before his swim lesson and we see the same people there week after week. There’s a very nice woman, around 60, who goes there after mass. She eats her breakfast and reads the church bulletin and, on occasion, she’s come up to us and said hello and commented on how sweet and well mannered my son is. The Sunday before Thanksgiving, she came up to us and said hello and told me that my son is sweet. She also, hesitantly, wished us a Happy Thanksgiving without actually saying “Happy Thanksgiving” and was apologetic in suggesting that we might celebrate it. She even used the words “If you celebrate.” This event enhanced my feelings of being different. It even reinforced my being an immigrant and, with my obviously Asian son with me – he must’ve gotten the majority of the Asian genes from my wife and I and not so much the German or Spanish (my wife is part Spanish also) - it reinforced that part of me also. My son, ironically, is not an immigrant having been born and being raised in New Jersey. The woman was so kind and genuine in her words that I couldn’t help from feeling like that immigrant who’s come to a new land filled with hope and promise.
The second event was when I bought a beverage at the café at my local Barnes and Noble. When I gave my name, Juan, for the person to write on the cup, she verified its spelling and said, “Wan?” I smiled and I even liked the mistake but I did correct her although, to be honest, I almost didn’t.
The third was in Chinatown last weekend. With a friend, who is also a ‘third culture kid’ like me (Filipina who grew up in Indonesia and lives in New York City), my family had lunch at a noodle shop on Mott Street. I spoke with the wait staff in Cantonese and it felt like being back home in Hong Kong – the sights, the sounds, the smells and the tastes. Funnily, even though I know fewer Cantonese words than Tagalog ones, which is embarrassing considering I grew up in Hong Kong, my Cantonese intonation is better than my Tagalog and I’m more confident with my Cantonese over my Tagalog. After lunch, we crossed the street to a store so I could buy my son a gung fu uniform. There, the elderly saleswoman and I spoke to one another in Pidgin English and Cantonese. When she asked me, in Cantonese, if I were Chinese, I answered her in Cantonese that my grandmother, my father’s mother, was part Chinese (Manchurian).
While these incidents are minor, they reinforced in me that people see me as Asian and that I can and do fit in that world; as an Asian in Asia when I go back home and to The Philippines and as an Asian living in America. They also reminded me that the keys to finding a place to belong as part of an ethnic group or as a writer or anything else for that matter are often done so incrementally and not always with a grand moment. So, if you’re like me, struggling to find his place in this world and make sense of it all, keep an eye and ear out for the little things. They won’t be obvious but they’ll often be the most meaningful.