[Featured Image description: Me in 1993, at age 11, a multiracial girl, dressed in a Halloween costume with tri-color face paint in purple, silver, and gold, alongside my white mother, wearing the same costume, but entirely in gold.]
This post highlights my experience as an ambiguously multiracial woman constantly challenged by nosy strangers to justify my ‘otherness’ in public – and how reading picture books with my children has given me a sense of belonging.
Anyone who has traveled in the Far East knows that the mingling of Asiatic blood with European or American blood produces, in nine cases out of ten, the most unfortunate results.
I am tired of strangers asking me, ‘What Are You?’
It starts with a conspicuous stare.
Curious strangers, I like to think you aren’t consciously trying to make me uncomfortable. Conscious or not, the subtext is always the same.
The question you really want to ask is, “What are you doing here?”
I stick out. I owe you an explanation.
I have an answer for you.
But you’re not going to like it.
[Image description: Cover of ‘Cook It!‘]
What Are You?
I was 30 years old the first time I saw a normalized multiracial family in a picture book.
I stumbled on ‘Cook It!’ in my first months as a new mother. We would go on to read another few hundred more books before we found another, but after that – I was on a mission to find more.
This new experience – of being represented and accepted without question, even just in a book – was intoxicating.
What Are you?
Dear strangers who demand I explain myself,
I’m kinda impressed with your consistency. You hound me with the same series of questions along racial lines, as if there’s a script.
From white people, it’s a timid smile and a hopeful, happy look. You know I’ll be delighted by this flattery, like I’m a labradoodle who preens under unsolicited inspection.
You tell me, ‘My secretary’s daughter is like you.’ Or, ‘We have lots of you people in the Southwest!’
Like me how? She’s a photographer? A mom? Be more specific, old white dude. What is this ethereal connection I share with a random person who also exists?
Successfully courting a person of color means you get a free pass. If you’ve got a multiracial child, or even just dated an Asian guy in 8th grade, I’m not allowed to voice my dissent. You have the right to ask because you think my ambiguity is a good thing. You find us ‘beautiful,’ or ‘exotic.’ Like a fancy breed of cat.
That is not reassuring. I don’t want to hear about your fetish.
I should stop being a brat about this. It’s a compliment. Friendly small talk! We have something in common!
Except the point is that we do not have something in common, and you won’t rest until I understand that.
This alienating question reduces me to one thing – always, always, always one thing. It’s always the thing that sets me apart, never the thing that welcomes me and invites me to belong. It’s always my distinct race – or rather, my lack thereof.
Let’s flip this around for a second; After staring at your for ten minutes, I walk up to you and declare:
“Stranger – I notice you are the only one here wearing a pink tuxedo to this black-tie party. I’ve never dressed like that, but my gardener’s cousin has! Just wanted to point that out, in case you didn’t notice that everyone else here belongs. You, however…”
“I guess what I’m asking is…What are you doing here?”
Except, in this case, the pink tuxedo is my face, and I can’t choose to leave my face at home. I am not great at metaphor. Whatever, you get the point.
What Are you?
These multiracial families weren’t featured in a didactic ‘lifestyles’ book expounding the okayness of diversity. They aren’t explicitly tolerated or glorified.
They were just…kids. Grocery shopping. Splashing in puddles. Being regular kids with regular challenges.
For the first time, I saw our existence represented outside conversations on race and politics. Not everything we did revolved around our identity as outliers.
This is not an issue of vanity – but of survival. Normalized representation matters because without it, we exist in a distorted reality of harmful stereotypes and dangerous misunderstandings.
The existence of only single-race identities (and stereotypes) portrayed in the media had a devastating impact on my social, emotional, and childhood development.
It wasn’t until I was 29 years old, pregnant, underemployed and socially isolated, did I find out that I am autistic.
My social disabilities, atypical behavior, sensory aversion, and OCPD were dismissed by adults, educators, and therapists as a by-product of my race, gender, and single-parent household.
Those crazy Asians – obsessively nitpicky, socially awkward nerds. So abrupt and rude, and obsessed with rules – we’re just born that way. Of course I seemed a bit weird. All that foreign DNA and a white mother left to tame it alone? Whaddya gunna do?
This is why accurate representation matters. The common misdiagnosis of disabled women and people of color contributes to our struggles to survive in a world not designed for us and compounds the obstacles of our disabilities. At best it bars us from the support we need – at worst, it increases our already staggering risk of being abused and killed.
[Accompanying image descriptions: Cover of ‘We’re Different, We’re the Same‘]
What Are You?
I’ve spent my life filling out forms with impossible questions that demand I ‘choose one’ race and it’s infuriating. I’ve even taken a DNA test so I can settle once-and-for-all, which identity I have a ‘right’ to claim.
(That DNA test result would have been completely unhelpful even if it wasn’t a maddening 50/50 split).
These books opened something new for me. They hint at something ambiguous that allows me to belong by the virtue of my inherent unbelonging – to fit in, without apology or caveats.
Can multiracial characters have complex identities beyond race? Who knows! According to books and television, this is a dimension exclusive only to white protagonists.
What Are You?
You smiling white strangers single me out in crowds, classrooms, parties – every possible public area, because I stick out everywhere.
I don’t look like the people who belong here – like you. But I don’t look like them either.
You can’t fit me in a category, and that makes you profoundly uncomfortable.
You find this ambiguous discomfort – settling the mystery of my black(ish) hair and round(ish) eyes, so overwhelming, you forget I’m a human with a right to exist in public unmolested. You refuse to let me buy a carton of eggs unprovoked.
I have meekly submitted to your stares and evaluations my entire life. When I choose to respond with anything less the smile and full explanation of my ancestry that you are entitled to, you get mean.
It’s like getting cat-called. Except you’re not a construction worker. You’re a middle-aged white lady.
Sometimes, you Curious White Ladies don’t even bother introducing yourselves. It’s just a long, perplexed stare, followed by a blunt “Are you Filipino?” Or whatever minority you happen to know a tiny bit (but obviously not much) about.
You bark as if you’re evaluating me for sale. “Are you Vermont cheddar, or Wisconsin cheddar? I NEED TO KNOW BECAUSE I’M MAKING A QUICHE TONIGHT AND IT MATTERS.”
My ethnic mix affects neither the flavor nor the texture of your quiche, ma’am.
My lineage has no impact on you beyond your discomfort at my strangeness. Resolving your cognitive dissonance is not my job, and this is supremacy in action. Stop.
What Are You?
I get this feeling and it’s hard to breathe – my lungs got shallow and my eyes tear up, and I still can’t finish ‘Oscar’s Half-Birthday’ without crying.
It’s such a boring book you guys. I understand why it’s not a best-seller. It’s just an uneventful, bland day in the life of an everyday, boring family.
They’re a deliciously imperfect family in an imperfect world. Dad’s butt-crack shows when he bends over (depending on your prudishness, this could be a bad thing – but I find it endearing).
Exhaust fumes from jets decorate the sky, and the industrial urban landscape isn’t glorified, it’s just accepted. The way an ordinary family accepts an apartment cluttered with toys, because they have a life to live and a million small obstacles to get through each day.
That acceptance is everything, to those of us who face daily investigation. This mundanity is a quiet sort of glory.
And the way Oscar’s family lives – this ordinary life, a black mom, a white dad, a community of friendly people who accept them as they are – oh gosh. You guys. Tears. On my face. Ugly ones.
What Are You?
There’s been an…ahem, surge in white racial justice, aka white savior groups started by white people, for white people, to save black people. (Non-black people of color are not particularly welcome in these spaces, because rising hate crimes are our own problem and white saviors have no use for nerds and dragon ladies.)
That’s your favorite habitat, Woke-Mom, justifying your for loopholes the way dudebros justify using racial slurs.
“I know I can’t ask what my son’s classmate is because it’s a micro-aggression,” you admit.
Then you insist,”But my eight-year-old is curious about his friend’s ethnicity. What is a polite way for my son to ask what his friend is?”
He needs to know? Really? The only way your kid is going to fight racism is if he personally knows someone who can trace her ancestral roots back to Morocco?
Woke-Mom, it makes sense that you get vicious when we suggest that your eight-year-old is not entitled to this knowledge. By ‘censoring’ your child, we are erasing and silencing the experience of real people of color.
It’s his [white!] right to sate that curiosity and fight racism [the way he wants, not the way we people of color suggest]. He is empowered to single out a non-white friend and remind them that they look…unusual.
I screenshot these because every single time, you pull the Woke-Mom Exit – and delete the entire thread because you’re feeling ‘attacked.’
By attacked, I mean more than three people of color and a white accomplice explain how demeaning this question makes us feel.
Literally erases all that emotional labor we did. Irony!
I like to think if I were the adventurous type – say, a traveler to Sweden, friendly strangers would ask me about my accent, and my American mannerisms. They’d want to know where I’m from and why I chose to travel so far from home. That makes sense.
In my hometown, though – I could do without reminders that I stick out.
“So…where are you from? No, I don’t mean Boston. I mean, where are you froooom?”
[Accompanying image description: Cover of ‘The Case For Loving‘]
What Are You?
If you are are surprised that ‘The Case For Loving’ secured our rights for interracial marriage only 50 years ago, your parents probably came in a matching set.
Just outside the liberal mecca of Boston, in the halcyon golden age of PBS, the year of our uber-snowflake-leadership, Jimmy Carter 1980, my parents had a damned hard time finding a priest to marry an Irish Catholic and Chinese immigrant.
Throughout their courtship and marriage, my parents were harassed on the street, often forced to physically defend themselves.
Throughout the 90’s, my black step-father was pulled over for driving in our white neighborhood for DWB (driving while black). Early in the relationship, they found the entire length of her car scraped and keyed, for the audacity of renting a Blockbuster VHS together.
Which of course, is just another way of asking, “What the f- are you doing here?”
[Accompanying image description: Cover of [Red, White, and Boom!‘]
What Are You?
My (white) friends are always surprised to learn that Asian people can be bigots too. It’s almost like Asians are complex individuals raised in a global culture of tribal supremacy! Like, y’know…all humans on earth.
What this means for me, as a mixed-race gal, is that I don’t get a safe space exist, to vent, or to ever let my guard down. There are no ‘what-are-you‘ towns, no ‘what-are-you‘ sororities or ‘what-are-you‘ cultural heritage clubs.
As a teenager, a family friend taught us the importance of the Jewish pilgrimage to Jerusalem. How having this land as a birthright was vital and everyone should have a safe harbor like this in the event of genocide or war.
And my mother asked “What about Ashia? Where would she retreat to?”
(Obviously, I’m screwed in the event of a racial war – until we realize that our ethnicity has so little to do with our loyalty to country, our community, and our culture. I mean – white supremacist hero FDR did manage to imprison a whole load of American citizens, and looking unambiguously Japanese didn’t really help them find a sanctuary in that storm.)
But the point holds – there is no space where I’m not the other.
Posing on a family photo years ago, my mother pointed out that we looked like an old ‘Colors of Benetton’ ad. I didn’t have the heart to tell her my ambiguous face doesn’t count. I don’t fit into the American melting pot of ideals – where neighbors share recipes and new immigrants assimilate and Mayonnaise themselves. They are not supposed to shack up with our daughters and dilute the master race.
Before American Apparel acknowledged us as a pop-culture fetish (the skinny ones, at least), corporations exploiting diversity wanted a bang-for-their-buck. If you’re going to round up a collection of colorful people to sell sweaters, gotta go full-throttle, obscure bloodlines will just unsettle the customers.
What Are You?
Multiracial families were rare before before the 21st century, and that was by design, not just from social stigmas, but through legislation, segregation, and immigration bans. (Didja think the Muslim ban was new?)
I chose to live in a city with a high population of multiracial families because I was tired of being the oddity in my own neighborhood. More of my kids’ friends are multiracial than a single race. This new normal still feels surreal.
Maybe these kids will grow up seeing themselves reflected in GAP ads and in classrooms and the problem is solved!
Is this enough? Our faces sell cargo shorts, but will we be welcome outside our neighborhood bubble?
We’re still missing from all but a handful of kids books. Multiracial children, like all children, yearn to see themselves reflected in the books they read.
That’s why, when I find stories like Hyewon Yum’s ‘This is Our House,’ it’s worth a mention. The story isn’t riveting, but it features a rare White + Asian family that I Don’t. See. Ever. Multiracial Asians, Pacific Islanders & Black folks on the cover don’t get sell the way Black/White families do, and I have a suspicion – we’re harder to draw.
Illustrating non-black people of color isn’t as simple as white paint + brown paint and slapping it on a white-featured template (Like they do for our light-skinned Black brethren). White depictions of Asian & Pacific Islander features are often grotesque Jerry-Lewis-esque caricatures with bowl hair-cuts, stereotypical rice-paddy hats, and of course, pupiless slits for eyes. How do you depict a character halfway in between a regular [re: white-featured] human and buck-toothed shrimp dumpling?
I’m still searching for the elusive Black + Asian multiracial story,¹ one engaging enough to recommend. Does it exist? Or must all things, exhaustively, connect to whiteness?
[Accompanying image description: Cover of ‘A Family Is A Family Is A Family‘]
What Are You?
Within the gates of pre-2002-gentrified Chinatown, the stares I got on the way to China Pearl with Grandma were colder, harder, and lacked any semblance of that complaisant white smile.
“So uhh…err…I know it’s not a thing I’m supposed to say,” says the old Chinese dude who’s pulled me aside. (Admitting you shouldn’t ask a question doesn’t make it okay to plow ahead, FYI.)
Courageously, he powers though and blurbles, “But…what are you…your parents?”
If I was in my element, I’d quip, “A hairdresser and an engineer, sir.”
But I’m working – in my hometown – and surrounded by hundreds pure-blood Asian families (plus two Russian nannies.) I stick out and I’m getting those hard stares again, suggesting I should have done more research before intruding on this Chinese Cultural Festival that apparently no white people are interested in.
This sucks, because it’s my job to go unnoticed and blend in while I photograph people. I’m trying to fit in but I’m getting the stares. I’m the only white-mixed adult, and he locked in on me the moment I walked in.
I politely explain myself, “I’m Chinese and Irish” and I add my signature, ‘This isn’t appropriate’ smile (because I am super good at facial expressions.)
But he keeps digging – which parent is Chinese? He wants to know which is the offender who bred with a 鬼子? (We’ve got our slurs, too!) He wants to know because it’s titillating and horrifying – like bestiality.
The mixing of Asian & White races was (is?) so repugnant that when my parents married, my father’s friends staged multiple interventions to convince him not to marry my white mother. It was like ‘mating with a dog,’ as mom reported. Some of these committee members went on to have delightful children, who informed me of my ugly round eyes, puffy hair, thick bones, and other white flaws while our parents played mah-jong down the hall.
(I am also super good at sarcasm.)
When I answer, he shakes his head, “Back when I came here,” he reminisces, “That kind of thing wasn’t done. I guess it’s acceptable now.”
And, oh gosh, I can’t help myself. I smile like a predator and tell him, “Oh yes. We’re all over the place now, I don’t know anyone who has pure-blood children anymore. We’re taking over.”
Blame the 鬼子 in me – but it’s true. Those delightful peers of mine went on to have a whole mess of round-eye babies.
And when I leave early, shaking too hard to finish my shoot, crying in the damn car, because FOR GOODNESS SAKE is there one place, one single place I can go where I don’t need to excuse my existence?
[Accompanying image descriptions: Cover of ‘Spork‘]
What Are You?
And then I found ‘Spork,’ written by British-Japanese author Kyo Maclear.
I wish we had this book decades ago.
Every page echoed experiences from my own childhood being ‘too White’ or ‘too Asian,’ facing disdain and assigned stereotypes from both sides, but still not allowed to identify as either.
For parents of mixed-race children, or for parents of single-race children who would like to recognize the privileges of living inside the sanctuary of identifiable social boundaries, this is a mandatory read.
‘Spork’ validates the experience of growing up mixed in a satisfying way no other book does. This is the kind of book that comforts us with the realization that ‘it’s not just me.’
Sporks are a not forks. They are not spoons. They are something new.
What Are You?
There is one situation in which I’m happy to get this question – and it always comes from Latinx people. When they ask me what I am, it always comes with a big, welcoming smile and a cheery “Where are you from?” (sometimes in Spanish) in a voice that tells me they are relieved to see a familiar face.
The difference is, they think I’m one of them and am happy they’re not alone. It’s seeking a connection – not ‘othering’ me.
Fellow multiracial Asians , of course, never ask what I am. We recognize each other instantly, and steal glances at each other (in my youth, I took to hiding behind plants and staring, like a creep.) I’m always eager and excited to see someone like me, but neither one of us is ever willing to confirm it out loud – because we know what it feels like to be asked, and to turn our conversation to the exhausting topic of race.
[Accompanying image descriptions: Cover of ‘Where Oliver Fits‘]
What Are You?
My generation of misfits have begun to create stories of our own. Empowered by a childhood of Sesame Street and the election of a biracial president, we’re forming a narrative beyond the old fractured collage of our parents’ identities.
This new narrative isn’t just a new place within the norm. This identity is instrumental in the progression of humanity.
Hopeful stories like ‘Where Oliver Fits,’ tales of lonely freaks serving a greater purpose and connecting the groups that once shunned them, are rising above those insidious, creepy books written by single-race authors fumbling our humanity into shades of food, as if we’re a disgusting mix of soda fountain flavors, fluidly insubstantial and abstract.
[Accompanying image descriptions: Cover of ‘Waiting For Baby‘]
What Are You Doing Here?
Curious strangers – pay attention. This is the part where I answer your question.
(Warning: salty language ahead!)
What, exactly, am I doing here?
I am spoiling the purity of your community and diluting your bloodlines.
I am muddling the boundaries of ‘us’ and ‘them’ and insisting on non-tokenized representation in art and literature.
I am refusing to explain myself or justify my existence when you interrupt my dinner.
I am documenting my experiences of discrimination and exclusion to better understand those you oppress.
I am using my light-skinned, passing privilege to infiltrate the kyriarchy you take for granted and rip it to shreds from the inside.
TL;DR: Fucking shit up. That is what I am doing here.
(I warned you about be salty language.) Don’t get angry at me, stranger. It’s my website where my people belong.
What are you even doing here, anyway?
Stay Curious & Stand Brave
1. Note on non-white multiracial characters: [After this post, I found ‘Cooper’s Lesson, which is best for ages 5+. Here’s the kicker – I think Cooper is half-Black/half-Korean, but I can’t tell because the illustrations are…not great. Poor Cooper looks miserable and constipated, even when he’s happy and whistling, and his non-Asian dad is a blur. Q wasn’t willing to read this with me because of the dour, Ashcan-style art, and it’s a shame, because the story is great.]↩