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Being Asian And Caucasian: All At The Same Time

A thought piece.

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When I started working at a Boston Chinatown after school program as a group leader in 2015, speaking to my students and their parents in Cantonese had become part of my job. One of my students, named Jackie always asked me, “Ms. Kailey, you can speak Chinese?” I thought it was funny and flattering, because he was 6 years old. He said it every time he saw me, even when I was just walking by. It still didn’t bother me because well, he just graduated from kindergarten and was heading to first grade.

It wasn’t until some Asian parents started saying that exact line to me, when I started to realize that people were beginning to judge my appearance; like my wavy and curly brown hair instead of the straight jet-black hair that most Asians have. It wasn’t just about my appearance though; it was also about my ability to speak another language. Then it bothered me.

“You’re a white girl. How do you know how to speak Chinese?” An Asian father once said to me. I laughed it off and tried to change the subject. As it kept happening, I started to feel uncomfortable. I wasn’t sure if the age gap was the problem for me, but having a male adult saying it just made it different. Maybe it’s because I expected an adult to know better on how to approach me, or to understand that full Asians are not the only ones who can speak Chinese.

I grew up with two separate families.

One side is my mother’s, the Asian Buddhists and the other is my non-religious, Irish and Italian father’s side. I switched back and forth every week seeing both sides of my family up until I was 14. Currently, I live in the same apartment complex I grew up in, in Boston Chinatown, with my mom, and my Chinese grandparents live just a building away.

My mother had me when she was 18 and that was when she also started her career as a hairstylist. While she was at work, my Chinese grandmother, who was born in Shanghai babysat me. She spoke to me only in Cantonese because she only knew “Hello” and “How are you?” in English. I didn’t learn to speak English until I was 3 years old. Within those three years – my father couldn’t even communicate to me with words. To this day, I speak to my grandparents in Cantonese because that is the only language they understand.

In high school, I started to focus on my appearance. I didn’t worry about my clothes, but rather thought about the way I looked, my skin tone, hair color and even how my voice sounded. My high school was predominantly African-American, Asian and Hispanic. I stood out as the only “white girl” in my class, while my entire school population of 300 students consisted of maybe 1 to 3 being fully white.

“You’re not Asian. You speak like a white girl!” my friends told me. But what does that mean? I wasn’t entirely sure. Speaking like a white girl? What was am I suppose to sound like? If one of my white teachers pissed off one of my Asian or African-American friends, my friends would say to me, “Girl, you need to handle your people.” Was I supposed to take offense to these comments? These were my friends, I knew they were just joking.

Once I got to college, I still found myself stuck in the middle. I wasn’t the only “white girl” in class because now, the roles were reversed. As I look around in my college classrooms, it’s easy to count the amount non-white students because there aren’t many.

I would be lying if I said this past election hasn’t had much to do with me thinking about my race and understanding what I consider valuable and important. In terms of politics, once again – I am stuck in the middle of what both sides of my family consider to be the ‘right choice’. My mother’s side of the family, who grew up in low incoming housing, voted for Clinton, with the hopes that the first woman would become president. That would’ve made my Chinese grandmother very happy.

Then there is my father’s side that voted for the Republican. One day, I waited for my aunt to pick me up outside of a train station in Boston. She drove up in her silver pick-up truck with a sticker on her back window stating: TRUMP: MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN”. I said to her, “You have a Trump sticker?” she responded with, “Yes, does it bother you?” I shook my head no. How could I let this bother me? I don’t view the world like Trump does but she’s still my aunt. What was I suppose to do? Cut my aunt out of my life because of this? I couldn’t do that. I still love her.

To this day, I am struggling to find the happy medium of what it is to be a mixed

young woman in America.

Yes, I am Asian and grew up in a Buddhist household, but that doesn’t mean I can forget about my other half. I am grateful to be able to have two families, speak another language and connect with other mixed-race people. But I don’t want to be looked at as that “white girl who can speak Chinese” because in all, I am a Chinese girl who can speak Chinese.

I am White and I am Asian. It’s my identity and I can’t change that. I don’t ever want to.

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