I know it has been several months since I’ve written on this blog. The truth is, I have been so busy with life that I haven’t had the time to even feel inspired enough to write. I haven’t had any food for thought, nor the space to digest it if I had. With that said, something has been formulating in my mind the past couple of months and I felt the need to lay it out there.
I want to talk about RACE. I know, it’s a never-ending, controversial topic to talk about, but I think that ultimately, the heart of this blog, to some extent, is about race. My culture and my home is the cornerstone of who I am, and what I write about. Ultimately, I can’t talk about culture with out diving into discussions about race. I am mixed race. In Hawaii, it never occurred to me that this alone could define me, especially because everyone else I knew was also mixed race. That said, Hawaii is also a melting pot of diverse cultures and ethnicities. While racial tensions definitely existed in Hawaii, it was simpler for me because I was a “local”. It’s fairly easy in Hawaii; the saying goes “I grew here, you flew here.” It was that simple. You were local, or you were not.
I went to Moanalua High School, which at the time, was the best public school in our state. Moanalua was close to a military base, and our school population was split between local kids and military kids. In fact, there was even a long hallway in our campus called “Black Street,” where many of the black military students hung out. Let me pause here. When I moved to California, and mentioned this statement to my new friends in college, who were predominately white, they freaked. They were taken back at the outright racism. “Your school had a hang out spot called black street?” they would ask in disbelief. “Yes” I would reply.
Hawaii has always been racially tense. So, I want to amend my former statement. When I said that it “was simpler” in Hawaii, I meant to say that it was simpler for me. When you are the status quo, the norm, the socially accepted, it is hard to walk around with your eyes open. It is hard to challenge the existing structures that keep you safe. Oddly enough in Hawaii, being brown and Asian, made me safe. Being Filipino, Japanese, and BORN in Hawaii, made me safe in Hawaii. I was for the most part, like everyone else who was from the island. It didn’t even occur to me how racially divided we were. Of course, this is just because of our history, you see. Like any other land that was colonized by white invaders, Hawaii has a scar. This scar, has left our ancestors with a resentment towards all outsiders, especially white people. But, to be clear, Japanese Americans were also considered outsiders during my Grandparents time (WWII). Back then, even local Japanese kids would be beaten or bullied due to fear, ignorance, and history. My grandparents didn’t really speak Japanese outside the house after the war. Because of this, I didn’t speak Japanese, like many of my other Japanese American friends and relatives. Much time has passed, and my experience is much different from that of my Grandparents, but my point is that I was cultivated, maybe inadvertently, with this mindset. I was raised to think that White people were outsiders, unless they were from here, or lived in our shoes long enough (usually expats that adopted Hawaii culture and were often mixed race). It wasn’t until I moved to California, when I had the rude awakening of realizing that I was now the minority. I was now even considered “exotic.” I once heard an older white woman use this word to describe me at a check out in a Safeway in Menlo Park, and I cringed.
What’s my point? My point is that no matter where you go, we are conditioned to define people by their race. I’m not saying this is bad. I find myself sometimes curious about other cultures, and I find it intriguing when people I’ve gotten to know share their cultural backgrounds with me. In some ways, I think conversations about our race, and defining our ethnicities, and the culture we choose to identify with, bring us together. We identify, learn, and respect.
I battle with my feelings on being mixed race all the time now. I can’t run an errand or go to a store with out someone asking me “what are you?” I’m talking complete strangers asking me this. A question I was never confronted with when I lived in Hawaii and now, it seems to be a trend. I know people here (the rest of the continental US not just CA) don’t mean to be offensive, and honestly, I’m not offended. I take pride in my culture. I take pride in looking unique. Some days, I quickly respond and say “I’m Filipino, Japanese.” But, then I have to respond to follow up questions and say “no, I don’t speak Japanese or Tagolog.” When people ask why, I then say “I’m from Hawaii” and then there is this long conversation that I wasn’t planning to have. From here, the conversation usually evolves to Hawaii being paradise, and how lucky I am to be able to call that island home. Then this person usually ends up asking “Why on earth did you move away from Hawaii?” Some times I laugh and avoid answering so this conversation can come to an end.
I battle with this question because it’s annoying. Sometimes, ya girl just wants to go to the post office and pick up a package with out having to explain my family tree, and my cultural background. Sometimes, I get the occasional, “oh you’re Filipina, yea my girlfriend is Filipina.” As if I’m supposed to instantly bond with this man just because his girlfriend is also pacific islander. I think it’s strange. I wouldn’t walk up to a light skinned black girl and ask her what her ethnicity is. And, most people wouldn’t ask another white person this question. In all the years Coleman and I have dated, not a single person has gone up to him and asked him what his ethnicity was. And- in all honesty, I sometimes get asked this in the most rude ways. I’ve literally been asked “what are you?” countless times. Part of me wants to respond with “part labordoodle” just for the fuck of it, but my knee jerk reaction to stay polite even when I’m annoyed or offended always overrides my need to be blunt.
The annoyance also comes from not knowing how to articulate why I’m sometimes offended by this question from complete strangers, and sometimes flattered on other days. I can’t articulate to a stranger how unnecessary their question is, because they wouldn’t understand and that is why they are even asking me in the first place. And, I don’t want to say I’m offended, and then have people feel like they can never ask me questions about my culture or talk about race, when that’s not really the case. I’m not trying to be overly sensitive, I just don’t understand why complete strangers need to ask me something that doesn’t matter to them. It’s almost like they saw me, and had to categorize me right away. So much so, that they couldn’t resist asking a complete stranger their ethnic background.
I think my annoyance also stems from not knowing how to identify and feel accepted, while being identified and categorized by others. I’ll elaborate. When I lived in Hawaii, my friends and teachers made fun of me because of the way I spoke (proper english and lack of Pigeon). My 8th grade social studies teacher once asked me if I was from Hawaii. I was offended. When I told him that I was local, he told me that I sounded like a “valley girl from California.” All my friends laughed. I’ll pause- Pigeon is a slang and way of speaking in Hawaii. I did not speak like this, although, I went through a phase when I tried and it didn’t work for me.
In the Bay Area, a true melting pot with a thriving asian community, I feel like I’m not asian enough. I’m not bilingual, and my culture is fused with Hawaiian culture as well. Many of my mixed race and asian friends are bilingual here, and while none of them judge me, I do hear it in their voice sometimes that they wish I could speak in my ancestors’ native tongues.
For New Years, Coleman and I went to Tahoe with a bunch of our friends. When we entered the casino, we came across a woman who worked at the craps table. She took our ID’s before we placed our bets and ordered drinks. Without missing a beat, she recognized a Filipino last name and asked me “Are you Filipina?” I nodded in reply and she instantly followed up with “Do you speak Tagalog?” When I responded with “No”, I almost instantly felt the words “I’m sorry” slip across my tongue. Her smile faded as she handed back my drivers license. I could see the disappointed look in her face. Another young Filipina girl who can’t speak Tagalog. I tried to explain this feeling to Coleman and of course, he thought I was just imagining it in my head and overreacting out of insecurity. Perhaps he’s right. There is a good chance she wasn’t judging me. Then again, it’s hard to explain these experiences to someone who, well… lacks color. I love Coleman, but no matter how compassionate or understanding he is, he will never see the world through my eyes because he will never have to.
Race is something we talk about in our relationship; not often, but it does come up occasionally. We talk about addressing this with our future kids, who will also be mixed race. We talk about how we want to raise them with some of their Hawaii roots intact and cultivating safe spaces for them and ourselves. Ultimately, I don’t think Coleman cares about race or ethnicity as much as I do. I think he’s had the privilege of not having to care, and most times this privilege is refreshing. I enjoy seeing the world through his lens. We are all just people. This of course lasts until the next stranger walks up to me and asks “what are you?”