I raised my hand and made eye contact with one of the proctors. She strode over and
nodded, her brow raised quizzically. “Excuse me,” I said, “what do I do if I’m more than one?”
“Just pick the one you identify with more.”
“Oh…okay. Thank you.” She walked away unconcerned. I, on the other hand, gazed at
the bubble sheet for several long moments, my No. 2 pencil hovering over one box, then the
This dilemma of mine was probably inconsequential. They were only having me mark
my race for statistical purposes. They weren’t asking me to search the depths of my soul to
choose between two halves of my identity. Still, I couldn’t help but feel guilty when I chose
“Asian” over “White.” I thought about the implications of that small, dark bubble staring back at
me. Was I inherently stating that at my core I preferred my Asian background? I had consciously
brushed off one part of myself. I was waving it away as if it were a little insect buzzing around
my head, demanding to be noticed.
I didn’t think a lot about my ethnic background as a kid. I was just there existing like all
the other kids. We were aware that we all looked different, but no one cared. When I ate seaweed
or ube snacks at lunch, I got some strange looks, but they were not judgemental; they were more
curious than anything.
“Are you eating plastic?”
Taking no offense, I replied, “No, it’s seaweed. Here, try some.” Soon I was sharing my
snacks with the whole table. The following days, kids would ask me for my “purple cakes” in
exchange for jello or graham crackers, to which I gladly obliged.
Usually, kids have concerns about race when they’re younger. They want to deny their
backgrounds as a result of teasing or wanting to fit in. Somehow, I got this whole trend
backward. I had it figured out as a kid.
When people want to know about my cultural background, I answer “half Filipino and
half White.” Sometimes people don’t like that answer. “No… you’re Mexican. I know it.” I
explain that I am not, but it’s usually the first guess. Still, they insist. “No. You’re lying. You’re
Mexican.” I drop it at that point and just let them believe that I am. I didn’t see the point in
arguing with someone who already made up their mind about me. I learned not only to expect
questions but to expect that people don’t really care about the answer.
“So what are you?” This is the question my seventh grade history teacher asked with
trepidation. A strange question coming from a full-grown, educated man. For some reason, I
thought we had evolved past ambiguous questions to using more sophisticated words such as
“ethnicity.” I had the overwhelming urge to reply with some bratty remark like “a human. How
about you?” But I decided that it wasn’t a good idea.
“I’m half Filipino and half White. But my last name is Chinese.”
“Yeah, what’s with that?”
My cultural background didn’t always seem complicated to me. However, question after
question caused me to reconsider until it seemed so complex I didn’t bother explaining it. Being
Filipino makes other people uncomfortable when you break it down because they don’t know
where to categorize you. People can’t agree on whether we are Asian, Pacific Islanders, or even
Hispanic. The country’s history of being colonized by other nations only adds to this confusion.
People say that Filipinos are too Hispanic to be Asian, too Asian to be Pacific Islanders, and so
on. Is it possible to be too much of something yet not enough of it? To complicate things further,
let’s throw in that I’m half White, born in the U.S., and don’t speak Tagalog. Now I’m too
American to be Filipino.
“Well, you’re only half Asian.”
Oh. “Right,” I half-heartedly chuckled. Well, he wasn’t wrong. Still, the word ”only”
coming from my full-Asian friend was a little off-putting. It had too many negative connotations.
I was not enough. I was merely unimportant. I was less. It was not the last time he said it and it
was not the last time I spent several days trying to decipher what he meant.
Most of my friends in jr. high and high school were Asian, and our racial background was
a regular topic of conversation among our group. We talked about all the things we had in
common like leaving our shoes by the door, our parents having a stash of ketchup packets from
restaurants because “they’re free,” rambunctious family gatherings, the need to post a picture of
every meal we eat, our parents filling up the hand soap container with water when it gets low,
and that one specific rice cooker with floral designs that everyone owns.
Despite these similarities, they never failed to notice our differences. If I said I didn’t like
anime or that my parents wouldn’t care if I got a B, they said I wasn’t a “real Asian.” Of course,
they were mostly joking. After all, these were usually superficial criteria that didn’t mean
anything. However, after several years of being told that I was “only half Asian” or I wasn’t a
“real Asian,” I started to believe it. I was jealous of them for being full-Asian, for being
bilingual, for being confident. They didn’t intentionally put me down, but I listened to them talk
about other Asians who didn’t fit into their idea of a “real Asian,” saying things like “I know
Sara is Japanese, but she’s basically White.” These comments had me wondering what my
friends thought of me since I am actually White. I knew what their parents thought. My best
friend’s dad said once that I was a twinkie: yellow on the outside, but white on the inside. It
wasn’t quite a slap in the face. It was more like heartburn. Hot acid gradually rose in my chest
and throat, like I was going to throw up, but I couldn’t, nor could I dispel the lingering sensation.
It’s not that I hated being white; it was more that I was exhausted of hearing people
around me point out that I wasn’t like them. I was sick of them diminishing my worth in the
I felt the need to prove to myself and others that I was a real Asian, not some diluted
version. This meant I watched Asian TV shows, listened to Asian music, ate Asian food, and
tried to learn an Asian language. The Asian entertainment I started to watch didn’t prove to me
that I was a real Asian, but rather that I was still falling short because I wasn’t like the typical
East Asian girls that everyone admired. This media started to warp my idea of beauty and my
own self-confidence so quickly that I didn’t even recognize the sudden change. I started to resent
that I didn’t have pale, porcelain skin or straight, black hair. I didn’t have a small face or thin
frame, at least like they did.
Occasionally, I would forget that I was mixed. Even when I was with my White mother
whom I love dearly, it just didn’t cross my mind.
I wondered what would make me Asian enough to be fully considered one of the rest?
If I were, say 10% Filipino, would they consider me Asian at all? Did I have to be 100% in order
for them to stop thinking I was “only half” or “part”?
Out of curiosity, I took a DNA test that broke down my genetic makeup by ethnicity. The
results showed that I was 36% English and 30% East Asian. I’m embarrassed to say that for a
split second I was disappointed to find that I was more White than Asian. I had this guilty feeling
weighing on my entire body. I thought about my mother and her ancestors and how I had ignored
their stories and struggles. I wouldn’t even be here without them, yet I had deemed this other part
of me insignificant.
Little by little, I began tying myself to my mom’s side of the family.
I found myself poring over photo albums and journals, seeking every little tidbit I could
find. I came to have a greater appreciation for my grandpa’s service in the Air Force and my
grandma’s strong will to raise my mom and her brothers in his absence. I began to see more of
who my mother was when she was young, and consequently who she is now. It was apparent that
most of my personality had come from her.
I decided to do family history on my mom’s side. I also decided that being the person
who writes in the census is my calling since the only criterion seems to be having bad
handwriting. It was slow work that was difficult to make sense of. Still, I stuck with it. I
discovered my great-great-grand aunt (a term I didn’t know existed, by the way), Lois. I
wondered about her life in New York, her siblings, and her hobbies. Sadly, I could only find one
public record of her. Although it confirmed her existence, it couldn’t tell me anything about her.
I was able to find one sheet of paper in our family’s file cabinet, which revealed another child:
her twin. Briefly wondering why the census made no mention of the twin, I read on, squinting at
the haphazard scribbles to find that he or she had died at birth. I imagined Lois as a child,
wondering why her twin had passed and what it meant. How would her life have been different if
her twin had survived? Did it make her feel empty, like a part of herself was missing? People
always say that twins have a special bond. They’re like two halves of a whole. Did Lois
understand what it was like to feel like half a person? Did she worry that her parents saw her like
only half of their set of twins rather than like one daughter? Suddenly she didn’t seem like some
distant relative anymore.
Recently, I received an updated ethnicity estimate due to the company improving their
research. As I opened my account in quiet anticipation, I saw a box detailing my new estimate:
36% Northwestern Europe, 34% Philippines, 16% China, 12% Ireland, and 2% Norway. I had a
revelation. It was not that I was literally 50% European and 50% Asian; it was that I was 100% a
I moved on to the next section of the scantron and read the words “Mark one or more.”
Time moved more slowly as I stared at the page, stunned that four words could be so moving.
Smiling brightly, I filled in two bubbles for the first time.