My Story: I’m Biracial; It Used To Suck

Megan Stewart, Co-Editor in Chief

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I grew up in a matrix of mixed languages and cultures that swarmed in my head like a bees’ nest. But I never felt any of them were mine. How could it be so hard for a child growing up in America – the land of opportunity and the melting pot of cultures – to belong? After all, people from all over the world come to America and retain their traditions. Jewish people light candles on Hanukkah. Irish people dance, arms locked, at festivals. Scottish people play bagpipes at weddings. And Chinese can spend $52 on four mooncakes during the Moon Festival.

I’m Scottish. I’m Chinese.

Yet instead of feeling connected to my Scottish brethren at my uncle’s wedding, as he plays his bagpipes in the traditional Stewart, red-and-green kilt, I sit in the corner of the chapel and compare the fonts of the bibles. Instead of being completely infatuated with what are inside the exorbitant mooncakes–lotus seeds, egg yolk, or bacon–like my mother’s side of the family, I sit in the corner of Aunt Yali’s house and play with mooncake boxes. I’m biracial, and it sucks. The works “Aria: Memoir of a Bilingual Childhood” by Richard Rodriguez, “Always Living in Spanish” by Marjorie Agosin, “Bilingualism in America: English Should Be the Official Language” by S.I. Hayakawa, and “Why I Could Not Accept Your Invitation” by Naomi Shihab Nye show me, a person deprived of single, unified cultural identity, what connecting to culture and family through language feels like.

I don’t reminisce over my time in elementary school. It was all a blur of cloudy days in a dingy room and racial slurs. In the second grade, I remember running in a toy car along the sidewalk in the playground. I’d never ran so fast. Behind me, all the other kids chased after my yellow car, pulled their eyelids to their ears, snapped their make-shift chopsticks in my red, tear-stained face, and sang, “Ching chung, ling lung, go back to where you came from.” I was seven years old, and I hated my own eyes.

Where did a gang of second graders learn to say such hurtful things? That’s part of my problem. I grew up isolated from the laughter and chanting of the other kids. I was too Asian to speak their lingo. Instead, I was the cause of their connected disdain. They seemed to make friends through making fun of me. As I read his article, Richard Rodriguez describes the isolation and shame he too felt throughout his childhood, “I was seven years old, I did not know the names of the kids who lived across the street” (Rodriguez, 510). I know his isolation. Other kids avoided him because of his different skin and language. At seven, I had the same problem.

In middle school, in order to get to know the kids who lived across the street, I distanced myself from my Chinese half. I thought it would be easy to slice the Asian out of my genes, dropping the “bi” in biracial. I started making fun of my race alongside the other children. It seemed as if the other kids forgot about my other half. Finally, I had friends. Until one day in the seventh grade. At the rec center, my mother and I sat at the window. I saw some white boys drop their gatorades and basketballs and approach my mother and me through the glass. They stuck their tongues on the windows and made grotesque slits out of their eyes. I heard the words “slanty-eyed chinks” penetrate the glass. I felt the urge to run like I did in my yellow toy car in the second grade. What was there to run from? I realized I could never run from the Asian in me.

When junior high came, I flipped. If white people hated me, I was fully Asian. I started to identify as Asian. Going into a larger school, I met a wider diversity of people. I began talking about college and, even though I hated them, science classes. The other Asians in my school didn’t talked to me, though. I never learned Chinese. No matter how I tried, I didn’t fit in anywhere. As S.I. Hayakawa describes, “I am an immigrant to this nation, I am keenly aware of the things that bind us as Americans and unite us as a single people… foremost… the common language we share” (563). Hayakawa demonstrates the feelings I had going into a new school and being exposed to variety of social groups that I didn’t belong to. I, too, was an immigrant, foreign to all the Englishes spoken in school. When I got to high school, I was told I was not Asian enough to join the Asian American club, and that I wasn’t Asian at all. Apparently, I talked too smart and my family was too wealthy to be a part of Chinese struggle. It seemed that all that “science talk” I adopted in hopes to be a part of the Asian community was a flop. This further solidified my belief that I was innately excluded from that half of my genes.

When my mother noticed my lack of identity and my ignorance of Chinese culture, she sent me to live with my Chinese relatives for a few weeks. My cousins talked rapid-fire in two tongues. My grandmother was proud of them. There I was, unable to speak a word of Chinese. Marjorie Agosin describes, “that… sensuous language of mine… [gives me] the sense of being and feeling” (557). Unlike Agosin, I couldn’t escape my loneliness through embracing my culture. In fact, even being dead-center in Chinese culture, knee-deep in the Chinese language, I felt deserted from that language. I never “recover[ed] my usurped country and… childhood” through listening to the musical rhythm of Mandarin the way Agosin did with her native language Spanish (557). Instead, on Chinese New Year, I watched my grandmother laugh and my cousins gesture and talk in their beautiful voices. I felt the distance from people so close to me widen and deepen. And reading Agosin’s “Always Living in Spanish,” I envied her intimacy with her culture. I was an orphan of my own culture.

My failure to fully belong to any sort of culture or race made me yearn to be included in a race and group of people. Reading “Why I Could Not Accept Your Invitation” by Naomi Shihab Nye, I wanted be defensive over my country the way Shihab is. “But that is not the language I live in and so I cannot come. I live in teaspoon, bucket, river, pain, turtle sunning on a brick” (Nye). Nye’s description of her home and her loyalty to her language reminded me of my confused background. My home was just a location, and my genes were just letters scattered about with no order or meaning. Nye explains how she feels for her wounded and dead people and wishes to protect them like family, “I cannot pretend a scrap of investment in the language that allows humans to kill one another” (Nye). Reading this, I wished I could feel the pain and the happiness of my ancestry, threaded to my soul through blood and language. But I hadn’t experienced any example of that. Not long ago, my mother took me to church. I was an atheist and hadn’t gone to many church sermons before. I saw the way the churchgoers sang in unison, praised the Lord for all his blessings, and all said “Amen” after every time they prayed. Although I didn’t believe in religion, I envied their strong sense of connection. I was jealous of how they all knew each other and prayed that a high-school boy named Michael would do well on his exams. It made me want to be a part of their society. I dreamed of sharing their fears and thanks through song and prayer. However, that dream was shattered when I walked up to the priest at the end of the sermon to drink “the blood of Christ” and eat the “body of Christ.” Before me, I saw everyone poking their foreheads and chests and shoulder blades then muttering “Amen.” I hadn’t the slightest clue of what to do when it was my turn. I again felt the urge to run in my getaway toy car, away from the kids who didn’t want to play with me, away from the church and the glass of red wine, and away from any sense of closeness that I didn’t belong to.

Reading the works by Rodriguez, Agosin, and Nye supported my belief that I have no place in this world. However, something about Hayakawa’s message stuck with me, “we are a nation of immigrants, we do not share the characteristics of race, religion, ethnicity, or native language which form the common bonds of society in other countries… [Through English,] we have been able to forge a unified people from an incredibly diverse population” (563). Hayakawa made me ask myself, If everyone is born from different countries and raised upon different tongues, how come people of great diversity can still form bonds? How can they and I cannot? Then I realized how all the ties to culture that Rodriguez, Agosin, and Nye feel are established through their knowledge of a dialect. From there, I saw learning a language as a way to integrate myself into a group. Learning languages takes time. Looking back, I realize I was able to integrate myself into the society of my elementary school peers by saying hurtful things about my own race. Although this was bad, I learned how to be a part of something. The stories also taught me how culture is not based on genes or skin color or the shape of your eyes. Culture doesn’t abandon someone due to their confusion with identity. Every culture is capable of embracing people who speak to it in its native dialect. Hayakawa explains how not learning English can hinder the integration of a person into America (565). This reveals how paramount language is to integration, whether into a new country or a new group of friends. Hayakawa showed me that the reason why I felt so distant from my Chinese relatives was not because they wanted to exclude me, but because I didn’t understand Mandarin. Language is a key to identity and integration. The other Chinese children at school didn’t just grow up being part of their culture. They spoke Chinese at home, went to Chinese school to learn about their culture, and then were able to connect with their family. I’m behind in the process of discovering my identity, but I think I’ve found the path I need to take.

I gained a new impression over the stories by Rodriguez, Agosin, Nye, and Hayakawa. I no longer envied their intimacy with culture. Instead, I felt open to their message: one must master language before cherishing culture. From Hayakawa, I can objectively evaluate my problem with identity. My problem isn’t  the color of my skin, my genes, or my religion, but my lack of language skill. Culture is derived from and shared through language. The stories gave me hope that one day, I’ll find the middle ground where I belong. That place isn’t black and white; it is a spectrum of colors, full of options. I don’t have to be Chinese. I don’t have to be white.

I’m biracial.

1 Comment

One Response to “My Story: I’m Biracial; It Used To Suck”

  1. Rachle on November 14th, 2017 7:12 pm

    Megan, this is absolutely beautiful, it brought tears to my eyes. I haven’t read such a meaningful, moving piece of writing in a while. Please keep writing more.

    [Reply]

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