by Haley Gittleman
“What are you?”
It’s the most cringe-worthy question all biracial people are asked throughout their lifetime. I don’t exactly remember at what age I was first asked this question – it was sometime during my elementary school days – but even as a young child, I knew this question referred to my racial identity. And as a young girl, I did not find this question to be offensive. Why would I? I was born to a white Jewish father and a Chinese Protestant mother in East Brunswick, NJ, a town that, according to Urban Dictionary, is “populated by wealthy Jews, Asians, and Italians”. So I should have fit right in. I should have been just like everybody else. Right?
“What are you?” I’m an extrovert.
In elementary school, I paid as much attention to race as I did to Social Studies – none. Although my two best friends in the world were tall, pretty blonde girls, I had friends of all shapes, sizes, and colors. But something strange happened when I entered middle school. Maybe it was because all of the elementary schools were suddenly thrown into one and we were all afraid of this huge change, but the students seemed to enter the front doors and funnel themselves into neat little categories, or cliques. Yes, social cliques are normal and expected, but cliques by race was something I had never expected. Each morning before the bell rang, I would walk down the hallways and see clusters of color. So what did this mean for me? Where was I supposed to go?
“What are you?” I’m a violinist.
In middle school, I was separated from my two best friends. I was thrown into advanced math – they weren’t; I joined the orchestra – they joined the band. In fact, we didn’t share any classes at all. This is when they first started to see and treat me as an outsider. I missed them so much. But, being the outgoing middle schooler I was, I decided to make new friends. Perhaps it was because I was in advanced math and orchestra, but the students I was meeting were mostly Chinese. (Yeah, I know what you’re thinking, but hey, some stereotypes are true.) One-on-one, the Chinese kids seemed to accept me. But in a group setting, I often received some not-so-subtle signs that I wasn’t welcome. For example, I’d go over to talk to them and they’d switch their conversation from English to Mandarin. (The only words I know how to say in Mandarin are “thank you” and “pork bun”.) When I started going on kid-dates with one of the Chinese boys, a girl in the clique told me that I couldn’t “take their men” and even went as far as to blackmail him with an embarrassing photo to “break-up” with me. I think it was when the Chinese girls invited me to an AIM chatroom (remember that?) in seventh grade with the sole purpose of telling me I should probably kill myself that it finally dawned on me to find some new friends.
“What are you?” I’m a loner.
I was alone a lot in junior high. I was too distrusting of new people. But in the ninth grade, I met a nice Jewish boy. Although he was one of the popular kids and a bit of a jock, he was different. Smart, sensitive, and sweet (and of course, very handsome). I crushed on him hard for the entire year, unreciprocated. But a month before we graduated from junior high, he asked me out on a date, and we were together for the majority of high school. When I was with him, the only discrimination I faced was from the other popular kids who constantly reminded me that I wasn’t popular enough to be with him. This was much more easy to swallow than being bullied for not being “Asian enough”.
“What are you?” I’m a strategist.
He was my gateway to having a social life in high school. The parties, the volleyball games, trips to the shore, prom, new friendships. To him and the new friends I acquired, I wasn’t “half-Asian” or “half-white”; I was a whole, complete person. I didn’t have to think or worry about race. Well, not until I had to take the SAT and fill out college applications. “How would identify your race? Choose 1.” When you’re a 50/50 mix, how do you choose one? Of course, these forms always provide the dreaded “other” category, but who would ever identify as an “other”? Who would choose to feel sub-human? Well, I’ll tell you what I did – I chose whichever would give me the biggest advantage. I had heard about colleges having an Asian quota, so on the SAT and my applications, I was white. I hated being forced to choose. I hated being forced to deny half of my identity.
“What are you?” I’m a goofball.
I was fortunate enough to be accepted to Oberlin College, where I studied biochemistry. I had chosen that school for many reasons, the first-and-foremost being their liberal ideologies and overall acceptance of those who were different. Many of the Oberlin students had felt like outsiders in high school. The four years I spent there were amongst the happiest of my life. College was just like elementary school! A bunch of goofy kids running around with Nerf guns who liked to play ping-pong and Rock Band and have fake sumo wrestling matches in the lounge. There were no cliques. It didn’t matter if you were queer, trans, poor, nerdy, biracial, bisexual, socially awkward, just so long as you weren’t a Republican (only half-kidding). And the best part of all, I got to meet biracial and multiracial students just like me, people with whom I’ve shared similar experiences. In fact, Oberlin College reports that 6.1% of the students identify as multiracial! Compare this to the 2010 Census, where only 2.3% of people reported being “more than one race.” Side note, but the Census didn’t even allow people to choose more than one race until 2000, even though interracial marriage was decriminalized in 1967!
“What are you?” I’m a biostatistician.
Unfortunately, after my four years were up, I had to leave the bubble and enter the real world. I decided to change gears and get my Master’s degree in biostatistics at Rutgers University. On the first day of classes, I sat alone. A Chinese girl sat down next to me and started speaking to me in Mandarin. I apologized and told her I didn’t speak the language, and she literally got up and moved to another seat. Things aren’t much different in my current PhD program at Case Western Reserve University. The majority of my classmates are non-native English speakers and look at me like I’m an alien. I even mentioned once that my mother is Chinese, which astounded many of the students. It always baffles me that my silky dark brown hair and almond-shaped light brown eyes aren’t enough to pass considering that’s all non-Asian people see when they look at me.
“What are you?” I’m an American.
To make matters worse, outside of classes, I have to deal with ignorant Ohioans on a regular basis. Like last Fall, I went to a comic con in Akron. An older white man pulled me aside and asked me my least favorite question, “What are you?” Of course I knew what he meant, but I replied, “What do you mean?” “What’s your nationality?” “I’m American.” “No, what’s your race?” “I’m biracial.” Then he started screaming at me, “YOU ARE ASIAN! WHAT KIND OF ASIAN ARE YOU?!” Last December, a black nurse at my former health clinic asked me if I was going home for the holidays. I told her I was and she told me to have a safe flight. I told her I was driving. She asked, “But, aren’t you going overseas?” I said that my family was from New Jersey. She asked, “But, aren’t you Chinese?” She couldn’t grasp my situation, all because I didn’t look “white enough” to her. Last week, I made an appointment at a new healthcare facility and the nurse needed my demographic information. She asked me for my race. I told her that I was biracial: half-white, half-Chinese. She said, “We don’t have a category for that… I’ll just put you down as ‘Other’”.
“What are you?” I am many things.
I’m a mathematician, a musician, a dancer, a dreamer. My racial identity has shaped and molded me, but it does not define me. It will continue to challenge me and make me strong. It will always allow me see the world differently from those who have never been forced to choose, from those who fit into a neat little category. But one thing is clear: I will never let my racial identity reduce me to something less than whole. I am most certainly not and will never be an “other”.