No, I'm American, I reply, choosing to first define myself by where I was born and raised.
Impossible! You don't seem American! Where are your parents from?
I take a deep breath, anticipating the questions ahead as I explain that I'm half Irish by my mother and half Indian by my father, who is actually Muslim, not Hindu, and from South Africa, not India.
My mother is Irish and--
Irish! Wow, you don't look Irish. Does your mother have curly red hair and blue eyes?
Actually, yeah. She does.
And your father?
Ah. You look more Indian than Irish. Do you speak Indian?
You mean Hindi? No.
What part of India is he from?
Well, he's from South Africa.
Oh. And your name? Where is that from?
Are you Arab?
Then how did you get the name?
My dad's side is Muslim.
I thought Indians are Hindus?
There are a billion Indians. They're not all the same.
And where were you born?
I don't mind that people are surprised by the Irish-Indian combination. It's unusual, I admit. And fair enough, I don't expect them to look at my black hair and mocha skin and think, She's Irish. But what does bother me is the look of sheer confusion I get as I begin to explain, as if I had just said my parents were from Neptune and Saturn, and the visible relief when one piece of the puzzle fits: I mention India and they get excited because in their mind, my brown skin connects with a country of brown people. I am frustrated because I feel that people are more bewildered by my background than interested in it.
So what to make of my hodgepodge DNA? In our increasingly multiracial and multicultural generation, you can no longer assume, for example, that a Farsi-speaking Iranian girl isn't also a Dutch-speaking Amsterdam native.
Personally, being biracial is not really a problem; it's being tetra-cultural that's tricky to navigate. Even if our society rid itself of the ridiculous concept of race, people would still be drawing on their cultures for identity.
I don't think there is yet a place in the society for us multicultural folks. Various application forms ask us to check off our race but consistently offer only eight choices: Native American, Native Alaskan, African American/Black, Asian, White Non-Hispanic, White Hispanic, Hispanic Non-White, Pacific Islander. Maybe some identities fit neatly into these categories, but mine definitely doesn't.
Oh, wait, there's a ninth choice: Other.
Other!? Is this what they see me as? Are they so confused by anyone who doesn't fit compactly into these racial boxes that they'd rather lump us all into a cultural no-man's-land? Just because I am not 100% anything does not make me "other." It's an offensive option that instead might as well read "Whatever."
It was not until the past few years that my state of cultural limbo has really started to bowl me over. In high school I was far from fitting in as an all-American girl and I had no interest in the all-American boys. But I never thought about why I felt that way. Then I went to the University in Miami - a city full of brown people that look just like me! I'm not Latina, but for the first time I finally resembled everybody else. And suddenly many guys (from all continents but North America!) started asking me out. They said they liked me because I wasn't a "typical American girl" (whatever that meant) and I realized I felt much more comfortable with foreign rather than American men. At least they appreciated that "other"-type quality in me. Yet I did not even come close to truly fitting in with any of their cultures. I looked like an insider, but I wasn't one.
This confusion has defined my life and although I manage it well, it's never going to go away. I am stretched so thin that I cannot inhabit anyplace fully. I have traveled through many countries looking for a place that might feel like home to all of my cultural personalities, but my search has been in vain so far. I will always be a sliver away from fully belonging or being completely at ease with my friends.
I envy those who have one solid culture to come home to and pass down to their children. I can't even fathom how comforting that must be because the four sides of my background do not overlap into a tidy sense of this is where I belong. With the Europeans, I feel incredibly American and ethnic, with the South Africans I feel incredibly American and European, with the Americans I feel incredibly...foreign.
I am struck by the lack of dialogue about and for multicultural people. We have plenty of African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, Asian-Americans, but what about the African-Hispanic-Americans? The Arab-European-Americans? Where are the scholarships specifically for multiethnic students? Our cultural uniqueness is often overlooked, dismissed, and unappreciated. We need to start acknowledging that small but significant portion of the world's population is currently defined as "other."
On the flipside, our generation has the resources to define our identities as we want and free ourselves of others' preconceptions. If I don't fit a boxed definition of race or culture, that's fine. I'll happily stand alone knowing which part of me is American, European, South African, and Indian.
Thanks to the Internet and opportunities to study and work abroad, the world's cultural doors are opening wider everyday, and those that aren't, we'll kick them down. Plow right through.
As the population of multiethnic people slowly grows, we will be an increasingly powerful force in facilitating understanding and communication on the international scene. I, for one, grew up simultaneously understanding four cultures as an insider. As an adult, I am more easily able to look at important issues from all perspectives and not just one.
We know how to bridge cultural gaps because we've been doing it all our lives. We are exactly what our increasingly globalized world needs. So for all my bitching and moaning it is actually a blessing to be biracial and tetra-cultural. It's progressive, forward-looking and avant-garde. My life has been rich, thanks to my background, and for that I would never change it.
I'm exhausted, but I'm proud. And somehow I've managed to keep a small, quiet space inside me, a kernel of strength inherent to all women. Thanks to that steady bit of strength I was able to laugh when recently a customer at my workplace looked at my nametag and asked if my name is Japanese. That was a new one.