Meinderings: Being wh(Asian)

Finding my biracial identity


Can I “pass” for white? According to some, this determines my cultural identity.

My mother is tall, slim, with long black hair and tiny wrists. She is also Chinese.

Sometimes my mother tells me stories of the oppressive summer heat pooling into sweat stains of old T-shirts and the insensitive white classmates in their saddle shoes and Keds who yelled “Ching Chong Chinaman” across the crisping tanbark. She tells me about how she and her siblings frustrated them by pretending not to hear their taunts, later laughing at their ignorance.

As a half Chinese, half German-Irish child, I grew up around these stories, building my mother up in my mind to the likes of Rosa Parks, a brave woman standing up against oppression and triumphing against all odds. It didn’t matter what language I spoke or what color my skin was; I identified with the valiant struggle of my mother’s family, not the cartoon evil of the white bullies.   

Then reality hit. After I started school, I was constantly confronted with a barrage of people who looked at my brown hair and pinkish, Irish skin and saw me as a white girl. From the Stratford pre-K where I was the sole student with any Caucasian heritage to my Crystal Children’s Choir, where the conductors teach in Chinglish, people only saw how I was different from them. “You’re white, right?” they’d say.

“I’m Chinese,” I would explain. It wasn’t that I didn’t identify as German-Irish; I was less defensive about that part of my heritage because no one questioned it.

Pictured is my German-Irish father (left) and my Chinese mother (right). For all their physical differences, they share a common upbringing and value system.
Pictured is my German-Irish father (left) and my Chinese mother (right). For all their physical differences, they share a common upbringing and value system.

“Do you speak Chinese?” they would ask. “Do you eat Chinese food? Have you ever been to China?” I didn’t look Chinese, I didn’t know much about Chinese culture, so how could I be Chinese?

Recently, when I was reading white privilege blogs online, I came across one talking about people of color in the media. Am I a person of color, I pondered. I wanted to know if I had the authority to speak as a “woman of color,” so I contacted the moderator of the blog and explained my situation. Eventually, she replied. “Not if you can pass as white, no.”

And there it was. In one fell swoop, my identity had been stripped away. I “passed,” so I was not a woman of color, so I was not Chinese, so I was not like my mother.

The issue of what defines white or not white is hard to talk about; it’s stooped in history and memories too painful to remember. It’s an often unspoken undercurrent that runs under everything we do, all that we say, each thought that crosses our minds. But ultimately, as difficult as it is to accept, it is a construct.

The last time my ten-year-old cousin came to visit, she had to be informed for the first time that her father, who is of British descent, is not Chinese. To everyone else, her father’s sandy hair and thin nose were clear hallmarks of a Caucasian background. To her, they were parts of her father’s face.

I have white privilege; of this I am sure. Living with pink skin and brown hair has afforded me advantages my mother never had. But it is not, cannot be accurate to say that I am not Chinese.

As the world grows smaller, already hazy ethnic lines blur into gradients. I’m not sure what defines identity, or if globalization is good, or what is politically correct, but I do know who I am. I’m half Chinese, half German-Irish, and only I can decide that.