Discovering my multicultural identity


Vijay Bharadwaj

Understanding my cultural identity required adjusting to social norms and “fitting in,” something that I did not excel in at a young age.

by Elisabeth Siegel, Winged Post Editor-in-Chief

The value of heritage was first impressed upon me because of how I lacked it.

Firstly, I’m multiracial — “half Asian-American, half white” according to government and forms. It’s a little more complicated than that when you get into it:  50 percent Chinese and 50 percent some White mixture, part Jewish and part Irish and other various components from the western world. I’m still working on not seeing my ancestry as an unfortunate state of being but as merely my identity, neither positive nor negative. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

My ethnicity and race defined much of my childhood. For example, Chinese school was a thorny area of embarrassment for me, betraying my ignorance at every level of the culture that was supposed to be at least half mine. I was late to the game; in contrast to me, the rest of the children, years behind me in grade school, had households where three words of Mandarin were spoken for every word of English.

My Chinese teacher was doing the best she could to bring me up to speed with my classmates, but that was a colossal undertaking.

I was an outsider: when you are multiracial, the world is picket fences and hostile glares. Both sides face off, and neither wants to claim you as its own.

Not that I could blame the children for their distrust. Kids who don’t have my skin color consistently faced difficulties. They were often teased by other kids for being foreign and having weird food. And adults didn’t want to try pronouncing their names right and never would.

Caucasian kids set me aside as well, especially when they saw that I bristled at their snide comments about “fobby” parents or tiger moms. As a a result, I often found barbs directed at me.

To be sure, my white-passing skin gave me some social privilege outside of the Harker bubble, and I’m not about to say that my struggles with my own identity somehow outweigh the struggles of people of color seeking to prosper in a nation with a white majority.

I was an outsider: when you are multiracial, the world is picket fences and hostile glares. Both sides face off, and neither wants to claim you as its own.

Nevertheless, I stopped taking Chinese lessons in middle school, letting the embarrassment over my ignorance win over the shame at not knowing my own language. But my feeling of shame did not dissipate; it actually grew as I aged and found that I could barely communicate with my grandparents.

So in junior year, I went back to my Chinese teacher to ask for lessons. The first one was difficult — four years of lingual atrophy had left large gaps in my memory and larger ones still in my learning, and I couldn’t name more than two articles of clothing.

Struggling to reconnect with my heritage was a duty to me, but it was one that rewarded me every step of the way.

After the choice to embrace my ancestral language, the culture, customs, and familial belonging came along after, making the choice to return to Chinese lessons one of the most momentous decisions I’ve ever made.

Now, I’m planning on continuing Chinese language courses in university, and studying abroad in China to get more of the connection to my past and gain direction for my future.

The picket fences that kept me from accessing more of my identity have slowly fallen; the hostile glares have softened. More importantly, though, I had a debate last week with my Chinese teacher about Apple’s privacy systems on their phones — we disagreed politely — and yesterday I had a phone conversation with my grandmother, all in Mandarin. I told her a joke, and she laughed.


This piece was originally published in the pages of the Winged Post on Mar. 23, 2016.




Elisabeth Siegel (12) is the editor-in-chief of the Winged Post. This is her fourth year in Journalism, and she especially loves production nights and bonding with the rest of her staff. In previous years, she was Winged Post news editor, copy editor and reporter. Outside of the program, she is president of Harker’s NHS chapter, JCL, and editor-in-chief of Harker’s literary magazine. She volunteers at a domestic violence shelter in her free time.