How I went from rejecting my biracial heritage to loving it
Circa late 90s/early 2000s, my elementary school hosted a “Cultural Fashion Show.”
When my second grade teacher, Mrs. Hoover, announced this to the class, I went ballistic.
“A FASHION SHOW? OMG. CLOTHES? ALL EYES ON ME? YES PLEASE.”
I then proceeded to turn to my desk neighbors (I was graded poorly on exercising self-control in elementary school) and rapidly ramble about my outfit plans for said fashion show.
Mrs. Hoover rudely interrupted my rant when she heard my little seven-year old self proudly boast, “I’m wearing my fuzzy hot pink short-sleeve turtleneck sweater with my bedazzled mini jean skirt from Limited Too!”
“Stephanie, this is a cultural fashion show,” Mrs. Hoover said. “Everyone should wear a traditional outfit from a country their family is from.”
You should’ve seen the look on my face when she said that. “But I was born in Maryland!”
Bless my young, sweet and naïve self.
That day in the second grade was a turning point in my life. It was the first time I learned what “culture” meant, let alone heard the word for the first time. I went home that day and enlightened my parents about this fashion show. My mom, a 1986 immigrant from the Philippines, immediately called all her friends, eagerly yelling in the Filipino dialect Ilonggo, about how she’s going to make (that’s right, make) me a baro’t saya, a traditional blouse and skirt outfit from the Philippines.
I stood there looking at my mom in awe. “What is a barat sigh-ya?” I asked.
I was born in the DC suburbs to a Filipino mother and an American father from Minnesota, with family roots tracing back to England, Germany and France. My dad joined the Navy in 1986 and moved from his quiet, rural hometown to the buzzing mid-Atlantic Coast, where he met my mom at a wedding in 1989, just three years after she arrived to the U.S.
The fashion show was a hit. I LOVED my baro’t saya and took pleasure in explaining to my classmates how I was from the Philippines, where it was, what the people are like, and more. Although I spoke confidently about these things, I myself was still in the learning process. I didn’t know much about the Philippines, and hadn’t even fully understood that I was half Filipino until that fashion show. It intrigued me knowing that 50% of my blood came from this foreign country made up of exotic, tropical Pacific islands, and I wanted to know more.
My childhood was a blast. I would accompany my mom to huge Filipino parties filled with mile-long tables of the best Filipino food (including a giant roasted pig as the centerpiece, aka lechón), music, line dancing, happy people, LOUD people, and memories that never faded. An occasion was never needed – Filipinos threw parties just because, and I loved going to them.
But at times things felt strange. I wasn’t sure which side I fit in with the most. I looked Filipino, but I didn’t act like I was. I didn’t speak the language, nor could I really understand what my mom and her friends were saying. I was very much Americanized, and ultimately I was confused.
“I have tan skin and dark hair and eyes,” I would think to myself. “Because of the way I look, I am Filipino. But I don’t speak the language or have the same mannerisms as native Filipinos. I must be more American… but I don’t look American. So I must be more Filipino. But I don’t feel Filipino.”
This was an endless circle of thoughts that preoccupied my mind during my childhood.
You know those census questions you had to bubble in when taking state exams in school? Where they ask for you gender, race, ethnicity? This is the best example I can think of when describing my identity perplexities growing up.
There was a bubble for “White” and a bubble for “Asian.” Which one am I? Which bubble should I fill in? Why can I only select one answer?
It was like tug-of-war, going back and forth, pulling on each side, one side being more dominant than the other and vice versa. I was constantly hopping from one side to the other because I couldn’t find the median. So I decided to stop hopping and choose one side.
I grew up in a very diverse area, which I am so thankful for, but when I entered high school I didn’t have any mixed friends. I felt both proud and left out because of that fact. I liked being different, but the desire to be like everyone else prevailed.
I did all the stereotypical things that a “white girl” did to make myself feel as “American” as possible – I became a cheerleader, played field hockey and softball, shopped at Hollister and Abercrombie, lived for the tragic combo that is North Face, leggings and Uggs, inhaled caramel Frappuccinos on the daily – the list goes on.
Doing most of these things didn’t come naturally for me. I worked hard to make sure I was as stereotypical as possible *cue major eye roll*. I was completely ignoring what made me unique in order to prove to the world that I belonged to one group and one group only.
I’m not sure exactly when I started to come to my senses. It might’ve been after graduating high school when I stopped caring what others thought of me and started living life how I really wanted to.
I left my stereotypical desires behind in high school. I discovered my own style and started doing things the way that I wanted to, not the way I thought society wanted me to. I started trying new things and opening my mind to new foods, places, people and things. I saw the world from a new perspective and embraced it, including my own heritage.
That’s what being in your 20s is all about. It’s about looking at the world around you and opening your eyes to all the beauty that exists and realizing that THE WORLD IS INSANE. There’s so much to do, to see, to hear, to touch, to feel and to understand. There are so many different and interesting human beings that you’ll come across and interact with. As I grew older, I started meeting other mixed people and even found it to be more common to meet someone who is mixed. When I realized all these different people and cultures existed, I was filled with a slight degree of regret. Why haven’t I been embracing my culture this whole time?
I finally understood that being different in this world is so, so important. With seven billion people on earth, you have to stand out from the crowd in some way. So why would I reject what makes me different and unique?
I love where I come from and proudly accept both sides of my cultures equally. I finally understand who I am and have found that median that I was looking for as a child. I gladly bubble in “two or more races” when prompted with the census question (which they finally added as a choice, thank lawd). I take pride in carrying with me my mother’s loudly beautiful culture, and aspire to keep the Filipino culture strong and alive in my family for generations to come.