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i’m confused about my mixed race identity
mixed feelings is a bi-weekly advice column. Every other week, a different mental health expert, author, or journalist will respond to your problems and existential questions. If you like this sort of thing, why not subscribe?
dear mixed feelings,
I am confused about my Japanese and white identity….My mom is white and my dad is Japanese and they split when I was little. I have been living with my mom and white stepdad since. I FaceTime often with my dad…He can speak English and Japanese. My mother used to speak Japanese but now can only speak a couple words. I knew a bit of Japanese when I was little and now I only speak English.
My [grandma] only speaks Japanese...I feel so ashamed that I can’t communicate with her…I have tried to learn Japanese twice, the first time my teacher just showed me Japanese movies which didn’t help at all. The second time my teacher…ended up [crossing] my boundaries. When I told her I was going on a break for a week for the holidays she said I didn’t want to learn Japanese anymore and that she had “lost me”...It gave me off vibes so I stopped getting lessons from her. I have tried to look around me for support [but] I am the only Japanese person in my school, not to mention I am like 1 out of 5 East Asians in my school so it feels very isolating. I am embarrassed to admit but at one point I wished I was Chinese or Korean because then I could share a culture with them.
I have lied to people I barely knew when they asked me if I could speak Japanese…[On top of that], I haven’t been to Japan much…so I don’t know much about my culture. I am also queer and the Japanese side of the family doesn’t know. It really sucks because my dad is low-key homophobic and sexist so I hide that part of my identity from him. I am not…white-passing so I have a hard time accepting my white half, too. Am I Japanese enough or white enough or am I acting too Japanese and completely rejecting my white half? I feel like I don’t belong anywhere and no one in my family truly understands me and knows how to help. I hope this isn't too long, maybe I am just an emotional teenager but I really need help figuring this out. — mixedfeelingsfan, she/they
As a multiracial white and Korean American with a father in the U.S. military, I grew up moving around the country every few years. In Hawai’i, I was the white kid in the class. In Kansas, I was practically a foreigner. In Georgia, I was called “Chinaman” and asked if I spoke English. Without a strong sense of home or close connections to my Korean family, I spiraled when strangers would ask where I was from. It was a loaded question, both because I knew the person asking was often simply trying to categorize me—but also because I didn’t feel like I ever had a tidy or honest answer.
So I want to start by telling you that you’re not alone. Every multiracial person I know has experienced a version of what you described: the alienation from the people around you, the sense that you’re somehow an impostor of your own identity, the disconnection you feel from those who nominally share your culture. The bad news is that it doesn’t ever completely go away—at age thirty, it still kills me a tiny bit when the ajumma at the Korean market doesn’t clock me as Korean. The good news though, is that it is possible for you to learn to feel more confident in your identity so those moments hold less power over you.
you will always be of both cultures, but what that looks like is up to you
I’ve found that the key to becoming more comfortable with my multiracial identity has been letting go of the desire to be recognized as Korean—or even Asian at all. Others’ perceptions of you are entirely colored by their own life experiences, so you have no control over how they read you. I’ve had people assume I was 100% white, 100% Korean, but also Japanese, Latinx, and Hawaiian. Before I developed a strong identity, being misperceived had the power to ruin my day and throw me into a shame spiral for not being Korean enough.
It can be tempting to imagine different versions of a less complicated life for yourself. Maybe if you grew up in a different town or country you would feel more whole. Maybe if you weren’t mixed at all it would be easier to connect with your culture. I’ve gone through periods where I eschewed my Korean heritage and took on my white identity completely. I’ve also gone through periods where I identified solely as Korean. Both times it felt like I was leaving something out, like I wasn’t telling the full story. That inauthenticity ultimately left me feeling like mismatched parts of a whole. You can’t change what brought you to this moment, and I’ve found that when I let go of trying to change that, of yearning for another version of myself, it cleared the way for me to appreciate my own story more.
find your people
Matthew Salesses is the author of several books including Craft in the Real World and Disappear Doppelganger Disappear. He was adopted from Korea when he was two years old and grew up in the U.S., estranged from Korean culture. “I felt totally isolated from everything, but also there was no outreach that I could do,” he says. “The advantage now versus when I was a kid is being able to find the community online.”
Podcasts like Feeling Asian, Self Evident (disclaimer: I am an advisor for Self Evident so I’m admittedly a big fan!), publications like Slant’d, and the Asian American Feminist Collective have helped me engage more closely with people who are interested in exploring what it means to be part of the Asian diaspora, in all of its multiplicity. People and organizations don’t need to reflect your specific ethnicity or mix to feel familiar—in fact, I’ve felt the most at home with other multiracial people who aren’t even Asian because they know the experience of being mixed better than someone who is full might.
I’ve also found comfort in reading and following personalities who live in the margins and intersections of Asian identities: adoptees like Matthew Salesses or Nicole Chung, and queer, multiracial writers like Alexander Chee, T Kira Madden, and Sabrina Imbler. A line from Imbler’s forthcoming essay collection How Far the Light Reaches feels ripped straight from my own subconscious: “My experience as a mixed-race person is not fixed but always oscillating—between Chinese and white, longing and irritation, pride and guilt.” It’s an indescribable feeling to have your innermost thoughts mirrored back at you. I’ve had experiences like this reading these authors and so many more—once you start looking, there are folks like us everywhere.
That goes for IRL community, too. Some of the other Asians at your school may feel just as disconnected from their cultures as you do. This might be a way to connect with them. It might take some bravery first, though: “It’s hard, because at some level it makes you feel like more of an outsider when you first take that step because you don’t have as much cultural context,” Salesses says. “Even though you desire to be there, you kind of protect yourself thinking ‘well, maybe this isn’t want I wanted after all.’” What matters most, he adds, is finding people who aren’t going to close that door on you.
I also want to remind you not to neglect your other passions or identities. As a queer person, it’s crucial to find people who can affirm you, even if it’s not your family. And beyond your identities, don’t forget about your interests! If you love sports, art, or writing, it can help to invest in these passions and build a community based on that shared language. The real power of finding your people—whatever that means to you—is cultivating a community that both accepts and reflects you. Community also requires you to show up for those who need you, and sometimes giving the love you need is a way to cultivate it for the long term.
you’re entitled to your story and your cultures
A couple of weeks ago, my husband and I decided to celebrate Chuseok, the Korean harvest holiday. I have a photo of my Korean grandparents’ wedding, so I pulled it down and placed a piece of songpyeon and a glass of soju in front of it as an offering to my ancestors. We toasted each other with tiny cups of soju. While we ate, I looked up Chuseok traditions on my phone.
I felt like such a fraud—like an impostor playing Korean. I didn’t grow up celebrating Chuseok. But as I’ve grown older, it’s become important to me to learn the traditions that my ancestors have practiced for thousands of years. And that means that I have a lot of moments like this: typing poor transliterations of words I only know in Korean on my phone, hoping Google can provide the information that will make me feel whole.
In my twenties, I started to research Korean history and how the U.S. military presence affected the country. I learned that my story isn’t just mine; it’s the story of thousands of people who were born to American soldiers and Korean women. When I got more of the context about where my people came from, it made me appreciate my own existence as the most recent link in a chain that goes back thousands of years.
Being entitled to your story means accepting the realities that brought you to where you are today. It is not your fault that you grew up with one parent over another. It is not your fault that you aren’t fluent in Japanese. In fact, you are allowed to decide you’re not interested in learning the language right now because your experiences have been frustrating and painful. It’s also never too late to learn more, if and when you want to. Once you accept these truths, you can free yourself to explore all that your cultures have to offer on your own terms.
You will always be of two cultures—but what that looks like is entirely up to you to define. You are allowed to change your mind—and you will, depending on where you are in your life, and what context you’re in. Your experience is central to the Asian diasporic experience, an identity that comprises multiple disparate communities with varying levels of familiarity and fluency with their home cultures. It can be hard to remember this so I’m here to remind you: You are entitled to your identity. To your cultures. To your languages. To your histories. You are not an asterisk.