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Dear Mom and Dad: Happy Interracial Marriage Day

Dear Mom and Dad: Happy Interracial Marriage Day

Today is “Loving Day,” the day when the 1967 United States Supreme Court decision Loving v. Virginia struck down all anti-miscegenation laws remaining in sixteen U.S. states. In other words: it’s the day that all interracial marriages in the US can give thanks to Richard and Mildred Loving for enabling us to legally marry the person we love.

To be frank, I only learned that today was Loving Day this morning thanks to some posts on social media. I wish I could say I was more aware, but I’m not. My lovely friends and acquaintances help keep me informed. read more

The Double Standard of Diversity in California

The Double Standard of Diversity in California

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After growing up in Utah, living in Southern California for three years has given me a different perspective of the United States.

For one, white is no longer the majority in California (at least, in the big cities anyway).  Almost all of the friends I’ve made here are either Hispanic, Asian, Arabic or Black.  In fact, I’m sometimes hard pressed to find a white person here and it’s a great thing.  As someone studying international affairs on a professional level, diversity warms my heart and it makes for a very interesting place.  Now, after three years in diverse Southern California, I’m dumbfounded by how white dominated Utah is every time I return.

More than, that, though, I’ve been shocked by the comments from my minority friends who were born and raised in California.

“Utah freaks me out.  Too many white people.  When I’m around so many white people it bothers me.”

“I couldn’t live anywhere else besides California because of the diversity.  I need to be around Asian people.  Being with white people makes me uncomfortable.”

Most recently, I talked to a fellow half-Asian from SoCal who said:

“I never liked being with white people, and even though my dad and I have a good relationship I never felt close to him like my mother–because he was white.  Even today I don’t have very many white friends.”

That, to me as a fellow half-Asian, was shocking.

When I heard these comments, a part of me felt offended.  I am, after all, half-white.  And more than that, why do we have to hate or bash a certain race… even if they are the majority?  I know white bashing is all the rage now, but just because someone is white doesn’t mean you should shy away or assume that they have the inability to understand your culture.

As someone who grew up in all-white Utah, I had the opposite experience of my newfound SoCal friends.  Asian Americans (notice I say Asian Americans (AA) and not Asians) made me very uncomfortable, mostly because I didn’t grow up with the AA clique growing up.  I also looked more white than Asian and was thus often rejected as a fellow Asian.  The Asian American club at my university even had the guts to ask me why I was joining their club, since they assumed I wasn’t Asian.  In the United States, Asian Americans have their own unique culture that is nothing like that of their parent’s home country.  It’s a weird blend of western values and American pop culture mixed with their Asian traditions (especially in SoCal, this culture is very strong).

Ostracized, but still in love with Asia, I lived in China and Japan and felt more welcomed by the locals there that called me ‘foreigner’ than by my fellow Asian Americans in the United States.  Even today, I have closer relationships with Asians born and raised abroad than with their Asian-American counterpart.  Asian Americans flaunt their Asian-ness, but if you planted them back in the homeland, most would suffer and experience extreme culture shock.

My Stance on Diversity and How It Came To Be

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A long, long time ago in Utah…

As the new kid in second grade, and the only half-Asian in an all-white school, all my classmates avoided me like the plague.  Everyday at recess I sat alone on the green grass of the playground, wishing for the bell to hurry up and ring and for the day to be over.  Being the loner kid sucks.

And then, one day, a tall girl with long blonde hair and fierce green eyes towered over me.  Her arms were crossed, her head held high, her confidence unwavering.  I could do nothing but look up to her with my mouth agape.

“You,” she pointed at me.  “You’re going to be my best friend starting from today.”

With a “who, me?” look on my face, she repeated herself and I, the lone kid at the school with no friends whatsoever, had no choice but to consent.

H and I were inseparable after that day.  We played tag together.  Read comics together.  Hung on the monkey bars together.  The other kids started to see me as a normal person, and I felt like I was finally fitting in.

“Ew, look, it’s smelly Shelly,” the classmates cried at the other loner in the class, an overweight girl with tattered clothes and oily hair.  Although I didn’t know it at the time, Shelly was extremely poor.  Her family couldn’t afford to give her proper clothes and it was obvious to see she came from a broken and difficult home.  Kids are cruel and thus called her Smelly Shelly, and she was perpetually without friends.

Despite this, she gave everyone an invitation to her birthday party at her house.

“Ew, who would go to your stinky house Smelly?”

“Gross, I might get fleas if I go to your party, Shelly.”

H took the invitation, passed it to me and said: “We’re going.”

When you’re a kid, you worry about your image way more than you should–and that included me at the time.  What would the kids say if they found out we went to Smelly’s party?  Would I really get fleas?

“We can’t let Shelly be alone on her birthday,” H said.  Wise and powerful words from an eight year old.  I decided to go.

And we went to the birthday party.  I got her a coloring book, H gave her a poster.  There were four of us there, and you could tell that Shelly was elated to have us at her home.  I remember she lived in a trailer and her mom was nice.

Just Go For It

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Throughout the years, H never talked to me about how we should protect the lesser man.  Or how we need to help the less fortunate.  Or how minorities weren’t represented to their fullest and we had a duty to fight for diversity.

She just went for it.  In her actions, and not words, she treated everyone as equals.

She befriended the only Hispanic girl in our fourth grade class and introduced her to the group.  Even in college H managed to befriend more Asian, Indian, Arabic and black friends in Utah than I ever did (in fact, she introduced me to almost all my Asian friends in undergraduate school).  She wasn’t on a vendetta to make minority friends; oh no, she was just being herself and keeping an open mind.  She saw everyone as equal, as a person (not as a skin color or certain culture) and created friendships.  Bonds.  White or not, it didn’t matter.

“You shouldn’t judge someone by how they look or dress Mary,” H would often tell me when I shied away from those covered in tattoos or other people who seemed ‘strange’ to me.  “Be fair.  Learn who they are first–because that’s what’s most important.”

As I learned from H, I strive to go into any social situation with an open mind and without prejudice. Sure, there were times when meeting with different cultures or people (white included) made me uncomfortable, but I knew that, like H said, it was about heart.  I couldn’t judge a book by its cover.

Sure, H is white and maybe she doesn’t understand Asian, Indian, or any other culture as well as she should–but she’s more than willing to.  She bashes and hates and shies away from no one.  She just goes for it–she dives in with an open mind, introduces herself, and becomes a friend to those who need one.  Myself included.  And really, that’s what we should all do.

As I’ve learned from H, I do not hate, discriminate or judge anyone without, at the very least, giving them a chance.

So I say, let’s stop with the “Asian people make me uncomfortable” or “I don’t like white people” mumbo jumbo.  Just go out there and meet someone different.  Keep an open mind.   Give help to all who need it.

PS: H commanded me to be her best friend in second grade, and I have obeyed the order ever since.  H and I have been friends for 22 years now and, most recently traveled to Thailand together.

What do you think?  What was it like where you grew up, and do you feel more comfortable with diversity or homogeneity? 

The Ethnicity Question

The Ethnicity Question

The Dreaded Ethnicity Box
The Dreaded Ethnicity Box

After years of being uninsured in the U.S. (and a few more years of having third-world equivalent healthcare in China), I finally received fully covered health benefits through my new job.  In fear of medical bills and non-preventative coverage, I went years without a standard check-up.  When I got my shiny new insurance card, I booked the first appointment I could to get tested for–well, everything.  After all, I was fully covered.

“It looks like your application is incomplete, Ms. Mary O’Connor,” the secretary smiled sweetly.  “You’ll need to answer a couple of quick questions before you can see the doctor.”

“No problem,” I smiled. “Is it allergies?  Past medical history?”

“No,” she whipped out a laminated file, “we need an ethnicity from you.  Could you please choose one ethnicity listed on this chart?”

The sheet had five options:

1. White

2. Black

3. Hispanic

4. Asian

5. Other

Oh, the lovely ethnicity box.

It seems like I just can’t escape from it.  Ever since elementary school I have always pondered at my list of options, wondering if I was more white, or more Asian, or something else entirely.  In the end, I could never choose between my races and I always went with ‘other,’ the oh-so-kind option they prepared for people that didn’t seem to fit into any one background.  Life was made easier when more recent forms started adding a sixth option, the “two or more races” box, but it seems like some establishments (aka, this hospital) hadn’t heard of it yet.

“I can only choose one?” I asked.  “I’m actually a mix.”

She looked at my black hair and brown eyes, “Are you Hispanic?  Just put hispanic.”

“But I’m not Hispanic.”

She shrugged.  I checked the ‘other’ box.

“We have one more,” she took out a three page file, “please choose a more specific ethnicity from these lists.”

Another one?  I hope this wasn’t triggered by my ‘other’ choice–but I guess this hospital was serious about their demographics.

A list of over 200 races were placed in my hand.  Italian, Native American, Norweigan–even Catalan was on there.  It was the most extensive list of ethnicity I had ever seen.

“I can only pick one?”

“Yes,” she repeated, annoyed.  “You can only choose one.”

At this point, I thought: Whatever, I’ll just be white–that’s what most people think I am anyway.  There has to be a white option.  I flipped through the list of names and scrolled down to the W’s, only to see Welsh starring at me in the face.

“There’s no white option,” I said out loud.

“Just put Hispanic” the admin mumbled again as she continued typing away at her computer.

But wait–was this for medical purposes?  Some races are more susceptible to certain diseases, such as Asians with diabetes.  Was this more than just a census?  Was this actually linked to my health?  Suddenly choosing white didn’t seem like such a good idea.  I wasn’t so sure about Irish, either.  Although they are prone to skin cancer.  But Asians get diabetes.  Hmmmm.  It was a tough decision.

The secretary began to tap her fingers in impatience.  I felt rushed.  My appointment time was quickly approaching.  I looked at my watch.  The list of races.  The diseases I could possibly have.

Who knew that picking a race could be so difficult?

Finally, I marked Vietnamese.

The secretary looked at my answer, my face, and then my super Irish name.  I’m sure she had an armada of questions, but instead she shrugged her shoulders and printed out my application:

Mary O’ Connor

Age: 29

Race: Vietnamese

“You marked Vietnamese for your race?” my boyfriend replied in shock later that evening.  “Why would you do that?”

“Because I can only choose one!  And I’m more worried about diabetes than skin cancer! I put sun screen on everyday!”

“What are you talking about?

“You work at that stupid hospital,” I pouted. “Don’t they ask the race question for disease purposes?”

“To be honest, I have no idea why we ask that–but it’s definitely not for medical reasons.”

“Goddammit.”

“I guess that means you feel more Asian than White, huh?”

“No–I don’t really know.  But they only let me choose one.  And Vietnamese was easier to find.  Plus I’m more worried about diabetes.  Runs in the family.”

“I’m sure the doctor was shocked to see you, Ms. Mary O’ Connor from Vietnam,” he laughed.

Like I said before, being biracial aint easy.  A simple act as going to the doctor can make you remember just how confusing it is to determine your race, identity, and belonging when you don’t fit into a set category.

The good news?

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No diabetes! 😀

Have you ever had a rough time at the hospital?  Any other moments of frustration from the ethnicity box, or any other demographic?

Being Half Asian in China and Japan

Being Half Asian in China and Japan

Most people are stunned to find out that I’m half Asian half white.  They’re even more stunned to find out I’m not half Japanese or even Chinese:  I’m half Vietnamese (I know, I don’t look Vietnamese at all).

And I’m not only white–my father is 100% Irish.  So I’m a complete 50/50 split of two very different cultures.

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Being a Halfie in the USA

In my hometown (a very small town in Utah) my mom was the only Asian person in town, making my brother and I the only Asians in the school.  Despite how un-Asian I look, I was constantly teased for being a “gook” or a “chink” and never a moment went by where I wasn’t racially profiled.  Me liking Japan didn’t really help improve the situation,  so memories of people yelling “hey ching chong wong” and other such uncultured insults are still a very fresh memory today.

The ironic thing is, everyone in my town saw me as Asian and I was labeled with that stereotype–so you would think I would feel more Asian than white.  However, my mother never taught me her native tongue so I couldn’t communicate with family, and Asian Americans usually grew up and hung out with other Asian Americans in their community and therefore treated me, the weird white girl, with a strange indifference.  After all, I wasn’t really Asian (plus, I was from Utah).

So basically, I didn’t fit in anywhere.  In a town full of white people I was heckled and called Chun Li, then when I was with real Asians I felt like something was missing from my overall composition that prevented me from becoming one of the crowd.  I hear from other halfies this is quite common, and most half children tend to suffer severe identity crisis for quite a long time.

For the most part (especially in big metropolitan cities) most people don’t bat an eye at halfies.  They might “oo” and “ahh” for a moment, but that’s about it.  America is chock full of different races, so being half isn’t really that big of a deal.

Being Half in Japan

Are you half-Japanese, half-white?  If so, congratulations, the whole island of Japan adores you.  These halfies usually become movie stars or models, because that seems to be the norm in modern Japanese society.

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Becky, the half-American half-Japanese celebrity that drives me crazy

Half-Japanese, half-white children are automatically put on a pedestal.  They are regarded as the most beautiful babies and are fawned over by family, friends and neighbors alike.  The more “white” a child looks the better, since it will be all the more mysterious and foreign.

Some Japanese friends of mine have told me upfront: “I want to marry a white guy just to have half children.”

Some even go as far to say, “I don’t even need to marry the guy.  If he’ll just impregnate me with a beautiful baby, then he can go his separate ways and I’ll find a Japanese husband later.  That would save a lot of trouble.”

But wait, what if you’re not half Japanese?

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Mary-sensei, why is your hair black!?

My experience in Japan was the total opposite of my hometown.  Everyone treated me 100% white, and since I really looked the part they tended to ignore my black hair and brown eyes.

Sometimes people would ask why I had black hair, or if it my hair color was actually my natural hair color.

I would smile and say, “actually, I’m half Asian.  My mom is from Vietnam.”

Nine times out of ten, the Japanese person would completely ignore what I said and change the topic.

Once at school, a student asked why my hair was black.  When I told her I was half-Vietnamese, the teacher overheard and gave me an an admonishing stare.  I felt like I made some grave mistake by telling my student about my heritage.  It was then I realized that not only the fellow English teacher, but my entire school and Japan wanted me to fit into the perfect American stereotype mold–basically, not be Asian whatsoever.

I later learned that being half-Asian that IS NOT Japanese is mostly looked down upon in Japan.  Many men in the rural countryside of Japan tend to buy or bring in wives from China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Thailand, etc.. and as a result have created a rather negative image for half-Asians in Japan.

In short, Japanese people tend to look down upon other Asian races.  If I said I was half Japanese instead of half Vietnamese, do you think Japanese people would have had a different response to my answer?

Basically, Japan’s treatment of a halfie will largely depend on appearances.  Since I was white, Japanese people only saw me as American and wanted to keep it that way.  If you tend to look Asian, you won’t stand out like bigfoot and Japanese people might mistake you as one of their own.

Being Half in China

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Being loved in China

“You look a little Asian.  Are you Chinese?”

“Nope.”

“Taiwanese?  From Hong Kong?  Maybe Japanese or Korean?”

“Nope.  I’m a 混血 (mix blood).  My mom is from Vietnam.”

“Mix blood!  Oh my goodness I have a mix blood in my taxi!  You know, you mix bloods are the most beautiful, most intelligent, and the most superior among us all.”

“Uh, I think that’s an overstatement.  Mix bloods including myself are just your everyday, average Joe.”

“You should take it as a compliment!  You’re beautiful, smart, speak Chinese–wow, I wish I had a mix blood kid.  I should have chased foreign girls back in the day.”

I can’t even count how many times I’ve had the above conversation in a taxi, or even in the grocery store or restaurant.  Chinese people tend to adore halfies–no matter what heritage they may be.  Most Chinese people were actually amazed that I was half Vietnamese, and continued to inquire about where my mother was from and if I had traveled to Vietnam.  It was a breath of fresh air after Japan to not only be recognized as half–but to have people be somewhat impressed by the fact!

China is THE ONLY PLACE where people knew I was half-Asian from just one glance.  Maybe it’s because within the Chinese community they have a myriad of their own “mix bloods” that include Han, Miao, Mongol, Xinjiang, etc.. so they’re more acquainted with identifying mixed races.

Half-white, half-Asian kids are also highly admired in China, but I think Chinese women won’t go out of their way and marry a foreign guy just for the half-white kid alone (as opposed to their Japanese counterparts).

While I didn’t receive any extra benefits for being a halfie in China, I also didn’t have any demerits.  People just treated me like a normal, human being.  In fact, it was the first time anyone not only recognized me as a half-Asian, but also took a great interest.  For the first time in my life, I felt good about being half.

Contrary to Japan, Chinese people will usually praise your half-asian-ness no matter what you look like.  In Japan I felt like I had to hide my Vietnamese heritage–but in China, I was not only happy to tell people about my background, but I said it with pride.

So whether you look white or not, if you’re half-Asian in China get ready for the throngs of compliments you’ll receive!

Finding your Identity

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In Vietnam with a little Vietnamese girl and feeling completely foreign

Being half isn’t easy.  Whether you’re half Black, half Hispanic, half Asian or half white–it’s always a struggle to figure out where you fit in.  Growing up, I constantly questioned whether I was more Asian or white and tried to find which one I tended to identify more with.  Growing up and figuring out who you are is hard enough already, but when you add racial identity into the mix it makes the situation all the more complicated.

My western appearances and inability to speak Vietnamese made me feel cut off from my family, but at the same time my Asian background and black hair made me different from everyone else in my American community.  Most halfies tend to struggle in this tug of war identity crisis while growing up, but I think once we mature into an adult we finally realize:

We are who we make ourselves to be.  Our races do not define us.

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In my mind, I’m not only Vietnamese and Irish;  but also American, Japanese, a little Chinese and some French and Italian.  Our character and personality can take on so many different cultures and features, and really, it’s up to us to create those characteristics and put them into effect.

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More than being Vietnamese and Irish, I’m simply just Mary.