Coriander has fond memories of my mom bringing plates of fruit and cups of tea to us during our middle school playdates, but he also remembers the constant frustration and fighting that would play out in front of him as my mom and I struggled to communicate with each other through an invisible, but powerful cultural barrier. read more
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.
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.
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?
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
“You look a little Asian. Are you Chinese?”
“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
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.
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.
More than being Vietnamese and Irish, I’m simply just Mary.