Tuesday, February 16, 2016

A Desire to Belong

I was watching some YouTube videos about the multiracial experience, and I was struck by how people can identify with a race or ethnicity that isn't obviously evident in their physical appearance. It was also interesting to hear that when multiracial people are perceived as "ethnically ambiguous", perfect strangers stare and ask stupid questions that they wouldn't ask "just white" people.  The take away I got was that no matter how hard they try, no matter which "side" they try to fit in with, multiracial people run the very real risk of being told they don't belong.

I then searched for more specific videos about Filipino Americans, and again I was struck by the amount of animosity between so-called "FOBs" (fresh off the boat, ie. newly arrived Filipino immigrants) and "Fil-Ams" (Filipino-Americans, or those who have undergone some level of Americanization).  While the videos about multiracial people focused a lot on physical appearance as an obstacle to belonging in both races (or the race one predominantly identifies with), the Filipino videos focused on the ability to speak Tagalog without a particular accent, and other cultural traditions, values, and choices that are considered more or less in line with "real" Filipinos.

I remember how, for years, I tried to fit into what was supposed to be my rightful ethnic identity - Polish.  In spite of never forgetting the language, in spite of being able to read and write it, in spite of "looking Polish", I never felt accepted by any Polish community or group once I emigrated.  And on the flip side, perhaps due to my own desire to distance myself from mainstream America, I never felt a part of American society either.  Even though it has been nearly 30 years since I first arrived in the United States, I continue to identify as an immigrant.  There are still values and traditions that I have kept from my culture of origin, and there are values and traditions that I have accepted from my adopted country.  I am both, Polish and American, but I wouldn't say that I "belong" in the full sense of the word to either.

So then I think about my daughter and the various cultural identities that she has a birthright to.  I think about how I've been worrying myself sick trying to figure out the best way to help her have a shot at claiming the various identities.  But today I realized that I've been focusing on the wrong approach.  I've accepted society's definition of identity, race, culture, and its priority of such a label. I've accepted the - granted, very human - desire to belong as a given.   But there is something far deeper that I think I can offer my daughter instead of teaching her how to fall in line with other people's expectations.  The truth is that no matter how hard she tries, no matter how skilled she becomes, there will be members of any given group that will find a reason to try to exclude her, make her feel like an outsider.

Her Polish may be perfect, but she doesn't "look Polish". She may "look Filipino" but her Tagalog may be limited, along with her cultural knowledge, having not grown up in a Filipino household.  And while she has different white influence in both her upbringing (me, Polish) and DNA (one of her donors is British), no one would mistake her for "just white".  At first I thought she probably has the best chance of belonging in the Hispanic community.  She will grow up speaking Spanish and her coloring is the same as that of a lot of Latinos.  But Maya's looks have already been commented on by two Latinas - one asked Alex (her Latino dad) if his wife was Chinese, and another used a nickname ("chinita") to describe her.

So while I'm not going to pretend that we live in a post-racial society or that it's easy to ignore one's desire to know where one fits in, I also want to make it a point to help my daughter have a spiritual identity, something beyond physical and cultural boundaries. And of course, I will have to lead by example.  No longer caring about if I am accepted by Poles, Americans, Catholics, or anyone else.  I am me.  I am.

No comments:

Post a Comment