“So…what are you?” That’s a question I’ve gotten far too often from men who are interested in me, even before they ask me what my name is.
I almost have the impulse to respond with the names of dog breeds. They, of course, are asking about my ambiguous racial and ethnic background.
Over the course of my twenty-one years of life, my background has been mistaken for…*drumroll* full Korean, half-Korean, full Chinese, half-Chinese, full Japanese, half-Japanese, half-Greek, full Filipino, half-Filipino, half-Chinese half-Greek, half-Italian, half-Portuguese, half-Italian and half-Portuguese, Native American, Mexican, and Puerto Rican.
Those are just the ones that I can remember off the top of my head.
Some of those are close to my actual ethnic makeup which is Chinese and Lebanese, but others are a far cry (to say the least).
Guys who match with me via a Tinder profile that I barely ever use, or see me at a party, take it upon themselves to play a guessing game with me that I never asked for. It’s like they think I’m a sexy Rubik’s cube or something.
I’ll call this for what it is: fetishization.
White men tell me things like, “Oh, I’ve never been with an Asian girl before,” followed by a plethora of sex-based racial stereotypes that make me wonder if they were raised by a pack of wolves…racist wolves.
The issue that always arises is something all too relatable for people of color. You wonder if someone is just with you, because they have a “thing” for your race. However, in my experience, this problem is not exclusive to Caucasian men.
Even if I’m seeing a guy who shares a similar racial or ethnic background, I still feel like I’m playing second fiddle to white women.
Sometimes Asian men see me as beautiful because there’s a belief that mixed race people tend to be more attractive than those who are of an homogenous background. This can seem like a compliment, but again, I call ‘em like I see ‘em: fetishization.
I’m what an Asian man seems to want in overall values, along with shared experiences, and cultural knowledge. But much like with white men, I’m still treated as something exotic.
An Asian guy I was seeing once told me that it’s a fact that “mixed race Asians are better looking than full Asians.” That’s a quote that stinks of internalized racism from miles away.
Calling me beautiful because I’m mixed race means that the beauty they see in me is inextricably linked to my whiteness.
As a mixed race person living in a society that conflates whiteness with ultimate beauty, you stop and wonder—would my partner like me more if I “acted” or looked more white? Would doing that make me more attractive to the people around me?
I think I was in kindergarten the first time I found out that a boy I liked could decide he thought I was ugly based off my race alone.
The first time I ever fell in love, I fell in love with a white man who I knew wouldn’t date me because all of his friends were white, and I was not. He said he didn’t want to make me feel “uncomfortable” because I would have to be around white people all the time.
He said he loved me too, but what he never said was that he was too embarrassed of my race to show everyone else how he felt about me.
I wanted to go back to my dorm room and claw my face off.
I wanted to replace my dark brown, nearly-black eyes with blue ones. I wanted to bleach away the black from the thick hair on my head. I wanted a square jaw. I wanted a more prominent nose.
Would that make him think I was acceptable enough to be in a relationship with him? Would he choose me if I did all of that for him?
I tried my hardest to pull every trick out of the whiteness bag that I could. I never talked to him about my family. I never brought up racial issues. I never spoke about the things that I loved.
I lied and told him my favorite dessert was carrot cake when it was the lai wong bao my grandfather would buy for me in Brooklyn.
I skipped Asian American cultural events to sit in his room and pretend I cared about watching him play video games.
I even trained myself to restrain my natural smile.
One of my Asian friends once told me she knew I was Chinese because of how I smiled. When I’m at my happiest, my “Chinese teeth” are on full display, my eyes scrunch up, and my cheeks stick out. Kind of like Buddha.
That’s right. I stopped smiling because I thought it would make me seem more white, and therefore more desirable. Truthfully, those couple of years made me feel like a flaming pile of garbage.
I was suffocating under the unbearable weight of internalized racism. I learned to hate myself because I thought it would make someone love me.
And for what? To gain the approval of some dusty white man who thinks moisturizing his face is BS? No thanks. Have fun with your wrinkles.
Even after all of it, if I’m honest, I’m almost glad it happened. For the first time in my life, I had to really sit and wonder why I felt so inadequate in the first place.
I had to look in the mirror and not only level with, but heal from the damage done by my own internalized racism.
By doing this, I learned to value myself based off my own interests and beliefs—not by my whiteness or lack thereof. Through this, I found out what things made me truly and unbelievably happy. I learned how to smile again.
In the recovery process from such an awful time in my life, I gained the ability to see past what I had been taught was the only thing that mattered: my appearance.
I am a girl who likes crossword puzzles, sour candy, and cherry blossom trees. I love marine life, but I can‘t swim. My hands and feet will never not be cold. I will always tell you if you grind your teeth when you sleep.
If you can’t see past my race to know these things, then it’s your loss.
And if you get angry when I call you out on it, it’s because you’re scared that I know who I am, who I want to be, and how I am going to get there.