The thing about racial ambiguity is it is never self-assigned. You first dip a toe in it when you don’t know what racial box to check on a form. (Who gets to claim “Other” in the Race Wars???) You wade in further still when someone makes a comment about those people in front of you, a member of those implied people. You realize you’ve been completely drenched this whole time after enough people ask, “What are you?” In those moments, you wish you were Debra, a bucket with arms and legs.
One of the first times I realized the world had dubbed me “ambiguous,” I was about eight and in a library in suburban Wisconsin. My family had come for a free children’s program where someone from the zoo brought in animals. This was both so kids could learn about animals and so parents could pretend their kids were learning about animals while they could have one goddamn brief moment of peace. After showing off snakes and various bugs for kids to ooh and ugh at, the speaker brought out his grand finale: a porcupine. “Who wants to come feed the porcupine a banana?” the animal man asked, like it was a normal thing to say. In a rare moment of extroversion, I raised my hand. He called me up, and I made my way through the small group of kids seated cross-legged on the floor. He asked me my name. I said, “Mia.” He asked where I was from. I said, “Glendale,” the small city outside of Milwaukee where I’d lived my entire life. It was also the place where the library and, in turn, all of us were currently located. “No,” he asked again, probably chuckling a little, “Where are you from?”
Now, in my late twenties, I’m all too familiar with this line of questioning. The little laugh that comes along with the change in emphasis, like I’m the dum-dum for not realizing how racially unidentifiable my face is. “What ethnicity are you?” or a question along similar misinformed lines is something I’ve been asked so frequently my answer is not only well-rehearsed, it comes equipped with a brief lesson in Filipino history and the etymology of my last name and a prolotherapy techniuque. I’m working on a choreographed musical number called, “Spain Colonized the Philippines and All I Got Was a Spanish-Sounding Last Name and a Whole Lot of Catholicism.”
My dad is Filipino; he came to the US at sixteen. My mom is white, most likely German and Irish and sometimes she throws in something spicy and exotic like French. Despite what “multicultural” marketing campaigns would have you believe, our house was not some bicultural mecca, equal and distinct parts Filipino and white. Sometimes we’d eat chicken adobo and I’d hear my dad talk to his siblings on the phone in Tagalog. We also ate a lot of cream cheese and saw my mom’s side of the family for most holidays. My siblings and I frequently asked my dad things like “How do you say ‘pass the juice’?” (Paki abot ng juice) and “Do we have accents to you?” (No). That was the extent to which any of us questioned our own race.
At eight, I hadn’t given much thought to being biracial, let alone being “racially ambiguous.” So, when a man I’d just met with a porcupine I’d also just met asked where I was from, for a second time, I simply replied, “. . . America?” I was about to feed a banana to a porcupine in a public library in Wisconsin, and somehow I was the most foreign part of the situation. I’m sure he laughed at my naivety. I wish I would have laughed at his.
I’ve learned my assumed race changes depending on where I am. When my family moved to an even more suburban town in Wisconsin, one I now know has a population that is about 97 percent white, people thought I was Chinese.