Stuck in the middle

Off the Beat


I was a sophomore in high school when I experienced my first identity crisis.

It was prompted when I sat down in English class next to a kid who had just started at my school. I was telling him about my visit to my dad’s family in Vietnam when he interrupted me with a question I haven’t let go of since. He raised his eyebrows quizzically at me and asked, “So wait, like, what are you?”

I grew up in the Bay Area and had grown accustomed to political correctness, so I was startled by the ignorant bluntness of his inquiry about my ethnic identity. I could see the gears turning in his head as he tried to make sense of my narrow brown eyes, light complexion and curly brown hair. It’s not a combination of traits that fits into any single ethnic category, so I didn’t blame him for not putting it together that I’m obviously half Vietnamese and half white with German ancestry.

But to this day, his question still comes back to me whenever I try to describe my own identity — whether it’s ethnic, cultural or political. Like, what am I?

The bell saved me from having to respond, but I spent the rest of class contemplating how I would have answered. If I told him I were Asian, he probably would have placed me in the corner of his brain reserved for bad drivers and math nerds. If I told him I were white, he might have noticed my Uggs and Starbucks drink and thought to himself, “Makes sense.”

But the real answer is that I’m both, and I’m neither. I’m the proud child of an interracial marriage, but my mixed heritage has complicated my ability to understand where I fit in the rest of the world, which is arranged in separate, distinct categories.

When he asked me this question, I was forced to confront the reality that I didn’t know what I was.

My eyes were too squinty and my skin tone too olive for me to be recognized as white, but I felt disconnected from my Asian heritage because of my inability to speak my father’s language and my upbringing in America. I started noticing that I felt out of place around both my Asian and my white classmates.

As I grappled with these thoughts, I began questioning if I would ever feel a sense of belonging when I could never fit neatly into any one group.

My identity confusion wasn’t confined to my ethnic composition. Being raised by conservative parents in a liberal area proliferated my internal sense of conflict surrounding political issues as I learned more about them. The ideas I heard at the dinner table sharply contradicted those I heard in class, and I struggled to find my comfortable place in the middle. When I mentioned the benefits of a progressive tax code at home, my parents gave me the same disgusted look that my friends gave me when I dared to express any semblance of a pro-life sentiment at school.

This tension culminated during my freshman year of college in another identity crisis. It was precipitated by a girl in my class who, after hearing me mention that I supported high national defense spending, glared and asked, “Oh, are you, like, a Republican?”

My UC Berkeley reflexes flared, and I spat out a defensive “no” without thinking. As I became more sure the answer really was no, I realized that I felt disconnected from any kind of political affiliation, just as I lacked a sense of kinship with any ethnic group.

This girl and the boy in my high school sophomore English class had both built islands in their minds of distinct categories they wanted to put me on, when in reality I was swimming somewhere in between these islands, not belonging on any single one. But it’s hard to explain this to a stranger who has already decided who you are before they even ask.

After reflecting on my identity crises and the questions that spurred them, I’ve determined the issue isn’t me figuring out who I am in terms of the world’s easy categories. Maybe the real problem is that the world needs to learn how to make more space for people in the middle.

We’re told that today, we’re more divided than ever. But what about those of us who don’t want to take sides? Those of us who want to bridge the gap between white and Black, left and right, because we are both, and we are neither? The spectrums of ethnicities, political beliefs and all the other ways we identify ourselves are just that — spectrums, with an infinite number places a person can fall.

It’s easy to see only extremes and specific categories, but understanding that there is more to a spectrum than the ends, and more to a person than the labels we want to throw on them, is how we make room for everyone. This is the understanding that is required for people like me who don’t fit into categories, to avoid identity crises every time we’re asked about who we, like, are.

“Off the Beat” columns are written by Daily Cal staff members until the spring semester’s regular opinion writers have been selected. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.

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  • Man with Axe

    The question, “What are you?” is a perfectly reasonable question that deserves a serious answer. One’s ethnic identity is obviously interesting to people, even if we believe, as I do, that it shouldn’t make any difference in how people treat you. It is not a microaggression or even bad manners to ask that question any more than it is to ask what one does for a living or what one’s major is, or where one calls home.

    I’m reminded of my first foray into teaching, at a middle school in Philadelphia in which every student was black. After a couple of weeks a group of 9th grade students approached me and one asked me, “So, Mr. Axe (not my real name), we were wondering, are you black or white?”

    I responded, “What do you think?”
    “We can’t tell.”
    “So, then,” I concluded, “It must not matter.”

    They smiled and went away to discuss further what I told them. They never brought it up again.

  • Killer Marmot

    Lord I’m sick of people worrying about their identities.

    Have the strength to know that you are far beyond just a list of categories. Identity politics — that debilitating cancer of our time — can sit on it and spin.