Between colonization and imprisonment, my extended families endured some of the most oppressive times in Japanese American and Algerian history. One side experienced racist sentiment, exclusion and incarceration, and the other witnessed white imperialism, bloodshed and civil unrest.
My parents are artifacts not only of the turbulent parts of their family histories, but also of the authentic cultures they grew up in. I see their origins so transparently within them, and these roots have shaped my genetic makeup, my upbringing and my values. My ethnic background is the epitome of diversity, and it bleeds into my perspective and worldview everyday.
This is the narrative I’ve adopted, and it’s a complete lie.
I am always tempted to use my mixed background to give substance to my story. It’s an easy topic to reference when discussing identity. The diverse nature of my background was probably one of the most compelling parts of my personal statement in my college application — it’s likely the main reason I got into Berkeley. And because the story behind my identity is so often validated by friends and peers who find it interesting, it has become one of the few things about myself that I consider to be remarkable.
It’s a compelling story, and I’ve repeated it so many times — often in an effort to substantiate my own sense of cultural and self-awareness — that sometimes it doesn’t feel like my own. But it’s my favorite story to tell. It feels good to be different. It feels good to be proud of my roots. But it would be false to claim that my background is more than an awareness of my ancestry and the traces that it’s left in my DNA.
My uniqueness is largely superficial. I am only a whisper of my ancestors. The culture my dad brings to my family had to weave through a framework of American social standards that altered his language, traditions and memories. And the traces of culture my mom brings survived a century of forced assimilation before she was even born. Their cultures have been diluted across continents and over generations.
Sometimes I question how much cultural authenticity my parents have retained, both in their habits and in their hearts. Yet I don’t bother to question the absence of that authenticity in my own. As merely the product of two distant family histories that have nothing to do with each other, I have no way to reconcile my personal connection to their pasts. And in a time where globalization has prompted increasing cultural homogenization, it might not even mean much if I could. Whatever culture I claim to have is nothing more than a mask I put on when I have nothing else to wear.
I see my story reflected in many other second-generation individuals on this campus. The familiar stories of our parents and ancestors — events that we feel like we’ve experienced firsthand — are not our own. Despite the influence they may have on the way we were raised, the traditions we practice and the languages we know, they will always be someone else’s stories.
And the more distance that forms between ourselves and our origins — both as a consequence of time and cultural immersion — the less of that culture we’ll take with us.
I can’t deny that I felt different from my white American peers growing up. I can name instances when I felt alienated because I couldn’t eat the same lunches or wear the same clothes as them, but also times when I felt empowered because I was unique and had something to show for it.
There’s nothing that hurts more than the way people perceive and make judgments based on your differences, and there’s nothing that heals more than the pride that comes when you realize those differences make you unique. My ethnic background accounted for the best and worst times in my youth. And once I came to this campus, I began to realize I was not alone.
But I am more American than I am anything else. I grew up in an white town with American peers in a Western education system. My parents raised me to be a good student and a caring person just like my friends’ parents. We all shared the same teachers and pastimes and insecurities. And while this may not be an interesting or unique narrative — even one that I instinctively reject at times — somehow it’s the one that feels most real.
As students on this campus, we place value on stories that emphasize our differences and frequently attribute our successes to our roots. We are lucky to be in an environment where our individualities are our strongest assets, our backgrounds are a platform for progress and our trials have been the biggest motivation for our triumphs.
Existing among a variety of different cultures and backgrounds, it often feels like a social requirement to establish a unique sense of identity. We are often encouraged to exaggerate our differences until they begin to feel fabricated. And sometimes, I think I’d rather have story that is conventional but true, than one that is captivating yet false.
Contact Jasmine Tatah at [email protected].