This (mixed) American life

Mixed Feelings

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Almost everything about my childhood was unexceptional. I lived in safe little towns — from the suburbs of Boston to a small town in Wisconsin and then the suburbs of Minneapolis. I attended great schools, and I fit in with my neighborhood friends and classmates. I was never affected by oppression, isolation or explicit racism. And I was part of a family that cared about me arguably a little too much.

Growing up in small white towns, I essentially adopted the same tendencies as my peers. In some ways, it was a natural conformity, but it protected me from exclusion. I didn’t understand my culture beyond what my parents relayed to me, and I didn’t try too hard to learn about it. I didn’t know much more than basic facts about Algeria or Japan. I didn’t even begin to identify as mixed until I understood more about race as an adolescent.

The differences between my peers and me weren’t glaring — I grew up more or less like any other American. But as a kid, I determined my self-worth by comparing myself to others. And since the others in this context were raised in similar (small-town) environments with similar (white) parents, and since they learned similar (American) ways of life and had similar (Christian) beliefs, those similarities were the standards I used for comparison. And certain things I knew about myself didn’t exactly fit.

Whenever white friends of mine would invite me into their homes, I would see how their truly American families operated. And for some reason, I’d envy them. From my shallow observations, I thought the archetypal way their families looked and interacted was more desirable than the way my own family did.

I wanted what I considered a “perfect family.” I imagined what it would be like with parents who gave their kids the freedom to make their own independent choices and gave them a voice in every decision. I imagined what it would be like to have one of those families that owned a boat and went camping every other weekend. I imagined what it would be like with a big extended family that came from the next town over at every holiday gathering. I wondered what it would be like to be a part of a whimsical, fun-loving, American sitcom kind of family.

I noticed that the similarities between all of those perfect American families were not always present in my own. The differences that distinguished me would occasionally show up in side conversations at school, in silent judgment from friends or even in my own head at home. While the differences were subtle, they were amplified in those small towns and during a time in my life when all I wanted was to emulate my peers.

I didn’t realize that maybe it had something to do with the way the others’ parents were raised. Neither of my parents grew up the way my peers’ parents did. They grew up in cultural and family contexts that were different from those of other parents, and they were about as far from suburban white America as they could have been.

And now, after 22 years, I can’t imagine life outside of the unconventional family I was raised in. I realized that when I was a kid, the “perfect” families I idolized were just the homogenous white American ones I knew best. I wanted something different from what I had because I didn’t understand the significance of being unique in the uniform environment I was accustomed to.

Looking back, I would never want anything besides the only Asian dance mom at the studio or the only soccer dad with an accent. I’d take my mom’s onigiri any day of the week instead of the same ham sandwich in every other lunch in the cafeteria. I’d take my dad’s overprotectiveness over other parents’ negligence. And I’d take the teasing and offensive questions over conformity and acceptance because they allowed me to discover the individuality that I now embrace.

Now I know that those differences just meant my family was unique. I learned to respect my parents, to make my decisions carefully and to work hard and dream big. I learned to accept others but to never take acceptance for granted. I learned to appreciate my background and look at the world with a global perspective. And most importantly, I learned to embrace our family’s diversity and culture — probably the only culture those towns ever knew.

Despite how out of place my parents might have felt in those small American towns, they showed up in my childhood in every possible way they could. They prioritized my comfort and happiness in those environments before their own. They were my No. 1 supporters at every parent-teacher conference, dance recital, soccer game and orchestra concert of my young life.

And now, I look back and am satisfied with my childhood, grateful we were a mixed family with a story rather than a white family with a boat

Jasmine Tatah writes the Thursday column on having multiple cultural backgrounds in America.

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