“Oh God, not again,” I thought to myself as a new Tinder match messaged me.
“So… what are you?”
I could honestly make a living from charging $5 every time I’ve been asked this question. My ethnic ambiguity is so confusing to people that they feel entitled to know exactly what I am on first impression to ease their discomfort.
I took a deep breath and typed up a reply: “Chinese and Jewish,” I explained, proceeding with caution. I braced myself for a response ranging anywhere from “that’s so cool” to an onslaught of invasive questions. My “rare” mixed heritage somehow makes people feel they have the right to interrogate me with questions such as “so what do you identify more as?” or “did your mom convert to Judaism?”
To avoid these questions, I have always craved a straightforward term for my ethnic background. I’ve wanted a one-word, catch-all label so people would understand my identity without objectifying me as if I am their research subject. I wish I could walk through the world without having to give random people a detailed explanation of what I am. My identity is a deeply personal thing I am still trying to figure out myself, not a pickup line for unoriginal Tinder matches.
But none of the one-word labels people have used to describe my mixedness have been an authentic representation of who I am.
The very first time I was labeled something derogatory was when I was 6 years old and living in China. My mom’s barber, who was shocked by my Western features, commented, “Wow, your daughter is a gweimui!”
I didn’t quite know what “gweimui” meant, but I understood the negative connotation of “gwei,” or ghost, in Cantonese. I felt ambushed — I didn’t understand why this man I had never met before was immediately associating me with such a dehumanizing term. “Gweimui” was the very first identity label I felt uneasy with.
Directly translated into English, the word means “ghostly girl” or “foreign devil girl.” “Gweimui” conveniently ignores my connection to my motherland. To the people using “gweimui,” it didn’t matter that I was Chinese. By virtue of appearance, I was lumped together with a foreigner who knew nothing about China.
But until I moved to the United States, China was the only home I’d ever known. “Gweimui” felt like a reductive definition of me. It emphasized my distant Americanness at the expense of erasing my Chinese heritage. To the people calling me “gweimui,” I will always remain a foreigner. Therefore, every time someone used it to describe me, I felt upset by how the term is inherently othering.
At school, where only Mandarin was spoken, my friends’ parents would call me “hunxue.” “Hunxue” is a two-character word that literally translates to “mixed blood.” I embraced this term at first, as an accurate description of what I am.
But I slowly came to realize the character “hun” often had a negative connotation. The same character is in “xiaohunhun,” which means a young man who is up to no good, and “hunluan,” which means “messy.” I realized that being “hun” anything is stigmatized. I began to feel that to call me “hunxue” was to separate me from the monoracial norm and remind me that I could never truly fit in. I felt that my mixedness was a shameful dilution of an otherwise pure Chinese national identity.
But this exclusion didn’t only occur when I was in China. In English circles, I began to encounter the word “halfie.”
“You’re a halfie!” an acquaintance jokingly exclaimed once she found out my heritage.
I questioned the term “halfie,” feeling misrepresented by it but not exactly knowing why. It was better, however, than the xenophobic Chinese labels, so I silently accepted “halfie” when people called me it but didn’t claim it as my own.
I realized the problem of “halfie” when I called my friend “half Korean.” He responded with “I’m not half anything; I am full Korean and full American.”
I then understood why “halfie” had felt like such a mischaracterization of me. I thought the term implied I only ever have the right to be “half” — I can never be fully a part of my family’s cultures.
I also struggled with the idea of directly quantifying my ethnicity. My connection to Chinese and American Jewish cultures is fluid and ever-evolving.
When I was younger, I was far more connected to my Chinese side. After I moved to the United States, however, I started to embrace American values and Jewish traditions. Every time a monoracial person calls me a “halfie,” it feels like they are forcibly fitting my identities into something rigid and digestible. I feel almost cornered into accepting a label that refused to acknowledge my complex relationship to both cultures.
I still don’t have a one-word answer to “what are you?” that will fully satisfy people’s curiosity. I have been described with the Hawaiian “hapa” in the Bay Area and Spanish “mestiza” when I studied abroad in Chile. These labels, however, are rooted in cultures and hxstories that aren’t mine (or anyone else’s) to co-opt.
It isn’t on me to have an easy-to-comprehend answer to “what are you?” I shouldn’t have to accept labels that misrepresent parts of my experience to be seen and understood as a whole human being.
The next time someone tries to ask me “what are you?” my answer will be “you don’t know the half of it.”