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The cultural snowball

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NOVEMBER 02, 2022

My ethnicity has always been a guessing game for people.

 “Chinese? Korean? Filipino? Mexican?”

When my ethnicity is finally revealed, half white and half Indian, it’s met with shock and disbelief: “No you’re not!” 

While of course, I am, I often find myself in this same sense of disbelief. Like many mixed kids, I feel little sense of identity with either aspect of my ethnicity. It’s not as simple as just white and Indian. I’m also Jewish, American, British, Australian, white and Asian. With so many aspects of my identity, it can be confusing to understand who I am.

Growing up in London for most of my life, I was the only mixed kid in my class who was half Asian and half white. I strongly identified with my Asian side of my heritage, because that’s all that people saw – they looked at my face and thought they saw someone who was 100% Asian. While I didn’t feel that Asian, it was what other people thought of me, and so I tried desperately to relate to my Indian culture, despite the fact that I had never grown up with any Indian cultural traditions. 

Moving to San Francisco, however, everyone could easily identify me as “Wasian,” half white and half Asian. The specific type of Asian was still up in the air, but suddenly this aspect of my identity was less important than before. Being Wasian in San Francisco was the norm; it wasn’t exciting like it was in London.

So, my British identity took the forefront – it didn’t have a choice. My accent immediately gave me away, and so all people saw was a British person when they met me. While I was happy to indulge my British upbringing, it felt like I was an impostor, because my whole time living in the UK, I had never identified as “British.” I wasn’t even a British citizen until the year we moved away. 

My identity felt fluid and contextual. Depending on where I was or who I was with, a different aspect of my identity would come forward. When people ask about my name, Aviva, I am Jewish. When people ask about my parents, I am Indian and white. When people ask where I’m from, I say San Francisco.

All of these aspects make up my identity, yet it felt impossible for me to relate to every single one of them. But I tried to.

I would take my sparse experiences with each culture and try to relate to others who had grown up with them. My few Passover dinners are not comparable to weekly Shabbos; my grandmother’s curry doesn’t hold the same sentimental significance in my heart as it would to someone who grew up eating it everyday. I craved connection and belonging, but I didn’t know where I would find it. I tried to relate to everyone, despite the fact that it was impossible to fit in this many boxes.

While I wish I had grown up with more cultural traditions, I also have come to accept that my identity is not composed of multiple parts, that are separate and compartmentalized, but rather one package. My experiences, however few, with each aspect of my identity are what make up my identity as a whole. 

There are so many things about my upbringing that were unique and special to me, that have nothing to do with my ethnicity. Growing up in London was a huge part of my life, and it influences how I view the world today. Just because I wasn’t born there, or my parents aren’t from there doesn’t mean that that all goes away. 

I can’t relate to people about many things that someone of that ethnicity or culture normally would be able to, but I don’t have to. While finding community is something that we naturally crave, I’ve realized that my community does not necessarily have to stem from my ethnicity. My experiences, my parents’ experiences, my grandparents’ experiences and so on, have all come together in a cultural snowball to create who I am today. It’s not multiple separate snowballs that I have to juggle, but one large one that I roll along with me, that continues to expand as I experience new things. 

I feel grateful that I am able to experience so many different cultures, even if it’s only briefly. Rather than trying to forge superficial connections based on momentary indulgences in the culture, I realize that I can appreciate all the aspects of my identity, without trying to fit in with everyone else. While I may not be able to relate to everything, I can still have that connection.

I will always be Indian, white, Jewish, British, American and more. It’s not about fitting into all of these boxes at once, or fitting into only a few, but rather making my own box. Little aspects of all of these rich cultures and countries have come together to create me.

Aviva Binder writes the Thursday column on hidden insecurities. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter.

NOVEMBER 02, 2022