© Dmae Roberts 2011
When I produced Mei Mei: A Daughter’s Song, my autobiographical radio documentary, the marketing people at the network described it as the story of an “American-born daughter and her foreign born mother.” I had told them that I was born in Taiwan as was my mother. I even mentioned it in the radio piece, yet the marketers still insisted on that description.
It was 1989, and I had only begun to think about identity. It didn’t occur to me to fight for the right terminology. In those days, I didn’t know what to call myself and in many ways still don’t. After decades of trying to find an easy name for my identity, it’s dawning on me that I will never belong to any one group. Nothing will quite fit.
The struggle for acceptance isn’t unique to people of color. Most of us share that need to be part of some community. For people of color raised in isolation from others who might seem similar, it becomes a challenge to find that acceptance.
Throughout junior high and high school, I didn’t want to call attention to my race. I wanted to fit in at my all-white school in the little Oregon town. I didn’t want to be different, and I didn’t advertise my mom’s race. I never denied my background; it was simply easier not to mention it. Since I was a good student, it was rare that anyone at school wanted to see my parents. It was all about fitting in as much as possible and trying to feel accepted.
At 14, a family friend called me Eurasian. That seemed exotic and appealed to my Masterpiece Theatre phase. Then I saw some old 50s and 60s movies with Shirley McClaine and Jennifer Jones who were supposed to be Eurasian. I didn’t look like either of them, so I tossed out that term.
All through the 80s, I was a collection of “halves”—half Chinese, half white, half Taiwanese or half Okie (like my dad). I jokingly said I was a half-breed when the Cher song became popular. That caused strange looks. I once called myself half-Oriental till an Asian college professor told me that it was the language of the imperialists. The mysterious Orient versus the normal Occidental, I was happy to chuck “Oriental”—made me think of rugs anyway not people.
Then someone called me hapa, a Hawaiian word for “half.” It seemed… “happy.” The name now makes me a uncomfortable at times. I learned that many Native Hawaiians don’t really like how Asians have appropriated it. So while a fun name, it still doesn’t feel exactly right.
In the 90s, names abounded with pride for Asian Americans. Each ethnicity had a name usually hyphenated with “American.” I used biracial and multiracial , and then I met Velina Hasu Houston a playwright and professor at University of California-Santa Monica who introduced the word Amerasian to me. I thought that was a name for solely for orphans from Vietnam.
Houston told me the term “Amerasian” was actually coined by the writer, Pearl S. Buck. During her years in China, Buck created this term because she encountered children who were of Japanese or Korean American ancestry orphaned after World War II and the Korean War.
In the 21st century, the term mixed race has become popular. I resisted this at first because of past associations with the concept of purity and multiracial people being called mutts or confused and mixed up. But in the last few years, I’ve used mixed-race interchanged with multiracial but I usually add Asian or to be more specific, Taiwanese.
The latest popular term is multiethnic which seems to be gaining ground and often replaces mixed-race or multiracial as a racial category on school forms. Multiethnic can refer to people of multiple races and ethnicities. At first this seemed like a possibility, but then the term might also include ethnic rather than racial heritage. I wonder if this inclusion dilutes individual cultures to the point of non-identification. How much does ethnic include? Jewish, Italian, Greek and Swedish? Multiethnic as a name seems too undefined and non-specific to me.
I believe names for racial and cultural identity will continue to undergo changes and reconsideration. This fluidity is often confusing to mono-racial people. That’s a term Velina Hasu Houston uses when describing people who identify only one race.
I will continue to try on different names for myself. Sometimes I’ll be multiracial or mixed-race or biracial or when I feel playful, hapa. And sometimes I’ll just call myself plain Asian and prepare for the questioning looks. No matter what I call myself, it’s always a point of discussion and explanation. And I’ll continue to look for a name and find comfort that someday there will be one that will fit just right.
*Much of this is essay drawn from Dmae’s radio documentary Secret Asian Woman at dmaeroberts.com/radio