This past year I did 23andme and received a report on my ancestry.
I had only known two things about myself until then: I was 50% Korean and 50% Puerto-Rican. And those numbers only come from the fact that my mother was born in Seoul and my father raised on the island. English was not either of their first languages.
It is a little hard for me to talk about because I don't have any stories or anecdotes about my grandparents or even my parents. A lot of my family past has not been shared with me, and I haven't done much to seek it out. This left me feeling lost as kid and empty as an adult.
Before I go on further, let's hit the highlights of my results. This is for all you classmates and strangers out there who have approached me with wonder in your eyes and asked: "What are you?"
The finer percentages I've left out, for the bulk of me is above.
Nothing incredibly surprising to me -- more of a confirmation of my suspicions. I knew I was Korean, but it looks like I have Japanese in me too. I knew I was Puerto-Rican, and I suspected my ancestors were ultimately from Spain, but now I know where.
You think I would already know these things, but upon reflection I've realized everything I heard about my family and history was told to me casually, in passing. I could almost describe it as flippantly. I picked up hints whenever I could from my mom.
As many unconventional families may understand, so many things go unsaid. There is almost a silent, understood repression of feelings and questions.
The quickest way I can explain my personal situation is my mother and father didn't have the best relationship, they divorced when I was young, my father passed away when I was eight, and my mother raised us herself in Missouri. Her first job I remember her having was at Pizza Hut. Erica, my older sister by four years, took care of me.
My mother always returned home stressed, angry, and short-tempered. There was no time to ask her questions about her history, about my family, about my dad. She was in survival mode, and so was I. We all were. Not only in terms of money and food and shelter, but navigating a white-dominant culture as people who were not white.
My mother only spoke English around us. She wanted us to assimilate quick, and the key to success in this country was to follow the tried and true path of >> learn English, get an education, earn money, find success. If she ever thought differently, she never shared it with me.
I have explicitly asked my mom for more information about her history probably four to five times in my life. She would either refuse because it was too hard for her, or begin telling me stories and start crying. It was too hard for me to experience. I felt I was forcing her to relive things she did not want to. I would cry with her, then we wouldn't touch the subject for another year or two.
Unsurprisingly, I identify more with my Asian side then my Latin side. My mom cooked Korean dishes often. And I at least went to family reunions once a year, though my main memories of those occasions are of me jealously watching and listening to my cousins speak Korean to each other while I sat there silently. Literally a secret language I couldn't understand.
There wasn't a Korean community in my hometown. I don't recall running into another Asian classmate until my sophomore year of high school. No one bullied me or mocked me outright. I think I was harmless enough: quiet enough to stay out of the way, but just personable enough to not be a weirdo. I walked that line like my life depended on it. It also could have been my ethnic blend confused people. They didn't know what to mock, for I know my mother has received more racist attention then I ever did.
I didn't meet my Puerto-Rican grandparents until I was 13, after a counselor suggested I go visit my father's grave for "closure." They don't speak English, but we connected, and we still send each other cards. I haven't seen them since, but plan to soon. That experience, along with the memories of my father, encapsulate my entire Latin culture connection. It's barely anything, and I'm ashamed of it. Yet, I know they are my family. And when Trump did nothing to help the island after Hurricane Maria -- then insulted and threw paper towels at them, I was hurt and enraged.
Growing up I wanted to be white. I told my mom I wished my name was Rachel. I wanted blonde hair and blue eyes. I kept trying to copy makeup looks from magazines and the internet and couldn't understand why it wasn't translating. Until one day, I was uncharacteristically insightful and realized I did not have the same FEATURES. My eyes have less eyelid space. My eyebrows are more wispy. I have freckles for some reason and not porcelain skin. I've got weird, wide cheekbones. I'M NOT WHITE.
So here we arrive at the crux of my mixed identity. I was raised in a white culture, so that's how I see the world. I observe things my white friends have, and I see no reason why I can't get it too if I work hard enough.
But then I'm not white. I do not look white. I started off my life and education ten ladder rungs lower then my friends, and I didn't realize this until recently. One guy in college told me to "go back to Korea," which I'm even surprised he choose the right country. I am Korean, I am Asian. But I don't know Korean. I've never been to Korea. I'm not close to my extended family.
And I'm Puerto-Rican. I'm a Latina, and I'm not even sure that's the right term to use for myself. That's how disconnected I am. I don't know Spanish. I've been to Puerto Rico over one week one time when I was 13. Hopeful waiters in Mexican restaurants speak to me in Spanish after checking my ID and seeing my name is Raquel ALL THE TIME. I shamefully shake my head, almost apologetically and say, no. I can't do it. Then I drink my margarita in sadness.
I am different than those around me here in the Midwest, purely through looks and the odd disadvantages I don’t notice. But inside, I don't feel different. And now as an adult, that bothers me. As an adolescent not being different was my dream. Things have changed.
And here's a sweet, sweet twist to the story: being Asian is kind of cool now.
Yeah. It was not so before.
It's happening in a slow, kind of cultural way, but I feel it. K-pop and its worldwide reach. Crazy Rich Asians. K-dramas on streaming services. Awkwafina on SNL. Korean BBQ, kimchi, and other delicious foods. Sandra freakin' Oh. It's so stupid that this is what it took… but I'm feeling pride in who I am, but the depth is not there.
I'm a recently-turned 27 year old woman, and I can't wait around for answers. Am I going to go full-on Eat Pray Love to discover who I am? I don't know yet… but I kind of hope so!