On Being Multicultural
Being multiracial has expanded my perspective in so many ways, though many people who don’t understand it can be detrimental influences. Still, one has to pave their own way.
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I’m a Thai and Mexican American native New Yorker. My parents are immigrants; my mother is from Thailand and my father is from Mexico, so I am often under the label of “multiracial” or more colloquially, though not preferably, known as “mixed.”
Being “mixed” means you are a combination of at least two different racial or ethnic groups. I am Asian and Hispanic, meaning I am already a part of two minorities, but if you add being “mixed,” I am a part of three minorities. I also often get asked, “Are you half-Thai and half-Mexican?” Though I understand that they use the word “half” because two halves make a whole and two (or more) cultures make one multicultural person, it does secretly irk me. It subconsciously suggests that I’m not fully either. Thus, I gravitate toward saying I am multiracial, multicultural, or have a mixed heritage. I am also often told, “You must have the best food at home.” This, I have no problems with, because it’s true.
I had never heard of the term “mixed” until seventh grade. Before then, I would respond to the dreaded “What are you?” by explaining my parents’ origins. But that particular question has always felt a little off to me. It was almost like I was an animal in a zoo, where little children squashed their noses on the glass and pointed their stubby fingers at me, asking what that weird-looking creature was. But I would always answer the question with a friendly smile since those who asked me were of the same age and usually meant no harm. That same year, a teacher whom I had never met before said to me: “Wow, you are so exotic! Where are you from?” I once again performed my thoroughly rehearsed act, but that one word stuck with me. It was the first time I heard “exotic” used to describe a human. Coming from an older adult and respected member of my school faculty, something felt more sinister about this interaction. I’ve always had an ethnically-ambiguous-looking face, so I understand when teachers and other students are curious about my identity, but this time, I felt as if she was curious about a pet dog’s breed. Being dehumanized was a rare occurrence for me, but this wouldn’t be the last time I was “othered.”
Though relatively few Thai or South East Asian individuals live in New York City, there is a strong East Asian community within the city. I often formed friendships with my Chinese and Chinese-American peers in the past, but there was an unspoken race barrier with them. Whenever they’d talk in Mandarin or Cantonese, I’d sit there and fumble with my thumbs until the conversation was over. There were even times when I felt looked down upon or underestimated as the odd one out of the group. However, as I’ve matured as a teenager and met new people, I’ve realized meaningful friendships transcend race—what we both laugh about and what we can do to help each other is what matters.
I didn’t learn Spanish as a child, and I’m often expected to justify why to avoid criticism. When one of my non-Hispanic classmates asked me if I knew Spanish, and I responded by saying I didn’t, he squinted his eyes and frowned. It was as if he was judging my family for not passing down the language and like I couldn’t take credit for my own identity. I never took it to heart but rather found a new drive to study Spanish and eventually signed up for the AP Spanish course.
Though there are some awkward interactions and inner complications that come with being someone with a mixed heritage, it’s honestly the best. I travel almost every year to Thailand and Mexico, and my perspective on the world grows every time. Of all my experiences, being in these countries has been most important in realizing how lucky I am to be multiracial. When I was in Mexico City during Christmastime, there were enormous lights hung up in the Zócalo and music streaming in about every street, whether it be from the public concert in the center or the men playing street organs in the nearby alleys. Having visited the Basilica de Guadalupe and the cathedral in the Zócalo, I was already very aware that Mexico City Christmas was going to beat New York Christmas. In Thailand, I’ve visited the Emerald Buddha in Wat Phra Kaew countless times. One of my favorite parts of the entire area is the paintings on the walls that enclose the temples. Innumerable hours of painstaking and minute work span over two kilometers, and together, they illustrate the Ramakien epic. It’s astounding.
Very few people in the world have the privilege of getting the best from three cultures, so naturally, I’ve learned that in distasteful conversations, there was not only ignorance but also slight jealousy. For one, many Americans never learn a second language, but I grew up speaking Thai and learned Spanish on my own. While my skills in each language are a work in progress, they have opened a new level of connection to others, especially when speaking with my relatives in their respective languages.
If I could give advice to my younger self or other multiracial students, I would tell them to make sure they listen to the right people. Many people will ask you to stretch and bend yourself in impossible ways: some expect you to be excluded from their communities, and others expect you to be a chameleon in every one of your cultures. But take notice of the fact that most of the people who will try to make you doubt yourself have no idea what it’s like to be multiracial. Even other multiracial people shouldn’t be able to tell you what to do, especially when their cultures are different from yours. Don’t let others lecture you on what only you know best.
Identity is something that we’ll all grapple with with time, and it’s not meant to have a concrete answer. When I reexamined the draft of this very article from when I was a freshman, I realized how much I’ve changed in the short span of four years. In another four years, my ideas on being multiracial will evolve and grow based on the new experiences I will have completed by then. Labels like “mixed” might even be outdated, or perhaps it will only be more common. Perhaps people will be more familiar with multiculturalism, and communities will be more accepting. So, to my multiracial peers, embrace your cultures and your individuality in the way you see fit. You’re at the helm of your own life.