Kim Nelson: On Being An “Other”

census-race-qMy mom was born and raised in the Philippines, and my dad is white (of Irish and Swedish heritage). When I fill out a form and come to the race question, I usually check “Other.” My siblings and I run the gamut of varying shades on the ethnic-looking scale from “white-ish” to “definitely mixed something-or-other, but can’t tell what exactly.” In person, I’ve been mistaken for: Latina, Hawaiian, Native American, Italian, and Inuit. A friend of mine once told me that I should be a model for stock photos on bank brochures–stick me in a wheelchair, and the art director can easily check off 5 different boxes of required representative diversity. 

In other words, I’ve always been an “Other.” I’m not saying that I’ve ever been oppressed because of how I look; I recognize the privilege I still have as someone who only looks vaguely something-or-other. I’ve never been followed around a store or pulled over for no reason. At worst, I’ve been blamed for ruining the curve on a math test. At its ickiest, I’ve gotten called “exotic-looking” a lot. While I haven’t necessarily experienced discrimination or negative attention, I’ve often felt slightly on the outside, looking in along with the other “other” kids. 

I went to a small Catholic school in the suburbs; the majority of the kids in my class were white. Every year around St. Patrick’s Day, our school hosted a performance by a local school of Irish dance. I’d watch the girls my age dancing with their arms held straight and firm at their sides, their blond or red ringlets bouncing and their Celtic capes swirling. I wanted to take Irish step dancing lessons so badly, but it was too expensive. Later on as an adult, I worked in a large office building downtown, and the management company invited a troupe of young Irish step dancers to perform in the lobby for St. Patrick’s Day. I stood watching, off to the side, while the building concierge passed out shamrock-shaped cookies to the crowd. Among the blond and redheaded 8-to-12-year-olds, there was an Asian girl. She was focused and poised, her small feet flying and slapping the polished marble floors in her soft black dancing shoes, in sync with the rest of the troupe. My heart swelled with joy as I watched that young Asian girl live out my childhood dream.

Not long after those first Irish step dance performances, I experienced the awkwardness of junior high dances. I usually spent the night standing off to the side  of the gym with my closest friends while watching the popular kids couple off to slow-dance to “November Rain.” “You should ask ___ to dance!”, some of the kids in class would tell me. The name in the blank was always one of the handful of Asian boys in our class. I wondered if they named those boys specifically because we were both Asian. We were both Others. Like in late 80’s/early 90’s movies (see: Weird Science or Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure as examples), love interests seemed to pair off by matching hair color.

Bill

Once I hit college, however, I gained a new perspective on my ‘Otherness.’ I attended art school in Chicago, and for the first time I was surrounded by more Others than the non-Others. In fact, sometimes I actually felt somewhat lame and boring because I grew up in a picket-fenced suburb and I wasn’t a mohawked/ pansexual/ Guamanian/ ventriloquist/ freegan/ nihilist. I met teachers who encouraged colorblind casting, and workshopped a scene from The Crucible with my scene partner, who was African-American. Neither of us looked remotely like a 1690’s New Englander, but nobody cared. Our outward appearances were a non-issue; the human emotions that we portrayed were what mattered. My ethnicity faded into the background.

I no longer felt set apart by my ethnicity. Rather, I grew to love it; being mixed gave me a unique viewpoint in a world where everyone struggles to define themselves. I had the best of both worlds: exposure to more than one culture and many traditions. Plus, being able to easily gross out friends with the foods I’m not afraid to eat makes for a fun party trick. When it all comes down to it, I’m an American, terrible TV-and-junk-food habits and all. I just happen to also be able to roll a mean lumpia shanghai.

The United States is more culturally diverse than many, or maybe even most, other countries. As I watch my friends begin to have children with their partners, I see a new generation of mixed race kids in the future. We’ll all have unique cultures and traditions to share with each other; we’ll all look a little “definitely mixed-something-or-other, but can’t tell what exactly.” We’ll no longer be the Others.

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10 Comments

  1. Hi Kim,

    I love this! I’ve realized this concern lately when I was applying for a job. Good thing there’s an “Others” option. I’m from a Filipino, Chinese and Spanish heritage. When I was a kid a lot of people will say ‘my skin is too white for a Filipino’ but too Yellow to be called a ‘mestiza’. Anyways, this is really a good read and maybe in the future we can talk about this further with lumpiang shanghai. 😉

    1. That always drives me crazy too–when people say that “you’re just half” like you’re a pie chart and not a person. Thank you for reading! Glad you enjoyed it.

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