January 22, 2010

On Bicultural Identity, Assumption, & Communication

I'd like to know...Do the present generation of biracial/bicultural Americans struggle with the same crisis of identity I do?

For many years, I felt like an anomaly -- an Asian/Caucasian woman with deep Asian roots, but raised in the South; brought up with pervasive Asian influences, yet ingrained with Southern customs. A person who has been known to say "ya'll" and "pau" in the same sentence. An Asian-looking girl with a Southern accent. At times, I've felt like a social hiccup -- "a fly in the buttermilk," as Mom would say.

It's one experience to be biracial, but quite another to be bicultural. I mark a clear distinction between the two. There are many biracial people who are raised in a monocultural home, meaning there is a predominant culture they learn to identify with. And then, there are biracial people like me who were raised in a bicultural home heavily influenced by two cultures instead of one.

At home, there's little conflict because the two cultures meld to form a single home culture. In the immediate family, there's safety, security, and understanding.

But in my experience, however, the home culture terminates at some point. For me, the societal cultural influence I grew up in (small, traditional Southern town) was not only equal but surpassed that of my home culture. In a sense, the societal culture became the default by which all others were measured (Who's to blame for that? I may never know). That further complicated things, as I was not only challenged to establish my identity within my extended family, but also within the wider cultural structure of my region, a structure in which my bicultural perspective and identity was neither understood nor accommodated.

For the longest time, I had a great chip on my shoulder because it seemed the people around me regarded me with uncertainty, confusion, and/or suspicion (or didn't regard me at all). But, I've concluded -- How can I expect society to recognize and respect my identity if I myself don't recognize (and therefore am unable logically respect) it? No one can tell me who I am; that person, I must discover for myself.

And how important is it, really, to be able to express in mathematical or social-scientific terms WHAT my culture is? "Racially, I'm half-Caucasian and half-Asian, but culturally, I'm half-Pacific Islander instead of Asian, because my Asian father was born and raised in a mixed Asian/Pacific Islander environment." Huh???

Should I be able to condense my cultural identity for the sake of interpersonal communication? Is it necessary for me to offer to people a basic orientation, and if so, what purpose would it serve? To allay fears? To offer a sense of security? To establish a starting-place for interaction?

Does all this circle back to a fear of the unknown? Like trying to decipher a new acquaintance's core beliefs, disposition, or posture, in order to protect both parties from offending or being offended?

Idealistically speaking, two people ought to be able to approach and learn each other in a natural way without resorting to prejudgments or strategic positioning, but I just don't believe that's most often the case.

Personally, when I meet someone new, I'm immediately attentive to certain characteristics or mannerisms that might reveal a unique aspect for which I may need to conscientiously exhibit respect. Maybe it's a perspective unnatural to me -- for instance, the equality of ages -- which may be held sacred on account of religious beliefs, cultural tradition, or personal philosophy. Personally, I believe in a hierarchy of seniority, but if I were to meet someone who felt age preference is fundamentally unfair, of course I might take care to conduct myself a little more reservedly in that area as long as we're in each other's presence -- this, in order to be respectful of another's beliefs, and also to preserve the avenue of communication between us.

So, I suppose I'm guilty of prejudgments and strategic positioning, too, but in the spirit of furthering relationships.

What does this have to do with culture? I was going to write, culture (especially where minorities are concerned) is often one of the most obvious characteristic a person reveals on first sight, but after a moment of reflection, I believe just the opposite is true. This is where unjustified or inaccurate prejudgments come into play. Frequently, because a person is a minority, an assumption about her culture is made, and then, she either fulfills the assumption -- to the relative comfort of all -- or she breaks the assumption, which may result in discomfort and strained communication.

And this is such an enigma to me because I can neither fulfill the assumption nor break it, because the reality of my identity is somewhere in between. For me, this means people often choose to remain outside the circle of communication, or step into the circle of communication only to learn their previous assumptions were not quite right. That can make for some embarrassing situations, for both parties.

I'm not bitter or cynical about all this. I'm not a lonely person. I don't feel like an exile or an outcast. I do feel misunderstood sometimes, but thankfully, I prefer a smaller circle of intimates, so in the end, it all works out.

As always, though, I want to understand. Someone once told me, "You're a mystery even to yourself," and it's absolutely true. I'm not proud of it, but I can't apologize for it either. Questioning myself has gotten me this far, and I can't say that's a bad place to be.


  1. I imagine, that as you say, where you grow up has a lot to do with how you internalize your identity. I mention location specifically, because having grown up and lived for most of my life in the Los Angeles area, I have become accustomed to such diversity. Of course, I am seeing it all from my own pretty standard, never questioned, identity as a white girl.

    A very thought provoking post. Thank you.

  2. You know what's interesting, Laura -- I experienced the same kind of quandary when I lived in Hawai'i, where society is the total opposite of where I grew up, predominantly Pacific Islander/Asian/mixed descent. As you mention, location is definitely important, I think.

    I wonder if California (or New York, or similar places) are the exception and not the rule? Of course, my formative years established this whole problem for me, and that was 10-15 years ago. Society's changed drastically since then, but the people I interact with on a regular basis (from my general age group) are from my generation.

    Questions beget more questions. :) Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  3. I completely understand where you are coming from! My mother is black and my father is white. But culturally, my mother is from here, southern Louisiana and my father is from Germany. Taking all parts of me and meshing them together definitely makes me feel like a bit of an outsider in my own land. On one hand I can put down 5 pounds of crawfish with the best of 'em, and name every little festival from the Cracklin to the Smoked Meat, but I've never been fishing or to a Mardi Gras ball. I often feel like I need to put out there exactly what I am, to stop someone from saying something rude, and that gets stressful after a while. Oh man, I could talk on this subject forever. I'm so loving your blog!

  4. Fascinating and so well said!

    My husband - with his British accent and the hikea (sp?) in our living room and his stories of his time in Singapore - has always been unsure what to call his heritage. But I think it makes him, and you, all the more interesting.