Not too long ago, I was shopping in Stater Bro.’s for fish sauce to make Pad Thai for my boyfriend. While I was scouring the teeny-tiny “Asian Section” of the ethnic foods aisle, I noticed an elderly lady eyeing me. “Do you eat Asian food?” the woman asked me. I remember thinking, “Woman, do you not see my hand on this fish sauce?” When I told her yes, relief visibly washed over her. She said that she thought that I looked Asian and told me that her friend suggested that she try this soup called “Simply Asian”. She wanted to know if I could help her find it and what it tasted like because, obviously, I would know this. When we found the soup, she held up packaged freeze-dried ramen and asked me what type of Asian food this is. With a name like “Simply Asian”, I don’t think that the manufacturers even knew; so, I told her the white kind.
So, where am I from? Or, more colloquially, what am I? This question always made me feel like an outsider. I sometimes had a very hostile response that shocked or shamed the person asking me into silence. My reaction stemmed from an underlying animosity: My unanswered question of personal identity. Each time someone asked me, “what are you”, I had to acknowledge that I didn’t know. Every answer I gave tried to force me into an identity that satisfied the inquirer but not me.
The generalization that the Simply Asian company made about ramen was exactly the one that the woman made about me: All Asians are simply the same. Suggesting that Asians are all part of some nondescript group is dehumanizing and strange. Am I simply Asian? No, in fact, I don’t identify as Asian at all.
My identity is fragmented like a puzzle, but where I find authenticity, is where I am from. Nothing forces you to sort out your priorities like tragedy, trauma, or fear. A few weeks ago, my dad told me that he has cancer. The part of me that is still a small girl wept; the grown up in me wept as well. It made me pause and ask, who and what are important to me, and where am I investing my time?
I am my father’s daughter: I can point out the features that I inherited from him – toes, kneecaps, and ankles. I have his dry sense of humor, his love of dad jokes, and his special way of making slang sound awkward. He has given me the only nicknames that I will acknowledge. When I laugh, I hear my mother. She has always been there to pull me out the dark places in my life and has saved me more times than she knows.
Simply, I am from my family; I am from love. I could tell you that I am Japanese and Sicilian, that my paternal great grandfather was English and built a fountain in some township’s square, but none of that matters. It doesn’t matter that people will call me a Twinkie, tease me for liking Hello Kitty or assume that because I look Asian, that I identify as such. What does matter is that whenever I feel like my puzzle-pieced identity is falling apart, I can call my mom or my dad and everything makes sense again. My dad has always told me not to bother with what any one says about me because at the end of the day he loves me. It may have taken me over 20 years to appreciate and understand what he meant, but I can finally and definitively tell you where I am from.