Essay: How I Celebrate My Mixed Heritage, Every Day of the Year

Courtesy of Patricia TanFamily game night back home means games of mahjong, loteria and plenty of music.

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I was stumped coming up with something to write about this week — and as I scrolled on my phone aimlessly in the morning it hit me. With Filipino American History Month starting Oct. 1 and Hispanic Heritage Month — lasting Sept. 15 to Oct. 15 —  still in full swing, I felt this piece would be the best way to kick off the celebration of my cultures. 

I want to preface this by first saying the entire concept of race is garbage and has no biological significance — a remnant of white-supremacist scientific racism. My mere existence, as someone not 100 percent “something,” would’ve been illegal under the anti-miscegenation laws of the U.S. — which weren’t fully repealed until 1967

In another time, my exact composition would’ve had a specific name under the Colonial Spanish caste system.

That being said, its power over society is lasting, always leading me to a flurry of self-doubting questions every time I fill out the “race” category on a questionnaire.

Usually, Hispanic or Latino is counted as an “ethnicity,” so that gets checked off. But when I get to race, what do I choose? 

Best case scenario: They let me pick more than one.

The normal scenario: I’m stuck performing racial calculus. Do I choose just one of them to represent at the expense of the other? Or do I choose the “two or more races” option — technically correct while erasing both. 

Choosing one over the other didn’t stop at government forms. People, regardless of intention, always end up asking the same question. No, not the famous “But where are you really from?” but the second most famous one: “Which [culture] do you feel closer to?” 

I didn’t really fit in with the full Filipinos, the full Chinese or the full Mexicans. I can speak Spanish — but the kind you learn in high school, not natively acquired at home and my accent is a dead giveaway. In my house, family game night means playing lotería and mahjong. Some weekends I would eat homemade chilaquiles —  a delicious and popular Mexican breakfast dish — while other days my family would battle others for the best seats at our local dim sum restaurant.

Seemingly innocuous interactions like “the question” contributed to a great sense of alienation, not only from my “American identity” — a term I use loosely — but from my other cultures. It’s an unsettling question for a variety of reasons, but it made me realize something: I don’t have a good answer to it.

Questions like “the question” made me realize I’m culturally literate in all three, but fluent in none. How, then, can I celebrate something, I didn’t fully feel a part of?

It first comes with realizing that these identities aren’t monoliths. While labels are helpful to an extent, they act as umbrella terms that sometimes hide more than they help. How can you capture the entirety of one’s experiences in a term as simple as Filipino American, Latinx or person of color? 

Not only do these terms blur the reality of growing up non-white in a white world, but they forget the incredible diversity within each term. Each term carries with it the angering and violent history of settler colonialism, genocide and neoimperialism — a history still being written. The word “Mexican,” as a label, becomes almost worthless when people in Mexico have European, African or Indigenous ancestry. The same with “Filipino” and the country’s 110 ethnic groups or “Chinese” and the 56 recognized ethnic groups of mainland China. 

The idea that one particular cultural experience is homogeneous is a myth, so I stopped trying to make it one. When asked “the question,” I stopped choosing.

Just because my experiences were different doesn’t disqualify me from identifying as what I am. 

I used to feel weird saying the full thing, almost like I was showing off and attracting unwanted attention. But now saying my full identity — a Filipino-Chinese Mexican American — feels like a victory.

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