What are you?

I have struggled with my cultural and ethnic identity for a long time. My mother is Hawaiian and Japanese while my dad is Japanese and Caucasian. However, I look pretty white. Growing up, I was surrounded by people who identified as Asians and Pacific Islanders who knew my background. I grew up with a mix of many different cultures, but being Hawaiian and Asian was very important. We ate rice almost every day, took our shoes off in the house no matter what, and everyone was auntie and uncle, even when you have no idea who they are. I started hula dancing as soon as I was coordinated enough (aka I wobbled around for like 3 years before I learned how many steps to take). I was surrounded by people who had darker skin than me, dark wavy hair, and communicated with each other in ways I didn’t realize were strange to others. It wasn’t until I got around middle school age and was meeting new people that something wasn’t exactly right. People would ask me “what are you” and when I responded with Asian, they would say “well you don’t look Asian”. I spent time looking into a mirror and realized I didn’t look what you would expect from an Asian or Hawaiian. I had very fair skin, lighter brown straight hair, and bigger eyes. It started to have an effect on me. I wanted wavy hair more than anything else. A lot of my friends at the time were islanders and I just felt I was this strange creature who didn’t look like them. It was odd but I was surrounded by people of the same culture and who knew my family and who we are. It was a safe place for me to learn more about who I am and what I value about my culture and ethnicity. I kept dancing hula, learned more about Japanese and Hawaiian culture and how I could incorporate it in my life.

When I got to college, I experienced a culture shock in so many ways I couldn’t count. I was in the desert, away from water and my islands. I was surrounded by people I didn’t know. I had no family or community around. Every time I told someone I was Asian/Pacific Islander, they would think I was joking for a while. I got a lot of comments like “You’re too white to be Asian”, and “You can’t be serious”. Most people just categorize me as white at first site. And it is interesting. I was being cast as a white girl and I got everything that came along with it. However, a lot of people also made comments like “There is something just off about you. You aren’t fully white”.  I was now in a situation where I didn’t have a community. I was too white for the Asians and Hawaiians but I didn’t identify as a white female. It was hard because the people I felt culturally attached didn’t always allow me into the community. So here I was in Arizona. I was away from the islands, water, and everything else that was so important to who I am and I was alone. It was hard because I knew that I was going to continue to keep my culture as I always have and people definitely made comments. I would say words that people didn’t understand and laughed at. I wore my mumus when I was in my room and would walk around in socks and flip flops. That definitely got attention and people never took more than two seconds to make a comment. It was a difficult time in life as I was in the height of my depression and anxiety. On top of that, I was feeling like I was not a real Asian or Hawaiian cause how I look. It took me a long time for me to be comfortable with my identity.

Now after a lot of learning and thinking, I know that I am an Asian/ Pacific Islander American woman. Culture has a major impact on who you are and your identity, possibly more than genetics. Yes my family is of these descents but I was raised immersed in cultures of island life as well as Asian life. I know people still will raise their eyebrows when they learn my ethnicity, but it doesn’t bother me anymore. I know who I am. I know that I can understand a pidgin accent because that is how some speak when I am at home. I know that hula and Hawaiian music are important to me. I know that I will always take off my shoes at the door when I walk into a house. I wear my mumu proudly. I cried watching Moana the first time as I saw someone who grew up in my culture as a princess on the big screen. I know my beliefs and values that are rooted in my culture. It doesn’t matter what people see from the outside. I know who I am and what is important to me. I never appreciated my culture until I left but the ocean, islands, and people will always be a part of who I am. Please don’t call me a basic white girl because that is far from who I am. Mahalo.

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