Thirty years ago, I was walking down Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley with my boyfriend on our way to see a show at Zellerbach Theater. I’ll mention that my boyfriend was white and that I am bi-racial, half Chinese and half Caucasian, because that’s pertinent to the story. A homeless man sitting on the sidewalk looked up and snarled, “The races shouldn’t mix!”
I felt pity. I thought that someone looking at a prosperous couple, young and happy in each other’s company and seeing only ugliness, must be looking through a dark, smudged lens of spiritual poverty.
Reflection on a Mixed Upbringing
Recently, much has been made about Vice President Harris’s multi-racial ethnicity, how it has shaped her, how it inspires girls of color, and how people perceive her. She and I are the same age. Her inauguration has caused me to reflect on my upbringing and its effect.
I have counted being of mixed heritage as one of the great privileges of my life. To walk with ease in more than one culture is enriching and makes the world feel larger. As my mother often said, the more you know, the more you can enjoy.
Dad once said that when he first met Mom, he wasn’t sure he could get used to her because she looked so different from the girls with whom he had grown up. But as he got to know her, those differences didn’t matter anymore. They fell in love, and they were married for over 50 years before she died.
I rarely thought about race as a child. I felt at home in rural Oklahoma, where my Dad’s parents lived. I learned to love the vast open space and the warmth of people in a small town where you didn’t pass by someone on the sidewalk without greeting them.
I enjoyed learning to dance the Texas Two-Step, savor the beauty of a starry sky unsullied by light pollution, and bow my head in prayer at my cousin’s school.
I felt equally at home in the bustling markets of San Francisco’s Chinatown, where my mother’s parents lived. I enjoyed the jostling, the directness of communication, the narrow aisles and exotic ingredients of the grocery stores, the saturated colors, and the flavorful food.
It was just how I grew up. I felt deeply loved by both my families and that was all that mattered.
Sometimes, I could see that people looked at me with curiosity. I was born three years before interracial marriage was legal throughout the U.S. People of mixed heritage were not common.
On a rare occasion, someone looked at me with scorn. And then, as a child, I felt a bit like Harry Potter when Voldemort comes near, and his scar burns. The contempt was palpable and unexpected. But mostly, I remember childhood as sunny and carefree.
Race became an issue when I applied to college. It was always a question on the applications. It baffled me because I could only choose one, and I never knew which to pick.
On some applications, I said I was white. On others, I said I was Asian. It depended on my mood at the moment, but it disturbed me to deny half of myself.
Also, it felt bizarre to receive letters addressed, “Dear Asian Student,” with descriptions of the campus ethnic clubs to which I could belong. I felt simply American.
After college, there was the same issue on job applications. I tried to ignore the question.
However, when an employer wanted to hire me, the Human Resources Manager said she could not complete the process until I classified myself in one race. I argued that I was more than one race.
She told me to pick the one I identified with most. That didn’t help me at all. I couldn’t imagine choosing one of my families above the other.
In the end, I agreed to be “Asian” to help fill my employer’s Affirmative Action quota. Talk about telling a half-truth! I was happy when the law changed, and I could check more than one box. I didn’t fit into a neat category.
Being mixed sometimes means feeling at home both everywhere and nowhere. I recall visiting the 1986 World’s Fair in Vancouver. When I entered Bali’s pavilion, I was astonished to find that everyone working there looked like me. It was the first time in my life that I could recall that happening.
I was unexpectedly moved, as though I had stumbled on my lost tribe. It struck me that I appreciated seeing myself reflected in the people around me. I hadn’t realized before that I cared about this.
This week as I watched Vice President Harris take her inaugural oaths, I felt hope. What more could symbolize the American dream than her ascension?
She was born the daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants. She became the first woman of color elected San Francisco District Attorney, then state Attorney General. Next, she was the second Black woman elected to the U.S. Senate. Now she is the first woman Vice President of our country.
When she said, “I may be the first woman to hold this office, but I won’t be the last,” my heart expanded. My mother was the daughter of an immigrant laborer. I have often thought, “My mother was a waitress so that I could be a professional, so my daughters can be anything they want to be.”
Harris’s statement made this sentiment feel real. I am thankful to be alive in these times to experience this historic moment with my daughters.
I’m not the only one. Amanda Gorman, who read her poem, “The Hill We Climb” at the inauguration, announced her intention to run for president in 2036, the first election cycle in which she’ll be old enough to do so. Seeing Harris take office reinvigorated her.
“There’s no denying that a victory for her is a victory for all of us who would like to see ourselves represented as women of color in office,” she said. “It makes it more imaginable. Once little girls can see it, little girls can be it.”Amanda Gorman
Challenges and Strength
Of course, Harris has faced challenges. As California’s Attorney General, her walk down the line between law enforcement and a racial justice movement sparked by police brutality, was precarious.
Commensurate with her new position’s magnitude, there will be greater challenges in the years to come. Yet, I believe her upbringing may help.
She grew up spending summers in India, living in Canada, and later attending Howard University, a historically black college. She has practiced the skills needed to navigate multiple spaces comfortably.
As a biracial person, I understand that. Psychologists call this “identity flexibility” and say it has benefits for emotional intelligence and openness.
My hope for Ms. Harris as she goes forward is to apply the strength of mixed heritage to the task of bridge-building and coalition building. Goodness knows we need that in these times.
This essay was first published in New Break, here. If you’ve enjoyed this, please subscribe to read more essays and book reviews particularly related to the Amerasian and Asian-American experience.