It’s a Saturday night in Toronto with my girlfriends. We’re dancing and having a good time. Some may call this a “habitual occurrence” for most 21-year-olds. I get a tap on my shoulder and turn my head to see an attractive white guy staring blankly at me as if he’s confused or trying to piece a puzzle together.
A plethora of questions start running through my head.
Is there something in my teeth? Toilet paper on the bottom of my pumps?
He just looks at me and says, “Hey, my name’s Matt,” and without even asking for mine he quickly blurts, “So like… what are you?”
Ah, there it is. That was the puzzle he was trying to piece together.
“Well, I’m human,” is the first thing I want to say. The second thing is, “Why is this more relevant than my name?”
Instead, I laugh and recite a line I’ve perfected over the past 21 years.
“It’s super random, and weird, but I’m Sri Lankan and Filipina.”
To give you an idea of how often I get this inquiry, he was one of four people that night who asked me the same question.
In my world, this is what I would call a habitual occurrence.
The typical responses after that are usually along the lines of “Wow, that’s so random,” or “Really? That’s so exotic.” Whether it’s a meant to be a compliment or not, it’s hard to not feel like a zoo animal at times.
Not everyone asks what I am right away. There’s always the confident ones who decide to play the “guess what my ethnicity is” game instead. Are you mixed or full? Black and white, Guyanese, black and Chinese, Indian, Spanish, Jamaican; the list goes on until they give up. Never once has anyone actually been right. But, I can’t blame them. After all, how many biracial Filipino and Sri Lankans do you know?
My race has no significance to my character or personality, yet it’s the most commonly used conversation starter or pickup line.
It was always something I pushed to the side and didn’t see as relevant. It wasn’t until high school, when I was writing my OSSLTs, and the next question after, “How many siblings do you have?” was a “Select one” to “What is your ethnicity?”
The options were: Caucasian, European, Middle Eastern, South Indian, Hispanic, Asian/Pacific Islander, Black or African American, or other. The test hadn’t even started and I was still stuck on the question about my ethnicity. I thought to myself, I can’t circle two, so I just went with “other.”
It was then that I realized I was part of a minority group.
Even if there was an option for “mixed race,” the common assumption for being multiracial is someone mixed with black and white, so that means I fall into an even smaller minority group.
According to the 2011 National Household Survey, about 4.6 per cent of the population were in mixed unions that included spouses from different visible minority groups, like my parents.
Dates with my mom always consist of “Is that your daughter?” and “Wow, you guys look nothing alike,” mainly because her complexion is so much lighter than mine. Travelling with her is always interesting because people are genuinely confused at the border, or concerned for my safety with the assumption that she’s kidnapping me. I’ve gotten used to it over the years, but without fail it happens almost every time. Sometimes cashiers will argue and say, “No, that’s not your daughter, it can’t be,” as if I didn’t live in her womb for nine months.
Growing up in a predominately white town, and being the only non-Italian girl in my friend group, I was always aware that I didn’t look like everyone else. I grew up not looking exactly like my other cousins or family members, and always feeling like I was missing something from either side. Whether it’s Christmas with my dad’s side of the family, or Thanksgiving with my mom’s, the language is always spoken in Tagalog or Tamil and immediately gets switched when I enter the room. In photographs, I’m usually wearing a classic black dress while my cousins are dressed up in beautiful saris, a traditional formal piece in Tamil culture. I’ve never been ostracized by my family, I’ve always been treated well and welcomed, but it’s hard to not fully belong in one culture.
Due to our lack of being fully involved in the culture of Sri Lankans or Filipinos, my family became fully immersed with the white community. My brother is the only mixed kid on his hockey team, and my parents stick out when they go to hockey tournaments in Barrie and Peterborough.
But, there’s always a flip side. While i’m conflicted with my cultural identity at times, I’ve learned to embrace the perks of being biracial. I was able to grow up with a very open-minded outlook on life, and to really appreciate the opportunities that come with being mixed. There’s always a variety of cultures that I’m surrounded by. I was never told to date a specific race, or to do specific things that fell into the cultural norm of being Tamil or Filipina. My parents raised me in a very liberal way, while still being able to incorporate some conservative aspects from their culture.
I don’t find it offensive, and at times it can be flattering. My resentment towards the question is the fact that it’s asked before my name, before a greeting and most of the time, from complete and total strangers.
So maybe the next time someone abruptly asks me, “What are you”, I should tell them to ask my name first.