The Puzzle of Ethnicity
Issues of identity are crucial to teens. Here, two writers look at how their ethnic backgrounds and mixed nationalities have influenced their lives and how their identities continue to evolve – showing how confusing ethnic identity can be for teens.
An Ever-Changing Home
By Sharada Balachandran-Orihuela, 20
I was born to a Mexican mother and an Indian father, and over the 20 years of life I have moved a total of seven times. I know that moving from house to house is pretty normal, but I have spent my life commuting between two continents.
My father agreed to my Mexico City birth on the one condition that my mother and I permanently reside in New Delhi. But we ended up returning to Mexico shortly thereafter to see my great-grandmother, who had been diagnosed with breast cancer. After a day’s worth of chemotherapy, my Bis Margarita used to get me pastel-colored lagrimitas – sugary candy that would melt slowly on my tongue. This “gift of tears” sold outside a hospital is my earliest memory of Mexico.
I attended elementary school in New Delhi, clad in itchy gray stockings and a wool coat in the winter. In school, the extreme boredom of Hindi class was avoided with notes my friends and I passed to one another, hoping to not get caught. The thrill of escaping detection was intensified with the knowledge that if we got caught, we would feel the tight snap of a wooden ruler on our hands.
The discomfort of my uniform would disappear when I entered the cool lightness of my home. I loved nothing more than lying between my grandparents and hearing stories of the struggle for independence in India. The coconut oil from my grandmother’s hair infused the room with a sweet, sticky aroma. When it came time to sleep, my aunt would cradle me in her lap, and I still find nothing more beautiful than the yellow Banaras silk of saris.
My mother and I boarded a plane headed to Mexico when I turned 12, and all I did was cry, missing one-third of my familiar equation. I missed my friends and their Hindi, and my father and his English, because I knew that they would disappear in my mother’s Mexican surroundings. My memories of home there are filled with scenes from the four Christmases I spent there, when my abuelita erected a large plastic tree early in December while my cousins and I crowded around her, decorations in hand. On Christmas Day we all sat around my grandmother’s dinner table and savored the mole and bacalao she prepared. There was a safety I felt in seeing my mother, her sisters and her mother talk all night; there was a comfort their voices provided.
When I was 16, we moved back home to India. I arrived in Indira Gandhi International Airport after a 26-hour journey. The humid air seemed to suffocate me. I didn’t recognize my surroundings, the streets both unfamiliar and strange. I tried to find an anchor – a house, a street that would have told me I was back home – but was left feeling disappointed. I fell asleep that first night in discomfort, troubled by not knowing where I was.
The next morning I walked to the market, making my way through emaciated white cows that crossed the busy street with greater ease than I did. I bought vegetables from a fat man perched high above the bell peppers and violet onions, weighing cucumbers on an old scale by carefully placing metal weights on one side of the balance. Slowly, I began to feel at home again.
When I left India to come to college in the U.S., I had to stand in an interminable immigration line. Immediately, I missed the heat and the holy river that flowed near our house in India. A couple of weeks later, as the U.S. recovered from the shock of having seen two towers fall, I remember riding the bus in an unsuspecting daze and being asked if I wore my head wrap for “religious” purposes. I quickly stuttered a reply, not knowing what would be appropriate.
Now, I work, study and live in Oakland, Calif., where the definition of a home has shifted again. Perhaps one day this home will be marked by these memories: the sight of my friend’s 3-year-old daughter, waiting for Bus 58 with $1.50 in my hand, and the earthy scent of redwoods.
As a child I never fully understood the reasons behind my nomadic lifestyle, yet I knew that it prevented me from fully establishing a point of origin. I have only recently begun to appreciate the tranquility and sense of belonging I have eventually felt in all these places, and realized that my definition of home will constantly be redefined as I travel on through life.
Mistaken Identities: I Am NOT Who You Think I Am
By Shadi Rahimi, 21
I don’t fake the funk. But everyone I meet seems to think I do. The problem is that people assume I am what they want me to be. A guy working at a taqueria scolded me recently for not being able to speak Spanish well. Why? He thought I was Latina. If I was from a culture that spoke Spanish, I could understand his frustration. But I can speak my language: Persian. When I explained that I was Iranian, dude just shook his head.
“You look Latina,” he replied. “You should learn Spanish.”
It was the same story when I first attended a roundhouse ceremony several hours north of San Francisco with my best friend. His family is Northern California Pomo. Most assumed I was also Native American, so I should know what to do at the ceremony. Of course, when I crossed the fire from the left side instead of the right, I got shocked stares and a red face.
It’s difficult nowadays to tell what ethnicity most people are, because the U.S. is so mixed. And that’s why it’s harder to explain why it even matters. I’ve noticed in the Bay [area], people tend to group together with folks who look like them. It’s probably for comfort, but I’m not sure. What I do know is that, as people try to figure out what everyone else is, I get caught up in a guessing game.
I’ve been mistaken for Egyptian, Native American, East Asian, Puerto Rican, Salvadorian, Italian, Mexican, Greek, Hawaiian, Peruvian – you name it. Middle Eastern is a rare correct guess, usually from those who are also Middle Eastern. But I have yet to meet an Iranian who doesn’t wrinkle his or her nose and look me up and down before declaring that I don’t look like one.
When I wear long, beaded earrings, I get hit on by guys trying to score with Pocahontas. When my black hair is curly and wrapped in a brightly colored cloth, dreads and wannabe-Rasta’s try to holler. When my nose ring was a tiny silver stud rather than a hoop, I caught the eye of Indian guys. When I straightened my hair and wore hoop earrings to an East Coast club, a Puerto Rican wouldn’t leave me alone. He said I “have too much attitude” to be Middle Eastern.
Sometimes I stare in the mirror, trying to figure out why I don’t look like the way I’m supposed to. My dad is Persian and my mom’s family is from Bahrain. My mom has fair skin and my dad is very dark. I’m an in-between shade. Maybe my features are confusing. Iranian women are known for large eyes framed by thick eyelashes, and dark, shapely eyebrows. My eyes are small like my dad’s, and my eyebrows have been plucked much thinner than natural.
So I always end up thinking, “Who cares?” People will assume, no matter what. And my ambiguous looks are often an advantage. It was easy for me to hang out with different people in my high school, even though it was racially divided. I would drift among the cliques of black, white and Latino kids. Now, how I look makes working as a freelance reporter easier. The question of my ethnicity is often an icebreaker in interviews, and I can blend in with people in neighborhoods where white reporters stick out.
I think my experience is similar to that of many mixed kids. It feels like I’m a feather that floats and floats, but never touches down. Most of my mixed friends tend to go with the ethnic group that embraces them most. I have yet to be embraced. I still don’t know where I fit in. So until I do, I’ll keep on floatin’.
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