In this collection, you can read essays from a teen who wonders if he can be Jewish and not believe in God, a Black adoptee with White parents, a “bad” Asian, a student tired of talking about identity, and other students from across the country defining who they are.
Advice From a Bad Asian
By Sebastian Cynn
Ethical Culture Fieldson School, Bronx, N.Y.
Apparently, I’m a bad Asian. Not a good Asian, not even a decent Asian, but a bad Asian. And, while some may consider me a good Asian since I get decent grades, play the violin, and take math courses outside of school, apparently, I’m not.
In my school, we have affinity groups. It’s where people of the same ethnicity talk to each other about their experiences. It’s a meeting of people who will understand your perspective best. In seventh grade, I decided to attend an affinity group meeting since I had heard a great deal about these groups. All I remember was being called a bad Asian again and again. I was called a bad Asian because I didn’t know how to use chopsticks. I was called a bad Asian because I didn’t know what bubble tea or K-pop was. Time and again, I was called a bad Asian because I didn’t know the things I was expected to know, and I didn’t do the things that I was expected to do. That meeting made me truly question my identity.
And that’s because I don’t meet all the conventional Asian criteria. I don’t do what society says I should. I don’t know any Asian languages. I don’t know the Asian holidays. I’m still learning how to use chopsticks. And, I’m fine with that. I’m fine with not meeting the criteria that society imposes on me and not knowing what society says I should know. Still, I had to ask myself a question. If I’m fine with not knowing and doing all the Asian things, am I really Asian? If I don’t accept all the parts of my identity, am I really Asian? Is Kayla DeVault right when she says in the YES! article “Native and European: How Do I Honor All Parts of Myself” “Simply saying ‘I am this’ isn’t enough”? Am I really Asian if I don’t participate in the culture? Am I really Asian if what I do says I’m not?
I considered those questions for a while and, eventually, I found my answer. Who I am is defined by me alone. My Asian identity is not decided by societal beliefs. I don’t need to check the boxes that society wants me to check. I don’t need to actively engage in the traditions. I don’t need to know everything about the Asian identity because being Asian is so much more. The Asian identity is not solely defined by the traditions and cultures of my ancestors who lived long ago. It is the result of everyone. It’s a tapestry of all Asians who lived, are living, and will live. Asian culture does not define Asian people, it’s the other way around. Asian culture changes because Asian people change. No matter how good or bad they may be, every Asian still gets to be Asian.
This is because you get to decide how you define your culture and identity. You get to decide what being you means and whether or not saying “I am this” is enough. No one should tell you otherwise. You shape your culture; you shouldn’t let it shape you. Even though I don’t know my culture, even though I don’t know my heritage, I am still Asian. Having an Asian identity doesn’t mean you have to be a good Asian or that you can’t carve your own path. Having an Asian identity doesn’t require that you know the culture or memorize all the traditions. Having an Asian identity simply means you are Asian. And, no one can change that but you.
KIPP Washington Heights Middle School, New York, N.Y.
Yes, I may be a little bit whiter than most Dominicans but I don’t let that get to me and start questioning who I am.
I’m Dominican. However, I was born here in the Bronx. It’s difficult being Dominican but born and raised in New York. I’m supposed to speak fluent Spanish. I’m supposed to listen to their music 24/7. I’m supposed to follow their traditions. I’m supposed to eat their foods. Yes, I may not speak Spanish. Yes, I may not listen to their kind of music, but I don’t think that defines who I am as a Dominican. I don’t think I should be discriminated for not being the same as most Dominicans. Nobody should be discriminated against for being different from the rest because sometimes different is good.
There’s always that one person that calls me White because I don’t speak fluent Spanish or I don’t listen to their type of music. I will always disagree with that because many Dominicans come in different types of skin colors. Yes, I may be a little bit whiter than most Dominicans but I don’t let that get to me and start questioning who I am. I have been discriminated every day and I’m tired of it because it’s not fair for people to be treated differently because of the way they look, like their skin color or how their hair is styled or where they came from.
It’s important for people who don’t know anything about where they came from to get to know their family traditions because it can help them understand their ancestors. I would do anything to learn more about the Dominican Republic and my ancestors because it may change my perspective on everything. I’ve been talking to my family members in Spanish and doing my best to get better, but it may take time because it’s something new though not completely new.
Just like Kayla, I traveled to where my family is from to honor their traditions and to learn more about my heritage. In the summer of 2018, I went to the Dominican Republic and visited the places where my family grew up. I’m not going to lie, it wasn’t the prettiest thing because most people over there are poor and not able to afford nice things. However, they still find a way to make their home good enough for them because it’s important to them. It was amazing to see different types of adults, teenagers, and kids having the time of their life with only a few valuable things. They also made sure to provide for their families by farming their own crops and getting their own meals from the animals they had. This taught me that being a person of color can come not only with happiness and pride but also with hardship because you don’t know about the situation your family came from or how someone might treat you badly at any moment because of what you look like.
This is similar to Kayla because she thinks that we have to participate in order to honor our heritage. This experience has impacted me by increasing my desire to find out more information through my family. It has motivated me to learn more about where my ancestors came from. Also, it shows me that people of color should be proud of where they came from because it’s what makes them unique. People of color are the majority of the world, so we should honor where we come from and who our ancestors are.
Bridges and Broken Pieces
Ethical Culture Fieldston School, Bronx, N.Y.
Ever felt split across different people, like you act differently with different groups? Join the club.
Here’s my story. I am Japanese-Korean American, but I’m labeled as a “bad Asian” by some of my friends. I’m Bisexual, even though I call myself Gay. I have a mild obsession with Amandla Stenberg, an actor who played Madeline Whittier and Starr Carter and who is also nonbinary. My family is Korean and Japanese, and the majority of my family lives in America.
Sometimes I feel disconnected from my identifiers. When I hang out with some of my older friend groups, who are mainly White, straight kids, I don’t mention that I’m Asian or Gay, but as soon as I’m with my newer friends, I talk about my identifiers a lot. A lot of them are a part of the LGBTQ+ community and 11 out of 14 of them are people of color. With my grandparents, I am quieter—a good Asian grandchild who is smart, gets good grades, and is respectful. And, I don’t act “Gay.”
With my older friend group, I feel like the same person, but I don’t flaunt my identifiers as much as I do with my new friend group because they aren’t people of color and they are all straight. It’s still uncomfortable. Why do I have to act differently with different people? Why do I only feel comfortable with all of my identities at school? I know why I keep my sexual orientation quiet from my family, but why don’t I talk more? If I’m comfortable talking about my identifiers with my new friends, why should it be different with my old friends?
Being like this almost feels like being broken into pieces. I feel the need to act differently with different people. Does my family know all of the parts of me? My old friends know I’m Gay and I’m Asian, but why don’t we talk about it? Why do I need to show off that I’m different with my new friends, one of the most diverse and least popular friend groups in my grade?
My identifiers in pieces aren’t the problem—it’s my relationships. In the YES! article “Native and European – How Do I Honor All Parts of Myself,” Kayla DeVault writes, “It doesn’t matter how many pieces make up the whole; rather, it’s my relationship with those pieces that matters.” My relationships with my pieces are fine. What wasn’t right was that I didn’t show all of myself when I started my relationships.
I noticed the pattern but kept this to myself. I wished I could be my true self to everyone I met but that felt impossible. What if they hate me, shut me out? What if it messes things up? Relationships are bridges over a cavern —some are built on sturdy land, and they have a good structure. Sometimes, the other side is dangerous. Some bridges seem sturdy but lead to bad places. My bridges were built with the other sides not seeing the whole me, as if fog or smoke were obscuring their vision.
All bridges break or some need to be broken. Eventually, with the passing of time, they’re all gone if you don’t care for them.
In the last year, things started to change. I’ve become closer to my newer friends, and while I still spend time with my old friends, I’ve become more distant with them. I’ve started to speak my mind outside of school. My world is getting better. I’m clearing away the fog that’s hiding the real me.
Religion Without God? Works for Me
Ethical Culture Fieldston School, Bronx, N.Y.
Torah, Shema, yarmulke; all important elements of Jewish identity—except for mine. All these symbols assume the existence of a single God, but that just doesn’t resonate with me. Religion is a meaningful part of my family’s identity. After all, wanting to freely practice their religion was what brought my great grandparents to America from Eastern Europe. I could never wrap my head around the concept of God because of my strong interest in science. Can I be Jewish while not believing in God?
I must be able to be Jewish because I am Jewish. My parents are Jewish and, therefore, regardless of my beliefs, I am a Jew. Unlike many other religions, being Jewish doesn’t require you to accept any specific ideology or beliefs, all it requires is that you be born to a Jewish parent. But what does that mean for my Jewish identity?
For me, the best part of being Jewish is the holidays. Spending time with family and friends all gathered at the dinner table enjoying food and each other’s company is the perfect escape from day-to-day life. From the Afikoman on Passover to the Shabbat candles and wonderful food, it’s that “smells like mom’s world-famous brisket” kind of feeling that puts it all together for me. It makes me happy to be away from all the schoolwork and responsibilities, happy to feel at home, happy to be Jewish.
Indeed, the most notable Jewish experiences for me have nothing to do with God, but instead have to do with interacting with others, such as my family members and Hebrew school teachers. They told me to be curious, curious about the world around me, and to question it. Yet, when I told my Hebrew school principal that I did not believe in God, rather than being shocked or upset, he, to my surprise, supported my thoughts and encouraged me to keep questioning what being Jewish could mean to me.
This year, after Kol Nidre, I asked my rabbi “Why do you fast for Yom Kippur?” He took a long moment to think, and then said, “I fast because every Jew in the world is fasting today.” That was interesting to me because we are often taught not to do something just because everyone else is doing it. But here my rabbi was not saying to do something because everyone else was doing it, but rather because every Jew was doing it. Jews are two percent of the United States population and less than one percent of the world’s, but wherever they are, all of this tiny minority participates in the same act. That fascinates me. It was then that I began to understand what being Jewish means to me. I could stay true to my religion and family roots, not by honoring each and every word in the Torah, or by praying to God every week, but by participating in Jewish traditions.
“I never questioned my identity,” Kayla DeVault writes in her YES! article “Native and European—How Do I Honor All Parts of Myself?” I always questioned mine, and now I’m starting to find some answers. I don’t feel connected to the Torah, a yarmulke, or the Shema. But that’s okay. Instead, I relate to experiences such as celebrating holidays, hunting for the Afikoman, and eating traditional foods. Maybe it’s because I’m part of a generation that is collectively starting to value experiences over things. Religion is one of the hardest things in the world to truly understand, and by no means have I figured it out. But I’m happy to say I’m on my way.
Not Just Transgender
Kirkwood High School, Kirkwood, Mo.
I’m sitting in front of my mother in our living room, my heart pounding. I am watching her forehead for creases that will tell me how upset she is. After this moment, will I ever be the same? I think about how my nana couldn’t call me ‘Sebastian.’ Holidays with my family feels like I’m suffocating in a costume. I’ve come out twice in my life. First, as a lesbian in middle school. Second, as a transgender man freshman year. I’ve gotten good at the classic sit-down with hands folded neatly in front of me, composure quiet and well kept, although I’m always terrified. For my whole life, I’ve grappled with who I am, who I want to be, and how I want the world to see me. Since coming out in April of 2018, I have constantly been fighting for my individuality and making desperate attempts to hold on to the person I was before everyone saw me as different.
I knew from a young age my identity wasn’t crystal clear. I wanted to be one of the boys, but I was trapped in what everyone else told me: I was a girl. When I said I hated my name, the people in my life told me that couldn’t be true. I refused to be seen as a sister or daughter. I wanted to get out of this body that never matched me. My life has been an undying battle to secure my identity in something concrete, but still, be seen as me. The kid who loves horses and dogs. The writing nerd. The more I fight this, the more I realize I will not be the person I used to be because the world will not allow that. I’ve had friends leave my life simply because they didn’t want to accept me. Some of my family still won’t use the right name and words to describe me, telling me; “God made you a girl.” Either I speak too much or not enough. Like it is somehow my job to be the spokesperson for an entire marginalized group of people. One time, as I was heading to class, I heard someone shout my birth name through the hall. I felt my heart squeeze, I sighed before turning around. A student I’d known for years ran up and gave me a tight hug. She said hello and we exchanged a few words before she jumped to a question I wasn’t prepared for.
“Wait, you’re transgender?”
“Wait— does that mean you have a penis?”
I was too shocked to even bother answering the question. My mouth hung open for a moment until I turned to rush down the hall, turning up the music in my earbuds. I know people have questions, I know people want answers, but I am not Google.
So, this brings me back to the same question: How can I still be me when no one looks at me that way anymore? How do I live with being defined as transgender? I think the key is to reject any form of what other people want me to be. I am transgender and also a person. I can hold multiple identities, and they enhance who I am instead of hindering it. Yes, I am transgender, but I am also a son, a friend, an aspiring writer and a dog trainer. I love riding horses. I’ve had the same volunteer job since sixth grade. I love music and trips to the art museum. I know who I am and whether other people choose to see me for those things is out of my control. In Kayla DeVault’s YES! article “Native and European—How Do I Honor All Parts of Myself?” she writes, “I am entitled to my multiple heritages.” The small pieces of our identities ultimately make us who we are. Feeling safe in our identities has to be less about how others see us and more about how we see ourselves.
WHITE BLACK OTHER BIRACIAL MULTIRACIAL HUMAN
New Tech Academy at Wayne High School, Fort Wayne, Ind.
I sit down on the cold, black chair and listen as the teacher explains our instructions for this survey. My white chipped fingernails pull up the laptop screen. The screen, in response, flashes black and white. My finger directs the mouse to the questions, and I begin carefully typing my address, gender, and birthdate, occasionally using the auto-fill to ease my fingers’ burdens. I scroll down.
What is your race/ethnicity? (select all that apply)
My mind carelessly shifts to prior years when I was forced to painfully decide which parent I was going to honor. Would I click White? Would I click Black? Or, would I check “other” to acknowledge my uncertainty? Blasted back to the past by my teacher’s voice, I click Caucasian for my father’s Scottish, British and German roots and the European piece of my mother. I apprehensively click African American for my mother’s father, guiltily hoping that this “diverse click” will make my answers valuable. I keep scrolling. Did I miss something? What if those voices guessing my ethnicity are right?
Years ago, claiming multiple races was frowned upon. Now, it is seen as a superpower, yet, for me, it carries untold responsibilities, rare opportunities, and sometimes uncomfortable situations.
Like Kayla DeVault wrote in her YES! article “Native and European—How Do I Honor All Parts of Myself?” “When I was older, the questions came, which made me question myself.” The echoing voices demand:
“Who are you?”
“What are you?”
“What are you mixed with?”
“I don’t know.” I reply “I’m not dominantly any race.” Those empty words are nothing but a muse, only meant to distract from the fact that my unknown race terrifies me. But is that who I am? my mind demands. I repeat those dull words to evade those stereotypes that are invisibly etched by my traits, not my cultures. In an effort to break free from the stereotypes and racism that I find chained to my public persona, I have separated myself from the race and ethnicity I once knew.
My family has never truly been connected to a specific culture; my family tends to celebrate multiple ethnicities. I walk into the kitchen often greeted by my mother sitting on her usual stool and the rich smells of culture: the spicy smell of India, the hearty aroma of cooked beans, or the sizzling hiss of burgers on the grill.
Despite these great smells, I find myself often yearning for something that my friends have—one distinct culture with its own food, people, music, and traditions.
I don’t have a one-click culture.
That can be freeing, but also intimidating.
People who know me see me as a fraction: 1/4 black and 3/4 white, but I am not a fraction.
I am human, just human.
Through my connection to multiple ethnicities and races, I have gained great wisdom. I can see others beyond their fractions and portions. I embrace them as a whole, admiring how all the portions blend into a beautiful picture of humanity.
However, I still yearn to sit a bustling table listening to my grandparents tell their homeland stories; while eating food from our beloved home. I yearn to know my roots.
I have a dream that my children would be able to experience the many meals and traditions of cultures that are their own, and those that aren’t their own.
I have a dream that my children will live in a world where we don’t split people into categories or fractions. Where we stand hand in hand accepting our differences and acknowledging our similarities.
Wayne High School, Fort Wayne, Ind.
My voice is quickly drowned out by those of my family; Grandpa’s low baritone, Grandma’s soft falsetto, Uncle’s loud, deaf attempt at harmonizing. I look to the stained glass above. The sun shines through, and as the church hall is filled with the voices of Grace Lutheran Church’s congregation, I wish I was anywhere but there.
My parents raised me without religion or constraints. They allowed their only daughter to choose for herself what she would believe, where she would gather her morals and to whom she would devote herself eternally forever and ever and ever.
Or not. At home, I did not attend church, read scripture, or learn the word of god. Around family, it was a different story.
You’re wearing that? My grandmother gives me a disapproving stare, clearly displeased with the outfit I have chosen for church that day. My fashion sense never seemed up to par for the big man upstairs. Does god really care if my shirt is ironed?
I visited her dozens of times as a child, listened to her sermons, and heard her prayers, but I remember little from our time together. Bits and pieces of Scripture, hymns, and stories still reside in my memory, but I never connected to the message and I never believed.
My face heats, I look at my shoes. The mere mention of his name and the room fills my chest with a heavy tension. I wish I had kept quiet. I knew what would happen; every time it’s the same.
“We just don’t want you to go to hell.”
I am not an atheist. I am not agnostic. I have no religion, nor do I stand strong in any one belief. My answer to the mystery of life is simple: I don’t know.
But I live in a world full of people who think they do.
My lack of religion has led me to be laughed at, ridiculed, and resented. An absence of belief is a concept a conditioned mind is unable to process.
They move to me quickly, their faces masked with an unjustified rage. The accusations they spew at me seem to echo throughout the lunchroom. I feel eyes on me, neighboring tables looking over at the commotion. I want to speak, to shout, to cry, but my throat closes and I sit in silence; every time, it’s the same.
Religion was created to repress the fear that constantly looms over our heads. Death, purpose, existence; religion eases all.
However, I am not fearful. And I am no longer ashamed.
Unlike Kayla DeVault, who states in her YES! article “Native and European—How Do I Honor All Parts of Myself?” that in order “to truly honor my heritage, I found I must understand and participate in it,” I choose to respect the beliefs of my family without participation. I do not wish to join the weekly trips to church, to say grace, to worship, or to devote myself to another. I simply wish to remain me, to remain free.
The underlying discomfort surrounding religion that has strained my relationships between family and friends over the years needs to come to an end. We must respect differences and put aside fear; in doing so, we will honor one another.
There will be a day when that capital G does not control my conversations. There will be a day when I can speak my beliefs, or lack thereof, without judgment, without the odd stare, and without contempt. That day will come when a life without religion is just another life. That is the day I wait for. That day will be Good.
Many Years Ago and Today
Woodburn Academy of Art, Science, and Technology, Woodburn, Ore.
“¡Correle!” yell the people around him. He runs to the grass, ducks down, and starts to wait. He’s nervous and smells of the saltiness of sweat. He looks up and hears the chopping of helicopter blades. Beams of light fall and weave through the grass field.
The others don’t wait. They don’t know when it is going to be over, so they run and try to escape the bright beams of light and the chopping of air. Running to the side of the road, just out of reach, they are tackled from behind and detained. Soon, the only thing filling the air is the song of crickets and the huff of breath coming from the tall grass.
Out of a group of thirteen, only four are left hidden. He and the others cross and meet up with people they know who will take them from their own land down south to the opportunity within grasp up north.
That was my father many years ago. I’ve only asked for that story once, and now it’s committed to memory.
This story has impacted me in such a way that I’ve grown up longing to see what my father had, what he grew up with. I’ve always loved to listen to stories, especially places I’ve never been to. People look at me and know that I must have heritage from Mexico. They may label me as illegal when I have the same rights as they do. I know the same language they do, but they don’t know where I’m from.
They don’t know that half of me is from Janitzio, Michoacán and that the other half is from Municipio de Pénjamo, Guanajuato. My dad told me that instead of hearing the crickets sing, he heard the frogs and toads croak. My mother was born in the United States, but because my grandparents were from the same place in Mexico they were able to share their culture with my mother and her siblings.
My siblings and I have grown up listening to the descriptions of places my family is from; when my mom tells me of my grandma’s house in Mexico, I can see the lime tree in the middle of the property and hear the frogs croak from the lake by my dad’s house.
The last time I went to Mexico, I was too young to remember anything. When I try to remember, all I see is thick fog that covers everything and shadows. My mom tells me that my family in Mexico knows what we look like, but they don’t know how we sound. At least they know who we are.
Sometimes I get tired of hearing the stories, but I almost always come back to wanting to hear them again. Because I don’t know all the parts of me, I’m stuck with nostalgia, with the places covered with fog. The faces of my family are all but perfect pictures in my mind. To me, their faces are hidden by cloaks of shadows, recalled only by pictures. I see the pictures, again and again, to constantly refresh my memory.
Pictures are moments in time, stuck in the same place after years, even after the person in them has grown old. Pictures bring nostalgia and sadness and happiness and laughter, too. All the pictures we have at home serve a purpose. Like Kayla DeVault, author of the YES! article “Native and European—How Do I Honor All Parts of Myself?,” we use pictures to remind us of our loved ones whom we can’t see all the time—even the ones who won’t come back. I remember looking through the drawers in my mom’s room. Sifting through photos, I found places, aunts, uncles, cousins, funerals, weddings, parties, food, and family I’ve never seen before.
I hope to add to my mom’s collection of photographs. I never got to hear the end of my dad’s story, just some bits and pieces. I hope that the actual ending was amazing, even the sequels through the eyes of his children: Crystal, Javier, Luz, Rebecca, and Emilio.
Wait a Minute… Who ARE You?
Mei Li Ana Babuca
Chief Sealth International High School, Seattle, Wash.
“What do you consider your ancestral or ethnic identity?” That’s the prompt for this essay, and boy, what a prompt it is. How should I answer? Should I go with my mother’s family and call myself a Chinese-American? Or should I choose my father’s side and identify myself as Mexican? Or, do I shove it all into one big title? No, that’s much too long and no one wants to listen to that. Selecting only one side of my family feels like a lie. Do I owe these people the whole truth of myself? Do I need to explain myself? Is it even worth trying? I know that no matter what I say, people who see me are gonna assume I’m an attention-seeking White person. Or is that my own fear creeping into my perception of myself? Since I’ve never had strong connections to my family’s culture, am I even allowed to identify with it? All I know is that no matter what I say, I’ll feel like a liar.
Let’s start with what I know; I know that my parents weren’t born here. My father was born in Imuris, Mexico and immigrated to Tucson when he was six years old, and my mother is a Chinese American army brat. Her mother, my grandmother, was a Chinese person living in Taiwan because of the Chinese Communist Revolution. You would think that with me being so close to the source of culture, I would know a lot more, but it seems that with immigration, assimilation, and the move from Tucson to Seattle, quite a few traditions got lost.
How do I identify myself? What do I connect to? What’s important to you?
Here’s the answer, I don’t. Don’t have a strong connection, don’t know the traditions, don’t even know the languages. I eat some of the food and kinda sorta halfa** the major holidays, but when I think about it I don’t know anything important. I think that the strongest connection to my family is in my name, Mei Li (Chinese for “beautiful”) Ana (a variation on my mother’s very American middle name, Anne) Babuca (my father’s Mexican last name).
I found myself connecting to Kayla DeVault in an interesting way when I read her YES! article “Native and European—How Do I Connect with All Parts of Myself?” Both of us grew up without really questioning who we are and who our ancestors were, and both of us have wondered about our ancestors. But, we also have a big difference. While Kayla knew how she identified herself, I have never quite been able to. Maybe part of that was because while, yes, there was a distance between Kayla and her ancestors, her family still worked to pass down their culture to her. Meanwhile, here I am sitting in the dark.
I need to know family recipes, stories, and traditions. I want someone to tell me all the things I want to know and teach me all the things I need to learn, but I know that that won’t happen. Part of the responsibility falls on my parents and my parents’ parents for not passing on their cultures. I am also responsible for not asking all the questions I needed to ask. I guess I should start on that. It’s time for me to start learning.
So, back to that question: What do I consider my ancestral or ethnic identity? I don’t really know yet. Maybe I’ll just stick with my name for now.
Hi, I’m Mei Li Ana Babuca! 🙂
Kirkwood High School, Kirkwood, Mo.
I read a prompt spread across a purple page. Once again, someone who will never know the full me was asking about my identity. Almost by instinct, my body repulsed as these words triggered a flood of emotion inside of me. Disappointment spread throughout me as my shoulders sagged. My head went down, and I got to work on an all-too-familiar task. This question has become all-consuming. I am a minority. Not a moment of my life goes by when I am not isolated by who I am. Writing about the prejudices I face has become second nature. These prompts swirl above my head like a looming storm cloud. My hand could simply dip into the gray mass, and pick one of many topics. I am the diversity dream; every college wants me on the front of their brochure. Not because I want to be but because I have no choice. I could not choose my diverse background, nor do I get to choose how I identify with it; society has chosen for me.
Similar to author Kayla DeVault in her YES! article “Native and European-How Do I Honor All Parts of Myself?” “the questions came, which made me question myself.” To me, the hardest struggle has been being forced to identify myself. From the outside, it may seem grand to let kids like me have a voice. In theory, letting us share our stories with a more common audience is great the first five times. When the realization came that I was different, I was ecstatic. I felt on top of the world when I could point to so many places on the map where my ancestors lived. I, alone, could discuss the different places I have lived. Getting to explain my story to my classmates’ wide eyes put me on a pedestal. The “Most Ethnically Ambiguous” award has lost its magic, and I am ready to hand it back.
No longer do I wish to be stared at when civil rights and slavery are discussed. In every Socratic seminar, I shudder as expectant white faces turn to mine. My brown skin does not make me the ambassador for Black people everywhere. Please do not expect me to be the racism police anymore. Do not base the African American experience upon my few words. Do not try to be relatable when mentioning Hanukkah is in a few days. Telling me that you tell your White friends not to say the N-word doesn’t do anything for me.
Despite assumptions made by outward appearance, my diverse background does not define me. All of these pieces come together to make me. A puzzle not quite complete with several pieces jammed in incorrectly. I try my best to embrace and love every aspect that comes together to create me. What I identify with the most is the fellow group of minority teens tired of having to discuss what makes us different. The societal pressure put upon us to be the spokesperson and the connection between us and other races is backbreaking. It does not allow us to discover our identities and share who we are. It backs us into a corner and creates a sense that this is what we have to offer to the world and is the basis of our being. To us, this is not all that we are. At our age, we question so much about ourselves. What I ask is that people stop asking me about my identity and let me discover who I am first. Then, I will get back to you.
What IS My Identity?
Wichita North High School, Wichita, Kan.
So, my identity…if I’m being completely honest, at this point in my life, I’m not too sure what my identity is. Here’s what I know about my ethnic identity. First of all, I have no idea who my ancestors are, so don’t ask me. I’m pretty sure I’m fully Mexican. I was born here in America, in Wichita, Kansas. My whole family is from Kansas, too. We have never been traditionally Mexican American. We don’t celebrate things like Cinco de Mayo and I never had a Quinceañera.
My whole life I have felt like I don’t belong in the Mexican category. I mean yeah, I’m fully Mexican but, I’ve always felt like I wasn’t. Why is that you ask? Well, I feel that way because I don’t know Spanish. Yes, that’s the reason. It may not sound like a big deal, but, for me, I’ve always felt disconnected from my race. I felt shameful. I felt like it was an obligation to know what is supposed to be my mother tongue. My whole family doesn’t really know fluent Spanish and that has always bothered me growing up. I can remember from my earliest years of school, most of my classmates were Mexican and spoke Spanish. They were always so judgmental when they figured out I didn’t know Spanish. It was always the same comments like, “What? You don’t know Spanish? But you’re Mexican!” or “How do you not know Spanish? Are you even Mexican?” These comments always made me feel left out.
It was like I was an outsider to my own race.
So, freshman year of high school, I did something to help change that. I took a Spanish class. Let me tell you something—learning a new language is hard! Everything was so difficult and confusing, but I got through it. I took another Spanish class sophomore year. I finished and passed both years but I still had no clue how to speak Spanish! Honestly, I gave up after that and didn’t take it my junior year. I came to the conclusion that it’s okay for me not to know. Me not knowing Spanish isn’t what identifies me.
Someday in the future, I would love to learn my language and explore more about my culture and ancestry. Right now, at my age, I can only identify myself with the things that make me, me. One thing that I can always be proud of and how I express myself is my gift for drawing. Drawing has always been something I can be confident about. My talent has never let me down. I have always been known as the “artist” in the family. I love that. My passion for art is a huge thing that I can confidently say identifies me.
Like I said, in the future, I would love to dig deeper into the discovery of my roots. Someday, I would like to travel to the places of my ancestors, just like Kayla DeVault did, as she mentioned in her YES! article “Native and European-How Do I Honor All Parts of Myself?” I would like to know when, where, and how my family tree began to grow. Someone I have always been curious about is my great-great-grandma from my dad’s side. My dad showed me a picture of her and told me that she was also an artist. She’s probably the one who passed down her artistic ability to me. Kayla DeVault made a huge effort to take the time to study and put forth effort into embracing all parts of her identities. I hope to do that too when I figure out what my identity truly is.
Ancestry vs. Personal Experience: Which is More Important?
Central York High School, York, Pa.
I believe differently from Kayla DeVault, author of the YES! article, “Native and European-How Do I Honor All Parts of Myself?” She believes it’s important to connect and participate with your heritage. I believe that our personal pasts have more to do with who we are as people than any national identity ever could. Sure, our heritage is important, but it doesn’t do nearly as much to shape our character and perspective as our struggles and burdens do. Out of all my past experiences, illness—especially mental illness—has shaped me.
I struggle with anxiety and depression, which can make life a living hell. This has affected me for almost half my life and led to many negative coping skills, making things worse. When I first developed these illnesses, I stopped talking most of the time unless I was spoken to. I distanced myself from the few friends I had, only compounding the loneliness often associated with depression. I was terrified of being judged by my peers, which made me become a different person than I wanted.
As a man, I was taught from a young age to suck it up, to deal with things and to keep quiet and not talk about my feelings—to suffer silently—something most boys are taught by our mothers and fathers. Meanwhile, our female peers are taught that it’s okay to cry, okay to show emotion, okay to talk. Society tells men we’re supposed to be big, stoic, strong people that others can depend on. However, men need support in tough times, as well. We also need an outlet when life drags us into the pits of sadness and despair.
When I lost people in my family, I internalized my emotions like I was told to. I didn’t talk about it to anyone because if I did, society would label me weak. I didn’t wear my emotions on my face. I put on a mask, a farce, so that everyone would think I was a strong person but that mask was one made of poison. Slowly, those hidden emotions corroded my will and my image. All of the pain, hurt, and sadness weighed on my heart like a thousand boulders, crushing my hope and withering away my happiness. I was worn down, and it took a while to realize that it was a real problem. This toxic idea of how men are supposed to be, along with all of the negative events that I went through, led to depression and anxiety. The fear of people finding out that I wasn’t a strong person made me even less willing to talk about my issues. All of this brought me to an endless spiral of sadness until I attempted the unthinkable. I was in a dark place at the time, but have since gotten through and I’m doing better now. That’s not to say that I don’t still struggle from time to time; it’s something I will live with for the rest of my life.
However, there is good that came from this. It changed how I view people with mental illnesses. I learned compassion beyond what I could have without my affliction. It has made me realize what kind of person I hope to be. After struggling with this for so many years and coming out the other side, I now have boundless emotional and mental awareness of myself and others. This is why I believe that no matter your ethnic or cultural background, your own experiences shape who you are much more than anything else in this world.
Putting the Middle in “Middle Eastern”: Facing My Racial Identity
University Liggett School, Grosse Pointe Woods, Mich.
Like Kayla DeVault, I share many memories of my heritage in the kitchen. Similar to an assembly line from my hometown of Detroit, my sister, mother, and I sat, wrapping grape leaves and placing them in the tundra or pot. See, I was never 100 percent fluent in Arabic. However, I grew up with those little words sprinkled throughout my vocabulary. They slowly made me capable of understanding Arabic, but not always as capable when responding.
My parents are immigrants from Syria. They came here seeking The American Dream and through hard work and determination, they were fortunate enough to find what they were looking for.
When I was growing up, my mother worked hard to become fluent in English with the goal of perfecting those little things that make a non-native speaker stick out. She often played Disney films on the VCR for my little brother and me. My mother sat in the living room with a notepad memorizing pronunciations, while my brother and I sat in front of the TV mesmerized. We longed for the lives of those characters displayed before our very eyes.
Perhaps this was my first contact with an ideal image that I found hard to shake. All those characters in front of me were not me. Not a single one of them. The one I could “identify” with promoted extreme stereotypes and gross depictions of my culture that made me feel ashamed. “Barbaric, but hey, it’s home” is a LITERAL line from the film. This mystical town of Agrabah was a mythical town of lies for me. That doesn’t mean I don’t have my appreciation for Lea Salonga’s “A Whole New World,” but a magic carpet ride was the least this film could give me to find peace in the problem it stirred in me.
I found myself trying to erase “Arab-American” out of my identity to appeal and fit in more at school and in society. Slowly, I opted out of the dabke at weddings, I stopped eating some of the traditional foods I grew up with, and I even questioned visiting some of my family members because they pushed tradition as if it was a park swing. I thought my hard work was paying off but no amount of headbands and ponytails could ever erase my curly hair, tanned complexion, and “distinguished” eye circles (yes, apparently that is a thing).
Honestly, I don’t have a clear answer for you about how I got to my current feelings about my identity—which is appreciative. Growing older is a big factor in this and really changed my perspective and attitude.
Within recent years, I have worked hard to better myself. This is why Kayla DeVault’s words in her YES! article, “Native and European—How Do I Honor All Parts of Myself?” resonated with me so much. “It doesn’t matter how many pieces make up my whole; rather, it’s my relationship with those pieces that matters…” I can now run that whole grape leaf assembly line, along with other traditional plates, by myself. I have begun speaking out on current topics such as Middle-Eastern representation in acting. I have become so much closer with my relatives and I don’t mind busting a move with them on the dance floor. Although a trip to Syria is not in my near future, DeVault made me realize that a connection to your geographical cultural roots is important. According to my aunt, I have become a carefree, happy, and more passionate person. I no longer feel stuck in the middle of ethnicity and society. Becoming one with and embracing my identity truly is “A Whole New World.”
Hunting for Heritage
Northern Oklahoma University, Stillwater, Okla.
I have often found myself feeling quite disassociated with the word “heritage”. I come from a family with a French last name, but no French ties. I have Irish and Native American blood coursing through my veins but no ties to the ancestral traditions of my forefathers. I felt as though a part of life was missing until my grandparents took DNA tests, revealing many of the most cherished aspects of my life closely aligned with those of my distant Apache ancestors.
After learning that both of my grandfathers were part Apache, I decided to conduct some research in an attempt to shed light on a small piece of my genetic cornerstone. I read of how the Apache people conquered the plains throughout the West, following herds of buffalo and hunting many of the native species roaming the vast plains, solely for the survival of their people. The Apache would follow the herds of buffalo, relying on the meat to feed their families and using the fat to cook with and use in art. The hides of the buffalo would be used in making clothes, shoes, shelter, and leather. Hunting was not just for food; it was the foundation of their culture.
In A Sand County Almanac, by Aldo Leopold, it states, “Some men can live without wild things and others cannot.” After reading this, I felt a connection to the author, being someone who lives for the outdoors, and longs for the next adventure in the wilderness. I have always been an avid hunter and fisherman but most importantly and avid outdoorsman. I have hunted from Louisiana to the Rocky Mountains of Wyoming. I have tempted fish with flies at the end of a long line in tiny mountain streams in New Mexico as well as the deep waters of the Gulf. The location has never mattered. The fish on the end of the line and the meat in the freezer have never mattered. What has always mattered to me is living a life connected to the species that have roamed these lands for thousands of years.
Not long after learning of my small amount of Apache heritage, I ventured out on a hunt for the elusive prong horned antelope in west Texas. As I sat on a hilltop, glassing over what seemed to be a never-ending ocean of grass and sage, I felt a connection to my ancestors that I had never experienced. Had my forefathers sat on this same hill looking for Bison or even an antelope like myself? Who knows. What I do know is that the lands I wander in the west are the same ones my ancestors wandered long. These lands have provided people with life for thousands of years and the tradition continues today. Tragically, we are seeing these wild lands slowly disappearing. Cities are expanding rapidly, and fences are splitting the prairies apart at the seams, but no matter what, I will hunt.
While my bow is not made of wood and my arrows lack a traditional stone tip, the connections are always present, whether I am stalking bull elk in foothills of the Rockies or fly fishing in the mystical White River. While the methods and the technologies may be different, the motivations are the same. It is a need to be connected to where my food originates. It is a desire to live in harmony with untouched lands. It is a longing to live wild, in a time where the wild is disappearing before our eyes.
I Am a BLACK WOMAN
Spring Hill College, Mobile, Ala.
Black people always say that White people don’t use seasoning. This is one of those sayings that I’ve heard but never understood. I am Black, and I was adopted into a White household. Therefore, these sayings that people of my culture apparently know make no sense or just seem wrong to me. Even though I identify as a Black woman, I have struggled all my life with breaking into the Black culture because people around me consciously or unconsciously prevent me from doing so.
A recent memory of my struggle takes place in my high school anatomy class with one of my best friends. The teacher started to talk about getting more African American students to take this class, and then went on to say “See, there is only one Black student in this class.” My best friend at the time, who was sitting right next to me, said, “There are no Black students in this class” and laughed. Then she said “Ooh shoot,” and turned to look at me and laughed while saying “I forgot you are Black.” This was so upsetting to me because all my life I have felt that I am Black, and my mother has worked so hard to make me know where I came from.
My mother tried her hardest to incorporate Black culture into my upbringing. She hung art around our house when she adopted me back in 1998—when Black people were not often depicted in art. Granted, the art she displayed was not always relevant to her two Black daughters. My mother has tried to shape my view and expression of my identity in line with her impression of positivity and acceptance. For example, she would say “Use proper English” whenever I used slang and “We don’t listen to that kind of music” when I played rap music. The one person who I could always count on to help me to connect to my Black culture was my sister. As DeVault said in her YES! article “Native and European-How Do I Honor All Parts of Myself?,” “I began to wonder how to authentically participate in my heritages when I cannot physically live in them all at once.” It was hard for me to embrace my culture living in an all-White community. I don’t know how to interact and fit into a Black community and, quite frankly, it frightens me to be in a completely Black community. I have been trying to spend more time with groups of people of my race so I can feel more comfortable.