Almost Asian (But Not Quite)

Heather Dewis, Best in Class
Grade 12
San Jose

When my great-grandmother arrived in America, she looked through the crowds at Angel Island for a familiar face. She had met my great-grandfather only briefly in Japan (family legend says she peeked at him though she wasn’t supposed to), and couldn’t remember exactly how he looked. So she scanned the people nearby for someone who looked familiar. She was lucky, my grandmother and my mother always told me. She found his brother, who would be taking her to him.

But when I scan a crowd, I don’t see “familiar.”

“What are you?” is the question I am invariably asked, after “What is your name?” and before “Do you want to hang out?” I am always sorely tempted to say “human,” but experience has taught me that this isn’t the answer they look for.

Here’s the problem: I have slightly dark, frustratingly-straight brown hair (not black), somewhat tan skin (not pale), and smaller lighter brown eyes, one with a slight hooded lid and one with a slight double lid. My last name has European roots, but I look almost Asian.

I am multi-racial, fourth-generation Japanese and European-American, and I don’t look like anyone else I know.

So when costume shops begin preparing for Halloween, I reacquaint myself with the familiar fact that there aren’t really any well-known characters I look like. There are the European-looking characters with blonde hair, brown hair, black hair, and brightly-colored eyes. There are a few Asian characters.

Standing in the costume aisles reminds me that it’s yet another “ethnicity (check one)” section on an application form. I am not European-American, and I am not Asian, so I must be “other.”

But I look through a crowd, of costumes, of faces at school and on the street, in advertisements, I see no place for “other.”

“Other” is not a magical ability to transport myself between two worlds and belong in both, as some of my friends think. “Other” is a word that means “you don’t belong in either world.” Sure, my mother’s side of the family makes sushi on New Year’s with me. My dad’s side can be traced back to Scotland, possibly Wales. But I barely speak any Japanese. My skin is darker and my eyes are smaller. I am separated by the fact that I do not “fit” into these boxes of “typical Asian girl” or “typical white girl.”

When people ask, “What are you?” I could say “human” or “American.” But that wouldn’t explain one of the most basic parts of myself, the reason I seek out new media–web-series like “Emma Approved” and television shows like “Agents of SHIELD” with half-Asian characters, the reason I do a double-take when I see that these characters look like me. Unlike my great-grandmother, I’ve realized, I am not searching for someone familiar in America. I am searching for myself.