Through the Light-Eyed Lens of a Biracial Asian

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This story will be published in this year’s summer issue of The Mark.

Photograph provided by Kai Doran

“But are those really your eyes? They’re not contacts?”

As a multiracial, naturally light-eyed Asian, I get that a lot. I have my white father’s eyes in my mother’s Chinese face, with dark hair. I am distinctly racially ambiguous; to some, I am white, to others, I am not, and to too many, I am an uncomfortable racial question mark. There’s this marked sense that people don’t quite know what to do with me. We like to define ourselves, and we especially love to define one another in the name of understanding and sharing experiences. We use racial categorizations and labels to make sense of the world, but when someone does not fit neatly into one box, the world is unsure of how to respond. 

My racial experience is most defined by a sense of otherness. My identity cannot bring me a sense of belonging, rather, it leaves me feeling as though I will never belong, anywhere. When I’m with people of color, I’m the white person, and I need to answer for the sins of every racist, microaggressive white. When I’m with white people, I suddenly become the token minority, the expert on every racial question and experience. No matter where I go, heads will swivel towards me, whenever the “other” racial group (white or BIPOC) is mentioned. Even in a diverse group, I still don’t know which position to take. 

I became conscious of my race at a young age, after being constantly asked about it growing up. My parents ensured that I had the right answer; I recall being four years old and fed the mathematical equation that was supposed to define me. “You are 50% Chinese, 25% German, 25% Irish,” my dad would say. “And what’s the most important part of that?” “100% American!” I knew to cheer, not knowing how strongly I would doubt it after starting school. This last part was particularly important to my mom because she had immigrated from China. She was always worried about me not fitting in with my friends because of my status as a first-generation American through her. My family’s regular long trips to China, my mother’s insistence on Chinese school every week, constant comments from kids at school, it all kept me from feeling “American.” American became less of an ethnicity and more of a feeling that can come and go, a belief that changes over time, a fragile notion up for debate by others. 

You would think that if I wasn’t quite American, I would then be Chinese. However, in Shanghai, my mother’s hometown, I was not a person but an oddity, more exotic than human. 

One of my clearest childhood memories was being at a zoo in China, surrounded by enclosures of exotic animals. A much older stranger approached me, his camera outstretched. Before I could say anything, he snapped a photograph. “Your eyes,” he said, by way of explanation and with a smile that made my skin crawl. I stood still, uncomfortable and slightly scared. “Beautiful. And where are your parents from?” Before I could answer, my uncle grabbed me and pulled me away. “Xiansheng, that is a very inappropriate question!” I didn’t understand why it was strange that my father is from America, and my mother from China. Didn’t everyone’s parents have their own countries and hometowns?

After spending the summers of my childhood in China with my mom’s family, I was certain that I looked 100% white, mostly judging by their comments. My mother’s relatives were quick to point out my white features, latching upon anything that set me apart from them. 

When I was fourteen, I attended a family reunion in Missouri for my dad’s side of the family. After a lifetime of being told that I looked white, and being fairly naive, I had high hopes for white Republicans living in the midwest, somehow positive that they would recognize me as their own. I recall standing in a sea of blonde hair and fair skin, suddenly conscious of my dark hair and tanned skin. My dad pointed out his cousin and left momentarily. His cousin, unaware of my last name and white half, approached me. “You realize this is the Doran family reunion, right? It’s a private event.” My last name is Doran, but I decided at that moment that I would never fit in. I could never truly belong to any group of people, especially not my family. Not only was I humiliated, I was hurt. When people ask me which race, which side of my family I identify more with, I realize that I don’t feel a sense of belonging to either. 

My biraciality has led me to constantly contemplate racial questions and identity. Who gets to call themself a person of color? If you’re part white, can you use that label? If a Black and white person is a person of color, is a white and Asian one a person of color? Am I white-passing? Does passing as white every now and again give me white privilege, or is it more accurately described as light-skinned privilege? Is it wrong of me to correct people who assume I’m monoracial? Do I even want to be seen as monoracial? In conversations about race, should I try to listen to other’s experiences, or speak of my own? If the conversation about race is happening in a group of white people, am I obligated to speak and share my experience? If I choose to speak, do I need to give a disclaimer, sorry I’m mixed but…? Do I get to wear the qipao (traditional Mandarin dress) that my Chinese grandparents gave me? How do I respond if someone accuses me of cultural appropriation when I wear a qipao? Is it fair of me to say that I’ve experienced racism when I’m part-white and light-skinned? When I have to check a race box and it only allows me to choose one, which one should I pick?

It is a constant headache, navigating through the world as one who is distinctly other. 

My biraciality has made me conscious, painfully conscious, of every racial encounter and interaction, as well as where I stand in them. I have spent my life living in dissonance, carrying the weight of dual worlds. And it is exhausting, to never have a racial group to call your own. Having that community is something monoracial people take for granted. 

But despite being a racial misfit growing up, I eventually found a community. Other multiracial people are some of the most accepting people I’ve ever met. In a sea of people who largely do not fit in with a monoracial group, I find myself fitting in perfectly. I finally feel welcome for who I am in the entirety of my identity, and I cannot say the same of many other communities I’ve been a part of. There’s this mutual sense of recognition and trust in other’s experiences, as well as how they experience themselves. I can connect with multiracial people in a way that I cannot connect to any of my family, save for my sister. 

And for every multiracial person who feels at odds with the world, there’s an acceptance of self that needs to happen outside of a community, although an accepting community can certainly help that process. I grew up speaking two languages (Mandarin Chinese and English) and going back and forth between two countries. Always being seen as an outsider taught me humility and respect in the moments when I was welcomed, it taught me gratitude for the multiracial individuals I’ve connected with, and a sense of self that is perpetually challenged gradually becomes a stronger sense of self, as well as a certain pride in one’s identity. 

Eventually, I came to realize that I wouldn’t trade my racial identity for anything. Obviously, there’s still discomfort, awkward moments, and comments that are at least a little racist. But I carry within me multiple beautiful cultures, and in the end, I fail to see how this is anything but a gift. I can be both, I can find ways to celebrate both, even as this concept of “both” causes trouble for me. My eyes are open to more of the world, and for that, I am so grateful.

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