(sometimes withershins, widershins or widderschynnes) means to take a course opposite that of the sun, going counterclock-wise, lefthandwise, or to circle an object, by always keeping it on the left. It also means "in a direction opposite to the usual," which is how I choose to take it in using it as the title of this blog. We're all in the same world finding our own way.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

What Are You? A Personal Intersection of Race, Identity and Queerness

"So... What are you?"

It's an innocuous enough question in most circumstances, awkwardly phrased with downturned eyes, like the person asking doesn't know if they're allowed to ask. Sometimes it's worded differently: "What's your ethnicity?" or "Where are you from?"

If you're not white and living in the United States, you're familiar with this song and dance. You may even get it often enough to be annoyed, perhaps even offended. It is, after all, one of those microaggressions continually reminding you of your non-whiteness, branding you as Other. You are not white, therefore you are not really of here. However innocent, it's an interrogation based in our American cultural obsessions with race and identity.

But this post is only partly about that. Call this post a confession and an answer. See, I struggle to answer these questions.

I was raised just outside a small city in Washington called Puyallup. It was the suburbs; a pleasant - if homogenously bland - existence where everyone needed a car to get around. The area was mostly white and grew dramatically through my childhood and adolescence with the housing boom of the late-nineties and early-noughts.

My parents both grew up in West Seattle. My mother raised by an immigrant who gave me her dimples, my father by the kind of straight-laced couple who have lived in the same house for decades, who seem more a part of the landscape than the characters passing through.

A week after I graduated high school, my mom pulled me aside.

Russell isn't your father, she told me. Your brother is actually your half-brother. Your biological father is actually a man named Joseph.

It was a shock, but not world shattering. Call it the weary resilience of a child of divorce combined with the stability that comes from a strong sense of community and selfhood. I carry the name of my father but do not share his blood.

"So... What are you?"

Well, through my mom I'm a quarter Japanese and a quarter German-American. On my dad's side... I don't know.

I'm clearly not white. I'm what a self-aware sitcom might jokingly refer to as "vaguely ethnic." I have olive skin that ripens under the summer sun into a glowing brown. My eyes slant just enough to give me away. I could be mixed Hispanic, or maybe Philipino, or Persian. I'm a mutt of indeterminate origin, the beautiful bowl of soup poured straight from the melting pot. I'm the beige future that racist white folk whisper about in fear when discussing interracial relationships.

Here's an excellent study in contrast of me dancing with my friend Gabe.

I've seen pictures of my biological father. Volunteered to me without request, but have never had an interest in seeking out contact. Who would this stranger with his own family and life be to me? What would I be to him, an adult son with a life already his own?

I don't need another father.

Still, it leaves me at an impasse. I do not know my roots. I do not have a tidy little pedigree to present on command. I am mixed unknown, American as individually-wrapped sliced cheese product.

As a result, like many mixed race kids, I've rarely felt like I belong -- at least when it comes to matters of race. Despite my upbringing, I've never been white. The social studies teacher in junior high who tried to call me Mr. Miyagi more than proved that point. If I'm curious, I could always do one of those genealogy tests. Swab my mouth and send it to a lab, receive a chart and map in the mail. But without a connection to culture, I've never felt comfortable partaking in many of the social safe spaces for my POC peers (welcoming as they may be).

I’ve studied the language and history and culture of my maternal grandmother and even visited Japan once long ago, but as much as I ache for cherry blossoms in the spring, I will always be a foreigner.

It took a trip to Boston to finally see my first spring sakura in New England.

And I guess this is all a part of what makes me queer, really.

LGBTQ-folk in America have a long narrative history of the “adopted” or “chosen” family because so many of us are still getting disowned and cast out by our birth families. So we surround ourselves with people who will love and support us.

I have my birth family: My mother and brother and step-father who I don’t call as often as I should. My partner’s amazing extended family who are so happy to see that I make him happy.

I also have my chosen families: My Charlie-sis who took me to my first concerts and dragged me to my first dance lesson. The expansive Power of Hope community that has nurtured my heArtistry for years. All the Poets who stare at the moon. My QTs (Meow). And everyone else who holds me accountable and pushes me to grow and love.

I have a tattoo of the symbol for mercury on my right forearm.

It’s there as a reminder of my own liminality, that someone has to fill in the blanks, read between the lines, exist in spaces between. Despite what American misconceptions may force on me, I am more than my race. I am more than my skin tone. You don’t need to know what I am to know who I am.