Best of two worlds

 

By Justine Goode

 

When taking a standardized test, bubbling in personal information generally requires little to no thought on a student’s part. Age, grade, gender, race — the answers are usually straightforward. But for multiracial students, deciding which circle to darken for the race category isn’t as clear a choice. Most end up bubbling in the vague and somewhat unsatisfying “other” circle or picking just one side of their heritage to represent. 

Even so, not falling neatly under one defined ethnicity is not a problem for Hanna Kostamaa ’12, whose mother is Japanese and whose father is Finnish.

“I like being mixed,” she said. “It’s like you get to be two things at once and see their similarities and differences. I think it’s given me a more open outlook on life in general.”

Rae Wright ’11 is Irish and French on her mother’s side and Native American and African American on her father’s.

“Identifying on a sort of middle ground has allowed me to see both sides of stories and opened me up to be more accepting,” Wright said.

Having parents of different ethnicities has allowed Kostamaa, Wright and other multiracial students to develop a unique sense of cultural identity.

“I identify with both sides of my heritage equally. I do wish I knew a great deal more about them,” Cathy Mayer ’12, who is of Taiwanese and mixed Jewish European descent, said. “I’ve visited the memorials of family members in France who were victims of the Holocaust, and I’ve also gone to very elaborate Buddhist ceremonies for deceased family members on my mom’s side.”

“I feel like I identify with both heritages equally,” Blaise Ormond ’12, whose father is African-American and whose mother is Filipino, said. “I can connect with more people that way by being able to relate to both cultures.”

Cuisine, family gatherings and hearing his mother speak Tagalog around the house all played important roles in his upbringing.

“My mother and father are both great cooks, so I’m overwhelmed with a fusion of foods,” he said.

Kostamaa likens picking a culture to identify with to choosing between a favorite sibling or parent.

“Each culture has something unique to offer,” she said. “I’ve always been able to relate to both cultures because my parents both tried to show me their respective cultures.”

Experiencing the customs and traditions of two backgrounds can sometimes reveal humorous contrasts as well as surprising similarities between them.

“I’ve always found it interesting to see what both cultures do with the same food in their respective cuisines,” Mayer said. “Jewish people grind gefilte fish up into blobs for Passover while the Chinese tend to serve their fish whole, with the eyeballs in. Both sound pretty unappetizing.”

“I have realized that both families’ dynamics are really quite similar — you’d be surprised to see that the stereotypical Jewish grandma is not all that different from a Taiwanese one,” she said.

Ormond agrees, noting an unexpected harmony between both sides of his heritage.

“[They] seem like polar opposites, but in the end, it is all blended perfectly,” he said. “I can go from family reunions on the East Coast with my dad’s family to a Filipino party in California to watch the best boxer in the world — the Philippines’ own Manny Pacquiao. And I never feel left out.”

Physical appearance is perhaps one of the most integral parts of a person’s identity, and multiracial students’ unique genetic cocktails are often the source of many questions and guesses about their heritage.

“I’ve gotten tons of questions as to my ethnicity,” Kostamaa said. “Whenever I’m in a new environment it almost always gets asked at some point. When I go anywhere in Europe, people speak to me in their native language. Then again, some people think I’m almost full Asian, even though in Japan I’m almost always spoken to in English. So I guess it really depends on what each person sees.”

“Many people do guess that I am half Asian, but I think only a few can guess that I’m Filipino,” Ormond said. “Sometimes when I’m just with my mother, people won’t even believe that she’s my mom. They usually think she’s my nanny or guardian. It bothers her that some people won’t believe that we are related, but the only reason why people are shocked to find that out is because our skin color is different.”

People often assume that Wright is just a “very tan white girl,” though she has even been mistaken for being Hispanic or Pacific Islander.

“When I’m on the phone people assume I’m just 100 percent white, and when I say I’m black they don’t believe me,” she said. “But usually if I’m face to face with someone, and I tell them I’m half, they say they can see it in my facial features.”

Though Wright has not found it difficult to feel comfortable around both black and Caucasian friends, she said her older brother found it harder to establish his place. 

“He looks more African American, while I look Caucasian,” she said. “It was harder for him to solidify his standings with either race, because though he looked black, his mannerisms were less easily defined.”

Despite the occasional intrusive question or confusion on the part of others, the presence of two strong cultural backgrounds is a source of pride and interest for these students. The ability to feel such belonging and strong identification with multiple cultures is a special connection very few get to experience.

“I do feel a tremendous amount of pride in my unique heritage, because I know there are very few people around that can say that they’ve had the same experiences I’ve had with both sides of my family,” Ormond said.

“When I was little, I didn’t really know what race meant,” Wright said. “I grew up with mainly Caucasian friends, so I didn’t know that I looked different. But as I’ve grown up, I’ve come to appreciate the fact that because I’m biracial, I’m able to see the world in a different view.”

“I like that my heritage is a very unique one — it doesn’t really affect me in everyday life, but once in a while it is fun to say I’m the only redheaded Asian Jew I’ve ever met,” Mayer said.