The Identity Dilemma: Experiencing Multiculturalism in the US and Colombia

Alyssa with studentsAlyssa is a Practical English for Success (PES) volunteer serving in a pueblo in Bolívar, Colombia.


From a conversation with a friend who has just seen me in a shirt that says “100% California”:
Friend: You should get a shirt that says 50% California, 50% Chinese.
Me: Well, actually the Chinese side has been in California way longer than the White side.
Friend: Well, you’re obviously darker so people see that side.

From a conversation with a fellow volunteer over dinner, as they casually recount an interaction with their host mom that day:
Friend: We were at this Chinese restaurant and my mom starts talking about how all Chinese people are unattractive. And I agreed with her, you know I don’t think I’ve seen an attractive Chinese person
Me: …You know I’m Chinese right? (She does)
Friend: Oh yeah…well I meant all Chinese men are unattractive.
Me: (Thinking to myself: Actually the emasculation of Asian men is a seriously harmful gender stereotype, so don’t expect that to make me feel any better)

I don’t say anything. I let it go, because I don’t know how to talk about it.  I don’t know how to explain the fault in their thinking because these are people I assumed would just “get it.”

I grew up the daughter of a third-generation Chinese-American mother and a second-generation Czech-American/Okie father.  I was raised in the extremely diverse city of Fresno, CA, a place where large populations of refugees have rebuilt their lives (Armenian, Hmong, Vietnamese, and Mexican amongst others). But race was never really discussed in my house. It wasn’t hidden, it was just a fact. You could say we were “color-blind.” If you asked my white, conservative father, that is probably the exact response he would give you. Meanwhile, the majority of my Chinese relatives didn’t speak Chinese and they only held on to a few traditions. And how can I blame them? My relatives constantly felt the pressure to assimilate yet were still viewed as “foreign” or “other.”

Although I grew up in a diverse city, my childhood was limited mostly to the insular, predominantly white neighborhood I grew up in. In elementary school, I remember my race was always pointed out by my white peers. The fact that I was Asian was always up for grabs, subject to a comment, a dissection. It was them who were telling me who I was. There weren’t many biracial people around so I guess people just don’t know how to make you fit into their worldview. They want to put you into a box, and since there probably isn’t a box that says “half Asian, half White” they put you in the box that marks you as “other.”

So, from an early age, I’ve always felt like an outsider in some sense — so much so that I wore it as a badge of courage, and didn’t need anyone to accept me. But I still always struggled with who I was, how I fit into Asian and White American culture? Was I Asian enough? Was I White enough? The constant questions of “What are you?” and “But, where are you really from?,” asked by everyone from friends to a random stranger, didn’t help this identity dilemma. Was I what I identified as or was I what the world saw me as?

The conversations above both happened within the past year with progressive, well-meaning, Peace Corps volunteers. I can’t help but think that if these experiences happen with what many would consider the best & the brightest representatives of the U.S., then it’s no wonder we have so many issues with race right now.   

Yet, I can’t hold it against them. I’m not proud that I often react with hostility whenever race is brought up and comments are directed at me. Nor am I happy that other times I stay silent and don’t bother correcting those making the comments. Both reactions are due to the fact that I simply don’t know how to talk about it. But I am trying.  I’m learning how to explain my perspective to others.  But where does my own experience fit into a narrative on race?

In a New York Times column, Moises Velasquez-Manoff recounts that being multiethnic has made it easier for him to avoid tribal identities when he writes,

“Your background pushes you to construct a worldview that transcends the tribal. You’re also accustomed to the idea of having several selves, and of trying to forge them into something whole.”

He continues to write that more diverse groups and individuals are less prone to groupthink, have greater mental flexibility, and creativity.

Nevertheless, it’s a fallacy to think that a multiracial society will magically make racism disappear. We tell ourselves that in twenty or thirty years, racial tensions will just go away in the U.S. because we’ll all look the same. Because that takes all of the responsibility of difficult discussions and attempts to solve race problems off our shoulders.

Colombia, especially my community, gives me hope. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not some mixed-race utopia. They have their own issues of racism and colorism. And many things we would consider un-PC in the U.S. don’t even raise an eyebrow here. During Barranquilla Carnival, many people wear blackface to represent traditional Carnival characters. Or the fact that all Colombian telenovelas only feature white actors. Yet when I’ve brought this up to fellow Colombians, they just say they’ve never noticed or that it’s because only white, good-looking Colombians are interested in being in telenovelas.

And I still get the questions of “Where am I really from?” because Colombians only think that Americans are White (that’s actually our own problem though and shows why media representation in the U.S. is so important). But, in Colombia and the area that I live in, you will see so many people of different backgrounds and ethnicities living among each other. People are proud of their ethnic identities but it doesn’t divide them.

My community is predominantly Afro-Colombian, a fishing town founded by escaped slaves from Cartagena over 200 years ago. Today there are many multiracial people of Afro-Mestizo heritage. Interracial couples aren’t shocking to anyone. Neighborhood children of different stratas (classes), different backgrounds spend countless hours playing together. All these experiences have only strengthened my belief that diversity enriches our lives in countless ways.

One thought on “The Identity Dilemma: Experiencing Multiculturalism in the US and Colombia

  1. I really enjoyed your article. My son, white, married a woman who half Chinese and half Korean. They have 2 joung boys who will face similar issues you f
    I’m an old volunteer 63-65


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