Answer by Nina Peck:
I think growing up biracial made me aware of how different people saw me, depending on context. It also made me aware of how different groups saw the other, and consequently made me very conscious of the concept of ‘the other.’
I was born and raised in Guam, a US territory in the western Pacific, and am half Japanese and half American (Caucasian). For context, the vast majority of the people around me are brown/Asian. White people are not that common. A lot of mixed race people though, due to the island’s colonial history. The indigenous people (Chamorro) fought a brutal 30-year war against the Spanish, were colonized by said Spaniards, then Americans (after the Spanish-American War), then Japan (WWII–yes, Japan did occupy American soil), then America again (to the current day). There’s been a long, complicated history and mix of cultures that has been going on for a very long time. A lot of Chamorros, Filipinos, Chuukese, Pohnpeian, Kosraean, Yapese, Palauan, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Thai, etc…the list goes on. In addition to all the various cultural interactions that come with such a diverse mix, there are also two military bases on Guam. This, along with American pop culture, makes up the majority of the mainland American culture that is imported to us.
I would say Hawaii is the most similar to Guam of all the US States, mostly because of its diverse mix of cultures, history of colonization, and geographic proximity/similarity.
Ok, so with that brief context, growing up biracial was interesting. Soooooo many people around me were mixed race that it wasn’t weird at all. People would ask each other what their mix was, then offer up their own ethnic background in return. Or people would talk to me, assuming that I was a member of a different ethnic mix (Chamorro-white, Filipina-white, random East Asian-white, usually), and then would get a little surprised if I corrected them, but not too much that they couldn’t maintain the conversation. Basically, it was a topic of conversation but not weird.
But, I would go to Japan or California or Hawaii and get real culture shock. Japan not so much, until I got older and stopped looking so Asian, but definitely felt out of place in the States.
In Japan, I’m not Japanese, really. I don’t look like it there. I’m bigger, taller, talk weird, and dress differently. Maybe I accept my otherness because I identify as American.
In the States, especially California, I really felt ‘other.’ Nobody knew how to make rice the way I was used to, everyone I met seemed surprised that I used chopsticks instead of forks, and even words like “flip-flops” were used in place of the familiar “slippers” or “zori.” There’s a part of me that sees White America as being the “Real America,” because that’s how it was presented to me growing up. If you were white, you were probably military and therefore American. There were other ethnic groups in the military, blacks, Latinos, other Asians, but I guess everyone noticed the white people because they just look so different from everyone.
I had a hard time, still do, admittedly, with getting over differences in appearance. I am used to seeing a sea of dark hair, dark eyes, and brown skin, and then all of a sudden, everyone around me is a foot taller than me with pale skin, light hair and eyes, and freckles! It was weird! And that was when I realized that people saw me as Asian. I got comments like, “wow, you’re so tan!” Which was really funny to me because I am considered very light-skinned back home, and I would try to get darker to look more like my friends.
But I went from being mixed/biracial in Guam, to just “Asian” in the States. My identity would shift depending on my geographic location. And that is what I find to be the strangest thing about being biracial in America.
Edit: The sociological term for this, apparently, is situational ethnicity. And that concept pretty much sums up my experience.
(Sorry if it’s a little discombobulated, I’m typing this on my phone.)