I looked at the piece of paper. Written on it were blocks and letters along with the heading certifying that it was an official application paper for a university. By having this specific script on the page, the paper had importance; it would be my key to possible acceptance into the university and a new life.
I was staring at the section titled “Ethnicity.” I saw the standard blocks that I had seen all my life: White, Black, Latino/Chicano, Asian/Pacific Islander and Native American. The blocks demanded that I pick a box, but which one was correct? I could pick white because my mother is a white American. What about Asian/Pacific Islander? I’m not a Pacific Islander, but my dad is from India, so I’m Indian as well. Even as I looked at the boxes, waiting to meet my guidance counselor to discuss another draft of my personal statement, I felt I would be lying if I chose the box Asian/Pacific Islander. It didn’t seem to be who I really was.
It was my turn to meet with the guidance counselor. I entered his small office and sat down on the chair ready to discuss my college applications. Before we began, I asked him how important the Ethnicity section of the application was. He responded with a curt, “Just put down White” and moved the conversation to addressing the all-important personal statement.
Part of the reason that I feel like a poseur when writing or stating that I’m Asian is because of these moments. Outsiders are quick to put me in a category and I believe it is because of my external appearance. Though I have rather dark hair, my skin is very light. Every person mistakes my identity, guessing that I’m Spanish or from a southern Mediterranean country. Recently, many people have asked if I am Arab. In any case, the speculation never nears the possibility that I could be from Southeast Asia. When I would finally divulge the answer to the million-dollar question, the reaction was consistently negative. “No way” or “You’re kidding” populated most mouths. One young Indian man responded, “but you don’t look it.” Although his comment took away my identity, the point had been made: I don’t look the way Indians are supposed to look. Therefore, to claim it as my background seemed to expose me as a liar who wished to be something she wasn’t.
I understand now that it’s imperative that others put me in a category that “makes sense” to them. I went to an Indian lady to get my eyebrows threaded (another Southeast Asian practice that I still feel like an imposter for following) and, of course, questions of my ethnicity arose. I informed her that I was Indian. She became skeptical; her voice tone changed as if to say “are you sure?” I then stated that my mother was white, and her face transformed again. Now, she was calm and reassured. “Ah, you’re mixed,” she thought. “That explains it.” The riddle is solved and we can go about our business ripping the hairs from your eyebrow. If I had submitted the information differently—if I had stated I was white—that would have been the end to the conversation. The woman would have accepted my background and proceeded to remove my abnormally black facial hairs.
I’ve seen it too many times: when I begin to explain, they are doubtful of my words. It shakes their understanding of people and their own judgments. It makes them confused and bewildered. They need control over what they see; there must be more they can extract. Once they realize I’m mixed, they have control; the world is right again. That’s why you look the way you do!
I’d rather keep them guessing.
Anita Gill is a writer and a teacher. She teaches English as a Second Language along with college level writing courses. She is currently working on an article narrating her personal accounts as a transnational Indian.