When my daughter was just 2 months old, the day I’d anticipated for 9 months finally arrived in the parking lot of my local TJ Maxx. My husband had stayed in the car with the baby while I ran in to get an extra Boppy for the car. I was standing outside the car making silly faces at my baby girl through the window. At the same time a mom and her two girls parked next to us. This blond blue-eyed mom smiled at us as her two olive skinned beauties grinned at the baby. The girls were beautiful- dark haired with big gorgeous dark eyes and skin like a cafe con leche. We chatted briefly and finally, it happened. She asked, how precisely I can’t remember, I think it was too much to handle at first, what our baby was. I believe it went something like, “She’s absolutely beautiful. What is she?”
My husband, bless his soul, looked at me like I had read the United Colors of Benetton handbook and had all the answers.
Without thinking, I blurted out facts, “Cuban, Filipino and Portuguese.” Then, just as quickly as the moment arrived, it passed. She and her little girls waved good-bye and strolled into TJ Maxx.For months while I was pregnant I created as many scenarios as possible for how I might first be asked the dreadful question. And none of them fit what happened that afternoon.
A lot of people don’t understand that, “Where are you from?” is a loaded question (mind you, I’ll use “Where are you from?” almost interchangeably with “What are you?”).
Growing up, I always tried to be coy when answering. I’m from NJ. I’m from downtown. I’m from the East Coast. I’m from the TriState area. I’m from just across the Hudson. I’m a girl. I’m a woman. I’m a person. But after awhile I realized I was just being a snappy smart ass. Most people who ask aren’t trying to be rude or invasive. It’s just honest curiosity. Take my example above. The mom herself was the parent of beautiful multicultural young ladies so I assume her question comes from a place of appreciation and curiosity. As much as I dislike the question, I have never felt it has come from a dark or sinister place.
They want to know what makes my eyes almond shaped…my hair curly…my skin caramel. They want to know how come I speak Spanish and can shake my hips to the salsa music when I look more the way of a Hello Kitty Harajuku girl. With my daughter, I imagine they’ll want to know the same. They’ll want to know why her looks and the way she speaks and acts are so contrary to the stereotypes they have built up in their minds.
I’ve grown tired of being a smart ass. I want to educate. I want to be honest. I want to be my truest self so that my daughter can answer this question confidently and without hesitation when she’s asked.
The problem is that in order to help her answer the question herself, I have to figure out what my answer is. I’ve struggled for years with whether or not to tell people I’m Filipino. I don’t know my Filipino family and I don’t care to learn about the culture. It’s not part of who I am. I don’t feel I owe it to anyone. People say I should educate myself for my daughter’s sake but shit…I might as well educate myself on Poland, Russia and Malaysia for that matter. Cuba is what I know. It’s who I am. It’s what I want to teach her. Problem is no one is ever satisfied if I tell them I’m Cuban. They wait, eager, for more words to come out to explain why I look a little Connie Chung-ish and not so much Jennifer Lopez-ish. They look almost disappointed when I say Cuban-American and nothing else…like they lost the guessing game with themselves.
I’m not going to come up with the perfect answer in a blog post. As much as I wish I had a concrete way of making myself feel more at ease when strangers (even people I know) approach me with questions like this, I don’t.But writing my thoughts out and talking it out with myself is so very helpful. If I come up with the perfect educational, non-wise ass answer, I’ll let you know.