I wrote and submitted (a modified version of) this essay for an Asian American Writers Workshop workshop anthology, about the concept of “home.” The essay ultimately wasn’t chosen for the anthology, but after spending a weekend with my sister and talking a lot about our childhood, I wanted to put it out into the world anyway. Enjoy.
My childhood is most easily defined by food. Not just because I was a round, soft adolescent, more likely to be found inside reading a book with my hand inside a bag of chips instead of outside getting dirty. Food wasn’t just something I enjoyed, that gave me pleasure. It was the bridge between my two very different, yet normal to me, familial worlds. Food was home.
It is not hard to think of the single food that best defines my racial make-up. We had a name for it, growing up. A name I only realized as a teen was made up by my grandfather, Lope Timbol. It was what he called “Filipino Spaghetti” (which I now know is just Pancit) and it was served weekly alongside heaping dishes of Baked Ziti and steaming piles of handmade Lumpia.
My grandfather and grandmother met soon after WWII ended. When I was a child, he would regale me with his tales of life in the Philippines, which I always pictured as a lush, frightening jungle. He told me about his brother the Guerilla fighter, who tried to sneak food to the American men being marched to their death by Japanese soldiers. If Filipinos were caught trying to aid the Americans they were shot on site. He told me how he lied about his age and joined the American Navy, crying and begging for his mother once his home island faded into the distance, and he understood what he’d done. As I got older he told me how he was separated, segregated, I realized later, with the other “colored” naval men who all served as cooks or in lower ranking service positions.
There’s a lot of family myth in how my Italian grandmother and Filipino grandfather got together. Some of it salacious, some too far-fetched to ring true. But what I do know is they wed, had children, and when my father was ten years old moved from Naples, Italy to the States.
When you’re a child, you don’t always question the world as it’s presented to you. I never questioned why there were three languages spoken at family dinners and get togethers. Italian, Tagalog, and English, all sometimes spoken in the same sentence, was normal. As was the fact my Nona and Zia’s had all married Filipino men, resulting in a large family that could be easily visually divided.
It didn’t seem odd to me at all, until the rare occasions I’d bring a friend over.
My excitable Nona would hand them a slice of toast with Nutella on it and they’d stare at it, whispering to me, “what did she say?” Or they’d look with furrowed brows at my grandfather, then back at me, confused.
I look white. To most people. And since most of my friends in northern Florida were white, black, or non-Asian, I just kind of grew up thinking I was white, with a mixed race family. It was confusing, when I’d try out saying I was Asian, and my white family members would make sure to remind me that I was “mostly” German. Plus my sister, who more resembled our father, was the only one people said had “exotic” features (something I later found out wasn’t really a compliment.) I was just Emily. A white girl who tanned really easily.
My racial identity had always been complicated. But it wasn’t until I began supporting the Black Lives Matter movement that I started to question my honesty when identifying myself. For a year or two I self-identified as a “white ally.” Once joking in a rough draft of an essay that I was white (mostly), until my Latinx friend reading over it stopped me. He said that this might confuse people. It wasn’t until he said this that I realized I too, was confused.
Quite honestly, I didn’t know what I should consider myself.
It seems way too easy to claim an identity that doesn’t seem mine; mixed race. My nephews are mixed race, half black and half white, and they face prejudices I never have. They’re teased by black peers for their light skin, and looked at with suspicion by white people who are wary of tall teens with textured hair wearing hoodies and basketball shoes. But no one ever commented negatively on my skin tone. I’ve never questioned if I was denied a job, date, or apartment because of my race.
While writing a novel that dealt heavily with racial prejudice, I started to think about the deeper things that separate white people from people of color. The psychological burden that comes with knowing your ancestors, maybe only a couple generations removed, were subjugated and discriminated against because of the color of their skin. Racism and discrimination don’t just breed injustice and anger, but shame too. White children have to learn about racism. It’s a subject taught at home or in school, something they have to work to conceptualize. But children of color know it more deeply. It’s in the way their grandparents avoid certain parts of town, the way their parents teach them to deal with police before they ever sit behind a steering wheel.
When my grandfather left the Navy, he worked as a janitor for the local newspaper. For over twenty years he cleaned up after people who mostly ignored him. Reporters, photographers, writers. He picked up their trash.
My father graduated from FIT, marrying my mother, who tells me stories of how people looked at them strangely when they moved to the south. He got the education my grandfather never could, and worked in technical fields, even for a time for NASA. Growing up he liked to joke that he could handle anything hard, because he was indeed a rocket scientist.
I honestly don’t think my parents wondered how race would affect their eldest daughter. I was just Emily. Their well behaved baby who turned into a defiant, loud child and adult. It wasn’t until my sister came along six years after I was born that women would stop my mother on the street, asking in hushed voices if she was adopted. With jet black hair, dark skin, and a fondness for running around in a diaper, my sister’s childhood nickname was “Mowgli.” Every year on Halloween her friends would convince her to dress up as Jasmine or Pocahontas. Me all the while fondly remembering dressing up as Belle. It didn’t help that my sister’s best friend growing up was Chinese-American, and people would often comment that they looked just like sisters. This hurt me, every time. Because I always heard the unsaid in that comment. Her and I looked nothing alike.
It was writing that made me finally confront the issue of my racial identity head-on. There’s a movement among the literary community to lift up writers of color. The whitewashing in publishing is being exposed, talked about, and critiqued by people both inside and outside the industry. Discussions revolving the issues of appropriation vs. appreciation, the importance of own voices telling stories, and fighting the idea of diversity as a trend have dominated literary Twitter. And while I enthusiastically share the links and nod my head, I feel even more unsure of what to say.
If the man who raised the man who raised me was segregated, then it stands to reason that the poison of racism is at least sprinkled throughout my blood. Yet claiming this marginalization feels wrong, especially in light of the white blood mingling with my grandfather’s—blood that has faced no such struggle. So each time a contest or blog post or thread pops up that creates a line between marginalized and non-marginalized writers, I dutifully place myself on the side opposite the oppressed, but with maybe a toe, a foot, or a hand reaching across the line. “I kind of get it”, I want to say. “I’m here for you, but also maybe sort of like you?”
During the most unsettling of these moments, I find myself returning to an old comfort. There’s nothing like biting into a warm, golden fried “Filipino egg roll,” as my grandfather called them, to make me feel at home. Food is one part of my identity I never question. Because it’s impossible for me to eat Lumpia without picturing all the birthday parties and holidays when I was too young to worry about what I was, really. So is walking into my parent’s house after my father has spent all day cooking chicken cacciatore, the scent of garlic and marina bringing back memories of long weekends visiting home during college. Remembering feeling that first stretch of independence. How it ached, yet I still leaned into it. Food is a huge part of who I am. Who I’ll always be. My mother taught me to love my faith, but my father and his family taught me to love food. And now, when I can’t decide where on the spectrum I fall, it’s food I use to orient myself (no pun intended.)
Fusion. If I had to pick a way to describe my racial identity to a stranger, I’d use this term. A working of two or more flavors that are different, yet complementary, that creates something unique. I’m like that restaurant on the corner of the neighborhood that you peer into, face cupped in your hands. Something you might not have encountered before, but exists nonetheless. Most people probably have no idea what it is. They might not like it. Fusion isn’t for everyone. But I’m here, and I have a voice, and I hope to use it to say that there are lots of other people like me out there. And we’re not going anywhere.