What It's Like Being 'Ethnically Ambiguous'

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

            First, we might as well start this article off with the guessing game, since now you’re already wondering about my ethnicity. It’s okay, I’m not offended, and I’ve given you the open invitation to wonder. What do you think I am? Would you guess Mexican? I get that one a lot, solely based off my tanned skin color. Or I often get that I’m half-black and half-white. Sometimes people will simply guess Asian, which is open to a lot of classifications, though they never specify which one. Recently someone speculated I might be part Turkish, a new one I hadn’t heard before and am still scratching my head about. No matter what mixture you guess, you’re probably wrong.

            The answer to your question is that I’m Irish, German, Vietnamese, and possibly Cambodian; the statement a mouthful for some, but is a line that I’ve had much practice perfecting throughout the years of my existence. I practically live to give this answer and the subsequent backstory of my entire family history, which I will also provide.
            My mother is from Vietnam. She was adopted by an American family during the Fall of Saigon and was transported to the US during Operation Babylift, a combined effort to evacuate children from South Vietnam to the US and other countries at the end of the Vietnam War. While she spoke fluent Vietnamese upon her arrival to the United States, she appears to look more Cambodian than Vietnamese. Without a proper frame of reference, our family includes both ethnicities to describe our vague ancestry. My father, on the other hand, is from Cheyenne, Wyoming. My paternal grandmother is German and my paternal grandfather is Irish, making me something like half-white. People always wonder where my last name of Sullivan comes from, since my skin is brown and I certainly don’t look as Irish as my family name implies. On paper “Ariel Sullivan” sounds like the whitest name of all time, creating mass confusion everywhere.

I am Asian, I am white, and my skin is brown. I am ethnically ambiguous.

            I’ve always wanted to be white. I am partially and I know that I am, but my skin tone tells a different, more complicated story. I grew up in predominately white upper middle class areas of Colorado. I thought if I could be full of something, anything, my life would be a whole lot easier. If I were white, the boys would notice me. If I were white, I could dye my hair blonde. If I were white, I could at least compare to the other girls my age.

To me, a full white girl had everything. They were the conventional beauties, the ones the boys pined after, the ones who didn’t have to wonder about their place in the world. If I was white, really white and not just some ethnically jumbled mess, I could have a box to check when filling out paperwork. If I were white, no one would make the conversation about what I was, instead of who I am. Being brown was like this layer of myself that camouflaged everything else.

            And it didn’t help that my skin color didn’t match half of my family. When I went to Wyoming for the holidays, I always felt like the people who saw my sister and I with my dad’s family thought we were adopted or questioned our relation. At the very least they were thinking how in the hell did that happen? I began to see me how other people were obviously seeing me: out of place.

            Later in life, my ‘exotic’ appearance turned from me being invisible to being immediately fetishized. While people think it’s a compliment to address my ethnicity, they often mistake flattery for offense with questions too plainly stated like What are you? I’m still not exactly sure what the appropriate answer is to that. My favorite question is Where are you from? To which I always reply flatly with Denver, because that is the truth the way it was asked. I usually then let the person fumble over their words as they attempt to rephrase the question. People weren’t interested in me for anything but for looking different.

I do not like being the center of ethnicity bets with your friends. I am not a puzzle for you to work out and solve. Your quizzical stares directed at me from across the room make me feel uncomfortable.  And it’s rude to replace Hi my name is [insert name of stranger here], what’s your name? with If you don’t mind me asking, what’s your ethnicity? when starting a conversation. I’m not invisible anymore. I’m just not a person. Being ethnically ambiguous is like being a part of a circus act. I’m the freak you gawk at.

But I am more confused than you are. I don’t know a single Vietnamese word and I don’t know what it means to be Irish or German. I’ve never been to Cambodia and didn’t know until a few years ago that Vietnam and Cambodia shared a border. See, I’m not sure what I look like either. I’m not sure I identify with any one of my four ethnicities on a cultural level and I’m not even sure that I have to. The desire to be white has been overcome by the desire to be left alone about my ethnicity.

There’s something about our society that insists on categories. What does it matter what I am, if it doesn’t necessarily reflect who I am? I am a person who loves to write, who watches way too much television, and is a huge product of my environment. I have had zero cultural influences ethnically speaking, but I am very much an American, so I guess you could add that to the framework of my identity.

Maybe I am a little more open to the amalgamation that is life because of my mixed race experience, but it hasn’t dictated who I am fundamentally. At the heart of it, being ethnically ambiguous has made me just as socially confused about my race as I am ethnically confused. But hey, at least there’s a box for it now.

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