What are you?

Trigger warning: If you feel the need to define other people in your own terms rather than in theirs, then careful ’cause in sharing this essay from 2015, I’m about to toss out some identity terms you may be attached to. Please call yourself whatever you’d like; just know you and I may not agree on what I call me.

One day, I was watching “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” for the thousandth time—I love that movie— and I got to thinking about my cultural understanding of my place in the world. I think of my family and though it took a couple of years, I understood at a young age that my older brother and I were different, but not hyphenated like Greek-Americans, African-Americans or even Mexican-Americans. Ours was a binational identity that we had no words to describe as kids. Fortunately, social scientists observing my tribe in our natural habitat have found a label we can add to our support group name tags: we are transnationals. Basically, I have more in common with a Russian army brat or the child of an Indonesian diplomat than I do with those fully raised in either of my countries or within hyphenated America.  This involved a lot of back and forth.

Taking one country at time, I was born to a very Mexican family in Mexico City that also happened to be made up of Spanish, Italian, French and hodgepodge heritage folk. The Americans came later. In this early stage, my brother and I were surrounded by relatives that saw monolingualism much like they did mononucleosis: something to be immediately cured. That meant that my brother and I were sent to a German school. With Italian and French in the air, you would think either of those would have been the natural choice, but no; dad liked German. So there you have it. Our second language was Deutsch. Unfortunately, fast forward one divorce, one new marriage and one plane ride to the US, and German turned out to be not all that useful.

The slightly truly traumatic shenanigans that had my brother and I living in Texas with mom and husband number two are another story. For now let’s just say that we were five and six, and convinced that this country was lousy with bad German speakers. You see, our short and sheltered lives had taught us that there were two communication choices: the language of family and the language of school. So having noise that sounded like bad German floating about at home, in the street and at school was very disorienting. Once we figured out that English was not in fact another version of German, things got easier. That was kindergarten. Incidentally, kindergarten is a very German word, so you can see where there might have been a disconnect.

With English now under my belt, it was on to join the big kids. My elementary school years had a lot of back and forth and involved six different homes, four private schools, and many airplanes. Life in the States was an all-English universe since our other- language friends spoke things like Korean, Vietnamese and Farsi. Or so I thought. A decade in, I found out that there were four other kids at our school who also spoke Spanish, but since there was no reason to switch out of English, it remained a mystery until we were all in high school. By then switching would have just been strange, so we always spoke in English anyway. Life was simple: English in the US and Spanish in Mexico. And then Junior High public school happened.

Now, it’s important to note that cultural identity is managed very differently from one country to the next. When people in the US speak of race, it’s all about skin color, a conversation either in half nervous tones or incredibly angry ones. Mexico has a different relationship with the R word. Classism is the rub, not race. The Mexican race is a cultural notion grounded in history that has less to do with shades or even immigrant roots—although the relationship with those concepts is also messy. The point is that “race” is conceptually treated as a national identity. There are no Irish-Mexicans, German-Mexicans, Japanese-Mexicans, Greek-Mexicans or Italian-Mexicans; only Mexicans. 

Yes, some have Lebanese heritage and so they might say they have Lebanese family, but they would never hyphenate themselves because doing so doesn’t suggest political protection, social justice (or injustice) or make you more interesting at parties. In the Mexico I knew, the social bubble I grew up in, it just made you ‘other’ in a way that made you an easy target for ridicule. Hyphenation among our clan in Mexico was often seen as either pretentious or worse, a complete lack of identity and sense of self. So the first time we were asked at school if we were Mexican-American, our shocked and emphatic “No!” could be heard for miles.

It wasn’t a political statement, but rejecting a label that someone else finds exceedingly convenient is like belching in church: not well received. And yes, I know we live in the land of labels and that absolutely everyone—and I mean everyone—must have at least one label or there will be utter chaos and the fabric of society will unravel and ignite World War III. But as a 13-year-old kid, I just really hated the label other people sometimes randomly slapped on me. It came with expectations I couldn’t or wouldn’t meet. Worse, it was often pointless to explain why I felt that way. My words were quickly filtered through someone else’s worldview and the conversation seemed to just go sideways.

At the time, globalization was on the rise but we still didn’t have the Internet, and anthropologists might have been tagging and tracking us, but I didn’t see them hiding in the bushes, so I couldn’t request a new label. I had to come up with my own explanation when friends, teachers and the census questionnaire asked, “What are you”? After a few years of sarcastic “human,” “awesome,” and “your worst nightmare” responses, I started to give it a real shot. And what I came up with at around age 20 has worked rather well:

I’m very Texan (Go Longhorns!) and very Mexican, but I don’t have an immigrant identity, or at least not one that signals that I’m foreign in the traditional sense. I haven’t shifted away from one identity and replaced it with another either. The best explanation I have is to say that no matter which direction I’m flying, I’m always home and I’m always homesick, hearing my other language when I’m far from its context is always comforting, and I’m drawn to internationals, travelers and transnationals because I’m convinced only they know exactly how I feel. They are my actual social aggregate, my tribe and my support group. I just wish we had a cool catchy name to go by so I could finally respond to “What are you?” in less than a hundred words.


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