I am the kind of ethnically ambiguous person that makes people feel comfortable asking “what are you?”. As though having an off-kilter accent or a grasp of several languages is offensive, unnatural, or needs explaining. As though that question is not insulting. Pick a side, and stick with it.
What are you?
I think about that sometimes, too. I am restless. I am curious. I ask too many questions, and am shy about answering them.
Where are you really from?
Aristotle said that we were built for society, shaped by society, and outlived by society. He said that ‘anyone who cannot lead the common life […] is either a beast or a god.’
I am neither. I am a friend, a sister and a teacher. I am a student, a traveller and a believer.
If you met me in Spanish, I would be laughed at and a little defensive, not because I am shy, but because I am ashamed that I am not as fluent as I could have been. That I was not fluent in time to talk to my Abuelos. However, they still taught me warmth, hospitality and acceptance with no strings attached.
In English, I am slow and thoughtful. When I forget words, people look at me strangely. But they taught me to ask questions, to reason, to express myself logically.
In Chinese, I am cute, and I keep catching myself making peace signs in photos. I learned that food is a language of love, and that a real friend becomes like family: they drop everything to help you.
What are you?
There was a time when we lived on a ship, and I still love and fear the sea in equal parts. I dream of sea monsters and tsunamis, but I long to paddle on the coastline, to look out over distant horizons and remember all the countries we are connected to. I like to stand in our common water, and wonder what it is a metaphor for.
I do not know if being different wherever I go makes me fraudulent or adaptable. I have rolling personalities, and I trip over them. I glitch in every language.
I used to think that being part of – but never fully in – lots of groups made me less of a person; less understandable, less relatable. Less lovable. Because if, like Aristotle says, our humanity is linked to our belonging, then I am dangerously close to failing at both.
I am a translator. I am a cultural advisor. I am a helper during times of transition; an intercultural guide.
Societies are changing, because they are fuelled by humans, who are notorious for changing simultaneously, and not. I belong in the spaces between communities. I may not match them perfectly, but I am a complimentary colour: teach me, blend me, then let me go.
What are you?
I am changing too, I suppose. Maybe one day I will wake up and feel fully Something, and there will be no more follow-up questions.
Or maybe I will learn to give up caring.
They will ask, ‘What are you?’
And my answer will be, ‘We’ll see.’