Katherine K. Ellis

 

We’re used to the looks. It happens. My Asian mom is 4’10,” all business and as much as she protests, the perfect height for an armrest. My dad is 6’1,” blonde, a nerd and couldn’t be more her opposite. My two siblings and I? A solid mix of both.

Anytime we’re in our local Vietnamese market, my dad chats casually with my mom in Hmong. They discuss what groceries we need, while strangers look on, mouths agape. I once asked my parents how they felt being the only mixed race couple in the store and was floored by their response: they don’t even think about it anymore.

So if race doesn’t bother my parents, why does it constantly consume my thoughts? I'm plagued daily by the question: “So what are you?” My smart-alec first response is: A journalist. A woman. An American. That’s what I am. But that’s not how people first seem to experience me.

Growing up in predominantly white Utah, I felt like my race really mattered. It seemed all my peers wanted to talk about. Not out of malice or prejudice, most of the time, it felt like genuine curiosity. But by 6th grade, I'd had it with the predictable conversation:

Them: “So what are you?”
Me: “What do you mean?”
Them: “Are you Chinese?”
Me: “No, I’m half Hmong.”
Them: “What’s monk?”
Me: “No, Hmong!”
Them: “Like Mongolian?”
Me: “No! Hmong, my mom is from Laos. Near Thailand.” (Few know where Laos is, so I help them along.)
Them: “Thailand? Ah, so you’re Asian?”
Me: “Well, yeah. I’m half-Asian.”

I’ve gotten really good at telling my mom's story of coming to the United States from Laos in 1980. Realizing her journey was missing from my history textbook meant a piece of my history was missing too. I soaked up everything about the Vietnam War. Bring on the Ken Burns documentaries! Secret War in Laos? Check. If I was the only Hmong person someone might encounter, then I was going to do the story justice.

Along the way, I noticed other mixed kids felt the same. We’re confused about straddling two or more cultures and searching for places to talk about them. Eventually I stopped trying to redirect my predictable conversations toward something else and started to talk. A lot. And writing about the mixed race experience. Writing so that someone like me could see themselves reflected in media, writing so people could learn from someone else's reality. One day we’ll all be so mixed the conversation will shift and everyone (hopefully) will feel like my parents do.

But until then, my obsession with race and identity lives on because it’s not time to stop talking about it yet. It’s an ongoing discussion I was born into and if I can show others what it’s like to grow up in an ever-changing world of ethnicities, then I’m doing what’s always been asked of me: I'm talking.