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When you're seen as a racial puzzle to be solved

Dispatches from the frontlines of biracial identity

Whitney Yang

This story is part of a series of stories that explore biracial identity. We encourage you to listen to the short audio pieces, each roughly 3-4 minutes long.

Listen to Whitney Yang's story:

It’s my 29th birthday weekend. My partner Andrew and I are finishing up eating a meal at this funky vegan place in Tucson. One of those seasonal, farm-to-table places where the menu changes daily based on the produce they get in. Andrew goes to the bathroom and I stand up to walk around and look at all of this intergalactic artwork on the walls. We’re on holiday and I’m in one of those carefree moods where I feel like nothing would be better than spending my morning looking at weird art. 

There’s an older white woman sitting at a table behind me - she’s the only other customer in the restaurant. As I look at the artwork, she begins talking to me and we get to chatting. She asks what I do, and I tell her about my graduate studies in Phoenix, that my research focus is race and media representation. She pauses before replying, “But you’re just a plain old white girl, aren’t you?”

I clench my teeth. It helps that she’s old and crotchety. I smile. I tell her, “Actually, I’m half Chinese.”

Then, she does something no one has ever done before in my exactly 29 years of being a racially ambiguous puzzle for people to solve. She vigorously pushes her chair back from her table and stands up to move towards me. She comes within a few inches of my face. She stops at the end of my nose, and removes her glasses. She quite literally inspects me. 

I feel my cheeks flushing hot. I want to say to her, “GET OUT OF MY FACE” - but I don’t. I stand in shock, and the few seconds are over.

Satisfied, I assume, that my ethnic make up is in fact what I say it is — she sits back down, and offers up a pearl of wisdom: “Well, that’s alright, people just think you Chinese are smart!”

I am at a loss for words or forced smiles.

Just then, Andrew returns from the bathroom, and I tell him that we need to leave, now.

Something about this encounter is particularly upsetting to me. I keep remembering how close she got to my face, and thinking about how entitled she must have felt, and how belittled I felt in return.

I even tell my mother about it. I think, maybe telling her will help her understand me, somehow, if I share a moment of vulnerability.

I tell her. And she laughs! She guffaws.

I explain, “It’s not funny.” “It pissed me off.” “That woman didn’t have the right to get in my face like that.”

My mother looks at me, recovering from her laughter, with unfeeling eyes. I sit in my quiet disappointment as she changes the topic of conversation. A different version of the rage I felt in Tucson resurfaces in my chest, my throat, my cheeks. This time, it is sadness, heartbreak, and rejection.

Your stories: Dispatches from the frontlines of biracial identity