The Parameters of Identity: What It Means to Be Wasian

Friday, August 21

By Ash Haslett Cuff

Whether or not you’re mixed race, there is a lingering question of how much your ethnicity should define you. It’s something you have no control over so how much sway does it have over who you are?

For some cultures, their ethnic identities have been laid out for them by past generations. For better or worse, they have seen examples of what it means to be a part of that group. This isn’t to say all people of a certain ethnicity are the same, but the fact of the matter is that they have many examples of how the culture impacts their life. Many of these people have communities around them for them to look up to. Being mixed however, poses its own issues in terms of identity. 

Here, I’ll only be speaking about the Wasian (White-Asian) experience since it’s all I know, but I am sure other mixed people have similar issues they are facing. With Wasians especially, we fall into this strange, vastly unexplored territory of identity with fewer examples to follow. Some of us grew up ‘more Asian’ because of one parent, or grew up ‘more White’ because of the other, but even that isn’t really our own culture. So what do we do? Should we even feel like our ethnicity has anything to do with who we are as people? I used to think not, that it didn’t matter to me or anyone else but soon I began to realise that wasn’t the case. Even though I am more white passing than some, the fact of the matter is that whether I like it or not, my ethnicity plays some part in who I am. However the question still remains; what does this mean? There are no guidelines, or dare I say, stereotypes, for us to fall into. We are even less represented in the media than full Asians so growing up we have very little idea of what this mixed identity means for us. 

Now I’m not complaining about a lack of expectations, because I know how damaging and restricting they can be for many people, but I do wonder how this lack of established culture affects kids and their identity. There is less of a community for Wasians to be a part of, at least in my experience and I grew up not knowing what being Wasian meant or even if it should mean anything. When I began to realise that I was mixed I found myself in a strange limbo of being too White to be Asian and too Asian to be White. At first it frustrated me; why does something I have no control over need to impact anything? I felt like it shouldn’t matter at first but I admit I found some modicum of comfort and even a strange pride in my Wasian identity. Pride, again, a funny thing; why would I be proud of something I had no control over?

 So growing up I didn’t have many examples to look up to and lacked the sense of community around my ethnic identity. Even now when I write fiction I find myself centering it around mixed characters because I haven’t found many books or films featuring mixed characters so I’ve taken it on myself to create that niche as best I can. Even if the characters don’t make a big deal of their mixed identity, it would have been enough to see them there as a child, to have some understanding that they do exist in the wider world. 

To me, being Wasian means dealing with this uncertainty and ambiguity. It means patiently responding to people asking, ‘are you Native? Hispanic? What are you?’ It means finding the balance between the two different identities in order to create a new one for yourself. In a way, perhaps, we are lucky; we have an opportunity to create our own parameters of identity whatever way we see fit. What we may lose in the sense of community or carrying on some kind of tradition, we gain in the freedom to carve out our own sense of identity even amongst all the uncertainty. 

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