It all sounded too familiar to me. Twenty years ago and several dress sizes, I also donned a cat jumpsuit – as a regular dancer for San Francisco nightclubs. Friends thought I was confident to cage dance once a week, but it was the opposite. After years of being called ugly and “mixed race” in school because of my mixed features, the back and forth dance was a way for me to rebel and control how others viewed me, just like Ann was doing this when she transformed.
In what might sound like a bad 1980s comedy that has aged badly, my blonde Midwestern father married my mother, a mail order bride from the Philippines. The two families were culturally and politically opposed, and both my parents struggled financially. Because of this, my paternal grandmother became my primary babysitter when I was 6, and I spent half of my childhood living in Kansas with her until she died at 14.
After my grandmother died, my father’s family side did not stay in touch anymore. Like Ann. I had moved to New York as an adult and hadn’t heard from them in over a decade. My very first Thanksgiving in town, I went to a dinner party, and while pushing a gelatinous cranberry slice, wished someone at home called me. Coincidentally, I got a random phone call from my elderly aunt on my father’s side. She said that she had thought about life and that my mother had heard that I had moved to New York without knowing a single person there. She said she had spent many days thinking about the fact that the family hadn’t spoken to me for so long and that she was sorry to live alone in the Big Apple and that she would like me to come to a family meeting. Without saying the word racism, she apologized for “the way the family treated me.”
It wasn’t a perfect apology, but it meant a lot to me that someone nearly a century old could humbly admit their mistakes. I packed my bags for a trip to Kansas, curious what it would be like to see the white side of my family again. Soon I was sitting in an airport taxi heading to a chain hotel in Overland Park.
When I entered the hotel, my white parents enthusiastically extended their hands. I was surprised when they started talking to me slowly, with overly open mouth movements as if talking to a deaf stranger.
“Would. You. Caring. For. Some. Stir. Fry?” asked a long lost cousin. I felt confused. I was born in America. I had never lived abroad or known a language other than English. It must have been how Ann felt when the other students saw her as American, when in reality she was also Japanese.
“Oh, I don’t really like stir-fries,” I laugh politely. “I remember living at Grandma’s house that the best burgers and fries come from the Midwest. So I would like a burger with all the fixins. I hoped that by brazenly adding a bit of the local vernacular they would understand that I was not American at all and not at all exotic.
We ended up going to a typical grill bar which was exactly what I wanted. While we ate together, I answered questions such as “Do you live in a neighborhood with other Filipinos?” and I felt helpless, not knowing how to react.
I finally got my answer at the end of dinner when a cousin suddenly said without warning, out loud, “I feel bad for biracials, they shouldn’t be born.” They will never know who they really are or have a true identity, all because their parents decided to have a selfish night of passion.
The whole table was quiet. I thought about how I had lived on my own in New York with no help and little contact with my family, how I came out very young and survived it all without their support.