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Full Disclosure: How My Ambiguous Looks Mean I’m Constantly Coming Out as Biracial

Some years ago, an old friend stopped in L.A. for her summer job, driving across the country in a classic car to promote a vacation rental company. I went out to meet her and her driving partner near their rental in Hollywood, and in an act of company-paid luxury unthinkable to fresh-from-college me, we took a cab to The Stinking Rose for dinner. We settled around our booth table in a dark corner of the restaurant for a meal of garlic dishes, and Liz and John began telling stories about their trip.

Liz and I had met in Texas, where she grew up and where I lived for four years as a teenager. John came from Pennsylvania but scanned as a Texan, with a charismatic, boisterous personality and buzzed blonde hair that blended in with his scalp. Already at 22, I could imagine him as a middle aged man with an extra layer of fat around the middle, digging his class ring into my finger in a meaty handshake, charm still animating his eyes.

A round of “Happy Birthday” broke out from the middle of the room, where a group of Asian people in their 20s and 30s sat at a long table. The table stretched across the entire room, seating maybe 20.

“There are so many of them,” John said. “That’s a huge family!”

“I don’t think they’re all related,” said Liz. “They’re all the same age.”

“I can’t tell, though.” John lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “Don’t they all look alike?”

I’d had a couple of glasses of wine already and felt the warmth of it creeping down my body. I raised a finger in the air. “Full disclosure, John—” He looked at me, amused. “I’m half Asian.”

“Really?” He asked, then quickly frowned. “Why would you say it like that?”

“You know, just in case—”

“Just in case I say something racist?”

I tried to think quickly. I disliked confrontation and, to be honest, I liked John. On the surface, I felt affectionate, not tense. But my tact was blunted by alcohol and in the spirit of friendship, I spoke uncensored. “Well, yeah.”

I don’t remember John’s response, though it couldn’t have been too uncomfortable, because the night remains a blur of pleasant memories made across Hollywood. As long as John and I kept in touch, “full disclosure” was our one shared joke. But years later that night remains one of my clearest memories of coming out.

The author at Oshogatsu, age 7

My father is white, my mother is Japanese, and I have brown hair, light eyes, and freckles. In a given week, I probably come out as biracial at least once. Now that I’ve been working in the Asian American community for several years, the conversations usually start with my job: “You work at a Japanese American newspaper? Does that mean you speak Japanese? How did that happen?” When I tell people, their responses vary from candid surprise (“You know, I would never be able to tell.”) to practiced indifference (“Okay. So how long have you worked at the paper?”) to an earnest attempt to put all the pieces together (“I guess I can kind of tell from your eyes.”). Sometimes I’m met with excitement, and very rarely with outright disbelief or hostility. After a lifetime of this, I’m still not sure which I prefer.

I’ve had conversations with other mixed or second-generation-immigrant friends who hate having to constantly explain themselves for others. Among minorities, the “What are you” question is so infamous that it’s inspired countless art projects and campaigns for awareness. But for some reason, I can’t resent being asked. Even when the wording is indelicate—even when it’s outright ignorant—I jump to answer. Part of me has always wanted to talk about it.


© 2017 Mia Nakaji Monnier

biracial hapa identity Mixed race