Who am I? “You don’t look….Asian…French….(blank)…”

Chantal Wei-Ying Clėment

Who am I? On paper, I was born in the US, from a French (technically French/Belgian/Polish) father and Chinese mother. For lack of a better way of describing myself, I look ‘pretty white’ to some and ‘so exotic’ to others. One of the first things I remember being told about my mixed appearance was being described by one of my grandmothers as being the first baby on her side of the family that “looked different”.

Feelings of identity and belonging affect mixed kids to different degrees. Many of them appear to go through life totally unaffected, but as an over thinker, I have definitely never been one of those.

There are so many ways I could chose to tell my “mixed race” story. For the most part, it is a positive story of a loving family, of normalcy and privilege, of mind-broadening experiences gained by traveling the world, of anchoring myself no matter where I end up in the world with French and Chinese comfort foods.

I could, however, also choose to see a story of prejudice and judgement, of the effects it has on a child, a teen, a young adult to constantly hear “you sooo don’t look Asian/French/[fill in the blank] at all” by friends, family and even total strangers, of never feeling a sense of ‘home’, or of being cussed out on the street by people who confused me for looking like a race I don’t even belong to.

Some other race

I was recently reminded of a defining moment of growing up mixed after reading a story shared by Meghan Markle, the latest addition to the British Royal family, about her own experiences. She recalled having to fill out the US Census in high school in the 1990s, back when choices were limited to picking only one box (they graciously changed this in the late 1990s when we were granted the ‘two or more races’ box and then again in the 2000s when we could *gasp* check multiple boxes). Of African American and Caucasian descent, Markle was confused over which box to pick. After her teacher told her to pick the ‘white’ box because that’s how she ‘looked’, she only felt more uncertain. I’m so saddened by the thought that teachers all across the US must have given mixed children such narrow-minded advice. Luckily, I was far more fortunate.

The author (on the left), with her sister.

Probably around the same time, I was asked to fill out a similar Census in elementary school. My best friend (also a mixed kid) and I joked about not knowing what to do. Though we laughed it off, I think it spoke to a deeper sense of racial belonging (or lack thereof) that had plagued us over our lives. (In fact, our best friend status was cemented in kindergarten after a girl had teased my friend that she must have been adopted because she didn’t look like her parents). With only one box to check, I discounted White, then Asian & Pacific Islander, hovering over ‘some other race’ before I felt I might as well check a box labelled ‘alien’.

So we called on our teacher for help.

Rather than pass on society’s limited beliefs to us, she gave us advice that affected me more than I can understand: “Check as many boxes as you need,” she said, in addition to explaining that doing so probably wasn’t really allowed. “Check as many boxes as you think represents who you are.” Looking back, it seems like such a small and innocuous thing to say, but at that point, it was one of the few times in my life that an adult I looked up to had acknowledged out loud that it was perfectly acceptable to be exactly who I was. If I had to go against the system to acknowledge that, so be it. (For those who are curious, I checked all three boxes.)

Dancing my mixedness through Tribal Fusion

Dance is one of the primary ways I have always loved to express creativity and the most honest parts of myself.

Aside from “mixed”, one of the other qualifiers I frequently use to describe myself is “a dancer”. For those who know me, dance is one of the primary ways I have always loved to express creativity and the most honest parts of myself.

I spent the majority of my childhood learning Chinese dance. It was one of my favourite activities for the window it gave me into one my cultures and how graceful it made me feel. At the same time, it was one of my least favourite activities because of the acute experience of ‘otherness’ I faced there. It was when I danced during Sunday Chinese school (language classes followed by extracurricular activities like traditional dance) that I was confronted with what it meant to stand out for being ‘not Asian enough’. It was under the gaze of all the other girls’ parents that I learned to identify the “this is other” look.

The author (right), and her sister after a traditional Chinese dance show

However, just like my personal rebellion against the US census, I have been able to find a way to express myself through dance in a way that makes sense to me. In university, I discovered American Tribal Style (ATS) belly dance. Seeing it performed for the first time, I was thunderstruck. Watching this improvised dance form, I saw elements of Egyptian belly dance, of Indian Odissi and Kathak, of Spanish Flamenco. I saw a celebration of cultures from around the world seamlessly melded into one strong and beautiful dance… and more deeply than that, I saw coherence between all the different pieces of me for the first time.

From that day onwards, I pursued ATS and then Tribal Fusion – a modern Western form of belly dance drawing from folkloric dances and music from around the world. For me, this dance has become a celebration of my cultures, of my complexity, a way of expressing where I come from and the beauty that is found from being from everywhere and nowhere at all. It is a dance form that has allowed me to fuse my entire dance history, my entire self, into a style that represents all of me. It has allowed me to check as many boxes as I want to celebrate something that is uniquely me.

Featured Image: Chantal’s photoshoot for her Tribal Fusion group Mascarié

To read and browse Chantal’s professional website, please click here. You can also follow Chantal on Facebook

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Also read:  On Growing Up Mexican Italian American

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