That Moment When Your Identity Can’t Be Identified

In an online magazine interview, the very famous and talented Asian actress Lucy Liu said that she struggles to find work as the main character in movies because of her race. She is found either “too American” for Asian films or “too Asian” for American films and she feels like she gets “pushed out of both categories” — even though she was born and raised in the US.

Friends, I’m no Hollywood star, but I feel her pain. That’s an all-too-familiar dilemma for me. An inner dilemma, as well. I feel equally pushed out of my two cultures. I believe the term for this revolution is Bicultural Identity. I’ve lived in the US longer than I did in my native Dominican Republic. When my family made the move, I wasn’t young enough to absorb my new culture as a whole, yet not old enough to not adopt it either.

Eventually, inevitably and subconsciously, I picked up the new culture completely. As proud as I am of my Caribbean roots, I identify myself with the American culture a bit more. For this, I am judged by others. People don’t get it. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t some Dominican traditions that I still follow and prefer, but change is bound to happen when you emerge yourself so much in a culture, or anything. It is natural.

I love my native language Spanish, for instance. I love Romance languages in general. So passionate… Being bilingual (or multilingual) is absolutely wonderful. Having been raised in two different cultures, however, can be a bit confusing. One time, while vacationing with my family in the D.R., I was speaking “Spanglish” (switching between English and Spanish) with my brother when a friend of the family asked what the hell we were saying. “Have you guys forgotten how to speak Spanish now?” she asked.

“It’s just easier,” I said. Uh, no, it wasn’t because it was easier. It just happened.

I honestly didn’t even realize it until she mentioned it, so how could I even put into words that what she had just witnessed came out naturally. It must have been the first time my “code-switching” was brought to my own attention. While my English teachers back in the US didn’t want any español in the classroom, people in the D.R. didn’t want me speaking English in their presence. That’s hella puzzling for a teenager.

In the D.R., they said I had a new accent and I was “a whole new person.” Friends mocked me and looked at me as though I was pretending to be something I was not, when in fact I had no control over the changes I was going through. I sort of tried hard to prove that I was still the same girl, only to end up proving to myself that a lot had indeed changed and there was nothing I could do about that. My views, my ways…I was changing — not only because of the culture switch, but also because I was quite young and still growing. To them, I wasn’t a “true Dominican” anymore.

But then, in the US, I’m not perceived as an American either. One word that doesn’t fail to come up whenever I meet new people is “originally.” They want to know where I’m from as soon as we start to speak — and South Jersey and Philadelphia are unacceptable. This scenario happens often and it always makes me question so much about myself, about how I feel living in two cultures.

People who don’t know me can’t pinpoint my ethnicity by just listening to my accent — a combination of a bunch of dialects at this point. My overall physical appearance is not necessarily the biggest identifier either. I’ve been stared at with the Colombian-Brazilian-Cuban-Puerto Rican-African-and-white magnifying glass. “Dominican”, I say, to avoid further confusion.

Looks (and accents) shouldn’t be the deciding factor of a person’s career. And I won’t try to blend in just to please people; I want an identity, whatever that may be, that I feel comfortable with. So give us a break, world. I share with both of my cultures just as much and truly enjoy being bicultural — it’s people’s ignorance that makes it hard.

 

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